Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ancient Deadbeats and the Rise of Man

Snail shells drilled with holes and coated in ochre have turned up in South Africa, Israel, Algeria, and, most recently, Morocco. They all date to about 82,000 years ago, give or take several thousand years. Despite, or perhaps because of, short brutish lifespans among early peoples and the rapid changeover of generations, physical culture changed slowly back then. A few millennia scarcely make a difference.

The shells, all of similar type, obviously were strung into beads. They are the earliest known art and, so the anthropologists who found the latest batch argue, the earliest known currency. It seems the entire prehistoric world was on the snail standard, at least among modern humans. This was a curious time when modern humans co-existed with Neanderthal in Europe and Homo Erectus in parts of Asia, neither of whom left evidence of being in the least bit artistic or money-grubbing. They made a few practical tools, but that is about it.

The appearance of modern consciousness is usually considered to be evidenced by the first art. Apparently it also is evidenced by the first money, which was one and the same thing. Art and monetary value are both abstractions which are beyond minds simpler than the ones belonging to these cave dwelling snail-beaders.

One wonders if some hoarded beads while others spent them profligately. Did they borrow them and charge each other interest? Did clan leaders tax them? How different were these people from us? How different are we from them?

Here is an alternate hypothesis for why modern people spread out over the globe, replacing other types of human. The usual one is that they slowly spread their hunting ranges and, due to superior skills and higher reproduction, they simply displaced the others over time. Perhaps their spread into new lands had nothing to do with hunting. Maybe they were fleeing creditors.

1 comment: