A few new old developments

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

I want to look at a number of recent archaeological and anthropological developments over the last dozen, 15 years or so in relation to the pre-Sapiens period and its cultural tendencies. And bear in mind, from an archaeological point of view, that the finest quality steel produced today, exposed to the atmosphere, will be dust in around twenty thousand years time.

- in Acheulean sites, as well as the functionally evolving, decidedly unmonotonous, artistically impressive "hand-axes", there have been the first finds of human introduced mineral pigment associated with Acheulean artefacts and animal bones at Kapthurin (Kenya) (Tryon and McBreaty, 2002) and at Duinefontein (South Africa) (Kathryn Cruze-Uribe et al. 2003). These are respectively dated by argon-argon dating and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) as before 285,000 and 270,000 years ago. In the German lakeside site at Bilzingsleben, where there's no Acheulean tradition, a number of artefacts have been found. The site has been dated by electron spin resonance and uranium dating as sometime between 350,000 and 420,000 years ago. An elephant's tibia has been found at this site with deliberate carvings on it. Where these markings are and the form that they take do not suggest butchery and there's a "fan-like" design here. The lines are evenly spaced and replicate each other in length and it looks like they were made at a single sitting by a single tool (Scarre, 2005). There's no suggestion from the researchers, but to me this "design" of carved lines looks very similar to the carvings on the famous Blombos piece of 80,000 years ago. Just a speculative observation. But in its turn the carvings on the Blombus piece are, I think, repeated in abbreviated form in some of the ubiquitous "signs" of Upper Palaeolithic cave art (more on this below in relation to "Structualism"). At the Acheulean site of Berekhat Ram (Golan Heights) is what looks like a female figurine which has been incised with a sharp tool to produce grooves and lines. There's a deep incision which encircles the narrower, more rounded end, making out the head and neck. And two curved incisions that could delineate arms and these are readily distinguishable from natural lines (Francesco d'Errico and April Nowell, 2000). With the site dated to around 250,000 years ago, this, if it's been deliberately modified, would be the oldest known expression of representational art.

- Following on from the above regarding Neanderthals: research work led by Dolores Piperno at the archaeobiology laboratory at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington has shown traces of cooked food on the fossilised teeth of the samples of this extinct species that they studied. There were the remains of date palms, seeds and legumes, including peas and beans in teeth from three different sites from Iraq and Belgium. These are all foods associated with modern human diet and Neanderthals must have cooked these grains in order to increase their digestibility and nutritional value. The evidence is strong as the starch grains have been gelatinised and that only comes from being cooked in water. Similar tests revealed similar results with traces of cooked starch, some traced to water lilies that store carbohydrates and others from sorghum, a kind of grass. The full research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal. These samples were from about forty thousand years ago but separate research two years ago in South Africa by scientists at the University of Toronto and Hebrew University (2.4.12) have dated evidence of controlled fire for the use of cooking to one million years ago. There's a "live" discussion over the dating but the University of Boston has supported these views as well as other academic research.

Sticking with Homo Neanderthalis, Dr. Penny Spikins, an archaeologist at the University of York has published a book along with others (Spikins, Rutherford and Needham, 2010) that shows this species caring for the old, infirm and vulnerable. There's the example of the Shanidar Cave (Iraq) where a man with a withered arm, deformities on both legs and a crushed skull, probably blind in one eye, which all happened at an early age, living for 20 to 35 years old with his injuries. He must have been looked after by a group of people (and remains of medicinal plants are close by). Similarly, at Simos de los Huesos (Spain) a child of the species of Homo Heidelbergensis (an ancestor of both Sapiens. and Neanderthalis.n.) was found who suffered from lamboid single suture craniosynostosis, where parts of the skull fuse together, This child would have had a strange appearance, would have been weak and a probable reduced mental capacity. This child was looked after for at least five years of its life and possibly eight. It's very difficult to find evidence like this, but these cases show the pre-Sapiens existence of the desire to care for the sick and the weak.

- Research undertaken, in part by Jayne Wilkins of the University of Toronto with her "The Function of 500,000 Stone Points", pushes back the use of stone-tipped spears two-hundred-thousand years to half-a-million years ago (Science, 16/11/12). These spears were used by Homo Heidelbergenesis. The stone points were hafted to the wooden shafts and this is a composite technology that is a multi-step process requiring different raw materials and the skill of course to put them together. The stones were found at the Kathu Pan 1 site in the Northern Cape of South Africa towards the tail-end of the Acheulean. This suggests advanced hunting strategies and a cohesive society that has been in place for a long time. A "blogger", Robert H. Garrett, has criticised these finds and their dating in a bit of a rant. But there's no doubt that stone-tipped spears existed 300,000 years ago and I'm inclined to believe the evidence of Wilkins and the separate dating teams. Garrett the blogger also thinks that modern humans "exploded out of Africa 40 to 50 thousand years ago". There is clear evidence of wooden spears being used in hunting by Homo Heidelbergensis at Boxgrove in England and sites in Germany around 400,000 years ago and these peoples were certainly experts in stone.

- Work done by a team of archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig recently discovered bones butchered by stone tools from riverbed sediments in Dikika in the Afar region of Ethiopia. This butchery was undertaken by the ancestors of early humans and puts the date of the use of stone tools right back into the Australopithicus-human transition of 3.4 million years ago, one million earlier than previously known. The marks on the bones show the tools were used to slice and scrape meat from the carcasses and where the bones were crushed to extract the nutritional marrow inside. This find is contemporary in time and place with the pre-human ancestor known as "Lucy". Until this, the oldest evidence of stone tools was a haul of more than 2,600 stone flakes estimated to be 2.5 million years old discovered in another part of Ethiopia. These latter were shaped, probably by the first human species Homo Habilis, into sharp cutting edges whereas the Dikika stones were probably used as they were found, and then discarded. Detailed analyses of the Dikada cut marks show substantial differences with tooth or claw marks made by predators with one of them embedded with a small piece of stone (Nature, 12.8.10).

 

- Perhaps the most remarkable and potentially most profound analysis has been that of anthropologist Professor Henry Bunn of Wisconsin University based upon fieldwork in Tanzania. Addressing the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution (ESHE), late last year, Bunn argued that our puny ancestors, Homo Habilis, two million years ago, were capable of ambushing herds of large animals after selecting individuals for the slaughter. We know that humans were omnivores and ate meat around 1.8 million years ago. Examining the animals that had been taken to the butchery site in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and "by studying the teeth in the skulls that were left, we could get a very precise indication of what type of meat these early humans were consuming. Were they bringing back creatures that were in their prime or were old or young? Then we compared our results with the kind of animals killed by lions and leopards". Bunn's analysis showed that humans preferred only adult animals in their prime, for example. Lions and leopards killed old, young and adults indiscriminately: "For the animals we looked at, we found a completely different pattern of meat preference between ancient humans and other carnivores, indicating that we were not just scavenging from lions and leopards and taking their leftovers. We were picking what we wanted and were killing it ourselves" (Bunn in The Guardian, 23.12.12). These energy-rich resources were used, along with other foodstuffs, to fuel our growing brains. Against ideas of "scavengers" and numbskull males, this research has major ramifications for the existence of society, specialised tools and the role of the male and female of the species at earlier and earlier dates.

All these finds and research are obviously open to questions, debates and criticisms but the general indication, the general tendency of the lines of research, is of much more complex and advanced archaic behaviours.