Judith C. Berman
In this somewhat lighthearted essay, anthropologist Judith Berman takes on the stereotype of the wild looking, unkempt “cave man” popularized in cartoons, movies, television shows, etc. Berman argues that the typically appearance of the cave man (and woman), with uncombed and unstyled hair, is used to either convey the innate savagery of Paleolithic hominins, or to convey their “natural” uncorrupted state. In contrast, Berman find evidence in Paleolithic art that early humans and Neanderthals carefully tended and styled their hair, and tended to grooming in general.
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 101, No. 2 (June 1999), pp. 291-292
This mound marks the grave of an adolescent boy from the “Maritime Archaic” people of Labrador. Roughly 7,500 years ago, his body was wrapped in a shroud of bark or hide and placed face down in the grave with his head facing to the west. At that point, a large mound of rocks was erected over his burial place.
Courtesy of Brian Bursey
Daniel Lord Smail
In On Deep History and the Brain, historian Daniel Lord Smail postulates that “it is the similarities [between civilizations] that are the most startling,” more so than the differences. In this excerpt, he also draws our attention to the continuities between the Paleolithic era and the agricultural civilizations. To this end, he uses the term “Postlithic” to refer to this latter period, rather than the traditional term “Neolithic” which would imply a more explicit break between the two. Although Smail acknowledges the fundamental changes brought by agriculture, he does so by emphasizing the patterns of conceptual and material interconnectivity between the Paleo- and Postlithic worlds.
“Agriculture and Emerging Societies,” Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (University of California Press, 2008, pp. 197-200)
A 2009 paper in Science announced the identification of at least 488 fibers of flax attached to clay samples found in a cave in Georgia. Some of these fibers had been spun and dyed, and one of the threads (no. 8 below) had been twisted. The applied colors, ranging from black to gray to turquoise, may indicate that the inhabitants of the cave were engaged in producing colorful textiles. The presence of spores in the cave indicates that fungus was probably already growing on the clothes and progressively breaking them down.
From Eliso Kvavadze et al., SCIENCE 325: 1359 (2009). Reprinted with permission from AAAS.
Named for a site in the archipelago of New Caledonia, the Lapita culture was a system of kinship-based exchanges among the inhabitants of thousands of islands in the western Pacific. Elements of “Lapita ware,” decorated with stamped patterns, were in high demand, and pots were exchanged among the inhabitants of the islands.
David Johanson and Maitland Edey
In 1973, in Ethiopia, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson stumbled across the skeleton of a hominin (or as he refers to it, a hominid) nearly 3.5 million years old. Nicknamed Lucy, it was acknowledged as the oldest known complete fossilized remains of a hominin, until a more the discovery of Ardipithecus in 1994. Although Lucy is no longer the oldest hominin remains, she is still one of the most famous, in part because of Johanson’s success in personalizing the skeleton. Lucy is also very controversial, from her age to her gender (a determination Johanson based on her pelvic bones but other paleoanthropologists dispute), historians and paleoanthropologists continue to interpret what the skeleton reveals about our earliest ancestors and about ourselves. The following excerpt is Johanson’s description of how Lucy differs from modern humans.
“Not All Hominids are Human Beings,” David Johanson and Maitland Edey, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (Simon and Schuster, 1981, pp. 18-24).
William J. Burroughs
William J. Burroughs, a scientist who specializes in physics and climate ponders the unwelcome relationship between people and lice, and what that reveals about evolution and migration of early humans. In this excerpt, Burroughs uses the designation” kya” for dates; it refers to “1000 years ago.”
William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos, (Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 133-134)
Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola
Inspired by the excitement attending the discovery of prehistoric cave paintings in France, amateur Spanish archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (1831–1888) conducted work on a Spanish cave in which similar paintings had been found. A series of excavations have been undertaken in the years since, leading to the discovery of many objects made from silexi, bone, and horn at various levels of the cave system. The paintings—of horses, deer, bison, and human hands—were made throughout the cave’s occupation, and the images are generally outlined in a black charcoal pigment and filled in with red or yellow paint.
Photo: Museum of Altamira/P. Saura
Archaeologists working in the Tsodilo Hills of Botswana in 2006 may have found the oldest evidence of a form of human ritual behavior. One cavern contains a large rock, roughly 20 feet long and 6.5 feet wide, that resembles a giant python, with the natural features of the stone forming its eye and mouth. While its resemblance to a reptile may be natural, there are also several hundred man-made grooves along its side, indicating an attempt to replicate scales with fashioned tools. Spearheads were also found at the site, and similar ones in the area have been dated to 77,000 years ago. Researchers have concluded that this was a worship site for the inhabitants of the region in this period.
Photograph by Sheila Coulson, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo, Norway. National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061222-python-ritual.html
Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams
Historian Clottes and anthropologist Lewis-Williams theorize that the painted caves (such as those of Lascaux and Niaux in France) of Paleolithic people were used as a sacred space, in which rituals and ceremonies took place. The art on these cave walls, Clottes and Lewis-Williams argue, was part of a Shamanistic ritual. The creation of this art manipulated Paleolithic men and women’s understanding of physical and metaphysical space. For instance, the authors suggest that they different chambers within the caves were used by different groups within a particular Paleolithic society, at different times, and for different purposes, most of them ritual or ceremonial. Clottes and Lewis-William also believe that the paintings were group undertakings, indicating a level of community organization and sophistication hitherto not associated with Paleolithic groupings. Ultimately, they believe that the Paleolithic aesthetic was sophisticated, as was the Paleolithic conceptualization of the physical world and spiritual experience.
Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance Magic in the Painted Caves (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998, pp. 103-104)
One of the more tragic legacies of how evolutionary theories can be manipulated is how these theories were used to justify the suppression of one group (defined as a race) by another. Biologists, geneticists, historians, anthropologists, in fact, all contemporary people define race differently. Social scientist P. Diagne discusses these often conflicting concepts of what is race in this brief excerpt. He identifies some of the problems with any one definition of race. Furthermore, he also suggests that physical differentiation between the races may have once had an evolutionary purpose, but that this is becoming less and less a necessity: distinct racial identity may be on the wane. In fact, genetic differentiation suggests a more complex understanding of race, and that genetic merging has already mixed the races.
“Theories on ‘race’ and the history of Africa,” P. Diagne, General History of Africa, Vol. I Methodology and Africa Prehistory (James Currey Ltd., 1990, pp. 100-103)