The Vanished Past

Riffing on my last post, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something that we lose track of too easily. We really have no idea of the state of technology in the very distant past. We’ve deduced what life was like 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 years ago based on the presence or absence of implements made of bone, stone, pottery, and metal, the vestiges of things that have lasted over the millennia. However, there may well have been things made of leather, wood, basketry, and cloth of enormous complexity and sophistication. Those things have vanished.

There are some reasons to believe that’s true based, for example, on the design of pottery which makes little sense as pottery but makes a good deal of sense if the shards we’ve found were made in imitation of the design of baskets. But we’ll never really know.

9 comments… add one

  • Zachriel

    Dave Schuler: But we’ll never really know.

    Sometimes science can give us surprising glimpses of the past. The origin of clothing dates to about 190,000 years ago. The evidence is from the time of divergence of body lice from head lice as measured by the ‘molecular clock’ within the DNA of lice.

  • TastyBits

    It is my understanding that the people who study these areas do understand these limitations, but they do make inferences from what they find. A certain level of sophistication in one area implies a corresponding level in another. It is not an exact science, but they do try to make it as exact as possible.

    This is one of the reasons they get excited at finding a frozen body. It is a source for confirming or dispelling a theory or aspect of a theory. It can also point to unexpected things. Tattoos were around much earlier than previously known, and this finding can lead to other inferences.

    I do agree that even the people in those fields can get channelized, but they are open to changes as new discoveries are made. I suspect that when people first began burying the dead they were closer to us emotionally than is commonly thought possible. Caring for the dead implies an advanced emotional awareness, and this implies actions beyond self preservation. Evidence of a man giving a bouquet of flowers to a woman would be difficult to discover, but it should not be unthinkable.

    For most folks, ancient history is anything before their grandfather’s time, and it is a conceit of people that today is greatly different from the past.

    “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

  • As you say, Zachriel, it’s a glimpse. Like looking through a keyhole at the room beyond.

    The means you point to doesn’t tell us when clothing was first used but the latest time at which it might first have been used. Not all lines of lice are guaranteed to have survived. Consequently, there might be now-extinct lines which would have pointed to an earlier time of origin.

    Tastybits:

    For most folks, ancient history is anything before their grandfather’s time, and it is a conceit of people that today is greatly different from the past.

    I think that the more serious conceit is that we know more about things that happened 500, 1,000, or 2,500 years ago than we actually do. The oldest manuscripts of “histories” from classical antiquity date from about the 12th century. That’s frequently well over a millennium later than the events they purport to describe and these manuscripts frequently exist in only fragmentary or singular form. We have very little idea of the manuscript tradition that preserved them.

    So, when somebody tells you what Alexander did or said or what Leonidas did or said, take it with more than a grain of salt. We can be pretty confident that Alexander existed. More than that? Probably not. What has come down to us is like as not mythology, preserved by somebody with an agenda that had nothing to do with events more than two millennia ago.

  • Zachriel

    Dave Schuler: Like looking through a keyhole at the room beyond.

    You can tell a lot by looking through a keyhole, though not the whole story, of course.

    Dave Schuler: The means you point to doesn’t tell us when clothing was first used but the latest time at which it might first have been used. Not all lines of lice are guaranteed to have survived. Consequently, there might be now-extinct lines which would have pointed to an earlier time of origin.

    Possible, but once body lice became established, it’s unlikely they would have been supplanted from their niche by a newcomer. In any case, as you point out, it gives an estimated bound.

    Other interesting data points, the oldest known clay figurines and sewing needles date to about 30,000 years ago. Fitted shoes about the same time (determined from changes in toe bone wear patterns). Cave paintings, too. We can infer from skull cases that Cro-Magnon had well-developed speech centers in the brain. From firepits, we can discover even more detail, such as the game they ate.

    This isn’t to be argumentative. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Certainly, many things will remain a mystery, but which things we will eventually discover, we just can’t predict.

  • sam

    @Dave
    ” Those things have vanished.”

    Well, there is Ötzi the Iceman. We have his clothing, shoes, tools, and gear. He’s estimated to be 5300 years old. His stuff shows a pretty fair level of sophistication.

    @Zachriel
    ” The evidence is from the time of divergence of body lice from head lice as measured by the ‘molecular clock’ within the DNA of lice.”

    Speaking of lice, evidently human pubic lice branched off from gorilla public lice about about 3.3 million years ago. No homo sapiens around then, of course, but the transmission appears to have been to Lucy and her kin (and thus all these years later to we’uns). What the hell was going on back there? (See, Gorillas Gave Pubic Lice to Humans, DNA Study Reveals)

  • michael reynolds

    Actually, for all we know there could have been advanced alien civilizations living on earth 100 billion years ago. Maybe they just cleaned up after themselves when they left.

  • Andy

    There’s been some dispute recently in the archaeology community regarding whether or not archaeology is actually a science.

    Yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty. My area of interest is the four-corners region and specifically the Anasazi. The keyholes we have don’t tell us what happened to them.

  • Zachriel

    Andy: There’s been some dispute recently in the archaeology community regarding whether or not archaeology is actually a science.

    Certainly wouldn’t go that far. Consider the simple claim:

    Andy: My area of interest is the four-corners region and specifically the Anasazi. The keyholes we have don’t tell us what happened to them.

    Yet there is more than enough data to reasonably conclude that the Anasazi did exist. The problem comes when people assign too much certainty to speculations.

  • Andy

    Certainly wouldn’t go that far.

    I don’t really have an opinion either way, but it is a subject that’s been a prominent debate in archaeology in the past couple of years.

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