Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Ancient humans and the dawn of consciousness

A number of people have drawn this BBC science story to my attention, which reports on the discovery of what might be a human necklace, and might be 90,000 or 100,000 years old. In my "Neanderthal Parallax" trilogy (beginning with Hominids), I make much of the so-called "Great Leap Forward" -- the notion that modern human consciousness emerged spontaneously some 40,000 years ago. Artifacts of personal adornment dating back to 90,000 or 100,000 years ago might -- as one email correspondent put it -- "debunk" this.

Maybe. But we've been down this road before. In the 1970s, it was the "Clan of the Cave Bear" -- the belief, now completely discredited, that Neanderthals worshipped cave bears. In the 1990s, we had the Neanderthal bone flute -- except it wasn't a flute at all; it was just a bone gnawed by a predator. There was also the so-called Neanderthal/modern hybrid child, a pretty wild assertion to make without a skull.

All of these have been discredited, and I wouldn't be the least surprised if this necklace is discredited, too. First, of course, because the aging is suspect: the 100,000-year figure doesn't come from carbon-dating the shells (which could have been ancient, anyway, by the time they acquired holes), but rather from the sediment in the shell. Yeah, well, these are small shells found inside a cave; they're going to be pounded down into the dirt by generations of human and nonhuman cave inhabitants; where they happened to end up doesn't tell us much about where they started.

And, second, because, like the supposedly clearly-caused-by-humans holes in the so-called bone flute, these hole might turn out to have another cause (such as birds pecking into the shells to eat the mollusk within, or even autistic-style perseverative behavior; the relationship between the dawn of consciousness and autism, with its compulsive, repetitious actions such as, oh, say, pounding holes in shells, is something I might touch on in my next book).

And, third, of course, two shells does not a necklace make -- and that's all that have been found together.

Of course, I'll watch this story with interest, but whenever someone wants to push a date back this far, I'm a hard sell. Like the now discredited Martian meteorite with supposed fossils in it (yes, it's really from Mars; no, it doesn't contain any fossils), this sort of announcement always gets major news coverage, and if/when it's eventually disproven, that's almost never reported with the same fanfare.

Geeky sidenote: don't the shells (top) really look like Sleestak skulls from Land of the Lost (bottom)?


At June 27, 2006 3:41 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clearly they are calcified Sleestak embryo skulls. A revolutionary discovery indeed!


At June 27, 2006 4:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have found clam shells washed up onshore that have holes in the best place to string 'em into a necklace: at the upper most part of the curl near the joint. Grinding in the ocean slurry would account for holes like that. The holes in the calcified embryo skulls look like natural holes to me.

Pat Smythe

At June 27, 2006 6:21 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Thanks, Pat. They look natural to me, too. Without speaking specifically about the researchers in question, it's clear that in many cases even scientists see what they're hoping to see, not what's really there. :)

At June 27, 2006 6:40 PM , Blogger GP said...

I wouldn't call that Martian meteorite "discredited". It just didn't live up to the hype. At the time the best explanation was that bacteria were responsible for the features found, and plenty of people mistakenly took that as proof. Now we know it could also have been (but not "must have been") other processes.

At June 27, 2006 7:21 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

I disagree, GP. I don't think it was the best explanation at the time, and it certainly isn't the best explanation now, or even one that's in the mainstream of scientific thinking.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. :)

At June 28, 2006 11:59 AM , Anonymous don said...

Sorry, slightly off topic, but, I can't believe I've never seen or heard of this Land of the Lost show (although the Sleestak do look slightly famailiar). And I'm generally pretty up on old weird stuff like that. Is it any good? Is it worth sourcing the DVDs and adding to my collection?

As to the shells, it pretty much looks like natural deterioration to me too. Or some natural explanation anyway.

And the Martian meteorite, well, I'll have to refresh my memory on that story.

At June 28, 2006 1:14 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

In my humble opinion, Land of the Lost could have been the American Doctor Who. It was a half-hour videotaped weekly science-fiction series, with cheesy effects, crappy sets, but great writing.

David Gerrold (author of Star Trek's "The Tribble with Tribbles") was story editor. Writers included major SF authors Larry Niven (solo author of one episode, and co-author of two others with Gerrold), Ben Bova, Norman Spinrad, and Theodore Sturgeon, Star Trek writers Margaret Armen and D.C. Fontana, and Mr. Chekov himself, Walter Koenig (whose episode here was one of the very best, as was the episode he wrote for the animated Star Trek), and Dinosaur Dictionary compiler (and author of the Empire Strikes Back novelization) Donald F. Glut.

Three seasons were made, beginning in 1974. The show jumped the shark at the beginning of the third season, though. And beware the 1980s remake, which is garbage.

Good sites about the show are here and here and here.

At June 28, 2006 4:12 PM , Blogger Jose said...

A hearty hear hear on the last point about sensational claims not being followed through once they're debunked. I often hear discredited memes floating around years past their expiration date. But error checking is never as sexy as This Just In.


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