Most People seem to agree that we cannot and do not want to go back to the past, but the reason given is often wrong; that time has moved on and what was can never be again. The truth is that we cannot go back to what we never left. Our home is the earth, our time the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The past is the formula for our being.
(Paul Shepard)

Friday, 28 September 2012

Old Men of the Ice Age

Lake Mungo footprints
Mungo man was one of Australia's first inhabitants. His people had arrived on the continent via southern Asia some 50,000 years before present (perhaps more). Beyond his first Australian status he is of interest because of the state he was in when he died. His teeth were fairly worn from eating or processing gritty material, while his canines had been removed, perhaps symbolically. His right elbow suffered bad arthritis which the archaeologists put down to him using a spearthrower.
 "Atlatl elbow" is well known to any who have practised a bit too much or too enthusiastically. I noted that the Mesolithic man from Aveline's hole in Somerset also had pre-arthritis in his right arm which could have been to do with using spears though bows had been about for some time then. If mungo man did use a spearthrower  it would set the date of use back some tens of thousands of years. I have long wondered whether the use of hunting weapons would leave traces on the skeletons of ancient hunters which could determine the technology used. Medieval archers are distinguishable from regular medieval folk from their unusually developed shoulders. So far I have not noted any papers dealing with this subject though there is work on H. neanderthal. I would have thought that in North America with its long use of atlatl there might be enough of a sample size to yield meaningful results.
 Mungo man was about 50 at the age of death, again this is an estimate based on wear and tear,  he was also pretty short at about 170cm, I have dealt with the knotty question of age estimates and living populations before but my interest was piqued by a comment made on the "perfect health diet blog".
 Paul Jaminiet asked if there had been any prehistoric hunters who had lived beyond the age of fifty, Even using estimation techniques which may be inaccurate there was a culture of Paleolithic South Indians who boasted many members reaching their sixth and seventh decades.
 One of Europes earliest human sites is at Sungir near Moscow. The site features the magnificent burial of six individuals two men several children and a woman. The site is often cited as the first examples of hierarchy and inherited status. I will get back to these claims. The sungir folk were in pretty good condition living on open tundra we might expect them to be pretty meaty in their diet and the evidence seems to back this up "The relatively wide medullary canal together with macroskelia contributed to a sharp increase of bone marrow cavity. This kind of structure is responsible for the adaptation to such formative factors as hypoxia and high protein level in traditional diets" 
Though they were covered in worked ivory this cannot be taken as evidence of mammoth consumption as mammoth ivory could have been obtained by other means. The cultures of the Ukraine are thought to have utilised found mammoth rather than hunted and evidence for mammoth hunting is pretty slim from this period.Modern Siberians have traditionally used mammoth ivory for hundreds of years. Isotope analysis could provide confirmation of the diet of the Sungir people.  Roughly contemporary burials from Italy and Britain do show that marine animals were a substantial part of the diet though these would be presumably missing from the middle of Russia see this post for potential problems with marine mammoth signatures.

 The male from Sunghir 1 was over 60  when he died he was tall and broad, the children were also well formed. Many Gravettian burials are burials of exceptional people, people with bone problems or extreme physical developments positing some to think that only the special shamans etc were buried. 
 There are clear similarities between the burials throughout Europe in that mammoth ivory special and enigmatic "wands" and plenty of red ochre are used throughout, as is special clothing. There are also some shared symbolic elements.
 So rich are the burials at Sunghir that many think that they represent a "royal family" and demonstrate the first glimmer of hierarchy (and the inevitability of such) in modern H sapiens. The burial at sunghir was used by David Lewis Williams in his book 'Mind in the Cave'  as proof that heirachy is the inevitable state of human kind and indeed a powerful evolutionary advantage. The fact that there is precious little evidence of hierarchy anywhere else in the Paleolithic or indeed Mesolithic and very rare occurrences of hierarchy in extant or observed hunter gatherers I felt undermined (actually, refuted) his case. That he had then built part of a book on this assumption led to me finding it rather hard to read. 
 The sunghir burials are assumed to be wealthy because of the amount of ivory they wore and the time it would have taken to produce the bead work. It all sounds convincing but then that's because we are modern people who have virtually no free time and who take the greater part of each day to meet our basic needs.Many Hunter peoples produce exquisite works of art and indeed as wealth and status are relative I would argue that a context of "ordinary folk" is needed before we can start describing people as wealthy.
King bling
 For example the King (Raedwald) buried at Sutton Hoo in a ship and tons of fancy weapons and gold was buried in far more style than the average wealthy Saxon who was buried with some weapons and other effects and in far, far greater style than poor Saxons who were buried with few possessions. In addition the grave goods represent a range of highly specialised skills that could only be maintained by patronage from a non labouring class. Swords constituted massively skilled workmanship as did armour, gold and jewel work let alone ship building. While the bead work of the Sunghir burials represented a great deal of work in terms of time the technology was not beyond any individual of the society. 
 We view everything through a cultural lens, in a society that has had thousands of years of gross inequality, hierarchies and domination it can seem inconceivable that societies can exist without these features. The gravettian "prince" has no real claim to royalty he was simply named "the Prince" by the archaeologist who described him scientifically.
 There is a ubiquitous tool of uncertain purpose now know as the "baton perce" or pierced baton this is something of a new name as they were known as Baton de commandment until recently, the interpretation being that they were something akin to royal sceptres total speculation but the speculation that stuck. The author Larry Barham in his (very good) book on Cheddar man is continually writing of the search for markers of hierarchy among the Mesolithic graveyards, you often find what you are looking for. Special treatment in terms of more grave goods appears to have been afforded older members of the society but there is no evidence for a kind of "upper class".





 Despite protests from ugly thugs about "alpha males" or hard nosed "realists" about Rosseauian fantasies, "natural" or evolved hierarchy is quite hard to detect in human beings. Marlowe writes that the vagaries of hunting ensure equality in the Hadza while the !kung are famously "ferociously egalitarian". Egalitarianism like sharing and some other less frequently mentioned traits are rather unique among primates. The tribes of the Pacific North West are the most famous of the non-egalitarian hunters. They however live on extraordinarily productive salmon runs which gives them access to the essential ingredients for hierarchy, stored wealth and a sedentarism. To refute the idea that hierarchy is natural to human beings I need to provide examples of a human culture that does not appear to exhibit a hierarchical structure hint; there are loads and they are all hunter gatherers. I would also state that to my knowledge no hierarchy can exist without a stored surplus and sedentism. Now both the surplus and sedentism were potentially present in Scandinavia during the Mesolithic as was some pretty endemic violence but evidence of hierarchy is pretty thin. The rather impressive Gravettian burials could potentially be glimmerings of hierachy or evidence that people had enough free time and resources to dress exceptionally well. Without a context of "peasants" stored resources and, possibly, semi permanent dwellings it seems more parsimonious to believe the latter.
 Given that the Whitehall study and numerous primate studies show a pretty interesting link between hierachy and human health the lack of hierarchy among extant hunter gatherers and paucity of evidence for such in the paleolithic should be of interest to the ancestral health movement. Like war, grains and environmental degradation hierarchy really took off in the neolithic and I feel would it would be justified calling it a Neolithic agent of disease. 


 

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