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No. 1024:
Paleolithic Hi-Tech

Today, we reach back into the past -- and we find it running away from us. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Last week Science magazine and the newspaper served up a pair of surprises: two articles that rewrite Paleolithic history. The New York Times told about a ceramic fragment that's turned up in the Czech Republic. Carbon dating shows that it's 26,000 years old. When it was still wet clay, someone had wrapped it in cloth. There, clear as yesterday, is the imprint of woven fabric. You can make out the precise weave of the fabric.

The zinger here is that, as recently as 1992, archaeologists working in southern Turkey found what was then the oldest known example of cloth. It was 9000 years old, fossilized, and stuck to a piece of bone. This new evidence is three times that old!

There's more. The first of those early Czech ceramics turned up in the 1980s. 26,000 years was twice the age of any known ceramics. Now one piece shows up with the imprint of woven fabric!

26,000 years is an evocative age. Until recently we thought that was when simple tool-making just began giving way to complex invention. That's when cave painting showed up. We think that's when humans learned speech and began carving bone. And it was long before we dreamed that early humans knew how to do anything as complicated as firing ceramics or weaving cloth.

When you think about it, it's obvious that nothing woven from organic fibers could've survived so long. Nor did Stone Age artisans have any way to preserve their poorly-fired clay. Ceramics and cloth have been around much longer than we thought. But it's no wonder we've found so few traces of them.

The other archaeological revelation that turned up last week was also about dates. Science magazine told about a site on Zaire's Semliki River: Fancy new dating methods show that this dig is around ninety thousand years old. And it's yielding complex harpoon heads carved from bone. They have the sophisticated, back-swept teeth we'd expect to find only during the last 26,000 years. But our African forebears made them over three times that long ago.

As new archaeologists use better tools to seek out the remote past, that very past retreats. And I wonder: Why have we dated technology so late in history? Is it that we just hadn't yet dug deeply enough into the earth? Is it because, until the last century, we based all our chronologies on a Biblical timetable?

Maybe it's simply because we've so badly wanted to see ourselves as the sudden and dramatic culmination of evolution. That's where we get into trouble. For we are not the culmination. We are just part of the river. In the words of one '60s flower child, "God ain't done with us yet." The process goes on and -- our story is still being written.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Fowler, B., Find Suggests Weaving Preceded Settled Life. Science Times, The New York Times, Tuesday, May 9, 1995, pp. B7-B8.

Science magazine (Vol. 268, April 28, 1995) includes several articles related to redating paleolithic technologies:

Gibbons, A., Old Dates for Modern Behavior, pp. 495-496.

Brooks, A.S. (and 13 other authors), Dating and Context of Three Middle Stone Age Sites with Bone Points in the Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire, pp. 548-553.

Yellen, J.E. (and 4 other authors), A Middle Stone Age Worked Bone Industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire.

See also discussion of a previously published paper under the title Thumbs, Tools, and Early Humans, pp. 586-589.

See also Episodes 359 and 840 for older programs about the Turkish cloth find and Czech ceramics.