Today's Talking Point
Beyond family and race, beyond language or religion, beyond even geographic location, it is memory that is the mother of all community.
I have had a deep and abiding interest in language and linguistics for more than 40 years. Of particular interest to me is the evolution of language through time and, in reverse, an understanding of the ultimate proto-language. Every few years my interest will revive and I'll add to my already extensive collection of word-lists. Most recently I have been scavanging for words and phrases added to the English language since my birth in 1949. There are thousands and thousands!
At the opposite end of the timescale, I was excited to read the following article, The Evolution of the World's Alphabets and Other Symbols:
Writing systems may look very different, but they all use the same basic building blocks of familiar natural shapes, reports Roger Highfield ...Look at the letters in the words of this sentence, for example. Why are they shaped the way that they are? Why did we come up with As, Ms and Zs and the other characters of the alphabet? And is there any underlying similarity between the many kinds of alphabet used on the planet?
To find out, scientists have pooled the common features of 100 different writing systems, including true alphabets such as Cyrillic, Korean Hangul and our own; so-called abjads that include Arabic and others that only use characters for consonants; Sanskrit, Tamil and other "abugidas", which use characters for consonants and accents for vowels; and Japanese and other syllabaries, which use symbols that approximate syllables, which make up words. Remarkably, the study has concluded that the letters we use can be viewed as a mirror of the features of the natural world, from trees and mountains to meandering streams and urban cityscapes ... "Writing should look like nature, in a way," said Dr Changizi, explaining how similar reasoning has been used to explain the sounds, signs and colours that animals, insects and so on use to tell each other they are, for example, receptive to sex.
To be able to compare Cyrillic, Arabic or whatever, they turned to the mathematics of topology, which focuses on the way elements are connected together in a letter rather than overall shape, so that fonts do not matter and nor does handwriting, whether neat calligraphy or crudely written with a crayon grasped in a clenched fist. For example, each time you see a T, geometrical features and frills such as serifs may differ according to the font or handwriting but the topology remains the same. By the same token, L, T, and X represent the three topologically distinct configurations that can be built with exactly two segments. And, to a topological mind, an L is the same as a V. In this way, the team could classify different configurations of strokes, or segments, to boil an alphabet of alphabets down to their essentials.
Across 115 writing systems to emerge over human history, varying in number of characters from about 10 to 200, the average number of strokes per character is approximately three and does not appear to vary as a function of writing system size. Sticking to letters that can be drawn with three strokes or fewer, the team found that about 36 distinct characters is the universe of letters in a theoretical alphabet. Remarkably, the study revealed regularities in the distribution of (topological) shapes across approximately 100 phonemic (non-logographic) writing systems, where characters stand for sounds, and across symbols. "Whether you use Chinese or physics symbols, the shapes that are common in one are common in the others," said Dr Changizi ... Most striking of all, the team found a high correlation between the most common contour combinations found in nature and the most common contours found in letters and symbols across cultures. For example, contours resembling an "L" or "X" are more common in both human visual signs and natural scenes than anything resembling an asterisk (*) ... "
Cultural Beginnings #9
Music is one of the oldest of the human arts. Bone pipes and flutes have been found that are tens of thousands of years old. One of the oldest yet discovered, a mammoth-tusk flute produced perhaps 35,000ya, has recently been unearthed from a cave in the Swabian Mountains of Germany. That was in the last Ice Age and the musician must have been used to scrambling across the frozen glaciers. It is remarkable to me that, in an age when so much of one's time and energy and thought must have been devoted to simple survival, that some people could first imagine and then find the resources to create a musical instrument.
Science is garbage! Or, rather, garbage can help produce good science, especially when one is looking at the earliest evidence of humans' decision to settle in organized groups. Researchers in the Near East have been able to distinguish temporary hunting camps of 12,000ya from sedentary villages of about 9,000ya because the latter had primitive forms of communal garbage disposal, while the ealier hunter-gatherers kept their garbage inside the houses. This strongly suggests that urbanism got its start much later than previously supposed. Given the fundamental fact that sedentary life had "such a profound" and negative "impact on all aspects of life," and "[w]ith it came a complete change in mentality and morality, laws relating to personal property and communal responsibilities,” evidence that civilization is even less "traditional" for human beings is always welcome.
On the other side of the world, in South America, recent research indicates that settled agricultural culture was flourishing in the La Plata region of present-day Uruguay about 4,800ya. The researchers posit a plausible climatic theory for why humans settled down around the world at this time.
"Combined analyses of preserved pollen and phytoliths indicated that, as in other regions of the world, the mid-Holocene was characterized by significant climatic and ecological changes associated with important cultural transformations. During this period, around 4,500 years ago, the climate was much drier than it is today and "Wetlands became biotic magnets for human habitation providing an abundant, reliable, and a resource-rich supply of foods and water. Furthermore, wetland margins offered an ideal place for the experimentation, adoption, and intensification of agriculture encouraging the Los Ajos' community to engage into horticulture", explains [Jose] Iriarte, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama."
I have written several times before of the earliest signs of wine culture in the Eastern Mediterranean around 9-10,000ya (see especially Cultural Beginnings #5), so I am pleased to see research on Chinese beverages has pushed back to about the same period. In the Chinese case, the drink was "a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit." The find comes from Jiahu, a site "already famous for yielding some of the earliest musical instruments and domesticated rice, as well as possibly the earliest Chinese pictographic writing." This fascinating article goes on to describe fragrant liquids, probably fermented drinks, discovered in sealed vessels from about 4,000ya.
Cultural Beginnings #8
In Cultural Beginnings #6 we reported on chariot tracks being discovered in China that date back perhaps 4,000 years, much earlier than any other wheeled tracks so far unearthed there. Now there are reports of images of domesticated horses on pottery from 3,000 years ago.
"The painted design shows a man herding eight horses. Some of these horses are bucking and some stand quietly; some have tails and some do not. All of the horses have large buttocks, slender waists and thin legs. Surrounded by the eight horses, the wide-shouldered, slender-waisted man is in a long gown. His physique and dress are quite similar to those of ethnic people living in the horse-taming area,said Wang Haidong, Vice Chairman of the Gansu Provincial Painted Pottery Research Institute. The pot, 22 centimeters high and 24 centimeters in diameter, has a pair of symmetrical handles on each side of its body and a sunken bottom."This is the earliest representation of horses in Chinese art, and indicates a domestication date significantly early than had previously been proven.
At around the same time, three thousand years ago, saltminers of the Hallstatt Culture in northern Austria, were building a wooden staircase deep beneath the earth. It has just been discovered and its state of preservation is remarkable. "The staircase is in perfect condition because the micro-organisms that cause wood to decompose do not exist in salt mines," said Hans Reschreiter, the director of excavations. The wooden staircase is 800 years older than the earliest one previously known in Europe, and may be the oldest known in the world.
Two thousand years earlier, five thousand years ago, the city of Jiroft was the commercial trading centre of Persia, playing a hand in trade throughout the region. As an article in Payvand's Iran News puts it:
"Many great Iranian and foreign experts see the findings in Jiroft as signs of a civilization as great as that of Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Majidzadeh believes that Jiroft is the ancient city of Aratt mentioned in an Iraqi clay inscription as a great civilization ...I have to admit to never having heard of Jiroft before reading this article. The past has glorious surprises for us still.
Jiroft came into spotlight nearly three years ago when extensive illegal excavations and plundering of the invaluable historical items of the area by local people surfaced. Since 2002, two excavation seasons have been carried out there under the supervision of Majidzadeh, leading to the discovery of a ziggurat with more than four million mud bricks dating back to 2300 B.C.
Based on previous explanations by American Professor Holly Pittman, the handwriting discovered in Jiroft is unlike any other handwriting so far discovered. Its novelty and its being contemporary to the innovation of handwriting by Sumerians lead us to a civilization comparable to the first human civilization and may in the upcoming studies even change the course of human civilization. "
Cultural Beginnings #7
Turkish archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a well-developed toilet and sewer system in a prehistoric building in the eastern province of Van. The waterworks are in a castle built by the Uratian king Sarduri II in 764 BC. "'We revealed that Urartian architects had formed a sewer system before building the castle. The toilet and sewer system in the castle is similar to today's toilets,'' announced Istanbul University Eurasian Archaeology Institute Director Prof. Dr. Oktay Belli.
It appears that certain nationalists in Finland don't like the idea -- maintained by most scientists -- that their people emerged about 6,000 years ago in the Volga region of Russia. They would rather posit the existence of a trans-Polar Finnish people ruling the northern European roost from about 10,000 years ago. In a fascinating paper on how linguistics is caught up in this grandiose fantasy, Merlijn de Smit notes that the new methodology departs "from both the 'rational' and the 'inquiry' parts of rational inquiry."
A world away, in the south seas, archaeologists are moving forward in their understanding of how and when the far-flung islands of the Pacific were colonized by humans. "[T]races of the Lapita people, who are the ancestors of all Pacific Islanders beyond the Solomons, had been found in more than 100 other archaeological digs across the region." But human remains had been scare until a recent discovery of a graveyard in Vanuatu. "Pottery found at the site dates back to 1200 BC - 200 years earlier than it was previously thought the Lapita people had arrived in Vanuatu, and the discovery of 13 skeletons has suddenly opened a rich vein of information about these ancestors of all Polynesians," Prof Matthew Spriggs said in a statement.
In the Near East, evidence for human occupation goes back much further, of course. Evidence for trade is less abundant but slowly emerging. Recent excavations, for instance, are throwing light on the movement of goods between the islands in the Gulf with the discovery of 7,000-year old mainland pottery on the island of Marawah near the UAE capital Abu Dhabi.
Cultural Beginnings #6
It had been thought that wheeled transportation in China went back only to the early Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1100BC). However recent excavations at the site of Erlitou have uncovered parallel wheel tracks dating back to the Xia Dynasty (2100 - 1600 BC). Until I read this AFP feed, I had no idea that Erlitou was the largest settlement in East Asia 4,000 years ago.
Of about the same age are the remains of what is being called the world's oldest toy. Found on the southern Italian island of Pantelleria, the doll's head is four centimetres long, with carved facial features and a curly head of hair.
"Miniature pots and plates were found close to the doll's head, possibly the utensils of an ancient toy kitchen. "The playing habits of children have barely changed in 4,000 years," said one of archaeology team."Previously in this series, I have discussed discoveries showing the earliest viniculture to have occured in the Middle East some 8-10,000 years ago. Now, there is evidence that the first wines in Europe were developed in Sardinia about half as long ago. This is proving a shock to the status-conscious growers of northern Italy who have always looked down on the products of the island.
"The hypothesis we are trying to prove is not only that the most ancient wine in the Mediterranean was produced in Sardinia but also that vines were cultivated on the island at the time that civilisation exploded into life in Mesopotamia and then in Egypt," Mr Labra said ... An earlier study has already shown that the cannonau variety of Sardinian grape thought to have been imported from Spain was native to the island. "It was thought that this grape was Iberian, imported from Spain toward the end of the medieval period," Fabrizio Grassi, of Milan's state university, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. "Instead, analysis that has been carried out in Spain shows a very high probability that cannonau could be the Mediterranean's oldest wine."It may be wondered how, in those long ago times, news of various products was transmitted to distant regions. Well, not quite as old as the Sardinian wine, but still very early, Iranian archaeologists have discovered what appear to be ancient advertisements.
"During the latest season of excavations of the northern gate of Takht-e Suleiman, an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple located in northwestern Iran, the stamps of two seals were discovered which indicate that objects entered Takht-e Suleiman from other regions with special tags attached to them which seem to be advertisements. They signify that an early form of advertising was being practiced during the Sassanid era (224-642 C.E.), Yusef Moradi, the head of the excavation team, said on Friday."Finally, there are reports out of Morocco that an ancient Berber town under the sands in the Western Sahara may be 15,000 years old. The Berber civilizatiion is generally thought to be but 9,000 years old. The age of 15,000 ya seems very early -- but very exciting if true -- and so I'll be looking forward to more information as it becomes available.
Cultural Beginnings #5
In a major find, Britain's first cave art has been unveiled at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. The paintings are tentatively dated to 13,000 years ago and are generally of animals such as ibex, bison, a horse and a wild goat. Researchers are ecstatic. Dr Nigel Mills, manager of Cresswell Heritage Trust, said:
"It's like waking up one morning and finding the Mona Lisa on your garage door."Others described it as the Ice Age's "Sistine Chapel'. More important, perhaps, this solves a problem that has concerned archaeologists for some time.
"During the ice age, Britain was connected to the rest of Europe and was periodically occupied by hunter gatherers. But while they left bones, tools and some portable art, they left no cave engravings or paintings. Elsewhere, our Magdalenian ancestors were busy. Paintings of stampeding bulls and horses were found at Lascaux and Chauvet in France in 1940 and 1994, other paintings were found in caves at Altamira, Spain, in 1879. "There has always been a dogma that cave art is restricted to northern Spain and southern France and was possibly not undertaken by ice-age societies elsewhere in the upper Palaeolithic," says [Dr. Paul] Pettitt."The find at Creswell closes the gap. However, interpretations of the marks on the wall are not uniform.
"To me, the more interesting ones are highly stylised depictions of naked females," [Pettitt] says. "We find these boomerang shapes which represented women bent-kneed, thrusting out their bottoms. I interpret at least two of those long-necked birds as women – possibly some ritual dance undertaken by females, and possibly in the cave itself." Pettitt says there are similarities with other schematic women found in German prehistoric art which show buttocks and breasts more clearly. The Creswell nudes are a simpler form, but, like the German nudes, have no heads or legs below the knee. [His partner, Dr. Paul] Bahn is not convinced. "This is not an exact science. Paul sees resemblances with schematic women, but the rest of us do not agree. I think four are birds, but one may be a woman."Cave art, both here and in other sites around the world, are generally considered to be an indication of symbolic thought as well as art. This seems fair. But the art with which we choose to decorate oursleves, our bodies, seems to me more an indication of self-knowledge, especially the knowledge of what makes us feel good. In China, archaeologists have unearthed earrings that date to about 8,000 years ago -- the oldest earrings yet found anywhere.
"The jade rings, called "Jue" in old Chinese, have diameters that measure 2.5 to six centimetres. Liu Guoxiang, head of an archaeological team under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was "magnificent" that the earrings were found in pairs that were almost similar in size and weight. The most exquisite pair were identical in weight and in their inner and outer diameters, he said. "It is almost unimaginable that without modern tools, people in ancient times managed to achieve such a feat," Liu was quoted as saying ...Interesting link there between fashion and health. A more direct link of course is between health and food, and there has been much work on paleolithic diets. Common wisdom is that grains became a staple of humankind's diets only around 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. However, as Science Times describes the problem:
Because the earrings unearthed have reasonably large diameters, experts speculate the wearers at the time would have pierced bigger holes in their earlobes and must have already known how to treat inflammation, said jade culture expert Tang Chung at the Chinese University of Hong Kong"
"Paleolithic humans subsisted mainly on small- to medium-size hoofed animals. Scientists have surmised that these early hunters must have eventually expanded their food repertoire in order to sustain a growing population, but exactly when they began turning to plants for fuel was unknown."Now, researchers in Israel are suggesting that grain and grass collection was prevelant more than 20,000 years ago, double the previous estimate.
"The authors note that the finds not only provide evidence for broad spectrum plant collecting, “but also push back the evidence for significant grass collecting 10,000 years earlier than previously had been known.” Among the ruins were pieces of acorns, almonds, pistachios, wheat, barley, berries, figs and grapes."Update: see also Innovations
Talking of grapes, I found another interesting article about Patrick McGovern's researches into the earliest known wine-making about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, which I wrote about earlier.
"McGovern's current focus on eastern Turkey reflects his hypothesis that grape domestication, and its attendant wine culture, began in a specific region and spread across the ancient world. He calls it the Noah Hypothesis, as it suggests a single locality for an ancestor grape, much as the Eve Hypothesis claims that human ancestry can be genetically traced to a single African mother. In the Bible, Noah landed on the slopes of Mount Ararat (in what is now eastern Turkey) after the Flood. He is described as immediately planting grapevines and making wine. Neolithic eastern and southeastern Turkey seems to have been fertile ground for the birth of agriculture. "Einkorn wheat appears to have been domesticated there, one of the so-called Neolithic founder plants—the original domesticated plants that led to people settling down and building towns," McGovern explained. "So all the pieces are there for early domestication of the grape."
Previously in this series.
Wine, Women and Song
As I have mentioned before, I am fascinated by the early emergence of trends, fashions, and cultures. The following is a selection of the latest news in several areas.
James Wright of American Scientist has reviewed Patrick McGovern's new "Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture", which he calls "riveting, informative and thought-provoking". The book
"begins with the hypothesis that during the Paleolithic era people drank fermented grapes ... which, in McGovern's fertile mind, may link their probable source in Transcaucasia with the yet-to-be-demonstrated hypothesis that the Black Sea was originally an inland lake, flooded catastrophically with seawater in the mid-6th millennium B.C. The tantalizing bouquet of these first chapters is fortified by the taste of real evidence in the form of traces of tartaric acid in Neolithic storage jars from Iran, the remains of grape pips at several Near Eastern sites, and the early and consistent production of wine (and domaines and vintages) in ancient Egypt ... The story of the wine culture that developed in the ancient Near East and spread throughout the Mediterranean is complex and appears to follow the intertwined histories of early empires and states in the three millennia from ancient Ur to the Roman empire. "Clearly this drinking business has been with us a mighty long time. As, of course, has music. Simple flutes and whistles made from bone have been found dating backing nearly 100,000 years. However, in Ireland recently was discovered the world's oldest wooden instruments -- a set of pipes that appear to be about 4,000 years old. The six pipes are hollow,
"measuring between 30 centimetres and 50 centimetres long are tapered at one end but have no perforations or finger holes ... Experts have been able to play a series of notes, including E flat, A flat and F natural, on the yew wood pipes."It is hard to say to what use these pipes would have been put: religious ceremonies, perhaps, or dancing, or just plain fun, or all of these. With the discovery of an ancient brassiere (yes, Virginia, there was life before Victoria Secret!), the use is no mystery; it is the age that fascinates. Chinese archaeologist Shao Guotian, working at a Liao Dynasty (916 - 1125) tomb in a village in Xinhui town, Aohan Banner of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in north China, has announced the discovery of a 1000-year old brassiere, padded with cotton.
"It was made of fine silk and had shoulder strings and back strings just like brassieres of today," said Shao.It should be no surprise to find the Chinese constructing such pieces when, it seems, they had complex machines some 2,500 years ago.
"Distinctive spiral patterns carved into a small jade ring show that China was using complex machines more than 2500 years ago, says a Harvard graduate student in physics. The ring was among the goods found in high-status graves from China's "Spring and Autumn Period" from 771 to 475 BC. Most archaeological attention has focused on larger and more spectacular jade and bronze artifacts. But Peter Lu identified the patterns on the small rings as Archimedes' spirals, which he believes are the oldest evidence of compound machines. Simple machines that move in only one way date back at least 5000 years, to the invention of the potter's wheel. But it took much longer to invent compound machines, which precisely convert motion from one kind into another."Lu suggests the carving could have been accomplished with a simple variation of the bow drill familiar from starting fires in the Boy Scouts.
In the seventh century, or perhaps even earlier, Chinese scholars and artists produced a map of the night sky. It is an astonishing document, written on paper (a Chinese invention, of course), that correctly pictures more than 1,500 stars, many of which are very difficult to see with the naked eye. According to a report in the London ”Independent”, the Chinese map is
”… several centuries older than the first star maps produced in Europe during the height of the Renaissance when astronomy benefited from the invention of the telescope…The astronomical knowledge indicated is just one of the marvels of the map.
“Two French academics now believe the star chart … may have been drawn as early as the start of the Tang period, AD618. Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud of the French Atomic Energy Agency and Françoise Praderie of the Observatoire de Paris also believe that the Dunhuang manuscript is a copy of a much older map that has since been lost to antiquity. In a description for the British Library's exhibition on the Silk Road, which opens on Friday, the scientists say: "The overall quality of the document clearly demonstrates a mature technique so the chart was probably produced as a copy of an earlier existing document." M. Bonnet-Bidaud said: "Curiously, the information in the texts accompanying the charts is extremely similar in style and content to the notations given in [a] much earlier astronomical text, the Yue Ling or 'Monthly Ordinances', dated approximately 300BC. "This is a direct indication that the charts are based on traditional texts and that they are possibly a reproduction of a much earlier version."
”One of the technical problems of producing a complete star chart of the sky is the difficulty of converting the three-dimensional sphere of space into a two-dimensional plan, M. Bonnet-Bidaud said. "A freehand drawing based on direct vision will be highly distorted since the eyes see only a limited portion of the sky at a time," he said.We should not be so arrogant of our current skills, for they are based on thousands of years of knowledge.
One possibility is that the early Chinese astronomers used a method of projecting the sky onto a cylinder using a Mercator-like projection system - the traditional way of making a two-dimensional map of the spherical Earth by sacrificing accuracy at the poles for the sake of accuracy nearer the equator. Mme Praderie said it is likely that the stars nearer to the poles were drawn separately to overcome the distortions that would otherwise be introduced using such a projection method. "The composition of the chart and its presentation are modern," she said. "They are similar to our modern geographical maps of the Earth."
Another of my enthusiasms is the paleo-anthropology of culture -- how long ago, and how, did we begin to do some of those things that we consider to inform culture. And for how long did the older forms persist. Music, dance, art, mytho-religion, all these and more are included in that remit. This has been an interesting month so far for news in these areas.
Clearly, the big news was the announcement that archeologists working the Blombos Cave in South Africa had discovered "41 shells, all with holes and wear marks in similar positions, in a layer of sediment deposited during the Middle Stone Age." It is a string of beads dated to 75,000 years ago, almost doubling the age at which we can now say for sure that humans adorned themselves. It means even more to those seeking the earliest signs of symbolism:
"The Blombos Cave beads present absolute evidence for perhaps the earliest storage of information outside the human brain," says Christopher Henshilwood, program director of the Blombos Cave Project and professor at the Centre for Development Studies of the University of Bergen in Norway ... "Agreement is widespread that personal ornaments, such as beads, incontrovertibly represent symbolically mediated modern behaviour. Until now, the oldest beads in Africa date to about 45,000 years. The discovery of 41 shell beads in sand layers at Blombos Cave accurately dated as 75,000 year old provides important new evidence for early symbolically organized behaviour in Africa" ...Jumping ahead 50 or 60 thousand years, there was more evidence of the Europe-wide influence of the Magdalenian Culture. Reading a Sean Clarke article from the Guardian, we learn that
The shells, found in clusters of up to 17 beads, are from a tiny mollusk scavenger, Nassarius kraussianus, which lives in estuaries. They must have been brought to the cave site from the nearest rivers, 20 kilometers east or west on the coast. The shells appear to have been selected for size and deliberately perforated, suggesting they were made into beads at the site or before transport to the cave. Traces of red ochre indicate that either the shell beads themselves or the surfaces against which they were worn were coated with this widely used iron oxide pigment."
"The discovery of 13,000-year-old rock paintings in Nottinghamshire last year rewrote ice-age history in Britain. Today, archaeologists from all over Europe are in Creswell to discuss how the finds form part of a continent-wide culture known as the Magdalenian. Paul Pettitt, of Sheffield University's archaeology department, said: "The Magdalenian era was the last time that Europe was unified in a real sense and on a grand scale." According to Mr Pettitt, the artists behind the Creswell paintings would have spent summers in the area feasting on migrating reindeer, but the winters on lowlands which now form the North sea or in the Netherlands or central Rhine areas."Both of these fascinating pieces deal with that most important of times before the tyranny of agriculture and then cities ("civilization") distorted human development.
Of particular interest is a depiction of an ibex, an animal now only to be found in Europe in the Pyrenees. "Not one ice-age ibex bone has been found in Britain. The nearest ibex remains [from the period] were found in Belgium and mid-Germany," said Mr Pettitt. He said the most likely explanation is that Magdalenians saw ibexes elsewhere and painted them in Creswell as a reminder.
"Other shapes found at Creswell were initially thought to be long-necked birds. "Looked at another way," said Mr Pettitt, "You see a naked women in profile, with jutting out buttocks and raised arms. It appears to be a picture of women doing a dance in which they thrust out their derrières. It's stylistically very similar to continental examples, and seems to demonstrate that Creswellians are singing and dancing in the same way as on the continent."