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Cultural Depth

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" ...

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."

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 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."

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."

Both of these fascinating pieces deal with that most important of times before the tyranny of agriculture and then cities ("civilization") distorted human development.

April 24, 2004 in Cultural Beginnings | Permalink


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