Even earlier art discovered

I have seen 3 news stories about prehistoric cave paintings discovered in Indonesia that are over 43,000 years old.  That is older than any of the cave art found so far in Europe.  The paintings are dramatic, depicting a group of beings, human or human-like with a bird head or with a tail, some holding spears around a large animal.  They do not appear to have the beautiful curves of the Lascaux paintings but they are still colorful and clearly imagined.  The cave is located up on a cliff and requires some rock climbing and scrambling to reach. Once again we find paintings underground, in the earth, which Lewis-Williams and Pearce say in their book, Inside the Neolithic Mind, that our ancestors felt was a link to another world, one filled with spirits (see post 11/23/19).  Here is one link to the NYT rendition:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/science/cave-art-indonesia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

As you can see, the NYT writer wonders if the beings represent mythic figures. Doubtful, that, but certainly they could have come from an early shamanic tradition before mythic narratives had really developed.  Here is link to the Scientific American version:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-this-indonesian-cave-painting-the-earliest-portrayal-of-a-mythical-story/.

The scientists have several questions going on.  The large animal has been dated to at least 43,000 years ago but the humanoid figures have not been dated as of yet, and research into other cave paintings has revealed that figures are often added over many, many years.  Also, while the large animal is clearly just that, the humanoid figures are not as clear.  Some could be human, some shamanic figures with human and animal merged, and some could be just other quadrupeds.

The big question is who painted them?  Human fossils have not been found locally.  The scientists seem sure that some group of Homo sapiens painted them, but it could have been Neandertals, Denisovans, or others.  This is interesting not just because the paintings predate anything found so far in Europe, but also because humans had to migrate here (Indonesia) from there (meaning Africa or Europe) and it is very doubtful that they brought the painting tradition with them, so they must have discovered it anew. And that speaks to the profundity of our impulse to make art.  And so we travel on to learn more.

Triangulating 3 reports

I find myself somewhere in the noosphere and will use three news stories to triangulate my location. The noosphere, if you recall, is a term from Teilhard de Chardin’s writings. He thought it a last stage in human evolution leading up to the omega point where and when we merge with a god of some sort. Alas, that teleology is unsupported by anything other than mystic wishing, so instead the noosphere is better defined as the sphere of human knowledge, and like our atmosphere, is full of local events. To find my place today I consider three stories, one about an ancient event, one about a modern one, and one about the genetic flow streaming down to our genome.

The ancient story is from the NYT about cave paintings in northwest China that indicate the people some 10,000 years ago used skis for winter transportation. The current people there who keep the old ways still make their own skis in the traditional manner, splitting and planing narrow planks, then boiling one end to help curve it upward for easier traverse. Of course the Chinese government is now exploiting the region by building huge ski resorts so the old timers watch their way of life fade. Prior to this find cave paintings in Scandinavia indicated that people there skied 8,000 years ago. This is instrumental skiing, not for sport but for hunting and transportation. (I don’t know when the sport sort appeared.) It is a good story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/sports/skiing/skiing-china-cave-paintings.html   If you want to see a movie about hardy, self sufficient people who make their own skis, try Werner Herzog’s well done documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, very worthwhile viewing. The ingenuity of our species is really remarkable.

And speaking of that, the modern story is that in the next few days, the Cassini spacecraft will begin a series of maneuvers between the rings of Saturn, eventually to fly into the planet itself. More than a decade in design and construction, Cassini launched in 1997 and traveled millions of miles flying by Venus and Jupiter on the way, indeed using Jupiter’s gravity to sling around and pick up speed, before arriving at Saturn in 2004. In December 2004 Cassini released a probe, name of Huygens, that landed on the moon, Titan. Huygens sent back data to Cassini that relayed it back to earth. Since that time Cassini has been assaying Saturnian phenomena and now its nuclear fuel is running out so the last data will be collected on a suicide mission. Over 13 years of data gathering! That is truly remarkable ingenuity. Consider one more detail. Huygens landed on Titan within a kilometer of its planned site 1.2 billion kilometers away from Earth after a 7 year trip. Some people with excellent math skills worked together very hard to accomplish something incredible.

And speaking of working together, Carl Zimmer of the NYT does a fine job summarizing some well done research into the genetic influences on monogamy: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/science/parenting-genes-study.html  Briefly, scientists found two closely related mouse species, one monogamous and one polygamous, and through a diligent methodology explored the influence of parenting behaviors in contrast with genetic influences and then isolated some of the genes definitely influencing mating styles. Males in the monogamous mice participated more in constructing elaborate nests and in nurturing the young, keeping them warm, clean, and safe in the nest. The other mice built less elaborate nests and the males did less parenting. Going further (how long did all this take? I don’t know but a good while I am guessing), they found a genetic loci that controlled the use of a hormone, vasopressin, and then injecting vasopressin into the polygamous males found they increased their parenting participation to be like the monogamous males. Remembering from one of my favorite texts, Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience mentioned here many times, I think vasopressin plays a variety of roles in the hormonal system that also includes oxytocin, a well known stimulator of parenting and prosocial behavior.

Triangulating these three stories we find a place in the Noosphere where humans, neither monogamous nor polygamous but certainly parental, work ingeniously to survive in different locales and climates and also to work together in a long term committed fashion to explore our universe and contribute mightily to the Noosphere. We should, given an ethics of knowledge (following Monod), be able to govern ourselves better than we seem to be doing at this moment. Travel on.

3 news stories

Here’s 3 unrelated reports of interest.  First, 2 hours after I posted the last piece on the hippocampus, I read the obituary of Suzanne Corkin.  I did not know her name but she was the principal scientist, after Brenda Milner, studying the famous patient and research subject H.M. after his bilateral hippocampectomy.  She spent years investigating his memory loss and what he retained.  As mentioned in the previous post she spent hours many days with Henry Molaison (H.M.) who never recognized her but thought maybe he had been to high school with her.  She was respected for the thoroughness and rigor of her work.  In her book about him, Permanent Present Tense (I might have to check it out sooner than later), she wrote, reports the NYT, of coming to see Henry as a person and not solely a research subject but a collaborator in the research.  She also said he retained some strong memories from the distant past in an austere manner which she labeled ‘gist’ memories’, saying his memory had lost the capacity for narrative richness.  Thank you, Dr. Corkin, and thank you, Henry Molaison


Neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin worked with Henry Gustave Molaison, who had severe amnesia, for 50 years — from the 1953 surgery that caused permanent damage to his brain until his death in 2008.

Next up a brief report from Earthsky.org on the Rosetta spacecraft orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko since August, 2014.  It has detected glycine and phosphorus on the comet.  Glycine is a simple amino acid and phosphorus is essential to building  DNA, so comet 67P orbiting our galaxy and who knows where else carries some of the building blocks of life.  Gaia seeded from Mars?  Maybe, but life from Andromeda maybe as well.  Don’t you love it when we get some empirical confirmation towards some of the wilder ideas out there?

Finally, another NYT story reports that researchers have found a Neanderthal construction from 175,000 years ago (remember that the earliest cave art is only about 50,000 years ago).  This pushes back the hominid timeline a great deal.  Evidently Neanderthals deep in a cave in France broke off stalagmites and stalagmites and arranged them in a circle way back then.  The ability to navigate that deep underground is impressive and then they were able to break off these mineral formations and then for some reason arranged them into a pretty decent circle.  Meditate on those findings for awhile and see what you come up with thinking about what our minds were like back then.  Thank you Neanderthals and thank you researchers.

That’s it for now, so after you do the above meditation, please travel on.





prehistoric footprints

We have a special place for footprints:   Grauman’s Chinese Theater has recent celebrities’, Astaire studios have various dance steps on their floor for instructional purposes, the footprint in stone of the ancient king at Dal Riada in Scotland (in which my wife’s foot fitted exactly), and so on.  We have uncovered fossilized Homo footprints from long ago, including some in Kenya dated at 1.5 million years ago and another recent find in the UK dated at 850,000 years ago.  And then we have the footprints discussed in  the 7/11/15 edition of Science News (a fabulous edition with more blogs to come) found in France’s Tuc d’Audobert Cave.  Paleontologists brought in modern trackers from a tribe in Africa where everyone learns to track animals and to identify footprints of family and friends.  Pretty smart, eh?  Both the tribesmen and the scientists who brought them in to use their skills.  The trackers identified footprints from some ancients carrying something heavy and then those same ancients walking back to the the place where clay was dug to make bison sculptures.  The dug out hole matched the amount of clay needed for the sculptures.  The trackers were able to speculate knowledgeably about who these individuals were, e.g., sex and age.  Some paleontologists not associated with this effort expressed caution, saying people were different back then, but we are talking about only roughly 15,000 years ago and about prints easily identified as Homo, so I do not understand their hesitancy to accept that these findings have some validity (except as some academic prissiness).  It is a good read if you can find it.

BUT what really caught my eye was this:  Some of the prehistoric prints come from heel walking, i.e., walking only on the heels which leaves less individually identifiable information than regular walking.  Paleontologists have hypothesized that these heel prints came from some ritual dancers, but the African trackers disagreed.  They said that for them, heel walking is a way of leaving no identifiable tracks, which would suggest that whoever left these tracks wanted to remain anonymous.

WOW!  One of my more imaginative speculations about why some prehistoric drawings were done so very deeply in caves is that the artists wanted to escape detection and censure from the authorities, i.e., art was frowned upon the chief or shaman (see post on ancient art of 6/17/15).  Maybe the sculptors here faced those very same issues.  Intriguing about our nature, I think.  Art is sometimes still a little edgy.  Travel on darkly.