Ben East wrote a short but incisive article yesterday in a United Arab Emirates newspaper on the irony of British efforts to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in Britain. The British have long been oblivious to those same sentiments on the part of others, such as the Greeks who want the Elgin marbles back.
Serge Lebel’s discovery of small meteorites in a 200,000 year-old site in France has got me thinking once again about the critical role that other such space debris has played in human history. So I took another look last night at a wonderful paper that Robert McGhee, a former curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and one of the world’s great experts on ancient human cultures in the Arctic, wrote about the influence of the Cape York meteorite on Arctic history.
According to Danish metallurgist and meteorite expert Vagn Buchwald, the Cape York meteorite produced the largest shower ever recorded. Falling to earth in northern Greenland, the ten known fragments littered a strewnfield measuring 100 km NW-SE. The largest of the iron-rich masses weighed 30 tons, the smallest some 250 kg.
When Europeans first arrived in northern Greenland, they learned of these meteorite chunks from indigenous Inuit hunters of the region. The Inuit regularly travelled to the fragments to break off pieces of iron, which they then cold-hammered into a host of immensely valuable tools, including chisels, blades, gravers and pegs. The Cape York fragments were their sole source of iron, and they so treasured them that they gave them names such as Ahnighito, an Inuit word meaning “Tent”, and incorporated them into their mythic tales. (Ahnighito is now in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.)
Now here is where McGhee’s ideas come into play. Archaeologists have long known that the ancestors of today’s Inuit originated much further to the west, quite likely along the coasts of the Bering Sea. But some time in the 12 century A.D., these ancestral Inuit, known as the Thule, migrated swiftly into the eastern Arctic. The big question has long been what drew them eastward so quickly? Over the years, researchers have proposed a variety of theories, from climate change (the migration coincided with the Medieval Warm Period) to sharp increases in Thule populations.
But McGhee proposed a very different theory. He suggested that the Thule hurried into the Eastern Arctic in order to lay their hands on a major source of precious iron. In all likelihood, he suggests, the Thule had earlier acquired bits of iron by trading across Bering Strait, but this would have been a drop in the bucket compared to the wealth of iron in the Cape York fragments. Moreover, it seems likely that the Thule learned about this iron source from an another Arctic culture, the Dorset, who were lightly scattered across the region. In McGhee’s view, this knowledge would have been sufficient to lure some bands eastward.
If the Canadian archaeologist is right, the course of Arctic history was altered forever by a hunger for iron, and metal from the sky.
Why did human beings first begin working metal? A very cool new paper in December’s Antiquity reveals that the desire to beautify the human body had much to do with it.
An international team led by Benjamin Roberts, a curator at the British Museum, scoured the scientific literature for the earliest known evidence of metal-working. The paper trail led them to northeastern Iraq. There, at two sites, Shanidar Cave and Zawi Chemi, pastoralists and farmers in the 11th century BCE left behind copper beads and pendants. Human vanity, it appears, spurred early metalworkers to experiment with sparkly, blue-green copper ores.
I was a little perplexed at first by this mention of Shanidar Cave. As some readers will know, Shanidar is most famous as a Neanderthal burial site. Perched above the Zab River, the cave was excavated in the 1950s by Ralph and Rose Solecki, who recovered remains of several Neanderthals, including some who appear to have been deliberately buried. When pollen experts analyzed soil samples from the cave, they detected high levels of flower pollen– evidence, in the view of Ralph Solecki and his colleague Andre Leroi-Gourhan, that Neanderthal mourners had ritually blanketed the body in flowers, a very modern-human kind of behavior. This research captured the public imagination, and Ralph Solecki’s later book, Shanidar, The First Flower People, is said to have inspired writer Jean Auel, whose novel Clan of the Cave Bear became a bestseller.
Critics, however, have long disputed this interpretation. The excavators, they note, detected no sign of a grave pit: indeed it is very possible that the Neanderthal in question perished in an unfortunate accident, when a large rock slab fell from the cave ceiling. That just leaves the famous pollen evidence. But the skeptics have a very different take. They suggest that it could have blown in during the excavation.
All this controversy pretty much overshadowed the analysis of the later occupation at Shanidar. So I decided to take a look at the book the Soleckis and colleague Anagnostis Agelarakis published in 2004 on the 13,000 -year-old human remains that they excavated. Sure enough, there was the reference to a copper mineral bead or pendant that likely came from the burial of an adult female. “The specimen,” wrote the authors, “was bright green in color, with a kind of scaly coating on its surface.”
Metallurgical studies show that the bead was made from the mineral malachite and that it contained a high amount of copper. Moreover, the authors searched for the source of the copper. The closest known source was in Anatolia, some 400 kilometers away from Shanidar– a very long trek away. But here is the detail that I liked best from the archaeologists’ description. The bead, they said, “seemed to have been much worn.”
One can only imagine how much a long-ago woman prized this pretty, sparkly bead that was so unlike the plain-jane shell and stone ornaments that others wore. And it is truly fascinating to think that the world of metal that we live in today may well have begun with a gleam at someone’s throat.