Jacks and Knucklebones


Jacks used to be a popular children’s game.  It’s considered old-fashioned today because you don’t play it on your phone, but it regains some of its popularity when the kids are stuck in the cabin during a storm and there’s no signal available.

Long ago, though, jacks and knucklebones, its predecessor, were very important indeed.


A modern jacks set includes a rubber ball and several (sometimes five but usually ten) six-sided metal pieces, each with four round ends and two pointed ends.  Typically the players sit on the floor.  The first to play drops the pieces on the floor.  Starting with “onesies,” the player tosses the ball in the air and scoops up one jack before the ball takes its second bounce, then moves on to the next until all the pieces are retrieved.  If not, the player loses his or her turn and another player starts.  Once the “onesies” round is complete, the player moves to “twosies,” and onward all the way to “tensies,” which usually marks the end of the game.

Like solitaire, jacks can be played alone, which gives the player a chance to practice.  It’s all in the hand-eye coordination.  A good player can move from one-bounce to no-bounce games, catch pieces on the back of the hand when necessary, and switch dominant hands.

But like so many bits of modern culture, it provides a link to our ancient past, when “throwing the bones” meant far more than playing a game.



The game of Knucklebones, also known as Astragaloi, Tali, Kuglelach, Five Stones, and other names, has been around for thousands of years and played all over the world, including Africa, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.  Usually, the bones used were ankle bones of sheep, goats, or pigs because they had four distinct sides.  Once the meat was scraped off, the bones were set out so ants or other insects could devour all the scraps.  Then the bones were cleaned and polished, and sometimes dyed.


A set of knucklebones and a board to play on was included in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s grave goods (1323 BC). The game is mentioned in both The Iliad and The Odyssey (800 BC).  A Greek vase from 350 BC shows a nymph and a satyr playing the game.  A painting in Pompeii shows two goddesses playing (before 79 AD).  A Roman statue (pictured) features a young woman playing astragaloi. A painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder includes a couple of girls playing knucklebones (1560) – Detail shown below.


Throwing the Bones:  Divination

But the use of knucklebones is part of an even older tradition still in use today: divination – predicting the future or seeking answers to questions.  Divination is based on the idea that all things in the universe are connected and nothing happens by chance.  Therefore, the particular arrangement of the bones on a board as they fell is meaningful. As with Tarot cards, the reading depends on the bones, their values, and their relative positions where they fell.


If the charms used in the divination are quite different physically, such as a red stone, a weasel jawbone, an eagle talon, and a piece of fur, each piece may be assigned a specific meaning, emotion, or connection.  However, if the pieces are all the same, they need to have different aspects or facets.  In the case of the knucklebones, each bone has four very distinct faces. (See photo.)  In some cases, the faces were further delineated with markings, usually indicating numbers or values.

Women sometimes threw knucklebones to find out who whether the man they liked felt the same about them, along the same lines as pulling the petals off a daisy while saying “He loves me, he loves me not.” In ancient Greece, unmarried women who played Knucklebones were thought to be placing themselves in the hands of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who would choose a suitable mate.


In some Mongolian villages, throwing the bones was associated with fertility, destruction of evil spirits, and the promotion of life.  Knucklebones were often given to children as protective magic.  The game is still popular in Mongolia and Nepal (pictured).




Later, some bones were filed down but the markings remained, and knucklebones morphed into dice.  But the sense of destiny riding on the throw of the dice remained.  When Julius Caesar and his armies crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy in 49 BC, beginning a civil war with the Republic, he used the expression “The die is cast.”  In other words, the single die was rolled and the choice was made – perhaps by fate – and now cannot be reversed.

It’s not clear when or how the “throwing of the bones” morphed from divination to game.  Perhaps several uses existed side by side.  In the hands of a shaman, the bones became an instrument of divination, just as a deck of cards or dice might today.  In the hands of a gambler, they became the heart of a game ruled by luck, the more powerful and capricious cousin of chance.  In the hands of children, they became the central part of a contest based on skill.

Today, the game of jacks exists, like so many other pieces of our culture, as a remnant of a past we’ve almost, but not quite, forgotten.


Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alea iacta est,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alea_iacta_est

Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers, “Category: Obi and Diloggun Divination” http://readersandrootworkers.org/wiki/Category:Obi_and_Diloggun_Divination

Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (Bonereaders), “Category: Throwing the Bones and Reading Other Natural Curios,” http://readsersandrootwrokers.org/wiki/Category:Throwing_the_Bones_and_Reading_Other_Natural_Curios

Collinger, Zachary.  “How to Play Jacks,” Grandparents.com. http://www.grandparents.com/grandkids/activities-games-and-crafts/jacks

DeGrossi Mazzorin, Jacopo and Claudia Minniti, “Ancient use of the knuckle-bone for rituals and gaming piece,” Anthropozoologica, published by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, 2013, reprinted in BioOne,   http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.5252/az2013n2a13

“Dice and Divination: Playing with Knucklebones (Part I) September 2016, https://loadingplayertwo.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/dice-divination-playing-with-knucklebones-part-1/

“Dice and Divination: Playing with Knucklebones (Part 2)” February, 2016, https://loadingplayertwo.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/knucklebones-part-2/

“Dice and Jacks,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?w=CribNxumT4Y

Good, Alexandra.  “Knucklebones,” Archaeology of Daily Life.

Howard, Dorothy, “The Game of ‘Knucklebones’ in Australia,” Western Folklore (1958), reprinted in Australian Children’s Folklore Newsletter, November 1996.

“Item SH 990058  Knucklebones – Sheep, Aboriginal Children’s Play Project, circa 1945-1960” Australiab Children’s Folklore Collection, Museums Victoria Collections, http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1805550

“Jacks,” The Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/jacks

“Jacks,” The National Toy Hall of Fame, http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/jacks

“Knucklebones,” Board Game Geek, http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/11726/knucklebones

“Knucklebones.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knucklebones

“Knucklebones and Other Animal Deposits in the ‘Cruz del Negro’ Necropolis: Possible Phoenician Funerary Rituals in SW Spain,” Anthropozoologica, published by Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, reprinted in BioOne, http;//www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.5252/as2013n2a10.

“Knucklebones: Playing with Bones,” Ancient Games.  Henssen Palaeo Werkstatt.  http://palaeowerkstatt.de/en_spiel.php

“Kugelach (aka Five Stones) Yehuda: Life Intersects Games, 01 September 2008, http://jergames.blogspot.com/2008/09/kugelach-aka-five-stones.html

“Mesopotamia Architecture, Music, Games and Pets,” Facts and Details, http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub363/item1518.html

Pegg, Carole, Mongolian Music, Dance, and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities Seattle: University of Washington Press: 2001.

“Rollin’ Bones: The History of Dice,” Neatorama, 18 August 2014, http://www.eatorama.com/2014/08/18/Rollin-Bones-The-History-of-Dice/

“Tallus bone,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talus_bone

“The die is cast,” Wiktionary, the free dictionary, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/the_die_is_cast

Thorn, John. “Bruegel and Me,” from the column “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, 28 December 2006, https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/bruegel-and-me-f5sec7a5a27d6#.qworj8v15

“Toys and Games,” History Lives, a division of the Cooperman Fife and Drum Co., http://www.historylives.com/toysandgames.htm

Wiener, Noah.  “Ancient Games: Bronze Age tokens uncovered in Turkey are world’s oldest game pieces” Biblical Archaeology, 19 August 2013, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures-daily-life-and-practice/ancinet-games/


Bruegel, Pieter the Elder, “Children’s Games,” (detail), Google Art Project Version 2, Photo Gallery

Five Stone in Nepal, photo by Eli Shany

Jacks, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Knucklebones – Sheep, Museum Victoria, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>

Roman statue of girl playing knucklebones, photo by Sarah Joy

Woman Playing Knucklebones, painting by Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Baltimore Museum of Art, the Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid+45015764


Overthrowing Old Theories

We’ve long thought of ancient people as a little (or a lot) less sophisticated than we are.  Maybe the March of Progress illustration is to blame, but we see the folks who came before us as kind of dull-witted.  I mean, they didn’t have iPhones, right?

Worse is the assumption that they also lacked intelligence and emotional complexity, even language.  This despite extensive evidence to the contrary, including new finds at Blombos Cave in South Africa, including engraved red ochre blocks, ochre mixing kits, shell beads, as well as bone and stone tools dated 70,000 to 100,000 years ago!

Let’s take a boat

And why do we assume that our ancient ancestors had to walk everywhere when evidence of their boating ability abounds?

Humans crossed open sea and reached Australia by boat 50 – 75,000 years ago. (Kimberly rock art shown in photo)

Homo kimberley-hand-stencil 40,000 kya

Thomas Stasser and Eleni Panagopoulou’s work on Crete uncovered stone artifacts over 130,000 years old.  Their conclusion: modern humans were not the first to sail the Mediterranean.  Neanderthals, or perhaps even earlier hominins arrived before them.

Homo map Crete at center

Map of Mediterranean – Crete at center

Even earlier evidence points to hominins’ ability to sail.  Homo Floresiensis, the so-called “Hobbit People” for their diminutive size, braved treacherous deep sea waters to reach the island of Flores in what is now Indonesia.  Some artifacts on the island are 800,000 years old.

England enjoyed at least four waves of colonizers, starting 800,000 years ago.  The Boxgrove site on the southern coast yielded the oldest hominin remains: a leg bone and two teeth from what might be Homo heidelbergensis, considered the ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

But in the Americas

On the other hand, the peopling of the Americas is always described as a plodding migration of humans along a single path.  According to the theory most often taught in school, Ice Age hunters followed big game across what was then the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, known as Beringia.

It wasn’t a new theory.  Jose de Acosta of Spain first proposed it in 1590.

The Smithsonian vs. Clovis First

The Smithsonian Institution has had an interesting relationship with Clovis First.  Although the first “Clovis” point was discovered in 1906 by George McJunkin, a self-educated African-American cowboy and former slave, it didn’t come to the attention of the Smithsonian until the 1920s when Jess Higgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, found a similar point embedded in an extinct bison. In the 1930s more points like these were discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, which gave its name to the famous lithic style.  The theory that grew out of these finds stated that the first Americans came across the Land Bridge from Asia and from there spread throughout the Americas.

Ales Hrdlicka, taking over from William Henry Holmes at the Smithsonian, used his considerable influence to squash any research into the Clovis theory.  But the evidence kept piling up that modern humans were in North America at the same time as mammoths and Ice Age bison, about 13,000 years ago.


The Paleoindian Database of the Americas map above shows the distribution of Clovis points found in North America.  The highest concentration is in the middle south.

So the push was on, with renegade western archaeologists pitted against the stodgy Eastern establishment.  The theory eventually proved so popular that it was accepted as dogma.  In a strange turn of events, anyone who questioned Clovis First was ridiculed by the archaeological establishment.  Its force became so strong that any study that produced results conflicting with it was considered flawed.  Scientists learned to ignore results that didn’t fit the model.

Thousands of maps like this one, courtesy of Bing, were created, presenting an over-simplified and probably incorrect picture of the peopling of the Americas.

Homo beringamigration

Over the years, finds that conflicted with Clovis First kept coming in.  Clovis points are concentrated in the southeastern part of the USA, not the west, as would be expected from the Clovis First migration theory.

In yet another strange turn-around, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History now claims there was never any evidence of Clovis points originating in Siberia.  He now claims that the points are Solutrean, and the colonizers came from northern Spain to the eastern coast of North America.

And now to South America

When Tom Dillehay came up with a date of 14,800 years ago for the Monte Verde site in Chile, the archaeological community, in a fit of collective panic, said they simply couldn’t accept evidence that refuted their favorite theory.  No site in South America could predate the opening of the ice sheets in North America.

Homo monte-verde-chile


And now, Dillehay has published a new paper in PLOS One, with dates from a different section of the Monte Verde site, establishing human presence there 18,500 years ago.

This brings up the possibility that the direction of the migration arrow in the old model was dead wrong.  Maybe people showed up in South America and then moved north.


But here’s the strangest part of this odd drama:  Why, when we accept seafaring relatives in the Mediterranean as far back as the Neanderthals – maybe farther – can’t we accept seafaring explorers who arrived in the Americas?  Not just coastline huggers.  True seafarers, excellent navigators from the South Pacific.

Maybe they were outlaws or people who got lost at sea.  Or maybe they just had to see what was out there.

PTLI new cover

That’s the premise of the second book in my series, Past the Last Island.  A group of explorers, driven away from their homeland by natural disasters, purposely sets out into the open ocean to find whatever lies beyond the edge of the world.  I believe that’s a human trait.  It’s what took us to the moon and someday, I hope, to Mars and other planets.

If we grant the people from long ago the same intelligence and complexity we value in ourselves, we open up new possibilities in our history, and our collective story becomes that much richer.


(The next big shake-up in the ancients’ world is going to come from China. Stay tuned.)


Sources and interesting reading:

“Blombos Cave,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blombos_Cave

Bower, Bruce. “Ancient Hominids Took to the Seas,” Science News, 27 November 2012, news.discovery.com/human/evolution/ancient-hominids_sailors_seas.htm

“Clovis: Why the Controversy?” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/clovis.html

Curry, Andrew. “Finding the First Americans,” The New York Times, 19 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/who-arrived-in-the-americas-first.html

Dillehay, Tom, and others. “New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile,” PLOS One, 18 November 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141923.

Dixon, Jim, “Vicariant models for the initial colonization of North America,” People Colonizing New Worlds, 1st Harvard Australian Studies Symposium, 17-18 April, 2009

“First Americans arrived 2500 years before we thought,” New Scientist, Daily News, 24 March 2011, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20287-first-americans-arrived-2500-years-before-we-thought?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref+online-news

Gugliotta, Guy. “When Did Humans Come to the Americas?” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-did-humans-come-to-the-americas-4209273/

“Homo Floresiensis,” Human Origins, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis

Jones, Tim. “100,000 Year-Old Incised Ochre Found at Blombos Cave,” Anthropology.net: Beyond bones and stones, 12 June 2009, http://anthropology.net/2009/06/12/100000-year-old-incissed-ochre-found-at-blombos-cave/

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks Weblog, 19 November 2015, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reiews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html

Mann, Charles C. “The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-clovis-point-and-the-discovery-of-americas-first-culture-3825828/?no-ist

Meltzer, David. “Why don’t we know when the first people came to North America?” American Antiquity, 54(3), 1989, 471-490.  (This article is interesting but out of date.)

Map of Clovis points distribution, PIDBA, Paleoindian Database of the Americas, web.utk.edu/~dander19/clovis_continent-647kb.jpg

“Neanderthals May Have Sailed to Crete,” Discovery.com, 13 December 2012, newsdiscovery.com/history/archaeology/Neanderthals-sailed-Mediterranean-121115.htm

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquer Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest, National Geographic, 17 February 2010,  news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/

Simmons, Alan. “Extinct pygmy hippopotamus and early man in Cyprus,” Nature, 333, 09 June 1988, 554-557, hhtp://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v333/n6173/abs/333554a0.html

“Upside-Down Map of the Americas” Peregringo blog, http://peregringo.com/?attachment_id=315

Wayman, Erin. “The Top Five Human Evolution Discoveries from England,” Smithsonian Magazine 25 July 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-top-five-human-evolution-discoveries-from-england-6792571/

Wilford, John Noble.  “On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners,” The New York Times, 15 February 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/science/16archeo.html




Simplying History

This post appears as a guest post on Sheila Deeth’s blog.

diorama, lions, Denver Musuem of Nature and Science

When I was growing up, dioramas were popular exhibits in museums.  Maybe you remember them.  They ranged from miniature battle scenes with scores of carefully painted tin soldiers to life-size spreads featuring dead, stuffed animals of specific areas, like the Northwoods or the African Plains.  They were at once appealing and simplified, or perhaps appealing because they were simplified.  Yet ultimately, their simplification robbed them of truth.

Diorama with lions and termite mound, Denver Museum


Battle_of_Bosworth_Field_dioramaThe battle scene was probably carefully researched, the background carefully painted, the uniforms and insignia of the combatants, their flags, even the terrain recreated as closely as possible.  But in the end, everyone looking at it, even children, knew they were toys.  No one gasped at the horror and the bloodshed of the battle, the confusion of a terror-filled valley, the horses stuck in the mud or impaled by a lance, the screams of the wounded.  The display was safe and distant, a tableau of toy soldiers on a toy battlefield.

Diorama of the Battle of Bosworth Field

diorama with dinosaursIn the dinosaur exhibits, the museum had to encase the displays in Plexiglas to prevent viewers from rearranging the plastic animals.  They simply begged to be played with, moved, made to come alive with roars and fights.  Even children knew that dinosaurs didn’t stand still.

In the big dioramas, the museums put together preserved specimens from particular ecosystems.  In some cases, they were exotic beasts from far-away lands:diorama from the  Congo National Museum

a rhino and a lion from Africa, a jaguar from Mexico, a grizzly bear from Canada.  They were once alive, these creatures on display, but few viewers were filled with dread or even taken by surprise.  Something about these figures behind their protective glass enclosure told everyone they were long dead, curiosities shot to death years ago because someone felt museums needed to have these.

Display from the Congo National Museum

There’s something incredibly sad about these fierce predators now staring endlessly out of their glass eyes at a public who doesn’t care except to feel mildly embarrassed for the ones that are obviously getting a little threadbare.  So some viewers make jokes while others move on or check their smart phones.

It isn’t real, the life presented in these displays.  Real life is seen in moments.  A real bear is glimpsed as it crosses a road far ahead, a lumbering figure surprisingly quick as it plows through the underbrush and disappears.  Out west, a cougar may be watching you without your ever knowing it’s there.  But you might catch the mark of its paw in the mud or the flash of its long tail as it disappears into the forest – if you’re watching.

There’s another kind of unreality as well, also perpetrated by these displays: false information. For a long time, James Horner maintained that some dinosaurs were quite smart and very fast, yet when he proclaimed that idea in the Smithsonian Museum dinosaur exhibit, he was escorted out.  It took Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park bestseller and Spielberg’s blockbuster movie based on it to change people’s mind (and the Smithsonian exhibit).

This happens in exhibits of early humans as well.  We see them huddled around their tiny fire, leading a miserable life.  That’s obvious because they look terrible, with long straggly hair, rough hide clothing, and a cave littered with old bones.  Whew!  Lucky we’ve come a long way since then, eh?

caveman diorama

And yet, some of the very earliest archaeological finds we have indicate that people cared very much about the way they looked.  Some of the oldest finds are jewelry – pierced, dyed shells strung together.  The contenders for oldest jewelry in the world include shell necklaces found in present-day Algeria and Israel (100,000 years old), Morocco (82,000 years old), and South Africa, (80,000 years old).  Included with the pierced shells found in Blombos Cave, South Africa (See photo) was an incised block of red ochre, mineral clay widely used in face painting in many cultures, right up to today.  It’s a common ingredient in women’s makeup “blusher.”

Pierced, dyed beads and incised block of red ochre from Blombos Cave, South Africa

At the same time people were making marks on blocks of red clay and making strings of shell beads, they were burying their dead with fine tools and jewelry, indicating a sense of the afterlife where these people would need these fine goods.

Breakthroughs in archaeology in the last twenty years have re-written the human story as we know it, yet they don’t get a lot of press, perhaps because people hate to shake up the tidy pictures they’ve internalized as truth.  DNA analyses have shown that many western Eurasians today carry traces of Neanderthal genes.  Obviously the story of human development is a little more complicated than we were led to believe!  Similarly, some people in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Australia have been shown to carry traces of Denisovan DNA.  Denisovans, once living in eastern Eurasia, are believed to be related to the Neanderthals.

I’m writing a series of novels about ancient explorers in the Americas, about 14,000 years ago.  That’s not all that long ago.  Pedra Furada, a site in northeast Brazil, dated over 30,000 years ago, includes atlatls (dart-throwers) and darts, as well as rock art and pottery.  Monte Verde, in southern Chile, showing evidence of humans hunting mastodons, was also dated over 30,000 years ago.  In the Topper Hill site, in South Carolina, Albert Goodyear has found evidence of human presence 16,000 years ago and possibly 50,000 years ago.

All these dates pale next to finds in Great Britain, which establish the presence of tool-making hominids more than 500,000 years ago, dubbed homo ancestrus, apparently later killed or driven out by the encroaching Ice Age.

All of this, to me, is very exciting – and reassuring.  We humans, a complicated species with a turbulent history, have faced difficulties before, including drastic climate changes that remade our world.  Yet we found a way to survive.  And maintain our spiritual connection to the world.  And look nice too.

Sources and interesting reading:

Henshilwood, Christopher, et al.  “A 100,000 year-old ochre processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa,” Science, 14 October 2011, 33:219-222

Mayell, Hillary.  “Oldest Jewelry?  Beads Discovered in African Cave” National Geographic News, April 15, 2004

Ravilious, Kate.  “Oldest Jewelry Found in Morocco Cave” National Geographic News, June 7, 2007

Randolph, W. Schmid.  “Ancient Shells May be Oldest Jewelry”  Live Science, 22 June, 2006

Sample, Ian.  “First Humans Arrived in Britain 250,000 years earlier than thought” The Guardian, 7 July 2010

Ancient Navigators

Did ancient explorers cross oceans to reach the New World?

Many popular theories explaining the peopling of the Americas, including Clovis First (See earlier post on the Clovis theory) claim that people first arrived in the Americas by walking across Beringia, the Ice Age land bridge from Siberia to Alaska  around 13,000 years ago.  From there they eventually spread overland all the way across and down the Americas.

Monte Verde

Mario Piño, from Chile, and Tom Dillehay, from the USA, provided the best challenge to the Clovis-first theory with their work on the Monte Verde site in Chile (See map).  In 1977, they published their findings, which included evidence of human presence at the site 14,200 years ago.  The upper level yielded interesting finds, including the remains of 20’ long structures made of walls of poles covered with animal hides, large hearths lined with clay, coprolites containing remnants of 45 different plant species including nine species of seaweed, seeds, nuts, berries, remains of local animals, and wild potatoes.  Some of their food came from 150 miles away, indicating either a large gathering area or a functioning food network.

In 1997, the Monte Verde dates were rechecked and confirmed by previously doubting archaeologists, some of whom were forced to admit they might need a more complex answer to the question of how people arrived in the Americas.

However, that wasn’t the real shocker.  Tom Dillehay knew more than he said in his published paper.  He and Piño had excavated a lower level with dates Dillehay knew would never be accepted, so he ignored the lower level in his paper, except to note “although the stratigraphy is intact, the radiocarbon dates are valid, and the human artifacts are genuine, I hesitate to accept this older level without more evidence and without sites of comparable age elsewhere in the Americas.”  Later, he admitted he had found “charcoal scatters which may be the remnants of fireplaces next to possible stone and wood artifacts, and these were dated to at least 33,000BC.”

Mario Piño had fewer reservations.  He asserted the 35,000 years ago date based on his finds at Monte Verde and corresponding dates from an animal bone found at another archaeological site 120 miles north.

Pedra Furado

Another pivotal discovery was made in South America at a site called Pedra Furado in eastern Brazil.  Here, the dates were so revolutionary that few American archaeologists accepted them. In 1986, a woman named Niede Guidon published a paper claiming she had discovered the oldest known site of human habitation in the Americas (at least 33,000 years ago; some dates range from 41,000 to 56,000 years ago).  Included in the strata dated 32,000 years old were fragments of pottery and rock art figures.

Not only did this find challenge the cherished view that the first people to visit the Americas came across the land bridge from Asia into North America 13,000 years ago and then populated the Americas; it blew it out of the water by 20,000 years!  And in South America!  And discovered by a woman!

Even more shocking was the level of sophistication of the very early explorers, with pottery and art.  Its location on the east side of Brazil was also troubling.  If the first people in the Americas came across the Bering Strait, getting to eastern Brazil would mean a sea journey of 10,000 miles down the west coast of the Americas, followed by an incredibly difficult overland journey of thousands more to reach the Pedra Furada sites.  Even some Clovis-Firsters thought it seemed far more plausible that the early explorers in Brazil came from Africa, making a trans-Atlantic journey of about 2000 miles, with both currents and wind in their favor.  (In 2012, Katie Spotz, a 22-year old woman, rowed her way from West Africa to South America, solo, in 70 days.)

More recent finds at the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania have been dated to 14,250 years ago, pre-dating the Clovis sites by a thousand years.  Other ancient sites in Delaware and Virginia have again raised the possibility that ancient explorers crossed the Atlantic Ocean long before Leif Erickson and Saint Brendan did.

The problem, it seems to me, is underestimating both the intelligence and the navigational skill of the ancient explorers.

Amazing explorers

Homo floresiensis, the “Hobbit” people whose remains were found on Flores Island in eastern Indonesia, lived from 94,000 to 12,000 years ago.  The oldest bone fragment unearthed at the dig site was dated to 74,000 years ago.  People settled in Australia at least 45,000 years ago, though some claim the date is more than 60,000 years ago.  In order to reach these places, even with the ocean levels much lower than they are today, people needed to use boats.

Ancient Polynesian navigators, the greatest open ocean explorers in the world, found their way from Indonesia and New Guinea out into the Pacific Ocean, covering an area larger than North and South America combined, including Fiji, Hawaii, and Easter Island.  (DNA studies have shown the Easter Islanders to be Polynesian.) It’s 4,610 miles from Fiji to Easter Island.  Many believe that the Polynesians went on from Easter Island to explore the west coast of South America, (only 2,400 miles farther) bringing chickens from Asia to the New World and taking sweet potatoes back with them to Easter Island and Polynesia.

When European explorers arrived in Polynesia, they were amazed that the native mariners regularly sailed far out of sight of land and returned safely, maintaining a wide-area trade system that linked over a hundred islands, all without use of maps, compass, or sextant.

Later colonizers refused to believe these “savages” could be so skillful, dismissing their claims as fiction.  In the 20th century, when the old ways of the navigator had almost disappeared, some Western sailors decided to learn the ways of the native navigators.  The most famous was David Lewis, an accomplished sailor whose book We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific became the best source of information on the fading art of the South Pacific navigator.  The 13,000 miles he sailed with native navigators in the South Pacific showed him how amazingly accurate their methods were.  On some of the early voyages, he kept a compass and charts locked away in case he needed them.  He didn’t.

Steering by the Stars

A traditional Polynesian navigator needs to know the night sky so well that he can mentally see the whole sky even if most of it is obscured by clouds.  (I’m using he because all of the traditional Polynesian navigators still alive are male, and instruction in the art is now limited to males.  However, ancient pictographs of Polynesian explorers show men, women, and children on board, in addition to lots of plants, even trees, and animals.)

He needs to memorize the exact path, including rising and setting points, of at least 36 major stars and over a hundred secondary ones.  For example, some stars rise in the east, such as Altair, the brightest star in our constellation Aquila the Eagle, and arc toward the north, so they can be used as reliable indicators of east only for a short time after they rise, a period usually measured in fists.  The navigator holds out his arm so his fist lies between the horizon and the star he’s using.  He knows this particular star is only reliable until it reaches two fists above the horizon.  After that, he needs a new star to take him to the east.  It might be a new star rising in the east or a star like Spica, which sets directly west. Navigators who travel to particular islands regularly know a sequence of stars to follow to each destination.  The star compass pictured includes many of the stars navigators would know though they were known by different names in different areas.  This knowledge was carried in the navigator’s memory, not on paper.

If the eastern part of the sky is obscured by clouds, he must be able to use whatever part of the sky he can see to give him the orientation he needs to fill in the rest of the sky.  Absolutely accurately.

Pictured above is the Universal Star Compass, from The Barefoot Navigator.


He also needs to read the pattern and direction of the waves passing under the flexible hulls of his boat.  Ocean currents in Polynesia tend to be very consistent.  As the long waves pass under the boat at a consistent angle, the navigator knows where the currents are coming from and judges his direction accordingly.  He knows that the currents bend and shorten as they near land.  If storms are coming in, the surface currents will be different from the deeper currents. In some cases, he has six or seven different currents to track.  Some navigators lie down on the deck or the outrigger to get an exact reading of the multiple currents.

The stick chart pictured shows the currents in a particular area.  Islands are marked with shells.  While navigators sometimes studied charts like this before a voyage, they were not typically brought along on the boat.  Few navigators explained the charts to outsiders.

Birds, Vegetation Mats, Clouds, Colors, Smells

The traditional navigator knows that while certain birds are trans-oceanic flyers, like the albatross, others serve as good indicators of nearby land. Terns and noddies fly out from land in the morning and return at night.  Frigate birds released from their cages are another good indicator of land.  Since the birds will drown if they get their wings wet, they will either fly toward nearby land or head back to the boat.

The migration of the Pacific golden plover was said to inspire the ancient Polynesians in Tahiti to look for the land the plovers were heading toward, which turned out to be the Hawaiian Islands.  Later, Captain Cook also used the migration of the plover as an indication that land lay to the north, which is how he found Hawaii in the middle of the ocean.  The golden plover, kolea, appears on the Hawaii state stamp (pictured) and on petroglyphs on Hawaii (illustration). 

Mats of vegetation are also reliable indications that land is fairly close.  Farther away, the mats break up due to wave action.  The navigator looks to the clouds for information on wind velocity and approaching weather.   In addition, clouds tend to form over land due to transpiration, so a lone cloud on the horizon might indicate an island lies beneath it.   Sky color is also important, as is the color of the water, paler over reefs or submerged islands, darker in very deep sections.

A traditional Polynesian navigator had to use his entire body as a sensor.  It’s no wonder the ancients respected him.

A Polynesian Network

Upon discovering the remains of a reed boat and wild sweet potatoes on Easter Island, Thor Heyerdahl theorized that South Americans drifted with the western current to Easter Island, bringing both the boat and the sweet potato with them, then later drifted all the way to Polynesia.  While this theory has since been discarded, it may be partially correct.  If the Polynesians went east all the way to South America, they may well have made the round-trip, bringing chickens to South America and the sweet potato to Easter Island.

Another fascinating hint at a Polynesian network comes from a Peruvian mummy examined by the University of York’s Mummy Research Group.  They found it had been embalmed with the resin of the Araucaria conifer, closely related to the Monkey Puzzle Tree found in New Guinea.

The Importance of the Sea Explorer Community

Exploration by sea may have played a very important role in the development of human society.  It necessitated an exact and widespread language, a desire to act together for the common good, advanced tool use, engineering skill, and extensive knowledge of the natural environment.  It would have been driven by a need for constant innovation: stronger, flexible hulls, a more complete star map, different sail, hull, and paddle designs, double masts, outriggers.  Knowledge was power.  The person who could take a boat out of sight of land and return again was recognized as special.  The person who could manage the same feat by night was very special.  If he could manage a voyage of many days and nights between distant islands, he was extraordinary.   Sea exploration created a society made of an accepted leader and his followers.  The navigator’s word was law, just as it is today onboard a ship.  Once the explorers formed a settlement in the new land, it would have been natural to maintain this social order, at least until populations grew and resources became scarce.

The ancient navigators faced a world ready to kill them if they were stupid or careless, maybe even if they weren’t.  They accepted life that way.  Sometimes I think it’s sad that so many people hunger for that kind of adventure today and find it only inside a video game.

Sources and interesting reading:

Guidon, N. and B. Arnaud. “The chronology of the New World: Two Faces of One Reality,” Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences, Sociales, Paris

Guidon, N. and Delbrios, G. 1986 “Carbon 14 dates point to man in Americas 32,000 years ago,” Nature, 321:769-771.

Gladwin, Thomas.  East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.

“Homo Floresiensis,” Wikipedia

Lagan, Jack.  The Barefoot Navigator: Navigating with the skills of the ancients.  Dobbs Ferry, New York: Sheridan House, 2005.

Lewis, David.  We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, second edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994 (an excellent source)

“Monte Verde,” Wikipedia

“New Evidence from Earliest Known Human Settlement in the Americas,” Science Daily.  www.sciencedaily.com

“Pedra Furada, Brazil: Paleoindians, Painting, and Paradoxes,” Athena Review, vol. 3, no. 2: Peopling of the Americas. www.athenapub.com/10furad.htm.

“Pedra Furada sites, (Piaui, Brazil)” by George Weber, www.andaman.org/BOOK/chapter 54

“Polynesian Discovery,” History channel, available on YouTube

“Sailing by the Stars – How the Ancients Did It” sailboat2adventure.com.blogspot.com

Schmitz, P. I. 1987. “Prehistoric hunters and gatherers of Brazil.” Journal of World Prehistory, 1:53 – 126.

The Color of Life and Death

The Color of Life and Death

Blombos Cave in South Africa was already famous in archaeological circles as the site where researchers found a series of pierced shells, carefully worked stone points, a tool kit, and a block of red ochre marked with crisscross designs, all more than 60,000 years old (photo).  (See earlier post “I Think; Therefore I Decorate Myself.”)  Most of the media attention went to the shells as evidence of some of the oldest, if not the oldest, jewelry in the world.  Perhaps while we were dazzled by the jewelry, we should have looked a little more closely at the decorated block of red ochre that went with them.

This month, Blombos Cave was in the news again, in the journal Science and The New
York Times
.  An international team of researchers working in Blombos Cave, led by Dr. Christopher Hencilwood, has identified a full paint kit which is 100,000 years oldThe main ingredient of the paint is red ochre, a mineral clay that gets its color from iron oxide.  Tools at the site include hammerstones and grind stones to chip and crush the clay and abalone shells to serve as bowls.  (See photo.) In order to get the composition they wanted, the ancient people mixed the crushed red ochre with animal fat, charcoal, stone chips, quartz grains, and some liquid, then stirred the mix in the shells.  The find also included stir sticks with the same substance still on them.

Why was red ochre worth all this effort?

This is a difficult question to answer, but there are some clues.  In many ancient societies, red ochre was associated with blood and therefore with both life and death.  It was used in body decoration, medicines, wood and sail preservatives, compounds for dying and preserving skins, as well as preparations used on the dead.  Ochre-painted bones dated to 62,000 years ago were found in Australia.  The practice was also common in Mesoamerica.  In parts of Asia, cinnabar was used instead.

Ancient Pict warriors (Scotland) painted themselves with red ochre.  The Celts (England and Ireland) were called “red men” from their habit of painting themselves with a substance called bog iron.  The Chumash Indians (California) used red ochre in their body paint.  The Moche (Peru) used it in face paint. Ancient Egyptian women used red ochre for their lipstick and rouge.  Australian Aborigines used different color
ochre pigments (red, yellow, brown) for their body and rock paintings.

In many other cases, red pigment was rubbed on a sacred object in order to awaken its power.

Today, many people still use red ochre in body
painting.  The Maasai paint their bodies and color their hair with red ochre (photo). Hamar brides in Africa wear a mixture of ochre and animal fat.  Sudanese women from the Nuba mountains wear a mixture of oil and red ochre between puberty and their first pregnancy.  Iron oxide is one of the ingredients in common makeup blusher.

While not all of these uses are the same, they all point to a spiritual and social value of red pigment associated with blood, life, power, fertility, even death.

The blocks and paint pots found at Blombos might then represent both spirit power and trade wealth.

The people who left these pots behind were knowledgeable in the materials needed to get them the red paint they wanted.  That involved transfer of information (I tried it this way and it didn’t work.  I found a good source of red ochre about a day’s hike from here.), gathering or manufacture of tools, and plan for the dissemination of this material.  There was no hearth found with the paint pots.  Did they go to this cave specifically to make paint?  Was the cross-hatch mark a way to bring out the magical power of the block,  a way to claim ownership, or a counting system?  At this point we can’t tell, but these bring up more questions about these people’s intelligence, their communication system, their social network, and their cosmological beliefs.

To go back to the decorated blocks for a moment, look at the cross-hatch marks, including the top and bottom lines that enclose the design.  It’s a very purposeful creation.  It would seem to move the date for the first art back from 40,000 years ago (the cave paintings of France and Spain) to 100,000 years ago, which is quite a step.  But, you complain, a couple of decorated blocks aren’t much; there aren’t any paintings in Blombos Cave.  True. I suspect the canvas was the human body, not a rock wall.  The people who valued the pierced shells in the first necklace had to have a beautiful painted body on which to wear it.

The oldest art is body art, much of which is still alive today, from the exquisite henna designs on a bride to the tattooed face of a Maori to the array of clothing, hair styles, makeup, piercings, and tattoos worn by people of all ages walking the streets of America.  The sense of purposeful creation of ourselves is part of our heritage as humans.

Ancient Ostrich Eggshells: Lines, Patterns, Spirits

The Discovery

In 2010, an archaeological team led by Pierre-Jean Texier of the Univeristy of Bordeaux, France, made an incredible find in the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa: 270 ostrich eggshell fragments engraved with geometric designs (pictured, left).  What’s particularly interesting about this find is the date: 60,000 years ago!  Just to put that in perspective, the only earlier design as yet identified, also from a South African cave, is a single cross-hatched block of red ochre, dated to an amazing 80,000 years ago.  The Chauvet Cave art in France, long thought to be the first expression of human art, is dated to 35,000 years ago, and the earliest Egyptian pyramid is a relative new-comer at 5,000 years ago.  So the discovery of the decorated ostrich eggshells means humans (or at least hominids) were making art – specific designs and patterns carefully created and repeated – a very long time ago.

Ostrich eggshells are large (about 4″ in diameter and 6″ in length) and quite strong; very useful, once they’ve been cleaned out, as cups, bowls, or canteens.  Since they can withstand heat, they might also have served as cookware.  Some Bushmen still use ostrich eggshells as canteens, plugging the hole with a mixture of grass and beeswax, and many people still use the shells as cups and bowls.  There’s a thriving craft business in decorated ostrich eggs, both whole and half shells, with designs ranging from elaborate drawings scratched into the shell to simple repeated geometric patterns.  You can browse a wide selection in gift shops through southern Africa.  I brought a decorated half-shell home (photo) in my checked bag, so it must be pretty strong.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the ancient people treasured these versatile eggshells.  What is surprising is the clear sense of design in the fragments that were discovered.  Since the archaeologists had such a large sample to work with (270 fragments), they were able to see the repetition of very similar patterns.  All of the fragments shown in the photo have dots arranged in what seems to be a random scattering, sometimes over the whole fragment, sometimes over only part of it.  The horizontal lines and vertical marks between them are superimposed over the dots.  Althought ostrich eggs are typically off-white, the shell fragments in the find are grey, blue, red, orange, and green, perhaps indicating the use of dyes or pit firing to create different colors the way a potter would.

Some experts have dismissed the decorations as mere doodling, but their theory seems hard to believe.  Why would the ancient people take the time to mark and color these shells so carefully if they meant nothing?  It’s far more likely that they were very important indeed, but because the experts don’t understand the shells’ meaning, they’ve decided the designs are meaningless.

The Khoi-San/ Bushmen

The Khoi-San, more commonly known as the Bushmen, have some of the oldest patterns of mitochondrial DNA on the planet and are considered the oldest living race of humans.  In modern times, they have been persecuted and pushed to the edges of developed areas in South Africa and Botswana, but they once roamed over most of southen and central Africa.  However, according to research published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, the Khoi-San population dropped to only a few thousand individuals about 70,000 years ago, perhaps as the result of a prolonged drought.  Then the tiny bands that managed to survive came together and restarted the human race.  Many experts think this was also the time that modern, complex language developed and many people migrated to new areas, perhaps in search of a kinder enviroment.

It’s that amazing time that leads to these amazing shells.

The Trance Dance

In traditional Khoi-San/Bushmen practice, the trance dancer combines dancing, music, hyperventillation, concentration, and hallucinogenic drugs to reach the trance state.  Here, somewhere between life and death, he (or she) can mediate between the world of spirits and the world of people to try to restore balance.  In some cases, the shaman must fight off sickness or misfortune sent by the angry dead, often spoken of as arrows of harm the dead throw at the victim’s midsection.

According to the “San Religion” entry in Wikipedia, western researchers into the trance dance have attempted to replicate the trance dance experience in the lab by using LSD.  In their findings, the first part of the trance is an altered state of consciousness in which people see geometric shapes, especially zigzags, dots, flecks, and grids, vortexes and U-shapes.  These designs are very common in rock art of South Africa and on the ostrich eggshells.

In the later stages of the trance, subjects see multiple U-shaped figures like honeycombs.  There are many examples of these in Bushmen cave painting, including several with bees carefully painted in.  Finally, the subjects feel as if they are falling down a whirling vortex, seeing monsters and strange animals.  Some feel they’ve become half-animal.  Figure of animal-human hybrids, called theriotropes, are common in Bushmen cave paintings.

It seems possible, then, that the amazing ostrich eggshells are not mindless doodles at all but very purposeful pieces of art that mark a spiritual journey undertaken by many, perhaps a battle against the forces of evil that threated the existence of mankind.