The earliest astronomers?

Reaching for the stars in Lascaux Cave

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThe short ver­sion of this post is that Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic? by Hayden & Villeneuve is a great paper. If you’re inter­ested in astro­nomy in hunter-gatherer soci­et­ies you should read it. I’m going to dis­agree with some parts of the paper below, but if Hayden & Villeneuve are wrong about some things, then it’s for inter­est­ing reas­ons. And it’s by no means cer­tain that I’m right to dis­agree about the things that I do.

Reaching for the stars in Lascaux Cave

Reaching for the stars in Lascaux Cave. Photo (cc) tourisme_vezere.

The archae­ology of astro­nomy is con­ten­tious at the best of times, but the Palaeolithic is a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult period to study, because the remains are so frag­ment­ary and few in num­ber. So to put this in con­text we need to know when the Upper Palaeolithic is.

You’re prob­ably famil­iar with the Three Age System, Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. In this sys­tem in Europe the Stone Age ends roughly between 4000 and 2500 BCE depend­ing on where you are and exactly where you want to draw the line. Everything before this is a long time period so you can split it up fur­ther. The Neolithic is a period when people settle down and become farm­ers, it starts between 8000 and 4000 BCE in Europe depend­ing on where you are. The south-east of Europe adopts farm­ing much sooner than the people in the north-west. The Palaeolithic, if you ignore all sorts of sub­tleties is the period before that. To nar­row down things fur­ther the Palaeolithic is sub-divided into three sec­tions, Lower, Middle and Upper. Again, roughly speak­ing, the Lower Palaeolithic is the time of early humans, the Middle is the time of Neanderthals roughly 300,000 BCE to 35,000 BCE, and the Upper Palaeolithic is the period after that with Homo Sapiens.

This gives the astro­nom­ical read­ers a rough idea of when we’re talk­ing about. Archaeological read­ers could very eas­ily pick holes in more or less everything I’ve said about the dates. One import­ant reason we’ll get to later is that when we use terms like Bronze Age or Palaeolithic, we’re not dir­ectly talk­ing about a spe­cific time, we’re talk­ing about the tech­no­logy we find that’s asso­ci­ated with a spe­cific time. So some ‘peri­ods’ make no sense out­side of Europe. If you live some­where where Obsidian was much easier to get than Bronze, then it’s pos­sible local people never bothered with a Bronze Age.

Hayden & Villeneuve real­ise that evid­ence from the Upper Palaeolithic is scant, but they also recog­nise that the Upper Palaeolithic is not just a time, but it’s tied to a place. What they’re inter­ested in is whether or not eth­no­graph­ies of mod­ern hunter-gatherer soci­et­ies can give us inform­a­tion about pos­sible uses for astro­nomy. You can’t simply say that mod­ern hunter-gatherers from now were exactly like hunter-gatherers twenty thou­sand years ago, but you can see if tack­ling astro­nom­ical prob­lems pro­duces debris sim­ilar to what archae­olo­gists find. You can also see if there are com­mon fea­tures in astro­nomy around the world from hunter-gatherers. If you can see hunter-gatherer astro­nomy in action then you have clues why hunter-gatherers used astro­nomy in the past and that can pro­duce work a lot more inter­est­ing than “there’s marks on this bone, people could be count­ing moon phases.“
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Sander van der Leeuw: The Archaeology of Innovation


A couple of years ago I came across the Long Now Foundation on the web. I was plan­ning to blog on it, par­tic­u­larly some of the bets, but haven’t so far. If there’s one sub­ject which shouldn’t be affected by a delay of a few years it’s the Long Now Foundation. I remembered, because I found this on Fora​.tv. Fora​.tv is a bit like TED, but longer.

Prof Sander van der Leeuw at the Long Now Foundation

Chapter 6 has a eas­ily over­looked prob­lem. Why did things stay so sim­ilar dur­ing the Pleistocene? Change in the cli­mate, and pre­sum­ably the local envir­on­ments, didn’t spur any sig­ni­fic­ant change in tools. van der Leeuw pulls that prob­lem apart by look­ing at the devel­op­ment of short term work­ing memory and shows there’s actu­ally a lot of really com­plex cog­nit­ive pro­cesses to look at if you want to under­stand the man­u­fac­ture of Palaeolithic hand-axes.

Chapter 12 and 13 are also thought-provoking. I like the explan­a­tion that to be social you need someone to be social with. van der Leeuw’s ana­lysis shows that you can’t have a lone city. A city requires a com­munity of cit­ies. I’m more wary of col­lapse mod­els of soci­et­ies. It’s def­in­itely not a brain-dead model that van der Leeuw uses, but it is very com­pressed. If you chart the decline from the Roman Empire from its peak around AD 200-ish to AD 500-ish that’s three cen­tur­ies. On a human scale that’s the time from now back to your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, assum­ing a grand­father is around 50 years into your past. With the dis­tance of time I can see there is a decline but it’s less a col­lapse and more a gentle saunter down to the tri­umph of the bar­bar­i­ans. We could have soci­etal col­lapses because we have the his­tor­ical aware­ness and a social nar­rat­ive that ancient peoples lacked.

Ironically as I was typ­ing up that cri­ti­cism, van der Leeuw was mak­ing a sim­ilar point in his con­clu­sion. The concept of deep time provides us with a way of think­ing and ana­lys­ing the past in a way that the Romans couldn’t. It’s a good talk and brings together a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent prob­lems and research top­ics into the same story. It’s a long video but worth the time.

You can watch the whole video at Fora​.tv, or down­load the talk as an MP3 from the Long Now Foundation.

If you put a snail shell to your ear can you hear the sound of your thoughts?


ResearchBlogging.orgYou’ll be see­ing a lot of this but­ton around the web today as it’s part of the cel­eb­ra­tions for PLoS @ Two. It’s cer­tainly some­thing worth cel­eb­rat­ing as PLoSOne is bring­ing a lot of good sci­ence to a wide audi­ence. That’s par­tic­u­larly import­ant with inter­dis­cip­lin­ary papers because it’s very easy to pub­lish them in just one field and miss half of the poten­tial audi­ence. That’s a major draw­back if you see pub­lic­a­tion as an iter­at­ive pro­cess with one paper build­ing on another. An example is this paper, Climate Change, Genetics or Human Choice: Why Were the Shells of Mankind’s Earliest Ornament Larger in the Pleistocene Than in the Holocene? by Teske et. al. in PLoS one. It’s a bit of clever work on the use of snail shells as orna­ments in Middle and Late Stone Age Africa. I think there’s one or two prob­lems with the con­clu­sions, but it’s a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the study of human use of snail shells. That’s a much more import­ant sub­ject than it sounds, because these shells might be very import­ant evid­ence about how your mind came together.
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How Art Made The World — Revisited


While look­ing for some­thing else I found this snip­pet from How Art Made the World. It deals with the exag­ger­ated fea­tures of the Ice Age Venuses. Yes they’re unreal­istic images of women, but why do they look unreal­istic? The answer might be found in the actions of gulls. This seg­ment filled me with ambigu­ous feel­ings, so it’s good to have the oppor­tun­ity to watch it again.

I had to flip back to my ori­ginal com­ments, because I remembered feel­ing quite neg­at­ive about it. Yet look­ing at that clip it seemed that Nigel Spivey was an enga­ging presenter. It is an inter­est­ing topic and a change from the chro­no­lo­gical his­tor­ies and dis­aster porn which make up a lot of is his­tory television.

The other clips avail­able online made it clear what I dis­liked about the pro­gramme. It was the dis­join­ted con­nec­tion between pre­his­tory and his­tory, which can be seen in the clip below.
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Art in the eye of the Beholder?

Deer (best view)
It’s a deer. This is the most eas­ily seen of the carvings.

I went up to Creswell Crags on the bank hol­i­day week­end to see the Ice Age art which had recently been dis­covered. As a trip I can highly recom­mend it. Even though it was a Bank Holiday week­end, there weren’t that many people there, which is odd because regard­less of the archae­ology the site is beautiful.

Creswell Crags Gorge 2

The gorge was formed mil­lions of years ago, but the archae­olo­gical interest comes from occu­pa­tion dur­ing the Ice Age. There’s evid­ence of Neanderthal set­tle­ment around 40kyr from the tools found in sev­eral caves in the gorge. The people would have been fol­low­ing anim­als to the sum­mer graz­ing grounds. These could have been long migra­tions as Great Britain was still con­nec­ted to the European main­land. There is some slight evid­ence for mod­ern humans around 29kyr or so. This came to a halt when the cli­mate became colder. The polar ice cap grew down to within 20 miles to the north of the caves, which sug­gests the tun­dra in the area was barren.

Around 13kyr the cli­mate eased enough for mod­ern humans to return. The tools of the period made Creswell the type-site for an Upper Palaeolithic cul­ture. The flint itself seems to have been sourced in Southern England. The Creswellian cul­ture is tied to the Magdalenian cul­ture of Europe which came at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic. Elsewhere in Europe Magdalenian sites are known to have port­able art­works. More fam­ous is the static art of this period. This is the era of Altamira and Lascaux. During this period the main­land of Britain was still widely con­nec­ted to Europe across what would become the Channel and the North Sea. The people were still mov­ing vast dis­tances across the con­tin­ent fol­low­ing the herds. So why hadn’t any­one found cave art in the UK? This was the ques­tion Paul Bahn, Paul Pettitt and Sergio Ripoll asked and they went search­ing for it. Creswell is the first place they found it.

Having vis­ited the site I can’t help but admire their eyes. The images are cut into the rock, which means they’re partly vis­ible through light and shadow rather than pig­ment. Additionally there’s also a tend­ency for the artists to use nat­ural fea­tures in the engrav­ings. It makes sense because it cuts out a lot of the effort in mak­ing an image when you’re cut­ting into rock, but it does make your won­der if you’re see­ing images that were inten­tion­ally cre­ated or if you’re pulling pat­terns out from ran­dom shapes.

A bison?

This may be a bison with its head facing to the right. However now I come to write this I’m now won­der­ing if this isn’t a couple of anim­als with their heads on the left. It could pos­sibly be both. One inter­pret­a­tion is that there are sev­eral images over­lay­ing each other. This makes sense if you ser­i­ously ques­tion what pre­his­toric art is.

Art in mod­ern terms is some­thing that you look at. It’s the end product. If you try and improve the Mona Lisa by paint­ing a proper smile on it people would get upset. In con­trast in other cul­tures, par­tic­u­larly some of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, art is some­thing you do. If the pur­pose of the image is to cre­ate it rather than admire it then it could lose its mean­ing once it’s fin­ished. In that case there’s no loss in carving over the top of older images. It is pos­sible that there is another clue in what the art was for, in where it was found.

The animal engrav­ings are all on the east­ern side of the cave. I ini­tially though this was due to astro­nomy. The caves with engrav­ing are on the south­ern side of the gorge. They’re occu­pied in the sum­mer when the Sun is rising to the north of east and set­ting to the north of west. The animal engrav­ings are all on the east wall of the cave, which would mean it would be illu­min­ated by the set­ting sun. The animal engrav­ings look bet­ter in the after­noon, which would seem to indic­ate the time of day when they were cut. However, these may not be the only art­works on the walls. On the west side are carvings inter­preted as fer­til­ity symbols.

Ice Age Pornography?

The tri­angle in the centre of the image above is, pos­sibly, sym­bolic of female gen­it­als accord­ing to one inter­pret­a­tion. I can’t see it myself, but maybe I should to get out more. If there is a divide between fer­til­ity in the east and anim­als in the west it would be inter­est­ing to see if this divi­sion was more widely found else­where. It could show that the pla­cing of the art was import­ant as well as the con­tent, bey­ond simply find­ing a suit­able blank patch.

If you can get to see it then I’d recom­mend pack­ing a pic­nic bas­ket and tak­ing a trip out. The gorge itself is pleas­ant and has a nice meadow adja­cent to it. If you’re keen on get­ting inside the caves then I’d also sug­gest that you phone up and book a place rather than turn­ing up on the day if you can. The tour groups are lim­ited in size and fill up quickly.

Creswell Crags Gorge 3

Unearthing Mysteries has an epis­ode on the dis­cov­ery of the cave art. Scroll down to the bot­tom of the page and click ‘Listen Again’ to hear it. This page also has a high­lighted photo of the deer.

There’s also pages at The Megalithic Portal and The Modern Antiquarian and The Bradshaw Foundation.

I’ve put my pho­tos up under a Creative Commons licence.

Earliest Occupation of Britain Earlier than Previously Thought


Nature tomor­row will fea­ture a paper describ­ing the old­est arte­facts found in the British Isles. The thirty-two blades would be pretty dull by them­selves, but they’ve been dated with what sounds like a reas­on­able degree of suc­cess to around 680,000 years ago. I have to admit I found ITV’s news cov­er­age a bit poor. The thrust of the argu­ment was that 680,000 was a Very Big Number, which made the oth­er­wise dull look­ing blades Very Old Things. Fortunately there are more inter­est­ing things to say than that.

The finds at Pakefield aren’t simply old, they also are a lot fur­ther north than other known occu­pa­tions of the same time. We know of pop­u­la­tions of Homo Antecessor liv­ing in Spain. The date of these finds would sug­gest that Homo Antecessor had a much wide range than pre­vi­ously thought. This means we may have to rethink our ideas of how intel­li­gent earlier hom­in­ins were and what it takes to be able to col­on­ise new territories.

It’s in the news at:

Update: and also now the BBC with some nice maps. No doubt many more will appear shortly.

Mexican Footprints II


I know I’ve had some sleep recently because last night I dreamt I was in a sleep-deprivation exper­i­ment, but I haven’t had much. Therefore you should also visit the other sites lis­ted at the end for more intel­li­gent comment.

A foot and an ancient foot­print. Photo from the Mexican Footprints media sec­tion.

The dat­ing of the Mexican foot­prints is prov­ing to be a prob­lem. This week in Nature the foot­prints are the sub­ject of a Brief Communication Geochronology: Age of Mexican ash with alleged ‘foot­prints’. I’ve added two recent press release from Berkeley and Texas A&M on re-dating the prints. They tackle quite a prob­lem, how do you sample an absence of some­thing to get a date?

I prin­ted out the art­icle, which was really clever as I don’t have access to it from home. However I’ve just dis­covered I left it on the printer, which is really stu­pid. I’ll try and recon­struct the argu­ment as best I can.
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