orion carving on mammoth tooth
January 26, 2003 11:09 AM   Subscribe

A 32,000 year old etching on an ivory mammoth tusk is linked to the constellation Orion which may have been used as a primitive "pregnancy calendar" designed to estimate when a pregnant woman will give birth. The oldest known drawing of a star pattern, it was created by the mysterious Aurignacian people about whom we know next to nothing save that they moved into Europe from the east supplanting the indigenous Neanderthals.
posted by stbalbach (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Aurignacian culture (40,000 to 28,000 years ago) is best known for its cave art in Europe.
posted by stbalbach at 11:19 AM on January 26, 2003

I dunno. If you squint really hard, you can see BeetleJuice just about anywhere.
posted by Opus Dark at 12:09 PM on January 26, 2003

stalbach, thank you for this fascinating link, and for the follow up link to the very beautiful images of cave art.... but it's got to be said:

"The tiny sliver of mammoth tusk contains a carving of a man-like figure with arms and legs outstretched in the same pose as the stars of Orion....

Carbon dating of bone ash deposits found next to the tablet suggest it is between 32,500 and 38,000 years old, making it one of the oldest representations of a man ever found....

On one side of the tablet is the man-like being with his legs apart and arms raised. Between his legs hangs what could be a sword and his waist is narrow. His left leg is shorter than his right one.

...archaeologists have suggested that the man-like figure could be praying or dancing, or be a half-man, half-cat, or a divine being.

The proportions of the man correspond to the pattern of stars that comprise Orion."

Surely an object which (probably) had as its primary use a calculator of the gestation period might be more likely to have a representation of a woman on the other side? Just asking.
posted by jokeefe at 12:38 PM on January 26, 2003

jokeefe - If you look at the figure itself, the outline definitely appears to be that of a man. It has massive shoulders, a narrow waist and hips, and heavy legs. It also lacks any obvious female attributes.

I guess it could be a female bodybuilder, if they existed back then.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:16 PM on January 26, 2003

mammoth tusk? it's clearly an alien dildo.
posted by quonsar at 1:35 PM on January 26, 2003

I dunno. If you squint really hard, you can see BeetleJuice just about anywhere.

Well, that's good news for the residual checks upon which Michael Keaton has begun to depend.
posted by thanotopsis at 1:44 PM on January 26, 2003

a representation of a woman on the other side?

Traditionally Orion the Hunter has been a man because of the shapely figure and sword and, well, tradition of men being hunters. Although the article doesnt explain if 35,000 year old man had swords or what exactly that is hanging between his (her?) legs. Quonsar could be on to somthing.
posted by stbalbach at 1:48 PM on January 26, 2003

Well, having looked at the picture again, I'm not totally convinced--it looks like there might have been relief carving which has broken off, and I still can't automatically see a male figure there. And Orion may have traditionally been male (though I have to ask: in all cultures, and 30,000 years ago?), but women have always had their ways of hunting too. At any rate, my reaction probably has more to do with an allergy to the male pronoun being applied to every achievement of human history, with hunting being held to be the peak prehistoric activity (rather than textiles or basket weaving, for example). We really have little information to go on, and of course current bias always shows up in scientific speculation.

Again, thanks for the link.
posted by jokeefe at 1:58 PM on January 26, 2003

We use the Greek name for that particular grouping of stars. The Aurignacians, since they predated the Greeks by tens of millenia, probably had a different name. For all we know, they called the constellation Aunt Matilda.
posted by kewms at 2:18 PM on January 26, 2003

I think it's an ancient message from an ancient collection agency, demanding 86 grustaphlegms, with a ghastly depiction of the consequence for non-payment.
posted by Opus Dark at 2:41 PM on January 26, 2003

I saw this a few days ago, and I have two qualms:

1. The Aurignacian culture really isn't that mysterious; no more so than any other prehistoric peoples. That we only have a skull of Sahelanthropus tchadensis (a possible 7 million-year-old human ancestor) makes it infinitely more mysterious than the Aurignacians, about which we know so much more. Furthermore, the name "Aurignacian culture" is applied to cultural deposits which show evidence of utilizing tools of certain types and made with certain techniques. There is no evidence to say that each group shared a common social (or otherwise) culture like, say, most areas of modern France share a common culture.

2. This Orion theory is not necessarily correct. I personally don't think it looks anything like Orion, though I admittedly haven't studied it up close for a great length of time. Furthermore, the likelihood of the panel's creators to recognize the same certain pattern in the sky as relatively modern peoples is very slight.

Over time, many scholars have come up with myriad theories to explain various ancient artistic artifacts, and the theories, which seem so good and right when introduced, come into and out of fashion regularly. Andre Leroi-Gourhan had a great theory that in the French caves certain animals represented men, others represented women, etc etc (he was the founder of structuralist archaeology). It was a great theory, supported wholly by his and other studies and analyses, until yet more analyses destroyed it by tearing apart certain tenets of the theory in ways that he hadn't previously considered. This will probably happen with the Orion theory, as it does for most theories. I'm surprised that Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams haven't tied it to shamanism, which is a laughable theory that they'll support to the death, solely because it's their baby (no good links offhand, sorry).

/end curmudgeon mode
posted by The Michael The at 4:07 PM on January 26, 2003

quonsar: mammoth tusk? it's clearly an alien dildo.

BBC: Between his legs hangs what could be a sword

chuckle, chuckle
posted by Vidiot at 4:51 PM on January 26, 2003

fascinating item, stbalbach - thanks! I think the pregnancy calendar theory seems interesting. As to the discussion of whether the figure is male or female, I looked to see if I could find any examples of female drawings or sculptures from the approximate era because I thought most depictions of women were very rounded and earth-mothery.

Despite the traditional term “vénus aurignaco-périgordiennes” no female figures from the Aurignacian period have been found up to now. All statuettes or relieves are of Gravettian age (source)

More interestingly to me, and supporting jokeefe's point about women, hunting & achievement, I came upon this fascinating article from Discover, April 1998 - The New Women of the Ice Age.

Maybe The Michael The has something to add about paleolithic women and how they were represented - he appears to be one of our prehistory experts.
posted by madamjujujive at 6:15 PM on January 26, 2003

I still can't automatically see a male figure there


Male = broad shoulders and narrow hips. Sharp lines.

Women = broad hips, thighs and breasts. Curvy lines.

If your makeing a generic diagram like in a constelation there are limited artistic options. Orion looks Male and with the "thingy" between his legs that really looks male and/or its a weapon for hunting or war. I don't really see the argument for Orion being female. The modern view of male/female doesn't count, Twiggy only came about in the past few generations.
posted by stbalbach at 9:14 PM on January 26, 2003

Thanks for the cue, MadameJJJ.

The oldest female statuettes are somewhere around 30000 years old, right at the end of the Aurignacian/beginning of the Gravettian (they overlap some, here is an excellent summary of the periods, Neanderthals and humans, and who made what), and more likely than not they all came from the Gravettian. In any case, they share none of the characteristics of the tablet thus discovered. In fact, there are set identifiers of the Gravettian female statuettes.

All About Female Statuettes: perhaps the best summary of the statuettes out there by Professor Randall White at NYU, who is perhaps the foremost expert in the world on these female statuettes.

This doesn't preclude the possibility that the Ach Valley tablet depicts a woman; it just doesn't depict one in any style previously known to researchers. Also, like I said before, theories come into and go out of style regularly; this tablet was found in 1979 and just now this theory has popped up, so there were probably several theories about its meaning prior to the Orion or birthing calendar ideas. I'd like to see the hard evidence for this being one or the other.

Disclosure: I had Professor White for several classes and he was my unofficial advisor as well.

About gender roles in prehistory:
There really isn't solid evidence for anything; we just know that humans did certain things, but that doesn't stop archaeologists and anthropologists from making conclusions, some better (or far less) supported than others (what follows is the briefest-ever explanation of ideas of hominid evolution):

One first major theory of hominid evolution was "Man the Hunter," which postulated that men hunted and brought home the bacon, so to speak, and women just sat around, cooked, tended the kids. Yes, this theory was proposed in the 1950s. In the late 1960s, a group of feminist anthropologists proposed the "Woman the Gatherer" hypothesis, which was exceptionally reactionary and in turn marginalized the role of men in evolution, putting women entirely in charge of a peaceful egalitarian culture. Both have since been discarded because of contradicting evidence.

Still, the debate continues about division of labor and gender roles. It's certain that there was a division of labor, but how exactly is unclear, and theories of hominid evolution generally get into trouble when they try to explain social structure as well as biological development.

I can't find any acceptable links for these, but if you want to try (or to look them up in Science or other journals), look for these:
Man the Hunter (Raymond Dart and others)
Woman the Gatherer
Man the Provider
The Cooking Hypothesis (Richard Wrangham)
The Grandmother Hypothesis (Jared Diamond and others)

Also, keep in mind that these theories generally apply from times at least as old as Homo erectus, if not Australopithecines as some of the theories' progenators would have use believe, but the lack of evidence for gender roles and division of labor in the paleolithic is similar.
posted by The Michael The at 6:42 AM on January 27, 2003

I ? The Michael The
posted by madamjujujive at 8:14 AM on January 27, 2003

oops - that "?" was supposed to be the heart symbol which showed in preview....grrr
posted by madamjujujive at 8:18 AM on January 27, 2003

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