Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Half Million Years

About a hundred years ago a Heidelberg scholar by the name of Schoetensack called attention to an astonishing bone discovery: in the little village of Mauer they kept digging up remains of ancient animals while excavating gravel and sand. These were of types that had never been noted in southern Germany: saber toothed tigers, lions, elephants, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses among them. Dr. Schoetensack started avidly collecting whatever they brought him and what he himself discovered. But he awaited futilely the discovery that would please him the most: human remains were not to be found in the Mauer gravel pit.
Twenty years later, someone wrote on 21 October 1907, the door of the Hochschwender Inn in Mauer opened. The gravel pit worker Daniel Hartmann, called "Sand Daniel," came in and shouted: "Today I found Adam!"
"Sand Daniel" had really found something at the foot of a gravel pit wall some 20 meters high that got Dr. Schoetensack excited and would make the village of Mauer famous: a human mandible. Just a jawbone, nothing more. But this jawbone caused a sensation. Dr. Schoetensack published a year later (1908) a precise scientific description. In that it was stated that had a mandible without teeth been discovered, it would not have been possible to recognize it as human: "the absolutely certain proof that we are dealing with a human part lies solely in the nature of the denture."
The teeth of apes, for example gorillas, differ from ours, but not those of the Mauer mandible. The being to whom this rare jawbone once belonged was clearly a human. Dr. Schoetensack called him "homo heidelbergensis," Heidelberg Man. Two unusual things appeared in this jawbone: the very wide and primitive rear bone and the lack of a pointed chin. What can be concluded from that? - The primitive bone reveal that the whole face was primitive. The man from Mauer would also have had a somewhat differently formed mouth cavity than we do. The making of many sounds, especially consonants, must have been difficult for him. He would thus not have had a highly developed language.
When did the man from Mauer live? Scholars have not quite been able to agree. It is estimated that the age of the mandible is about a half million years! How can a bone survive for such a long time? That is explained by fact that the sand in which it was embedded contained a great deal of lime.
The animals whose remains were found near Mauer were for the most part contemporaries of our homo heidelbergensis. Whether he was in a position to hunt them is hard to say. The man from Mauer would have been satisfied with lesser wildlife. Berries and forest plants would have been his general meal.
Our homeland at that time was covered with sparse mixed woods. The bone remains of Mauer betrays that to us, especially the teeth of the elephant and the rhinoceros. The molars are suited for chewing foliage, but not steppe grass.
If there were woods, it could not have been cold. In the Ice Age, the trees disappeared. The man from Mauer thus lived in one of the warm periods that have occurred several times in the last million years.
On 24 July 1933 there was, again in a gravel pit, another sensation-producing discovery: near Steinheim on the river Murr, a tributary of the Neckar, there was excavated the very well preserved skull of an early human. Years of investigation began. The scientists worked like detectives who had a difficult case to solve. Where did this skull come from?
Today it is believed that it is the remains of a young woman who lived 250,000 or even 300,000 years ago. The bulges over the eyes revealed a primitive appearance. But overall, this "homo steinheimensis" must have been quite similar to the human of today. It is certain that he like the man from Mauer lived during a warm period. That is revealed by the numerous animal remains that were also found in the Steinheim gravel pit. Even a water buffalo is among them, an animal that only lived in a very warm climate.
It is lucky that we have the many caves of the Swabian Alb. They are the most important discovery sites for life during the last Ice Age. Like treasure hunters, researchers into prehistory push into this subterranean world and carry out countless digs. They have truly brought treasures to light.
There have indeed not been many human remains discovered so far. Professor Riek made an important find in July 1931: in the Vogelherd cave (near Stetten in the Lon valley in Heidenheim county) he dug up a skull with mandible but without a face, also an upper arm bone, two lumbar vertebrae and a metacarpal bone. He named this find "Stetten I." Then there appeared a second, less well preserved skull that Riek designated "Stetten II."
The two persons from whom these remains came appear not to have belonged to the same time. "Stetten I," it is believed, could have lived about 30,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. No doubt, in terms of his appearance, this man was very close to today's people and he was markedly different from the bipeds that inhabited southern Germany and many other parts of Europe 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 years before him: the famous Neanderthals. The chin of the Stetten man is pointed like ours; there are no bulges over his eyes. That he was intellectually more advanced than his predecessor, the Neanderthal, is shown by his weapons and his tools. He understood how to make spear points out of bone fragments: he worked the ivory of mammoth tusks, and he honed extraordinarily fine knives and blades from hard stone. The scientists named him Aurignac Man. Here we will call him simply Ice Age Hunter.
In the Vogelherd cave, this treasury of prehistory, there were found quite different things: small animal figures of ivory, only five to seven centimeters (2 to 2 ¾ inches) long. A charming wild pony is among them, a mammoth, a cave lion. They are among the oldest works of art in the world: then previously Man in the southwestern area had evidently not attempted to depict living things. Where our skilled Ice Age Hunter came from, is not known. One may nevertheless not assume that the Ice Age Hunters lived in caves the year around. They would perhaps have established their camp in the summer on a lake and lived from fishing. Certainly they knew exactly when the best time was to hunt reindeer, deer and ibex. They also did not avoid the mammoth. It is assumed that they constructed pitfalls for the giant beasts, a difficult job for people who did not have iron picks, spades and shovels available.
They would have hunted bear not only for the meat, but also for the warm fur. They lived in the Ice Age; they needed clothing.
Whoever visits these archaeological sites, perhaps the caves in the Swabian Alb, should not forget that the terrain during the Ice Age looked quite different. When our man from the Vogelherd cave climbed the mountain, he saw to the south the immense ice fields of the Alpine glacier glistening. The mountain peaks themselves were quite bare. Below, in the valley, dwarf birches and stunted Scots pines stooped. A raw land! And even so, there lived here an animal world of rich variety. Enough grasses and herbs grew to nourish the mammoth, wild horse, reindeer, and other plant eaters, and lions and tigers also lived from them - and not least, Man.

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