Clothes Make the (Ancient) Man

“Good clothes,”  wrote Thomas Fuller in 1732  in his book of proverbs, Gnomologia,  “open all doors.” The British physician was  almost certainly thinking of the importance of a spiffy tailcoat and breeches and a dressy lace shirt when trying to make friends among the wealthy and titled in 18th century England. But Fuller’s proverb could apply to early hominins as well:  with the right clothing, our ancestors could survive winter cold and colonize increasingly hostile environments  in Eurasia.

All this of course begs a question,  or rather two.  Who were the first clothes horses?  And when did our mania for fashion begin?  Archaeologists have never had much clear evidence to go on,  for pieces of hide clothing or textiles tend to rot rapidly in the ground.    But new research presented last week at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists sheds new light on the matter,  by looking at an unlikely source of information: the human body louse. Continue reading

Reclaiming the Lost DNA of Ancient Languages

Imagine for a moment that you are 80 years old (easier for some of us,  I admit, than others.)   Now imagine that you are the last person left on earth who can speak English.   No one can sit down and chat companionably with you in your mother tongue.  No one can laugh at your jokes or puns or understand what it means to “grin like a Cheshire cat.”  You are  alone, and all the cultural knowledge embedded in the English language will be lost when you die.

That,  of course,  is the predicament of many elderly speakers of aboriginal languages around the world.  The  Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, calculates, for example,  that in the United States alone,  42 percent of the 300 or languages once spoken by  aboriginal people are now extinct. And it’s not just words, grammar and syntax that are being lost:  it’s “the DNA of a culture,”  as Bruce Cole,  a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the U.S.,  once put it so aptly . Continue reading

Flash Drive vs. Sumerian Clay Tablet

I was just at Costco this weekend,  wheeling one of those immense, T-Rex  shopping carts past the ever-so shiny electronics section, when my eye  fell on a row of flash drives.  I currently back up all my research and stories on a battered 8 Gigabyte Kingston flash drive that I bought in Cuzco last summer and that I strongly suspect is a knockoff.   But Costco’s new line of drives,  the LaCies , are 32 GB and look  like house keys.   I immediately wanted one.

Now you might reasonably think that a brand-new flash drive would win hand’s down every time as a back-up system when pitted against,  let’s say,  a 5000-year-old  Sumerian clay tablet.   But you’d be very,  very wrong.   According to a fascinating study I recently came across  by Paul Conway,  who teaches in the School of Information at University of Michigan,  there is one critical way in which the Sumerian clay tablet,  the world’s earliest data storage system,  beats the hell out of the flash drive jingling on your key chain.   Longevity.

Here’s Conway’s main point.   Someone who knows how to read Sumeria’s cuneiform script (which gets its name from the Latin word cuneus, meaning “wedge”–an apt description of the little wedge-shaped marks that Sumerian scribes made with their styluses in moist clay) can still read the message on a clay tablet  5000 years later.   Now what about a LaCie flash drive?  All the computers we use to read it today will be obsolete in 20 years,  and we will have no way of accessing what’s on it.  It might as well be a big lump of metal.  You scoff?   Just think about the stacks of floppy disks that littered our desks back in the 1980s.

Conway calls this “our central dilemma”:   the capacity for storing information is soaring exponentially just as the longevity of  storage media is plummeting.   In other words,  the more ancient the storage system, the longer it tends to live.  A 4500-year-old Egyptian papyrus can still be read,  so can the Dead Sea Scrolls. But a book published in 1851 on acidic paper only has an average life expectancy of 100 years.  And the pace of obsolence has greatly accelerated over the past 40 years:  if I handed you a computer punch card or a magnetic tape could you read it?

I am not Luddite.  I love new technology  (bring on the iPad!),   but it’s clear to me that Apple, Microsoft and Google don’t have all the answers.  Maybe the guys in Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington ought to give a little more thought to cuneiform tablets and a little less to flash-in-the-pan data.

Bravo to Archaeologists Who Brave the Blogosphere

“No Guts,  No glory” –that’s the title this morning of an amusing and wonderfully written post by University of Victoria archaeologist  Quentin Mackie over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.  The post takes an affectionate look at the stubbornly determined trials and tribulations that Newfoundland archaeologist Tim Rast and his exceptionally loyal band of friends and inlaws are currently undergoing as they experimentally carve up a seal and explore in detail its inner workings–from seal guts to rotting hide–all in the name of  science.

Over the past few weeks,  Rast and colleagues have experimented with scraping the hide,  festooning Rast’s clothesline with seal gut,  drying the bladder by inflating it with a bicycle pump (it ends up looking like a miniature pinkish  Goodyear blimp),   and freezing  seal blood in ice-cube trays  (for later experiments with seal-blood glue), etc, etc.

Rast relates these backyard adventures at some length in his superb blog Elfshot (which I’ve written about before),  and despite all the gore (or perhaps, more honestly,  because of the gore and yuck factor) I’m fascinated. Rast obviously knows his stuff cold, fearlessly wades in,  and isn’t afraid to mix in a little modern technology (ie. the bicycle pump) when necessary. And he’s oh  so Canadian,  dryly describing all this effort as “last week’s seal excitement,” and worrying about what he has been putting the neighbors through.

Rast’s blog is great fun.  But then read Quentin Mackie’s take on it all.  Mackie is quick to pick up on the scientific value of Rast’s experimental archaeology,  but he does so with a wonderful sense of humor, and a great eye for detail.  Here’s one example of what I mean:

“My favourite in the series deals with drying some of the parts, including inflating the intestines and the bladder: he wimps out and uses a bicycle pump, not his lips.  His volunteers are conspicuously absent from this part of the narrative, despite the chance to redefine the word ‘blowhole’.

Clearly these are two archaeologists having a lot of fun in the blogosphere,  and,  like many other readers, I’m riveted.   It’s  a little like sitting around the campfire or the  camp kitchen with them and listening to the cool stuff they learned that day,  all salted with some good-natured kidding.  I’m learning a lot and having a few very good laughs.

I really wish more archaeologists would join Mackie and Rast and venture out into the blogosphere in this very personal way.   I really want to hear their voices online, and I know I am not alone.

Photos:  Above,  Tim Rast and his merry band.  Below:  What a clothesline looks like when you are using it to dry seal guts.  Both photos are from Elfshot.