Origin Of Pottery Dates Back To The Last Ice Age

Pottery found in a Chinese cave near Xianrendong, about 100 kilometers south of the Yangtze River, is 20,000 years old, say Chinese and American researchers. The announcement pushes back the invention of this craft by 2,000 years, to smack dab in the middle of the last ice age–a time when humans were probably looking for ways to diversify their food supply. (And keep it warm.) Access to pottery allowed hunter-gathers to do more sophisticated cooking, such as grind grains, ferment alcohol and extract marrow from animal bones, explains Harvard anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, who led the research just published in the journal Science. “Pottery making introduces a fundamental shift in human dietary history, and Xianrendong demonstrates that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for some 10,000 years before they became sedentary or began cultivating plants,” they note. That’s right, folks: we’ve been creating pottery for twice as long as we’ve been sowing...

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Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics. Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves. The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists. Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.) This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. In 2010, he was first author on a PNAS paper that reported a cache of painted marine shells on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain that were produced by Neanderthals.  These shells were dated to 50,000 years ago, about 10,000 years before early humans showed up in Europe. The shells contain mineral pigment makeup that required some skill and know-how to produce. (The makeup was composed of fool’s gold, aka pyrite, and ground hematite, which can be red and black, all mixed in to a base of the rust-colored mineral, lepidocrocite) Not only did this research show Neanderthals were chemists, but it also suggests they painted themselves and wore jewelry. Of course, it’ll take many more of these discoveries before the entire research community is convinced that Neanderthals weren’t as dumb as we thought. (I’m reminded that history is written by the winners—us humans.) In fact, the other cool part of the current Science paper is that Zilhão and his colleague Alex Pike in Bristol used an uncommon technique to date the cave paintings. This method could be used to accurately determine the age of many more cave paintings, which could help provide additional evidence that Neanderthals were relatively civilized—or not. Since radiocarbon dating is not reliable for determining the age of cave art, the scientists relied on a method that measures the levels of uranium and thorium found in calcite crusts that build up on top of the cave art. (Calcite is the same mineral in stalagmites and stalactites.) Trace amounts of uranium but not thorium are found in the water that deposits the calcite on top of the art. Since uranium...

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Oldest Cave Art In The Americas

Brazilian researchers say they have discovered the oldest cave art in the Americas. The 10,000-year-old figure was engraved into bedrock in Central Brazil and is most definitely a “he”, as suggested by the oversized phallus. The figure also has a C-shaped head and three fingers on each hand. He was discovered during the last days of a seven-year excavation of ancient human shelters in Brazil’s Lapa do Santo region. Archeologists also found bone tools, 27 human burial sites and evidence that the inhabitants probably nourished themselves with small game and fruit. The authors point out that stylistically similar (but younger) rock-art can be found in at least two other rockshelters in the same region. All very interesting. But perhaps you are also wondering: Why the exaggerated anatomy? Was this prehistoric porn, creative license, a lack of perspective drawing skills, or something else altogether? It turns out oversized genitalia has spawned serious academic discussion in archeological circles. Last week Smithsonian Magazine published an excellent article about the debate surrounding an extremely well-endowed 40,000-year-old female figurine found in Germany. As my friend Andrew Curry reports, some archeologists think these exaggerations may be “hallucinations experienced by tribal shamans” or in the case of corpulent women, “the hope for a well-nourished community.” But back to the Brazilian find. The PLOS paper authors used radio carbon dating to age the figure as well as a technique that was new to me, optically stimulated luminescence dating. I was also interested by what the authors had to say about other (nearly as ancient) art in the Americas: In Oregon State, USA, geometric petroglyphs were found partially buried by Mount Mazama ash, which is dated to 7.7 kyr. Rock art showing mammoth-like figures are present in the Great Basin and in the Colorado Plateau of the USA, also suggesting great antiquity, although no direct dating was possible. Mud Portage site, in Canada, showed a rock pavement with petroglyphs, and covered by archaeological sediments dating between 5 kyr and 9 kyr. In Argentina, linear marks were found in the bedrock of Epullán Grande cave, partially covered by archaeological sediments, with a minimum age of 11.6 kyr (9,970±100 14C yr BP). However, there is a pending controversy about the anthropic origin of the marks. In this context, the petroglyph found at Lapa do Santo is the oldest, indisputable testimony of rock art in the...

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