Questions without answers in the depths of time

Prehistoric art studio picture: An abalone shell with an ochre-covered grindstone.

The abalone shell was found with an ochre-covered grindstone on its lip. National Geographic Magazine, 10-13-11

It startles me how little we know about our planet, its history and its inhabitants.   As a society we started a couple of hundred years ago to attempt to  identify and classify all of living things on the earth.   As our technology has improved science has made great strides in that process and added space and the micro-species to the list of things to be explored, listed, described, analyzed and categorized.   In the process of examining the earth and its inhabitants scientists have also been able to study the history of both; and the same technology that advanced the study of the existing species helped to study the previous ones.

But with all that we have learned, we find as much that we do not know; regardless of how deep we drill into the basic building blocks of life we discover there is yet another and deeper level. Conversely, the farther we look into space, regardless of how far we do see, there is yet much more we cannot see.   Looking into the history of the planet and its inhabitants is the same; whatever we know is only a small part of what might be known, but is not yet known.  Rather than answer our questions every new discovery suggests more questions;  and each question pushes back in time the origins of the things we study.

Even the history of our own species continually eludes us (and it is a very young species without the million year history of some species).  When did we leave Africa? When did we first cultivate plants or domesticate animals?  When did we begin to live in large communities?  When did we start to speak?  When did we start to pray, to draw pictures and create images of our world and of our heaven?   National Geographic has an article on the origins of creativity; in South Africa – the home of many early human cultural artifacts – scientists there have found an art workshop – a place where paint was mixed.   It has been dated at 100,000 years old.   An answer, no?  No, I think not – if that abalone shell with red paint in it is 100,000 years old – then the ability to mix paint must be much older.  That is unless that is the first paint ever mixed – not very likely.

Given what we know about the development of technology people must have been mixing paint for thousands of years before that; how many, 10,000, 20,000 or maybe 50,000 years?   In the history of technology, the farther back you go,  the longer the periods between advancements.  What does that suggest about the beginnings of language, cooperative social groups and religion?   That little shell and scrap of paint suggest we are older than we previously thought and my guess is much, much older.  Speech is one of the very basic and probably first technologies humans developed; and that bit of paint could conceivably push the development of speech 100,000 years farther back in time than was once believed.   How far, to when?  It can only be a question – never an answer, but every time we re-frame the question, as we must now do, it becomes more exciting and more intriguing – don’t you agree?


1 Response to “Questions without answers in the depths of time”

  1. 1 lynne rosner October 14, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Why when you found an abalone shell with all of its signigicant colors would you ever think to destroy it by mixing paint.

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