Incredible discovery of 40,000-year-old tools for art and engineering
November 30, 2016 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Ars Technica: "Humans began making paint and glue at roughly the same time with the same tools. Evidence from a cave in eastern Ethiopia has revealed something extraordinary about the origins of symbolic thought among humans."

"Forty-thousand years ago, Porc-Epic Cave was surrounded by lush grassland full of lakes and rivers. It was home to a thriving community of people who devoted considerable time to processing ochre, a reddish powder used for variety of things including paint. Writing in PLoS One, anthropologists Daniela Eugenia Rosso, Africa Pitarch Martí, and Francesco d’Errico describe how they worked with the National Museum of Ethiopia to analyze these Middle Stone Age people's ochre-making tools. What they found was this workshop's artisans produced a far more complicated array of substances than anyone had understood before. Some were used for art and decoration, and others were used for engineering better weapons."
posted by Celsius1414 (9 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not clear on why ocher powder would add anything to glue aside from color.
It is very interesting that stones from far away were found indicating that there was a trade for different color shades though.
posted by Bee'sWing at 4:30 PM on November 30, 2016

From the PDF of the links:

Ochre-loaded adhesives prove far easier to work with than sticky resins alone, and are more easily moulded to accommodate tools and hafts. These adhesives also dry faster than unloaded resins. Importantly, unloaded adhesives are hydroscopic, and thus become tacky under damp conditions.
Ochre-loaded adhesives are not hydroscopic after they have been properly dried. Furthermore, the experiments showed that tools mounted with ochre-loaded resin were more likely to complete tasks successfully than those without

This is cool.

But I'll bet ocher adhesive isn't as tasty as library paste.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:45 PM on November 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

The question that has long raged among archaeologists is whether people first began using ochre as a tool for engineering or as a substance for making art. In other words, does symbolism start with science or aesthetics? By examining 23 ochre-processing tools from Porc-Epic Cave, researchers figured out that the answer is that both emerged at the same time, in the same workshops.

The same species that made these advancements in art & engineering & then re-discovered them also wastes its time dicking around with stupid questions like "But which one came first though?? I think it was "X"!!" without even having any evidence and this is why we can't have nice things.

Based on the ochre's proximity to these shells, the researchers speculate that people using the cave started processing ochre about 45,000 years ago, but the most intense activity was 40,000 years ago.

It's also interesting to think of all the people who were born there and lived and died making ochre in the same cave where their ancestors had been doing the same thing for 2,000 years and their children continued doing the same for another 2,000 years. They probably had all kinds of opinions about it.
posted by bleep at 5:14 PM on November 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

And will they find an incredibly old written script where the only decypherable words are 'artisinal', 'locally sourced' and 'damn hipsters'?

Because these people are us, even given what by today's metric of cultural and technological change, was an incredibly static society. It's not so incredible; vicars and bishops still go to work in the same basic outfit as Roman middle-managers wore to the office, and isolated places with a stable relationship between population size and resources don't have the pressures to change that drives the industrial world. You find that adding ochre to resin makes a superior glue that does the job - job done. You don't need a better one - why not spend your time doing something more productive or pleasurable instead?

I tell you, marketing was invented by the serpent in Eden and look what's happened since.

I particularly wonder what, given the evidence for Paleolithic musical instruments, how many amazing experiments in music flared up, caught hold and died away over those tens of thousands of years. The human body has always been able to make a wide variety of vocal and percussive effects, Admittedly, they never invented the electric guitar, just flutes and plucked strings, but by the Neolithic they'd got the hang of reverb - and look what Kraftwerk could do with flutes, reverb and righteous rhythms.
posted by Devonian at 7:32 PM on November 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

...and look what Kraftwerk could do with flutes, reverb and righteous rhythms.

Everything old is Neu again.
posted by y2karl at 9:42 PM on November 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

That's an interesting perspective it's true they probably got up to all kinds of cool shit. I wonder if they'd be like "Wouldn't it be depressing to have to just re-invent frigging ochre every 6 months just to survive? Instead of doing all the cool shit we get to do?"
posted by bleep at 11:22 PM on November 30, 2016

This kind of thing always gets my imagination going.

What we now think of as "technology" or "progress" in ancient man is really just durability. We have no clue what sorts of weaving, woodworking, earthworks, or much of anything at all outside of a cave ancient people were up to. Surely the first art wasn't made deep in caves, so what were they sketching in the dirt? As mentioned, what kind of music did they have before bone flutes? What kinds of wooden or otherwise vegetal mechanisms, structures, sculptures, weavings, paintings, etc. etc. etc. things did they make in the absence of a need or concept for anything lasting for thousands or millions of years?

As also mentioned, these people were exactly the same as we are. Given reasonable comfort and stability, look at all of the ephemeral decoration we surround ourselves with. How many cross stitches or Justin Bieber posters or kids' refrigerator drawings are going to be around in 40,000 years? How many will anyone ever find?

It's exciting and infuriating to me what we will never, ever know about the past. And that those minutiae would be the most interesting things to know.
posted by cmoj at 10:00 AM on December 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

It's exciting and infuriating to me what we will never, ever know about the past. And that those minutiae would be the most interesting things to know.

I always like to think of what might have been lost under the Sahara.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:52 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Or indeed, what the Sea Peoples were up to.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:54 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older #ForçaChape   |   "Who would have thought of posting pictures of... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments