Showing posts with label Ice Age. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ice Age. Show all posts

15 February 2018

Older Than You Think

by Eve Fisher
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" - (Explanation later)
The New York Times ran a great article the other day called, "Many Animals Can Count, Some Better Than You".  I am sure that every one of us who has /had a pet can assure them of that.  (Try to gyp a dog out of the correct number of treats.)  Not only can they count - as a female frog literally counts the number of mating clucks of the male - but they can compare numbers.  (Read about the guppies and the sticklebacks.)

But where the article really got interesting was where they talked about that, despite math phobia, etc., humans have an innate "number sense." There is archaeological evidence suggesting that humans have been counting for at least 50,000 years.  Before writing ever came around, people were using other ways of tallying numbers, from carving notches (bones, wood, stones) to clay tokens that lie all over Sumerian sites and which often looked, for decades, to archaeologists like bits of clay trash.

But the ability to count and the desire to count and to keep track comes before tokens or notches, otherwise they'd never have bothered.  And language - blessed language - comes before all of that.  So get this:  they say that the number words for small quantities — less than five — are not only strikingly similar across virtually every language in the world, but also are older (and more similar) than the words for mother, father, and body parts.  Except certain words like... no, not that!  (Get your mind out of the gutter)  Except the words for the eye and the tongue. Make of that what you will...

Dr Mark Pagel, biologist at Reading University, said, “It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”  That just gave me goosebumps when I read it.  

Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 BC
Development of Sumerian cunieform writing,
Td k at Wikipedia

I admit, I'm fascinated by the past. (That's why I became a historian...)  To me, history is time travel for pedestrians, a way to connect with our ancient ancestors.  So let's zip around a bit, starting with jokes (Reuters):

Sumerian man,
looking slightly upset...
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” - Sumeria, ca 1900 BC

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.” - Egypt, ca 1600 BC, supposedly about the randy Pharaoh Snofru

The earliest [written] "yo' mamma" joke, from an incomplete Babylonian fragment, ca 1500 BC:
"…your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?"
(Okay, so it doesn't translate that well, but we all know where it's heading.)

And this riddle from 10th century Britain (for more see here):
"I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant’s daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye."
(Answer at the end and no peeking!)

Plot lines go very, very far back as well.  

Ancient Egyptian leather 
sandals (Wikipedia)
The fairy tale with the oldest provenance is "The Smith and the Devil" which goes back at least 7,000 years, and has been mapped out over 35 Indo-European languages, and geographically from India to Scandinavia.  (Curiosity)  The bones of the story are that the Smith makes a deal with the Devil (or death) and cheats him.  Now there's been all sorts of variations on it. In a very old one, the smith gains the power to weld any materials, then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain. Over time, the smith's been transformed to clever peasants, wise simpletons, and, of course, fiddlers ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is, whether Charlie Daniels knew it or not, a variation on this very, very old fairy tale), and the devil occasionally got transformed to death or even a rich mean relative.  Check out Grimm's "The Peasant and the Devil" and "Why the Sea is Salt".

Enkidu, Gilgamesh's
best friend - his death
sends Gilgamesh in
search of eternal life.
(Urban at French
But Cinderella's pretty old, too, and just as universal.  Many people believe that the Eros/Psyche myth is the true original.  The Chinese version, Ye Xian, was written in 850 AD, and has everything including the slipper.  There's a Vietnamese version of ancient lineage, The Story of Tam and Cam.  And there are at least 3 variations of it in 1001 Nights.  (BTW, if you're gonna read 1001 Nights - and I recommend it highly - read the Mardrus and Mathers translation in 4 volumes.  Available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon.)

And, of course, many stock plots go at least as far back as Sumeria, including rival brothers (Cain and Abel), blood brothers (Gilgamesh and Enkidu), old men killing their rivals (Lamech, Genesis 4), the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood (complete with ark, dove, and rainbow), and the quest for eternal life (Gilgamesh).

BTW, most of the stories in Genesis come from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which makes perfect sense when you remember that Abraham is said to have come from Ur of the Chaldees, which was a Sumerian city.  

But back to words, which are, after all, our stock in trade as writers.  Remember above, where I quoted the NYT how you could communicate with Neanderthals by pointing and using number words?  And remember that sentence at the very beginning?  
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" 
According to researchers, if you went back 15,000 years and said that sentence, slowly, perhaps trying various accents, in almost any language, to almost any hunter-gatherer tribe, anywhere, they'd understand most of it.  You see, the words in that sentence are basic, almost integral to life, constantly used, constantly needed, for over 15,000 years, since the last Ice Age.  (It's only recently that we've lost our interest in black worms except in tequila and mescal.)

Due to the fact that we live on a planet with 7.6 billion humans and counting, it's hard to realize that, back around 15,000, there were at most 15,000,000 humans on the entire planet (and perhaps as few as 1,000,000).  They probably shared a language.  If nothing else, they would have shared a basic trading language so that when they ran into each other, they could communicate. Linguistics says that most words are replaced every few thousand years, with a maximum survival of roughly 9,000 years. But 4 British researchers say they've found 23 words - what they call "ultra-conserved" words - that date all the way back to 13,000 BC.

Speaking of 13,000 BC, here's a Lascaux Cave Painting.  Wikipedia

Now there's a list of 200 words - the Swadesh list(s) - which are the core vocabulary of all languages.  (Check them out here at Wikipedia.)  These 200 words are cognates, words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages:
Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit).  
Now this makes sense, because English and Sanskrit are both part of the Indo-European language family.  But our 23 ultra-conserved words are "proto-words" that exist in 4 or more language families, including Inuit-Yupik.  (Thank you, Washington Post.  And, if you want to wade through linguistic science, here's the original paper over at the National Academy of Sciences.)

So, what are they?  What are these ultra-conserved words, 15,000 years old, and a window to a time of hunter-gatherers painting in Lascaux and trying to survive the end of the Younger Dryas (the next-to-the last mini-Ice Age; the last was in 1300-1850 AD)?  Here you go:

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, 
who, this, what, man/male, 
ye, old, mother, to hear, 
hand, fire, to pull, black, 
to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

There's got to be a story there.  How about this?

"I give this fire to flow down the bark!  Who pulls the man from the mother?  Who pulls his hand from the fire?  Who / what / we?"

I was trying a couple of variations on these words, and then I realized that the ultimate has already been done:

"Who are you?" [said] the Worm.  

PS - the answer to the riddle is "onion".  

24 September 2015

Death Comes at the Beginning

by Eve Fisher

This may be the earliest murder in history:  a 430,000 year old Neanderthal skull with a hole in it - yes, someone bashed him in the head with a blunt instrument:

Yes, murder has been around since the dawn of time.  I've always thought it's appropriate that practically the second story in Genesis is Cain killing Abel.  But, to be fair, the above Neanderthal is about the only Paleolithic murder victim that's been found.  Perhaps it's because there were so few people that you could always move on rather than kill them.  (It's estimated that half a million years ago there were around a million homo sapiens, including Neanderthals and Denisovians, on the planet.  Now THAT'S elbow room.)  Then again, maybe we just haven't found the evidence.  After half a million years, there's not a whole lot of evidence left.

"Homo neanderthalensis adult male - head model - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - 2012-05-17" by Tim Evanson - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -
But murder certainly picked up during the Mesolithic Era (around 20,000-5,000 BCE).  First of all, by now there were perhaps 5 million humans on the planet, and they were all Cro-Magnon, i.e., us. Neanderthals and Denisovians had both gone extinct, and while there is significant evidence that we interbred (I did the genome test and am happy to report that I am 3% Neanderthal and 3.7% Denisovian), the fact that two flourishing subspecies (at least) had vanished is also a good sign that there was some serious killing going on.

And it didn't stop there.  In fact, humans got better at it.  For example:

Sometime around 21,000 BCE, along the Nile, at a place called Jebel Sahaba (300 km south of Wadi Kubbaniya), a young man had 2 blades in his pelvis and a broken right arm.  Who knows why?  Who knows whodunnit?  And between 13,000-11,000 BCE, in the same area, 59 people were buried in a graveyard.  Of them, 24 had been murdered, with multiple arrowpoints and severe cut-marks on their bones and skulls. (Steven Mithen, After the Ice:  A Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC. p. 452)

Sometime around 12,000 BCE, in Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, England, a frightening number of people were butchered to death, and then (possibly) eaten.  (Mithin, pp. 110-111)

7 year old child's skull
showing blunt-force trauma
In 2006 in Germany, a mass grave was discovered, dating back to 7,000 BCE, of 26 adults and children, all killed by arrow wounds or blows to the head. In the 1980s, a number of similar mass graves were found in Talheim, Germany, and Asparn, Austria. There were no female skeletons, which archaeologists believe prove that the women were taken captive while all the men and children were murdered.

And in a place called Skateholm, Sweden, the cemeteries from 5,000 BCE show people who fought - a lot.  Four individuals who survived depressed skull fractures (i.e., someone hit them hard enough to leave a dent); flint arrowheads embedded here or there; some who'd lost an eye or had a cheekbone/nose caved in.  And quite a few who died of their wounds.  Most of the head wounds came from "blows to the front and left side - the outcome of face-to-face combat with a right-handed opponent."  (Mithen, p. 175)

Probably the most famous murder victim of this time period was Otzi the Ice Man - found September 21, 1991, by German tourists up in the Otztai Alps (hence his name) - who lived and died some 5,300 years ago. 
Otzi is one of the best preserved bodies ever found.  He was lactose intolerant, high levels of copper and arsenic in his hair, related to Southern Europeans, had cavities and tattoos, and wore waterproof, warm clothing of leather stuffed with grass.  His last meals were of chamois meat, red deer, and herb bread. He also had an arrowhead in his shoulder, bruises on his hands and wrists and chest, and a bad blow to the head, which is what killed him.  In other words, he was murdered.

The truth is, the catalogue of skeletal remains from Mesolithic Europe shows that up to 44% of the skulls showed signs of "trauma" (i.e., blows) (Mithin, p. 534).  For a fascinating article on how prevalent murder, war, and even cannibalism were, see British Archaeology Issue No. 52, April 2000 -

So why so much killing during the Mesolithic Era?  The Mesolithic was when the old, Paleolithic hunter-gatherer cultures were "transitioning" into agricultural societies.  The population increase was dramatic - as I said, by now there are 5 million people on the planet, and, as the transition into agriculture gets going, they are living more densely than ever before, crowded along a few fertile river valleys.  That leads to a rich possibility of reasons for murder and warfare:

Two female murder victims from Teviec, France
dated 6740-5680 BCE

  • Fear and Property:  increasing clashes between traditional hunter-gatherer cultures (who were losing their hunting grounds and traditions at a frightening pace) and the new farmers (who were taking it all away from the hunter-gatherers).  And let's not forget that the hunter-gatherers might steal from the farmers, and the farmers might drift off and hunt on hunter-gatherer lands.  Which would lead to
  • Honor killings:  the usual suspects:  thefts, slights, insults, jealousy, anger, pride.  Which would lead to
  • Tribal feuds:  one death leads to another, until it's tribe v. tribe, and, as population increases, war erupts.
And, of course, there's just good old fashioned personality conflicts.  For all we know, Otzi was a complete SOB whom everybody hated, and when they got a chance to make sure he'd never come back, well, they took it.

Now personally, I don't believe in the African Genesis theory of human origins:  I don't believe we were bred from savage carnivorous apes on the savannah.  But I do believe, as Barry Hughart put it in Bridge of Birds, that we have "a flaw in our character."  And that flaw makes it increasingly difficult, as we live in ever closer quarters, to share our toys, our food, our stuff.  A while back, AARP published a map of the "state of well-being" - and the rankings were easy to figure out once you realized that the top ten states, where people felt best about their lives, etc., were all the least-populated.  Check it out:
Well-Being Index by State (Map), 2014

Once again, elbow room.  Of which, by the way, we've been steadily running out of since the Industrial Revolution:

1,000,000 BCE - World Population around 125,000
500,000 BCE - World Population around 1 million
10,000 BCE - World Population around 5 million
3,500 BCE - World Population around 10 million
1,000 BCE - World Population around 50 million
500 BCE - World Population around 100 million
1 CE - World Population around 300 million (*current US population is 318.9 million)
1600 CE - World Population around 500 million (half a billion)
1820 - World Population around 1 billion
1925 - World Population around 2 billion
1961 - World Population around 3 billion
1974 - World Population around 4 billion
1987 - World Population around 5 billion
1999 - World Population around 6 billion
2015 - World Population around 7.3 billion and counting

Something to think about.

Meanwhile, thinking about that 430,000 year old murder victim, what on earth was the deal with that?  It certainly wasn't a lack of elbow room.  Maybe it wasn't murder, maybe it was an accident. Someone clumsy with a large rock.  Maybe it was a case of jealousy.  Or maybe he was simply the worst SOB of his day, and his cave mates decided they just couldn't stand him anymore.  But it is proof that, even if time travel is invented, there is no time to go back to where everything was peaceful, sweet, innocent of all violent death and murder.  Nostalgia isn't what it's cracked up to be.