13 September 2009

Prehistory, continued

I guess I always thought of technology as strictly cumulative, but reading a little about the Stone Age dispelled that notion. Archaeologists have had to reverse-engineer, from the artifacts they left behind, the toolmaking skills and technology of extinct cultures. How did Cro-Magnon mammoth hunters store meat? Wouldn't it spoil? Well, we really don't know that sort of thing anymore, but there's a way to find out:

[U. Michigan researcher Dan] Fisher butchered a draft horse using stone tools he'd knapped himself, then cached the meat in a stock pond. Naturally preserved by microbes called lactobacilli in the water, the flesh emitted a faintly sour, pickled odor that put off scavengers even when it floated to the surface. To test its palatability, Fisher cut and ate steaks from the meat every two weeks from February until high summer, demonstrating that mammoth hunters might have stored their kills in the same way.

Tom Mueller, “Ice Baby”. National Geographic, May 2009.

People showed up on Australia forty thousand years ago. Even though the sea level was lower then, they would have had to cross a channel 55 miles wide to get there. It's a little mysterious to me, as the oldest boats ever excavated anywhere are dugout canoes at most nine thousand years old.

So the first real agriculture (planted fields) happened about ten thousand years ago, dogs were domesticated about fourteen thousand years ago, but apparently people were exploring the South Pacific in logboats, miles from shore, forty thousand years ago. (The oldest stone tools predate H. sapiens and appeared 2.5 million years ago.)

No comments: