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Archive for the ‘prehistory’ Category

In the media, prehistoric humans are often portrayed as naked savages huddling in caves. This is the image you see even in science journalism.

However, is it possible that ancient peoples had technologies more advanced than we like to acknowledge?

This possibility is part of the story concept of my Biblical fiction series, The Cursed Ground. What if, before the Great Flood of antiquity, the earth had carried a very large population of humans, some of whom had achieved relatively advanced civilizations comparable to the Bronze and Iron Ages, or even to more recent time periods?

This is speculative fiction, so I’m permitted to speculate and ask, What if? So I do.

For this reason, I’m greatly intrigued by a video blog called Primitive Technology. The author is a guy in Australia whose hobby is going into the forest wearing nothing but shorts, and then making amazing things. Using whatever resources he can find in the wild, he gathers and traps food, makes tools, builds structures, and much more. Each of his segments is a beautifully-made video without narration, showing his process for whatever the current project is. The blog also includes a written segment explaining what you’re seeing in the video.

Following Primitive Technology has opened my mind to the possibilities of technologies that could be readily available to humans, even without access to urban environments and manufacturing infrastructure.

Here are some of the blog entries that I have found intriguing:

Building a Wattle and Daub Hut” — To make a small, serviceable hut, with an external chimney and fireplace, Primitive Technology Guy uses various non-complicated tools and materials: a stone hand-ax, small trees, fire sticks, coil pots, bark. Great demonstrations of these basic technologies. That shelter he built in 2013, but then followed in 2015 with a much more substantial project: “Building a hut with a kiln-fired tiled roof, underfloor heating and mud pile walls.” Especially interesting to see how he fires and places the roof tiles.

stone axeAs PTG works on these projects, it’s fascinating to watch him make use of basic tools he has made, such as digging sticks, hand axes, a stone axe, stone chisel, and fire sticks, or the ingenious use he makes of raw materials from the woods around him — sticks, vines, bark, clay, leaves, and mud.

Forge Blower” — My favorite segment, in which PTG uses simple materials like clay and bark to produce a device capable of “supplying forced combustion air required for high temperature furnaces and forges.” In a somewhat related video, we see him “Making Charcoal.” As he points out in his text narrative,

From my research, a natural draft furnace using wood (a kiln) can reach a maximum of 1400 c degrees whereas a natural draft furnace using charcoal can reach 1600 c degrees. Achieving high temperatures is necessary for changing material to obtain better technology (e.g smelting ore into metal).

Part of the takeaway here is that it’s possible to develop processes needed for advanced metallurgy using relatively simple materials.

PTG has made some impressive weapons, such as a “Spear Thrower” and “Bow and Arrow.”

He’s also demonstrated ways to get food in the wild, with all implements made from scratch: “Shrimp Trap” — In which Primitive Technology Guy uses a simple basket-weaved device to trap freshwater shrimp. Then he eats them, of course. Also he plants a “Sweet Potato Patch,” with an enclosing fence to keep out the wallabies.

wattle and daub hut

PTG emphasizes that he doesn’t live this way; it’s his hobby:

Also It should be noted that I don’t live in the wild but just practice this as a hobby. I live in a modern house and eat modern food. I just like to see how people in ancient times built and made things. It is a good hobby that keeps you fit and doesn’t cost anything apart from time and effort.

ARK — 14 November 2016

 

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Artist's representation of a giant

Artist Marcia K. Moore has created some startling (but speculative) images, based on accounts about North American prehistoric giants.

In recent years, independent investigators have become interested in the claim that remains of gigantic humans have been found in association with some of the North American mound-building cultures. At the same time, self-styled “skeptics” have taken up the task of debunking these claims. (For an overview, see Nina Strochlic’s article in The Daily Beast: “Hunting for a Real-Life Hagrid.”)

I’m fascinated by the topic itself. But I’m also interested in these investigations and the reactions to them, as a cultural phenomenon. Why are people drawn to this idea of giants walking the earth, and why does the idea draw such rabid opposition? I think several phenomena are operating around this issue:

  • A long-time interest in giants within human culture.
  • A fascination with what I call anomalistics.
  • A particular interest in giants among adherents of Bible-based religions, due to the connection with the Genesis account of the Nephilim (see Genesis 6:1-4), a population of “mighty ones” who lived before the global deluge.
  • Among materialistic contrarians, a compulsion to contradict anomalistic and supernatural claims, particularly those that might lend credence to the Bible.

Not just a bunch of sensational newspaper accounts

A recent series of articles in Ancient Origins reminded me of the claims of prehistoric North American giants. The articles are written by Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer, who are investigating anomalous physical types reportedly found at archaeological sites of the Archaic and Early Woodland cultures of North America. Jarrell and Farmer say that for the past five years they have been undertaking fieldwork and scholarly research around sites in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. (See their articles here: “The Establishment Has Already Acknowledged A Lost Race of Giants – Part 1” and then “… Part 2.”

Jarrell and Farmer refer to the sensational 19th- and early-20th-century newspaper accounts you usually hear about in connection with the North American giants. However, they also cite a number of scholarly reports from government and institutional investigators, which are harder to dismiss. For example, they quote reports from University of Kentucky researchers William S. Webb and Charles Snow, who examined the Dover mound in Mason County, Kentucky and wrote:

The remains of burial 40 is one of the largest known to Adena; the skull-foot field measurement is 84 inches (7 feet)…

Not only do the Dover people show the results of head shaping (deformation), but they exceed the total Kentucky series in the great width and height of the skull vault!…it is to be noted that the head shaping…has been extreme in these skulls…These people as a group…have the highest skull vaults reported anywhere in the world…

One of the outstanding and un-Indian traits present among the Adena people is their prominent and often bilateral chins…One of the skulls from the Dover Mound, Burial 25…represents a bilateral chin with a width of 52 mm.

But where are the physical remains?

Doctored photo purporting to show archaeologists discovering skeletons of giants.

Doctored photo purporting to show archaeologists discovering skeletons of giants.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the investigations of the North American giants is the lack of physical remains available for study, at least today. Some researchers explain this paucity of remains with a claim that they were repatriated under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

I would add that cultural and natural processes also work against the preservation of human remains. Human bones buried underground usually don’t last very long unless they are intentionally protected somehow. This is particularly so in moist climates. Recoverable remains are inherently rare.

Anomalistic claims and investigations tend to bring out extreme reactions. Some people are willing to believe almost any extraordinary claim. As an example, take a look at the many comments submitted to my article, “Have Archaeologists Found Skeletons of Biblical Giants in Greece?,” in which I showed that some of the popular photos of giant skeletons have been faked. Even so, many readers persist in believing that the photos are authentic. At the other extreme are people who are quick to deny any anomalistic claim. The same article about giant skeletons also attracted some nasty trollish comments from “skeptics” who disparaged anyone who would take seriously the Bible’s accounts about giants.

Is a seven-foot giant really such a big deal?

Robert Pershing Wadlow

Robert Pershing Wadlow (1918-1940) suffered from a hormonal disorder and grew to nearly nine feet tall. via Wikimedia.

In reality, the claim that the prehistoric peoples of North American included a race of oversized humans doesn’t seem that extraordinary. For the most part, the newspaper and scholarly accounts describe remains between six and eight feet in height. This is well within the known human range. What’s called gigantism today is generally seen as a rare hormonal disorder, but it does show that a large human frame is physically possible. There’s no reason to think that extraordinary size couldn’t be passed along genetically and appear within a clan or even a wider population. In fact, this appears to have been the case among some Canaanite groups mentioned in the Bible — see the accounts about the Rephaim at 1 Samuel 17:4-7, 2 Samuel 21:16-22, and 1 Chronicles 20:4-8.

While a seven- or eight-foot human isn’t such an extraordinary idea, literature and popular culture have often propagated the idea that the giants mentioned in historical accounts were 20 feet tall, 50 feet tall, or greater. As I’ve pointed out before, humans of such sizes are almost certainly impossible due to the ‘engineering’ challenges involved — see “Could Giant Humans Exist?

It sounds to me as if enough written accounts exist to suggest that a race of giants could have lived among the ancient inhabitants of North America. It’s certainly worth investigating further, but it’s sure to be controversial. That’s the nature of anomalistics.

ARK — 24 May 2015

 

 

 

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In a way, it doesn’t much matter to me whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. I guess the question interests me intellectually, but I don’t think I have an ideological investment in it.

Museum display of human with dinosaur

An exhibit at the Creation Museum shows a human happily coexisting with a hungry-looking theropod. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s how it does interest me: I’m writing fiction that is set in the remote past, during a period when the written history is sketchy. The first novel for my Edhai series is called The Cursed Ground, and the first episode is due for release on Jan. 20, 2015. The concept calls for a lot of world-building, and it could be interesting to portray some interaction between the human characters and some large reptile-like or large bird-like animals.

(Just a note that this blog entry highlights the value and relevance of the field of anomalistics to modern research. For a discussion of anomalistics, that is, the study of stuff that doesn’t fit the predominant paradigm in one way or another, see my previous article, “Anomalistics, Pseudo-Skepticism, and the Discovery of a 300-Million-Year-Old Aluminum Machinery Part.”)

But does it make any sense to build a fictional world in which humans are contemporary with dinosaurs, especially for a fiction series that is purportedly “historical”?

How you respond to that question could depend on your ideological stance.

A creationist (by which I essentially mean a young-earth creationist) would say, ‘Of course humans and dinosaurs lived together.’ That view holds that the earth and all life on it are only about 6,000 (or sometimes 10,000) years old. Artwork and even museum exhibits from that camp sometimes show humans and dinosaurs in the same scene.

A materialist would say it’s nonsense to place humans and dinosaurs into the same time frame (materialists love the word “nonsense”). Dinosaurs, at least what most people think of as dinosaurs, lived in the Mesozoic geologic period, according to the timeline most-commonly accepted in mainstream academia. That period is said to have ended 66 million years before the present (b.p.), whereas anatomically-modern humans are only supposed to have appeared within the last half-million years — too late to have ridden a triceratops or to have had to run away screaming to avoid getting stomped-on by a T-Rex.

That said, some intriguing scientific findings in recent years have called into question some long-held assumptions about when the non-avian dinosaurs actually lived. Could the consensus time frame be off — even way off? And could that triceratops horsey-ride have been feasible after all?

geologic time scale

Conventional geologic time scale. Credit: U.S. National Park Service.

Organic material found in a T-Rex fossil: Paleontologist Mary H. Schweitzer Of North Carolina State University stunned the fossil-hunting profession with her 2005 article in Science, “Soft tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex.” In her article, Schweitzer reported finding organic tissue in the femur of a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil. The problem is that, according to the current model of how fossils form, there’s no way any organic material should have remained in a fossil 68 million years old. Any such material should have long ago decomposed and been replaced by minerals, or have been destroyed by radiation.

Many critics claim that her sample must have been contaminated somehow. Schweitzer seems to think that the material really is 68 million years old and that this suggests that current theory about how fossils form might be wrong. That’s a useful idea, but another possibility is that the conventional means of dating fossils is way off, and that the T-Rex in question lived much more recently than is called for in the prevailing view of the geologic past.

Radiocarbon dating finds dinosaur fossils only 22,000-39,000 years old. Traditional paleontologists would never think of applying radiocarbon (RC or C-14) dating to Mesozoic fossils. After all, C-14 dating is only useful going back 50,000-80,000 years b.p., three orders of magnitude too soon. Yet an open-minded group of researchers (calling themselves the Paleochronology Group) decided, Why not? The tests have yielded ages between 22,000 and 39,000 years b.p. for fossils of Allosaurus, Triceratops, Hadrosaur, and Apatosaur.

Critics argue that these RC dates can’t be correct, because the non-avian dinosaurs studied all died out 66 million years ago. In other words, these findings are not in line with the consensus view, so they must be wrong. The Paleochronology Group argues that the conventional potassium-argon method used to obtain the very-old dating of Mesozoic fossils tests the supposed age of the surrounding deposits, not the fossils themselves.

Anyway, these are intriguing findings, and the controversy over them reveals a tendency to deny anomalistic evidence, findings that don’t fit the prevailing paradigm. Such denialism can particularly manifest if critics have an ideological bias that requires a very, very long time frame for life on earth, a long enough time frame for chance and necessity to supposedly produce a vast diversity of life. As atheist champion Richard Dawkins once said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986) Intellectual fulfillment does not die easily.

Anyway, those two sets of findings by paleontologists are suggestive of the possibilities for a novelist writing historical fiction based on Biblical settings. With some speculative elements thrown into the scenario, it might be possible to let some of the human characters encounter some strange and dangerous beasts. In fiction, the anomalous can make for good storytelling.

By the way, if you enjoy reading articles like this — and if you want to keep up with news about my historical-fiction series, The Edhai — please sign up today to receive my free email newsletter.

ARK — 15 January 2015

 

 

 

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What were people like in prehistoric times? British archaeologist and paleolinguist Colin Renfrew has some ideas. Renfrew’s book “Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind” is a discussion of findings from what’s referred to as “cognitive archaeology,” a theoretical model that tries to describe the thinking of ancient peoples by studying archaeological finds.

The book reads well and is useful and interesting for me, as my Edhai fiction project focuses on the remote past. I particularly appreciated Renfrew’s discussions of economics and trade in prehistoric times. As one might expect, Renfrew subscribes to a view of the past conventional in mainstream academia, filtered through darwinism and an inflated chronology of history and prehistory. Outside of those common assumptions, I find this book commendably free of speculation.

These comments are based on my review of “Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind” at Goodreads, where you can see what I’m reading, along with my other reviews.

ARK — 13 August 2014

 

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I was just alerted to an extensive online collection of historical artifacts from the Penn Museum. With almost 700,000 items, many from antiquity, the database includes photos and descriptions that are very useful for research and for writing. You’ll find many everyday objects that should help you visualize how life was during ancient times.

For example, I recently needed to write a scene where someone was using a scoop. Searching the Penn database for “scoop” revealed many hits, including this nice example of a woven scoop from Asia:

Asian woven scoop

 

ARK — 6 July 2014

 

 

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This article in Archaeology includes sound files of linguists telling brief stories in the reconstructed hypothetical Proto-Indo-European language.

Here’s one of the sound files — take a listen:

The story is called “The Sheep and the Horses,” which in English goes like this:

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

Although his work is not well-regarded among linguists, Merritt Ruhlen has done some interesting work with tracing the origins of modern languages. His book, which I mentioned in this previous post, has some useful tables that show how languages are reconstructed by historical linguists.

— ARK — 30 September 2013

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A recent story from BBC News emphasizes how difficult it can be to pick out the science from the hype when reading science news reporting.

The article, “Woolly mammoth extinction ‘not linked to humans’,” explains some recent research by a Durham University professor based on a computer simulation of climate change over the last 42,000 years, and how this would have affected vegetation.

This sounds pretty interesting, but what struck me more than anything was the way the results were reported, certainly by the BBC reporter, possibly by the researchers as well.

Reading the headline, you would think the case is closed — our hunter-gatherer ancestors are not guilty — vindication at last! “Woolly mammoth extinction ‘not linked to humans’.”

One clue that the truth is more nuanced can be seen in the BBC headline writer’s weaselly use of single quotes. The headline writer can make the article sound more sensational, while using the quotation marks to shift the burden of proof on others. (See a colleague’s comments on this practice: “John the Baptist’s Bones and BBC’s Quotation Marks.”)

The article says that the reason for the mammoth’s extinction has been controversial. Some scientists claim it was climate change, others that it was encroachment by humans. Others have rolled in the beloved deus ex machina of a meteor strike.

Now, according to the BBC writer, “that debate has been settled.” Case closed! Congratulations on your latest sensational science story!

But then I notice a quote from the actual scientist:

What our results have suggested is that the changing climate, through the effect it had on vegetation, was the key thing that caused the reduction in the population and ultimate extinction of mammoths and many other large herbivores,” he said.

“Our results have suggested…“? Humans have been exonerated and debates have been settled based on … ‘suggestions’?

Certainly a computer simulation of climate change and its affect on vegetation is interesting and useful, but it’s really just one piece of scientific evidence. And, like any computer program, a simulation is subject to one of the basic limitations on any computer program: Garbage in, garbage out. Not that the simulation is wrong, but it could be, especially if it is programmed based on erroneous assumptions.

When reading science news reporting, or original scientific research for that matter, it’s important to realize that it’s difficult to prove definitively what happened in the past. And the further in the past the events in question, the harder it is to prove anything, without written records by reliable observers.

Digging up bones, fossilized pollen, or pottery shards from the ground is valuable work, as are analyzing DNA and running computer simulations. But the interested reader needs to keep in mind that scientists (and the journalists who write about their work) have skin in the game in one way or another — whether that be professional ambitions, funding to attain, reputations to uphold, or just plain personal ideologies to justify.

ARK — 21 August 2010

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