Sniff ethylene and become an oracle

In a small temple on the south slopes of Mount Parnassus in Ancient Greece sits a somewhat befuddled lady, her inhibitions definitely down and she sometimes becomes delirious and thrashes around.  The great and the good seek her opinion on matters of state.  Perhaps for almost 2 millennia, successive pythia (pythia) of the Delphic Oracle had a steady passing trade.  Writers from the classic times of Greek and Rome leave little doubt that the pythia’s powers stemmed from three things: a fissure and a spring lying at the centre of what became revered as the Sanctuary of Apollo, and a vapour that emanated from her chamber.  The Oracle was seemingly a matter of geology and its mystique. 

Indeed there are two intersecting faults passing right beneath the Oracle.  Suitably encouraged, a team from Florida State and Weslyan Universities, and The University of Louisville, USA has been studying all aspects of the site since 1995 (de Boer, J.Z., Hale, J.R. and Chanton, J.  2001.  New evidence for the geological origins of the ancient Delphic oracle (Greece).  Geology, v. 29, p. 707-710).  Where others failed before them, they have discovered evidence for a spring and traces of hydrocarbon gas leaking from a bituminous limestone cut by the faults at depth.  One of the gases in the mixture is ethylene, once used as an anaesthetic, and known to cause just the symptoms in the pythia described in ancient accounts of her powers.

Seafaring Homo erectus?

The first Homo erectus fossils recorded by Eugene Dubois came from Java.  Dubois was not so good at recording the geological context of his finds, and most of the later Javan discoveries were by local farmers.  Consequently the dates of first arrival of the erects are a subject of continual debate, recent suggestions being that erects maintained a hold in Indonesia until as late as 20 thousand years ago.  The incompleteness of  records also led to few finds of artefacts, so much so that doubt has been cast on any significant H. erectus culture.  Later work throughout Indonesia did reveal something quite astonishing, however.  The erects crossed Wallace’s line to colonise one of the easternmost islands in the Indonesian arc, Flores, where undoubted stone artefacts occur in rich beds of fossil bones.

Alfred Russell Wallace noted that the flora and fauna of western Indonesia are to all intents the same as on continental Asia, whereas those of the islands east of Bali are very different.  This empirical division is now known to have arisen through the emergence of land bridges between the western islands and mainland Asia as sea level fell to expose shallow seafloor during Pleistocene glacial periods.  Wallace’s line coincides with straits that are very much deeper than could ever disappear during falling sea level.  Reaching islands such as Flores demands that H. erectus must have devised means of crossing wide stretches of open sea.  Fission-track dating of zircons gives ages for bone beds with tools that range from 840 to 700 thousand years (O’Sullivan, P.B. et al. 2001.  Archaeological implications of the geology and chronology of the Soa basin, Flores, Indonesia.  Geology, v. 29, p. 607-609).  Erects crossed at least two major seaways to reach Flores, predating the first seafaring modern humans, who reached Australia around 40 to 60 thousand years ago by an enormous span of time.

Unwholesome fare

Since Raymond Dart’s notoriously bloodcurdling views on the dietary habits of early hominids and “the mark of Cain” appeared in his 1950s essay “The Predatory Transition from Ape to Human”, palaeoanthropology has sometimes tried to brush under the carpet evidence for cannibalism among our ancestors.  Considering the many funerary traditions practised today, some of which involve dismemberment and defleshing of corpses, it is easy to pass off cut-marks on fossil bones as indicating last rites.  However, when evidence of cooking turns up (and the Anasazi people of 12th century Colorado left plenty of evidence for that, including making anthropic soup), the common notice in pub restaurants, “Children served”,  takes on grim undertones.

Tim White, co-director of the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of California (Berkeley) is a palaeoanthropologist who commands attention.  It was he who discovered evidence for Anasazi cuisine, and has subsequently maintained an interest in assessing evidence for cannibalism.  It does go back a long way, to evidence for the first European’s (H. antecessor) gustatory relish of their fellows at the 800 ka site of Gran Dolina in northern Spain, and similar signs in Neanderthal sites spaced by hundreds of generations.  The questions of, “How often?”, and, “Under what circumstances?”, are difficult to answer.  However, it was a part of the cultures unearthed by excavation.

Source:  White, T.  2001.  Once were cannibals.  Scientific American, August 2001, p. 48-55.


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