An article in the Siberian Times describes in detail a 40,000 year old bracelet found in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. Archaeologists believe the bracelet was crafted by the Denisovans, members of an extinct branch of the hominid tree parallel to both Neanderthals and modern humans.
There are a couple of details about this bracelet that I was ruminating on while in the shower this morning, specifically the hole drilled for what archaeologists think was a leather strap, which held an additional ornament that swung freely and caused the strap to wear away some of the stone below the hole. The tool marks in the hole indicate it was made by a constant-velocity drill.
There are lots of ways to make a constant-velocity drill: today we use an electric motor, and for something like a drill-press, we use a rubber belt and pulleys of different sizes to connect the motor to the drill to provide different speeds. You can easily use leather straps instead of rubber belts (you have to replace them more often) and drive it with, for instance, a water wheel. The simplest method, of course, is a jig in the center of a foot-spun potter’s wheel to hold a drill bit — or a jig to hold the part while you hold the sharp tool, using the wheel like a lathe.
The point I was pondering this morning was not so much the technology, but the existence of the technology 40,000 years ago.
I am a toolmaker by trade. They’re all software tools, but they hold a few things in common with all tools.
For instance, we don’t normally craft a subroutine in a piece of software unless we need to do the same thing at least twice. A subroutine is a piece of code that can be reused: we refer to the act of separating it out from the overall flow of operations as modularization. By drawing a line around a set of actions and calling it a separate “module,” or subroutine, we’ve created a reusable tool.
Think about opening a bottle of beer. There are lots of ways to get the beer out of the bottle, one being to break off the neck of the bottle against a rock. If you’ve never seen a bottle or bottle cap before, and you’ll never see one again, this is probably as good a way as any to discover what’s inside. But if you’re going to be opening beers every night, and cleaning up the mess every night, you’re going to think about this process, and will eventually come up with some kind of bottle opening tool that removes the cap without breaking the bottle. This idea of “removing the cap” is modularization, and once you’ve modularized the problem, it’s fairly easy to build a tool to help you perform that modularized procedure.
So someone, 40,000 years ago, built a constant velocity drill. Someone, 40,000 years ago, had the need to make more than one hole in a piece of rock; the time to think through how this differed from cutting stone, or polishing stone, and thus, of modularizing the drilling process; the time and resources to build a drill; the time and incentive to perfect their skill to the level of making this bracelet, which is quite elegant even to the modern eye. It’s all-but-certain that they made more than one such bracelet; it’s not unlikely they made dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands, using stone quarried at least 200 km away from where the bracelet ended up.
That, in turn, speaks of a complex society with physical stability (making or moving a potter’s wheel is not a small task), differentiated labor, a food surplus, a local economy, and some system of long-distance trade; a society made up of a race of hominids who were no more human than the Neanderthals.
I grew up when human history was divided neatly into Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Civilization (Greece and Rome), an unfortunate Dark Age caused by religion, Science (which resumed Civilization), and then the pinnacle of everything, the Modern Age. The so-called March of Progress was both natural and inevitable, and all that had come before us was merely blind cave-dwellers seeking the light of enlightenment we now live in. In particular, Stone Age people grunted instead of speaking, feared fire and lightning, and barely had the sense to live in caves, out of the rain. This is our Modernist mythology.
This is very different from the mythology of the Abrahamic religions, which declare that everything started in perfection and has been running downhill into death and corruption ever since.
Only the fringe has ever talked about intelligent races prior to modern humans: the Atlanteans, the Lemurians, and various other fanciful folk said to have lived in the ancient past, about whom we know nothing but “channeled” information from psychics.
So it always comes as a slight shock to me to see hard evidence that we weren’t the first species on the planet to invent civilization.
What were the Denisovans like? Warlike, or peaceful? Religious, or secular? Why did they become extinct? Were they wiped out by our warlike strain of modern humans? Were they pigheaded and so set in their ways that they got run down by glaciers? Did they “breed out” into the modern human line, or did they just stop reproducing fast enough? Did some nasty disease that only afflicted Denisovans take them? Did they perhaps choose to die out, as the fictional aborigines in Mutant Message Down Under?
If they were around as a distinct genotype for 600,000 years, when did they form their first civilization?
Modern humans showed up only about 100,000 years ago, just as the previous interglacial warming ended and the last ice age began. Our own story of civilization only goes back 10,000 years, to the end of the Great Melt and the beginning of the current interglacial warming period, and our written history is no more than 4,000 years old. We have no idea what our ancestors did for 90,000 years.
The Denisovans lived, as a species, through at least six ice ages and warming interglacials. Could they have formed entire civilizations as much as a half million years ago, long since erased by ice and wind and water and long spans of time? We know they didn’t use fossil fuels, because those were still around for us to find and burn. But they could have built wooden ships and circumnavigated the earth. They could have farmed on every continent. They could have built stone temples that crumbled to dust two hundred millennia ago. They could have mapped the stars, measured the precession of the equinox, computed the circumference of the earth, learned the workings of the Denisovan (not human) body, developed medicines and surgery.
All we really know is that in the twilight of their species as the last ice age started dipping into its deepest freeze, high in the mountains of central Asia, they were using a sophisticated constant-velocity drill to make beautiful jewelry.