Life & Death & Early Modern Humans



I never made it out of bed this morning, at least not before sunrise, so the painting of Maifest will have to suffice for the celebration of this year’s May Day. Let’s move on. Part of the reason that I was such a sluggard this morning was because Anne and I went out last night. We went to the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood. Now before you all start snickering, hear me out. We were on a noble pursuit, the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of knowledge about science. How more noble can you get? I know, I know, there is True Love, but I’ll save the discussion of that for another post.

Schlafly in conjunction with Washington University of Saint Louis sponsors a series called Science-on-Tap, where professors from Washington University come to the Bottleworks and speak about their research. The science is free, but alas the beer is not. This event has become quite the thing and the room was already crowded when we arrived a little on the late side. Fortunately, Joanie had arrived early and saved spaces for the two of us. I really should have bought her a beer for that. Sorry Joan, next time, I promise. Erik Trinkaus, an anthropology professor at Wash U was the night’s speaker. His talk was entitled, “Life and Death among Early Modern Humans”.

The phrase ‘Early Modern Humans’ implies that these people were physiologically just like us. You clean one of these guys up, buy him some clothes and teach him a few pickup lines and he could be hitting on your sister tonight. The anthropological term for this is that these people displayed behavioral modernity. I’ll leave it to the reader’s sense of incredulousness about this scenario to determine if a club was involved or not. Anyway, nine months from now she could be having a ‘cave’ baby. They were that much like us. The photo with this post is then misleading. It comes from the Smithsonian app, MEanderthal. Joanie took a picture of me and the app took its best guess of what I would look like as a Neanderthal. If you ask me it leaves a lot to be desired both from an authenticity point of view and from its aesthetic appearance.

His talk was about the Red Ochre People of the Mid-Upper Paleolithic period. That would be about 30,000 years ago. After we were home, I googled ‘Red Ochre People’ and a top hit was a Wiki article about Native Americans in the Great Lakes region, about 3,000 years ago. If I had known this during the program’s Q&A, I could have asked a way more intelligent question then the one that I did. No matter their eon though, these individuals are called Red Ochre People, because their remains were splattered with the substance. Evidence of the 30,000 year-old variety of the Red Ochre People can be found across Eurasia, but he keyed on one particular site in Sungir, Russia, which is located several hundred miles north of present day Moscow. Sungir had three well-preserved graves, a 40+ year-old man and two children (10-12). Each individual’s remains were found buried with thousands of mammoth ivory tusk beads. Outside of this site, the most ivory beads found in a Paleolithic burial site were only a few hundred.

So were these beads some form of barter currency? Were these people then rich? These are questions that I wished I had asked. Instead, I asked Trinkaus about DNA testing. They had tried it, but by the time they could, the bones had been out of the ground for almost fifty years and were too heavily contaminated with anthropologist DNA. Anne suspects that the last question asked was a plant. He was asked what he though about a current fad, the Paleolithic Diet. He said, “If you only want to live to be forty and by then have a worn out body, go right ahead.” This got a big laugh from the grey haired audience. He followed up with, “The real Paleolithic Diet was anything they could find that wouldn’t eat them first and wouldn’t poison them if they ate it.” These were stone age hunters and gatherers after all. I am so glad that I didn’t ask him what he thought about the movie “10,000 BC”.

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