"Of dead kingdoms I recall the soul, sitting amid their ruins." ~Nathaniel Parker Willis
“The ocean is a conveyer and not an isolator. It has been mans highway from the days he built the first buoyant ships, long before he tamed the horse, invented wheels, and cut roads through the virgin jungles.” ~Thor Heyerdahl
When we imagine ice age people, maritime lifeways are often overshadowed by more iconic elements of that lost world; bands of hunters pursuing mammoths, or a shaman winding between stalagmites, torch in hand. Many researchers have worked to establish the importance of the seas and rivers to paleolithic hunter-gatherers. I’d like to introduce a few interesting archaeological sites, and make some observations about the advantages of life along a shoreline.
One of the simplest measures of prehistoric seafaring is: could ancient people cross open water? Well, by 110-thousand years ago, there is evidence that islands on the southern Ionian coast of Turkey were inhabited- accessible only by voyaging several kilometers across the aegean. Such voyages would not have been chance events- a handful of individuals clinging to a log for dear life, only to be washed ashore like castaways. That wouldn't produce a long term presence of the kind we see. Instead, we have to imagine purposeful accessing of these islands, using some kind of watercraft. These islands were very likely first peopled by Neanderthals during the middle paleolithic, and later by anatomically modern humans during the upper paleolithic (Ferentinos et al. 2012). We know Neanderthals exploited marine and freshwater resources. One line of evidence is osteological- bony calluses in the inner ears of numerous Neanderthal individuals show evidence of swimmer’s ear, a possible sign of foraging for food in cold, aquatic environments (Trinkaus & Villotte, 2019). Another line of evidence is fish bones found all over Europe at middle paleolithic cave sites, where the fine bones have a better chance of preserving (Guillaud et al., 2021).
As early as 60kya, people had populated the Wallacean archipelago, and crossed the Timor sea to Australia. In an ambitious feat of experimental archaeology, researchers have tried to replicate this journey, to find out the bare minimum level of technology required to reach Australia. This experiment found that reaching Australia required a vessel with steering capability and some kind of simple sail, with a frame capable of withstanding the rigors of deep water voyaging. To construct a vessel with similar capabilities would have required complex forward planning, and people who understood hundreds of specific technologies and skills, pooling them for a single task (Bednarik, 2000). However, whatever vessels they built failed to preserve in the archaeological record, and instead we are left with fragments of bone and stone.
“Paleolithic sophistication can no more be determined from the period’s refuse than modern capability to fly to the moon is indicated by the contents of municipal garbage dumps.” ~Robert Bednarik
At Blombos Cave in South Africa, we know people were fishing close to shore before 50kya, but fish and shellfish represented in that assemblage are shallow-water species and would not have required boats or complex technology for their capture. (Langejans et al., 2012; Henshilwood & Sealy, 1997). On the other hand, by 42kya we know people in East Timor- at a site called Jerimalai Shelter- were capturing fish from the open ocean, and they have identified fishhooks as old as 23 thousand years (O'Connor et al., 2011). By this point people already had an intimate relationship with the sea, and relied on marine resources. Around 17kya, people occupied the site of Ohalo II, in Israel’s Rift Valley. The site is now waterlogged, but archaeologists were able to excavate enough to identify 8 species of fish, belonging to multiple freshwater families. The archaeologists who excavated the site claim that Ohalo II’s inhabititants “used their knowledge of the breeding behavior of different species of fish, for year-round intensive exploitation.” (Zohar et al. 2018: 1)
Archaeologists have observed the advantages of big-game hunting during the expansion of ice age humans around the globe, into sparsely populated, or completely unhinhabited continents. One interesting point is that traditional ecological knowledge is a critical resource, and when modern hunter-gatherers emigrate, they can often tap the traditional ecological knowledge of the local population. For instance, among the Walbiri of central Australia, different groups maintain myths that act as devices for the memorization of a territory, especially the location of water sources (Kelly and Todd, 1988). But, if one is on the front wave of colonization of new continents and regions, there may be no ecological knowledge to turn to. Animals tend to be available year-round and are widely dispersed across a region, while edible plants tend to vary more with local geography.
"A lifeway suitable for this task is one that placed primary reliance on faunal rather than plant resources. It is easier to locate, procure, and process the faunal as opposed to floral resources of an unknown region." (Kelly and Todd, 1988: 234)
That's all well and good, but I think it's also true of coastal maritime resources. If you can gather shellfish, set traps and lines, or cast a net along one coast, you can do it without much change along another coast. Or along many rivers and lakeshores, for that matter. There are two other advantages to maritime lifeways I want to share. First, water makes for easy travel. In the days before the horse, the wheel, or the road, moving things by water was far easier, and the coasts and rivers of the world were the arteries on which we traveled and traded. Second, oceans act as climate regulators. While continental climates are characterized by hot summers and freezing winters, coasts tend to be mild places, that place less seasonal stress upon the people who choose to live there.
Maritime peoples have long been associated with some of the most populous, complex societies hunter-gatherers are capable of producing. For example, the Tlingit of North America's Pacific Northwest lived in large settlements, had hierarchical societies, practiced slavery, and fought wars, all on a foundation of marine resources (Ames, 1994). Large coastal settlements dating to the European mesolithic provide another example. Norje Sunnansund, located in Southern sweden, is dated to as early as 9600 years old, and is among the first sites in Scandinavia that foragers occupied year-round (Boethius, 2018). And when populations become sedentary, they tend to start expanding. Some of the earliest large, sedentary foraging communities of East africa also relied on aquatic resources from the White Nile, at the Al Khiday Mesolithic sites of central Sudan (Maritan et al., 2018). These sites are around 6-7 thousand years old. It is unclear if similar sites, showing complex, sedentary foragers, existed during the paleolithic. Is this evidence of absence, or just absence of evidence?
Sea levels have risen dramatically since the end of the pleistocene, and whole subcontinents have been flooded, or reduced to islands. There was Sunda & Sahul (the former being the combination of southeast Asia and Indonesia, and the latter the combination of Australia and Papua New Guinea). There was Doggerland, occupying much of the English Channel and North Sea. And there was Beringia, between modern day Alaska and Siberia. Along many of the worlds coastlines beyond these subcontinents, enough movement has taken place to submerge ancient maritime settlements.
In one tantalizing clue, amber artifacts, like exquisitely carved animal figures, and ornate pendants are regularly found washed up on Danish beaches. Estimated to be made as early as 15,000 years ago, these artifacts probably come from inundated coastal settlements, and their number seems to hint at a once densely populated part of the Eurpean continent. "Like messages in bottles, washed up on the shore after years spent bobbing on the waves, these amber ornaments carry tidings from the past." (Fischer & Pederson, 2018: 23)
"The extensive lowlands, wetlands, esturaries and shores that vanished below the sea offered unrivalled ecological attractions with regard to the productivity, diversity, and stability of resources for prehistoric fishers, hunters, gatherers, and farmers. The complex richness of these landscapes very probably rendered them of fundamental significance for the biological evolution and cultural development of our species. Moreover, these now lost lands were central to the spread of humans across the world. Classical examples are the migrations of early humankind into Australia and the Americas, which involved the occupation of now submerged, and as yet un-investigated landmasses." ~Anders Fischer
One of the last frontiers of paleolithic archaeology then, must lie beneath the waves.
Ames, K. M. The Northwest Coast: Complex hunter-gatherers, ecology, and social evolution. Annual Review of Anthropology. 1994;23(1):209–29.
Bednarik, R. G. (2000). Crossing the Timor Sea by Middle Palaeolithic Raft. Anthropos, 95(1), 37–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40465860
Boethius A. Fishing for ways to thrive: integrating zooarchaeology to understand subsistence strategies and their implications among Early and Middle Mesolithic southern Scandinavian foragers. Lund: Lund University; 2018.
Fischer, A., & Pedersen, L. (2018). Oceans of archaeology. Jutland Archeological Society.
Guillaud, E., Béarez, P., Daujeard, C., Defleur, A. R., Desclaux, E., Roselló-Izquierdo, E., Morales-Muñiz, A., & Moncel, M.-H. (2021). Neanderthal foraging in freshwater ecosystems: A reappraisal of the middle paleolithic archaeological fish record from Continental Western Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 252, 106731. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106731
Henshilwood, C., & Sealy, J. (1997). Bone artefacts from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, Southern Cape, South Africa. Current Anthropology, 38(5), 890–895. https://doi.org/10.1086/204678
Langejans, G. H. J., van Niekerk, K. L., Dusseldorp, G. L., & Thackeray, J. F. (2012). Middle stone age shellfish exploitation: Potential indications for mass collecting and resource intensification at Blombos Cave and Klasies River, South Africa. Quaternary International, 270, 80–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2011.09.003
Maritan, L., Iacumin, P., Zerboni, A., Venturelli, G., Dal Sasso, G., Linseele, V., Talamo, S., Salvatori, S., & Usai, D. (2018). Fish and salt: The successful recipe of White Nile mesolithic hunter-gatherer-fishers. Journal of Archaeological Science, 92, 48–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2018.02.008
Norman, K., Inglis, J., Clarkson, C., Faith, J. T., Shulmeister, J., & Harris, D. (2018). An early colonization pathway into northwest Australia 70-60,000 years ago. Quaternary Science Reviews, 180, 229–239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2017.11.023
O’Connor, S., Ono, R., & Clarkson, C. (2011). Pelagic fishing at 42,000 years before the present and the maritime skills of modern humans. Science, 334(6059), 1117–1121. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1207703
Trinkaus, E., Samsel, M., & Villotte, S. (2019). External auditory exostoses among Western Eurasian late middle and late pleistocene humans. PLOS ONE, 14(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220464
Zohar, I., Dayan, T., Goren, M., Nadel, D., & Hershkovitz, I. (2018). Opportunism or aquatic specialization? evidence of freshwater fish exploitation at Ohalo II- a waterlogged Upper Paleolithic site. PLOS ONE, 13(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0198747
However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn." ~Anonymous, Popul Vuh
Every step you take has already been taken. Every story has already been told. The land is not newly discovered, so old with legends you might mistake them for rocks." ~Craig Childs
The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
The past is never dead; it's not even past." ~William Faulkner
No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.” ~Robert Macfarlane
We always stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them." ~David Anthony
That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away." ~Heraclitus
Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
The first people were aware of the signs and signals of the natural world. Their artifacts were projectiles, blades, and ivory sewing needles, either used on animal products, or made from them, or used to procure them. The world around them was a cycle of animals of all sizes, from voles and falcons to some of the largest mammals seen in human evolution." ~Craig Childs
The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
However splendid our languages and cultures, however rich and subtle our minds, however vast our creative powers, the mental process is the product of a brain shaped by the hammer of natural selection upon the anvil of nature."
Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
The Sphinx will always have to be looked after."
Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and 30 years I could build a bigger one."
Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella