Thursday, April 06, 2006

First People

As mentioned here before, Scandinavia has a very short cultural history because of the inland ice. No Lower Palaeolithic here: our archaeology starts with the ice melt, only about 10 000 years ago where I live. Any traces of earlier human occupation were scraped off by the ice.

At least that's what most archaeologists believe. But Swedish quaternary geologists have an inkling that there may actually be an archaeological thing or two left that are way older. In the issue of Fornvännen that reached subscribers yesterday, my friend Jens Heimdahl has a paper on the strongest of these indications. Writes Jens:
A geological report from 1964 describes traces of a possible hearth and a wooden stick that appeared modified, found in stratigraphic position below 3 m of glacial till. The discovery was made in 1938 during the digging of a well on the small island of Mårtensön (currently called Laduholmen), in the eastern part of Lake Orsasjön, Dalecarlia, Sweden. ... A radiocarbon analysis of one of the sticks indicated an age of >40 000 years BP, i.e. past the lower date limit of the radiocarbon scale.

In 1964 [geologist Gösta] Lundqvist organised an excavation at the site. The trench exposed a dark silty sediment, with a stick in vertical position, under glacial till, 2.9 m below the modern surface. The sediment was radiocarbon dated to >40 000 BP.

... A possible correlation based on pollen composition between Mårtensön and Öje (a site c 50 km to the southeast) was made in 1988. The site at Öje was allocated to the Holstein interglacial in 1990.

So far the finds from Mårtensön seem to have been unknown to archaeologists. Laduholmen/Mårtensön holds an unrealised potential from both a geological and an archaeological perspective.
The operative word here is "interglacial". It means between the ices. Between the last Ice Age and the one before that. A time before Homo sapiens had ventured out of Africa.

If there really are traces of human activity at Mårtensön, then we seem to be dealing with Sweden's first documented Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthal site. So I can hardly wait until Jens goes there with a big excavator!

Heimdahl, J. 2006. Spår av en mellanpaleolitisk befolkning i Sverige? Förnyad granskning av Mårtensöfynden 1938 och 1964. Fornvännen 2006:1. KVHAA. Stockholm.
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Blogger Martha said...

How would wood be preserved so long? Would it be because of the ice? And how would you find likely sites to look for early inhabitants?

07 April, 2006 19:03  
Blogger Martin said...

I think the reason this wood had survived was that it was in a waterlogged environment without any oxygen.

Finding an indisputable pre-glacial archaeological site in Sweden isn't easy, or someone would have done it already. But the geologists have identified fairly large tracts of land that haven't been too badly mangled by the latest Ice Age.

My bet would be to look for fossil lake and river beds in these areas and dig deep at their edges. To convince everyone, you would need to find knapped stone tools of the right kind, preferably the "Mousterian industry", chunky tools popular among the Neanderthal people.

By the way -- the reason they're not around any more is probably that our ancestors killed them all. Lovely human nature.

07 April, 2006 20:08  
Blogger Martha said...

Things don't change much, do they. It's hard to imagine what it would be like if the Neanderthals had survived--having a parallel species around. I expect if we didn't kill them back then, we would do so now, or perhaps put them somewhere where they couldn't interact with us. But maybe we could have worked something out, and how cool would that be?

07 April, 2006 20:49  
Blogger Martin said...

Stephen Jay Gould used to say that it's really a mercy that no other hominids are around any more. Look at how we treat each other over subtle differences such as skin colour. What wouldn't we do to people who were significantly smaller, hairier and less smart than us?

07 April, 2006 21:11  

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