Paleolithic archaeology, software design, and the social brain

Over the past 18 months, I’ve immersed myself deeper and deeper in the Paleolithic, reading scores of books and journal articles. Why?

Backed knife on a Levallois blade - Right-handed (5)

Ever since my first visit at about age four to the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, with its mammoth skeletons and Paleolithic dioramas, I’ve been fascinating by the archaeology of deep human history (as Clive Gamble puts it in the subtitle of his exceptional book Settling the Earth). I wandered by chance onto the Tategahana Paleolithic Site at Lake Nojiri in Nagano during an excavation, walked carrot fields in Yokohama looking for Jomon potsherds, and when I traveled to Jordan during college for an Iron Age dig, I spent my evenings surface-collecting Middle Paleolithic tools from a nearby barley field. The vast, mostly unknown and seemingly unrelatable world of the Stone Age seems so much more interesting than the thoroughly modern world of Archimedes, Hadrian, and Augustine of Hippo.

The people driving their cars around the Coliseum in the photo below are separated from the Romans who built it by a mere 1% of the time our species has walked this earth. The archaeology of the complex, stratified societies that emerged during and after the Neolithic frankly bores me.

RomeColosseum
Photo by Kaosrimo on Wikimedia Commons

I’ve always been that strange arty type just as entranced by science and technology — there is no dichotomy or conflict for me. I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life melding my background in language and communication with a passion for data-driven research and the creation of new technologies. Despite being an English major during college back in the mid 90’s, my first “real” technology job was running the websites for several university departments, using vi on Sun Solaris to hand code the sites’ HTML — a skill carried over from repeatedly hitting F11 to Reveal Codes in WordPerfect on DOS.

When I finally took calculus alongside aspiring engineers and physicists, I had an epiphany: Mathematics and programming languages follow the same rules as music and human languages — a vocabulary with syntax and return values. Poetry is code. Music is math. And they’re not mere logic — they’re beautiful, emotionally rich expressions of this amazing, symbolic, social brain we’ve inherited from our ancestors.

When friends and colleagues wonder at my diverse interests — writing poetry, playing with LEGO, reading as much as I can about the Paleolithic, and running the planning and design teams for software development companies — I explain that there is a common thread throughout. I observe patterns and I make connections. I imagine and I explore. In doing so I create. I make stuff. I build things.

But I’m not special — to do all that merely defines me as a member of the human species. Understanding how we became us — and what “us” even means — is precisely what we can learn by studying human origins and the vast reaches of the Paleolithic. That is why I read.

Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition reading list

The Human RevolutionThe period of the Paleolithic that fascinates me most, as I know it does many archaeologists, is the transition between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic. I’m particularly fascinated by archaeological work in parts of the world where anatomically modern humans (AMH) and Neanderthals met, potentially interacted, and certainly interbred. The two most likely areas where this happened, based on archaeogenetic and archaeological evidence, are the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Europe.

While the genetics are at this point incontrovertible — all non-African modern humans carry Neanderthal DNA, and recent research has proved that gene flow also occurred in the other direction — what intrigues me most are the cultural markers of interaction between AMH and Neanderthals. Similarly, what constitutes behavioral rather than merely anatomical modernity? Thus, the Mode 3 technologies associated with AMH at several sites in the Levant and Mode 4 technologies (and potentially symbolic behavior such as personal adornment) associated with Neanderthals at Châtelperronian sites like Saint-Cesaire and Les Cottés in France represent amazing opportunities to answer these questions.

The Shape of Content to Come

Or, Information Architecture, Minimalist music, LEGO bricks, and a visit from the President of the People’s Republic of China

As I sat stuck on the bus yesterday for an hour and a half, crawling through traffic delayed and re-routed by an impending visit from President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, I listened for the first time to John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China.

I grew up listening both to the masters of “traditional” classical music and to revolutionary 20th-century composers like Copeland and Stravinsky — the first CD I ever bought for myself, back in 1983 (the year CDs were released in Japan), was the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Later, I learned to love opera when I sang in the chorus for Carmen with the oldest active symphony west of the Mississippi (a fun fact about the Walla Walla Symphony). But despite passionate recommendations from Music Major friends in college, I’d never really dug particularly deeply into Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Terry Riley, or John Adams. Hearing The Chairman Dances on the radio over the weekend, I realized I’d been missing something.

Whether writing software documentation earlier in my career as a technical writer, specifications and user stories more recently as a product manager, or poetry and fiction whenever I can find the creative and emotional space to write it, music has always played a significant part in my writing process. From Bach and Beethoven to Johnny Cash and Sigur Rós, just about any music helps me focus and concentrate, while the right music can help me maintain the emotional state I want to explore when writing poetry in particular.

This is not to say that music is somehow subordinate or subservient to writing. Music is in all probability the first art form that we humans created. Paleoanthropologists have excavated Aurignacian flutes from numerous sites across Europe — swan and vulture rib bones, cave bear femurs, and mammoth ivory carefully drilled with finger holes.

Flauta paleolítica
Aurignacian flute, ca. 43,000 BP. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, via Wikimedia Commons

With such incontrovertible evidence from 43,000 years ago, there is no doubt that music extends far back into the Paleolithic and may even precede the emergence of our species in Africa 200,000 years ago (I think it’s only a matter of time before the historically understudied African Middle or Later Stone Age reveals no less incontrovertible evidence of our African ancestors making music). Music was likely already a major component of the ritual activities that took place surrounded by the cave art of Chauvet and Lasceaux.

But the written word did not emerge until tens of thousands of years later in the Fertile Crescent and China, and did not evolve to include what we would consider “art” until even later, with poetry such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” from around 2,100 BCE.

British Museum Flood Tablet
The Epic of Gilgamesh, ca. 2,100 BCE. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Thus, music serves to aid my thought processes as it has for my ancestors for the past tens of thousands of years, and writing is just one potential outcome of the thinking process.

At the same time, what I write myself and work with every day (I’m the director of the planning and design team for a software company that builds tools for writers) has always had a definable shape. I’m not talking about the butterflies and triangles that writers of concrete poetry use or even the hierarchies and so-called structures that luminaries in the content business talk about at conventions and write about in thick books about content strategy. No, visual poetic devices on a page and cascading sequences of technical content are at best two-dimensional (and more often than not merely linear).

For me, content has the kind of shape you can hold in your hands. When I’m writing a poem, the experience is much like drawing a lump of clay up from the potter’s wheel into a plate, a pot, a vase. Carrying the simile perhaps one step too far, the carving, burnishing, and glazing that follows a pot’s drying process are much like the editing process with words — trim here, add there, change this and that.

From Point to TesseractThings get a bit … weirder in my head with complex business content — websites, software help systems, multilingual hardware manuals, drug labels and other pharmaceutical content. Beyond the tangible three-dimensional shapes I perceive when writing poetry, modules of content and their variations, the relationships between pieces of content, the content’s metadata, and the intended uses for the content all combine to begin taking a shape beyond the confines of three-dimensional space. If a poem is a beautifully crafted but rather straightforward cube, a drug label — with its relationships to regional and local prescribing information, varying approval statuses by regulatory authority, and forthcoming indications in Phase III clinical trials — is nothing short of a tesseract (the four-dimensional cube animated here).

Most people talk about content in terms of the end products (novels, poems, or documents) and their storage media (books and files). Even when we talk about the rich landscapes of great works of fiction like The Grapes of Wrath or The Lord of the Rings, we fall back to tired, linear mental models like the “inverted check mark” that every English Major has seen scratched on a chalkboard — tension building in a long line to a climax, with a short downward dip for the denouement after resolution of the story’s central conflict.

Inverted checkmark for The Lord of the Rings
A really boring story?

Despite fancy words we use in business content like “metadata,” “reuse,” and “modularity,” the way we actually describe and work with content is no less flat than the boring ways we analyze fiction. If language reflects the way we think, we’re thinking about content all wrong. Content is about complex relationships, tangible structures, and the interplay of ideas and their expression. Every piece of content has a shape.

One way I break out of linear and two-dimensional ways of thinking about content is by approaching it in a literally physical form. Thanks to my lifelong LEGO hobby, both my home and office are strewn with boxes of little plastic bricks from Denmark. When talking about content with colleagues, I often build what I’m describing, with specific colors representing certain content types and different bricks above, below, and behind to represent the relationships between the core content we’re discussing and other, related content. Not surprisingly, this mental model has worked much better with colleagues and customers than lengthy enumerations of content types and metadata in a spreadsheet or a linear hierarchy of elements and attributes.

Me!
LEGO Andrew plays with LEGO. Is the white tile the content and the red stud the metadata?

Interestingly, the language and processes of the Minimal music aesthetic also focuses on repetition, modularity, and complex structure. What I discovered this week is that the music itself creates a shape in my mind in the same way that both literature and complex business content do. For example, in Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” repeated phrases from the piccolos and a pulsing bass rhythm anchor the two ends of the score’s range and build on each other over the course of the piece, with transitions to variations on more traditional musical genres such as Big Band music from the 1930’s. The similarity to the Information Architecture concepts of modularity, reuse, and variation is even more evident in “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” with its persistent wood block percussion and varyingly repetitive trumpet notes. (I’m listening to Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach as I write this post, but my brain hurts a bit processing its shape.)

So, if music influences thinking, and thinking yields writing, perhaps we should be listening to more Philip Glass and John Adams while playing with LEGO bricks, and reading fewer big books about Information Architecture and Content Strategy…

Upper Paleolithic reading list

When most of us think about the Paleolithic, if we think about it at all, we think of our “Stone Age” ancestors clad in fur against the Ice Age cold, leaving their brightly painted caves to hunt mammoth. As a teenager in 1989, I visited the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian and bought one of my first books specifically about the Paleolithic in the gift shop, Paul Bahn and Jean Vertut’s gorgeous Images of the Ice Age. Through no fault of the authors, the book reinforced my childhood view of “deep” human history being a time populated by mammoths and men — humans like us.

As true as it may feel, the Upper Paleolithic is hardly ancient in the grand scheme of things, representing as little as one quarter of our species’ existence, and a minuscule fraction of the time our genus Homo has walked the earth. Nevertheless, the Upper Paleolithic, as remote as it may seem to all of us living in the post-Neolithic Holocene, still somehow feels like “our” Stone Age — a time we can relate to, with its art, complex technology, and nearly global scale.

Quibbles with perceptions of antiquity aside, it’s hard to argue that the Upper Paleolithic wasn’t beautiful. The books in my Upper Paleolithic reading list reflect the beauty and complexity of the time when we finally became us.

A Paleolithic typology joke

François Bordes on how to tell the difference between a Mousterian point and a convergent scraper:

The best way to decide is to haft the piece and try to kill a bear with it. If the result is successful, then it is a point; if not, then it should be considered a convergent scraper. One of the problems with this approach is that it can quickly exhaust the available supply of bears or typologists

– As paraphrased by André Debénath and Harold L. Dibble in Handbook of Paleolithic Typology: Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Europe (1994)

Grizzly

Grizzly by “Life as Art” on Flickr

The official word-hoard of Andrew Becraft