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.


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.


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.


Middle Paleolithic reading list

I’ve begun narrowing my reading down from works about the Paleolithic as a whole to the Middle Paleolithic in particular.

While it’s been fascinating to see perspectives on Neanderthals evolve in popular non-fiction over the last 30 years, immersing myself in stratigraphy, typology, palynology, faunal assemblages, taphonomy, and (most exciting!) spatial organization has proved deeply rewarding. To that end, my reading has incorporated more and more site reports by the likes of Bordes (Combe Grenal and Peche de l’Aze); Lévêque, et al (Saint-Cesaire); Bar-Yosef, et al (Kebara); and Akazawa & Muhesan (Dederiya).


General Paleolithic reading list

With my lithic technology reading list nearly out of the way, I continue to (pardon the pun) go deep on the Paleolithic. I’m particularly fascinated by the Middle Paleolithic, dominated in Europe by the Mousterian lithic industry created by our Neanderthal cousins.

Nevertheless, my Paleolithic reading list remains fairly diverse.

I’m especially enjoying the first book in my list, a copy from 1878 that I spotted by chance and picked up for $4.00 at a used bookstore 25 years ago in Union Springs, NY. It’s a fascinating view into the state of paleoanthropology in the era when Darwin, Lyell, and Huxley were all still alive.


More paleolithic archaeology and paleoanthropology reading lists: