Saturday, 10 May 2008

A glimpse into pre-history

Before history, before men, before women, imagine the earth as a primordial soup, a grey wet mist, probably not so much earth at all as an undefined sludge. There is a bang, a flash, an eruption, a molten orgasm, a splash, a divine intervention, an incalculably achingly slow-motion Darwinian evolution, perm a creation as you prefer. Later, so so much later, the ice melts. It is the end of the last Ice Age, say 10,000 years ago, give or take a millennia or two, depending where you happen to be. The waters run off into the slate grey basin of the sea to reveal the muscular shoulders of earth again.

Around each headland, tucked inside the shelter of each estuary, the soil is encircled by new reefs. Massive beds of oysters form a living, breathing necklace of calcium attached to the land, huddled tightly into the semi salt waters, surrounded by estuarine fauna. The rivers run with fish of all kinds. Pre-history belonged to the sea, from hence, possibly, we too crawled. The oyster reefs stand like gatemen to the oceans.

The oldest skeleton found in Britain, the so called Red Lady of Swansea Bay, was laid to rest inside a cave in a cliff face in the Gower some 24,000 years ago. She was surrounded by oyster shells. Scientists trying to date the earliest known humanoid skeletons of Omo 1 and Omo 11 discovered in the Omo river valley at Kibish in Ethiopia in 1987, used the oyster shells buried in the volcanic ash with them to set a date around 195,000 years ago. Before men were men, oysters were oysters.

Oyster fossils can be seen in Portland stone formed in the Jurassic period. In Peru giant oyster shells have been found two miles above sea level in the Andes and been dated back 200 million years. Whatever the precise numbers, oysters have been around for a very, very long, long time.

On Sapelo Island,Georgia, oyster mounds have been uncovered encircling what would have been a village encampment which pre-date the building of the pyramids, radio carbon dating puts it around 2170 BC. It is thought that the shells were piled around the homestead to warn of oncoming attackers. Also in the debris was pottery, which suggests they were settlers, not nomads. Much of what we know of native Americans derives from the study of the early oyster shell middens they left behind.

Similar prehistoric kitchen middens have been uncovered around the world. At Kattegat in Denmark the shell mounds included mainly oysters, cockles, mussels and periwinkles. Other finds have been made along the west coasts of Ireland, while at Brittany at St Michel-en-l’Hern the shell banks are 700 yards long and 300 wide and stand 15 feet above the marsh. Archaeologists have found huge caches at Mycenae in southern Greece and in Japan and the Philippines.

The discovery of a fossil oyster reef on Africa's Red Sea coast in 2000 showed that early humans had taken up coastal life at least 10,000 years earlier than previously believed. In the reef, near Abdur in Eritrea's Gulf of Zula were found two-sided stone hand axes and flaked obsidian blades. Nearby were also fossil bones of large land animals, including elephants, antelopes, rhinoceros and hippopotamus.

The tribe seem to have driven the animals toward the sea and killed them there to supplement their seafood diet. They probably lived in a relatively warm interglacial period between Ice Ages, or when inland areas may have frozen. The find confirmed not just that Africa was the original home of humanity but also that migration followed the coastal routes north and north east to Europe and the Middle and Near East between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago.

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