Today, we reach back into the past -- and we find
it running away from us. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Science magazine and the newspaper
served up a pair of surprises: two articles that
rewrite Paleolithic history. The New York
Times told about a ceramic fragment that's
turned up in the Czech Republic. Carbon dating
shows that it's 26,000 years old. When it was still
wet clay, someone had wrapped it in cloth. There,
clear as yesterday, is the imprint of woven fabric.
You can make out the precise weave of the fabric.
The zinger here is that, as recently as 1992,
archaeologists working in southern Turkey found
what was then the oldest known example of cloth. It
was 9000 years old, fossilized, and stuck to a
piece of bone. This new evidence is three times
There's more. The first of those early Czech
ceramics turned up in the 1980s. 26,000 years was
twice the age of any known ceramics. Now one piece
shows up with the imprint of woven fabric!
26,000 years is an evocative age. Until recently we
thought that was when simple tool-making just began
giving way to complex invention. That's when cave
painting showed up. We think that's when humans
learned speech and began carving bone. And it was
long before we dreamed that early humans knew how
to do anything as complicated as firing ceramics or
When you think about it, it's obvious that nothing
woven from organic fibers could've survived so
long. Nor did Stone Age artisans have any way to
preserve their poorly-fired clay. Ceramics and
cloth have been around much longer than we thought.
But it's no wonder we've found so few traces of
The other archaeological revelation that turned up
last week was also about dates.
Science magazine told about a site on
Zaire's Semliki River: Fancy new dating methods
show that this dig is around ninety thousand years
old. And it's yielding complex harpoon heads carved
from bone. They have the sophisticated, back-swept
teeth we'd expect to find only during the last
26,000 years. But our African forebears made them
over three times that long ago.
As new archaeologists use better tools to seek out
the remote past, that very past retreats. And I
wonder: Why have we dated technology so late in
history? Is it that we just hadn't yet dug deeply
enough into the earth? Is it because, until the
last century, we based all our chronologies on a
Maybe it's simply because we've so badly wanted to
see ourselves as the sudden and dramatic
culmination of evolution. That's where we get into
trouble. For we are not the culmination. We are
just part of the river. In the words of one '60s
flower child, "God ain't done with us yet." The
process goes on and -- our story is still being
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Fowler, B., Find Suggests Weaving Preceded Settled
Life. Science Times, The New York Times,
Tuesday, May 9, 1995, pp. B7-B8.
Science magazine (Vol. 268, April 28,
1995) includes several articles related to redating
Gibbons, A., Old Dates for Modern Behavior, pp.
Brooks, A.S. (and 13 other authors), Dating and
Context of Three Middle Stone Age Sites with Bone
Points in the Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire, pp.
Yellen, J.E. (and 4 other authors), A Middle Stone
Age Worked Bone Industry from Katanda, Upper
Semliki Valley, Zaire.
See also discussion of a previously published paper
under the title Thumbs, Tools, and Early Humans,
See also Episodes 359 and
840 for older programs
about the Turkish cloth find and Czech ceramics.
Also, as a matter of passing interest, this episode
is a passing milestone. This is the
210th episode of The Engines of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |