Walking a Global Knife-Edge

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In Central Asia, a Stone Age workshop hints at humankind’s obsession with blades.

By Paul Salopek

“They come into our camp and we shared our mess with em and they couldnt keep their eyes off our knives. Next day they brought whole strings of horses into camp to trade. We didnt know what they wanted. They had knives of their own, such as they was. But what it was, you see, was they’d never seen sawed bones in a stew before.”
— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness in the West

We stand in a remote canyon in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The canyon debouches onto a pale barren plain once crisscrossed by camel trains. Kubatbek Tabaldyev leans into a wall of black stone. The wall is graven with images of bow hunters, ibex, sheep, runic inscriptions. Tabaldyev kisses this hard canvas. He grins. Archaeologists can be like this.

“This is one of my favorite places,” Tabaldyev, a professor at the Kyrgyzstan-Turkey Manas University, says. “I like to come here to get out of the city.”

The oldest cut: A stone tool at Ak-Olon.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL SALOPEK

He has brought us to a Paleolithic workshop. It is 14,000 years old. The ground is littered with spalls of sharp blanks chipped for the manufacture of projectile points, and with big cores from which the blanks have been hammered, and finished scrapers, hand axes, and choppers of the Mousterian tool-making culture.

I am walking across the Earth along the pathways of the people who first discovered the world. Small bands of these hunters began drifting through Asia between30,000 and 60,000 years ago: an age lost to the basement of forgetting, long before the invention of record keeping. Does anything remain of that epic human voyage? A flicker? An echo?

Very little. Mostly it assumes the shape of a blade.

Humankind was born with a sharp tool in its hand. The brittle edges of a stone knife sliced open the energy of whole new ecosystems for Homo sapiens. We cut our way across the sinews and muscle of an unknown planet. Some of the oldest stone tools in the world are found in Gona, Ethiopia. They were made by pre-humans and are dated to 2.6 million years before the present day. I walked through Gona four years ago. I’ve been following a vanishingly faint trail of stone flakes for 6,000 miles.

“I’m not very good at this,” Tabaldyev says, hefting a hammerstone to demonstrate how to cleave a fresh blade from a lumpy core. His hammer splinters into pieces after three blows.

Almost nobody is good at it these days. Still the blade is there, in the mind.

* * *

“A man’s only as sharp as his knife.”

A Mexican cowboy told me this when I was young.

We were sitting around a campfire in the Sierra Madre Occidental. He pulled his blade from a belt sheath. He handed it over the fire. It was a thing of beauty: The blade was hand-forged from the spring leaf of a car’s suspension and it was hafted to a handle of deer antler. I pulled my cheap jackknife from my pocket. It had peanut butter on the blade. I didn’t hand it over the fire. I folded it put and it away.

* * *

The sharpest blade known to science is made of stone.

The business edge of obsidian, a volcanic glass favored by prehistoric hunters for making knives and projectile points, is just one molecule thick. This razored edge is 100 to 500 times sharper than modern surgical steel. Doctors use obsidian blades to operate on easily traumatized soft tissues. It leaves smaller scars after plastic surgery.

* * *

Geneticists who extrapolate human population sizes through time say a strange thing happened in southern Asia between 28,000 and 35,000 years ago. There was a spike in the number of people living on the landscape: a dramatic Stone Age population boom.

The reason for this regional prehistoric explosion of Homo sapiens remains a mystery. But researchers Michael Petraglia at Cambridge University in England and Ravi Korisettar of Karnatak University in Dharwad, India, have a theory: The boom coincides with the sudden appearance in the local archaeological record of microliths, highly versatile stone blades about an inch and a half long. These blades can be reworked and adapted often for reuse. It is an innovation that increased hunting efficiency. People ate more, and multiplied.

* * *

The first blades not flaked from stone were beaten from raw copper. Then bronze.

The epic poem of Gilgamesh dates from the Bronze Age. It was written on clay tablets more than 4,000 years ago. It tells how king Gilgamesh, seeking glory, battles Humbaba, a demon guarding the home of the gods: the cedar forests of Mesopotamia. Humbaba is defeated. He kneels, begging for his life. But goaded on by his sidekick, the wild man Enkidu, king Gilgamesh shows no mercy. He lops off Humbaba’s head. Gilgamesh and Enkidu then turn their metal blades on nature. They chop down the sacred forest.

Humbaba, before he dies, curses Enkidu: "Of you two, may Enkidu not live the longer, may Enkidu not find any peace in this world!"

* * *

The most primitive cutting tools ever invented, called Oldowan, were used for 700,000 years. Then, about 1.7 million years ago, something odd happened. A more sophisticated tool kit calledAcheulean—easily identified by its beautiful teardrop-shaped hand axes—burst onto the artifact horizon. It dominated human culture for an astonishing one million years.

Experts have always associated such technological advances with growing intellectual abilities in our prehuman ancestors.

But were hominids just improving blades? Or did the act of blade-making actually “improve” humankind?

A cross-disciplinary group of scientists—psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and archaeologists—recently conducted a massive live experiment in stone-tool making at the University of California. Using 180 students, they logged the transmission of the subtle techniques required to make even the crudest blades among different groups of beginner stone knappers. A careful analysis of the students’ learning skills hinted that tool making probably encouraged the development of human language. Humans make tools. And tools make humans.

“Our findings suggest that stone tools weren’t just a product of human evolution but actually drove it as well, creating the evolutionary advantage necessary for the development of modern human communication and teaching,” said Thomas Morgan, the lead researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. “To sustain Acheulean technology, there must have been some kind of teaching, and maybe even a kind of language, going on, even just a simple proto-language.”

Probably among the first words ever uttered on planet Earth were instructions for honing a sharp stone edge: Hit here, hit there, yes, no.

* * *

We are in the canyon.

The archaeologist Kubatbek Tabaldyev is knocking out stone blades. So is Sergei Gnezdilov.

Gnezdilov is my walking partner in Kyrgyzstan. He has trekked with us to the ancient workshop site. He is a wry mountaineer. He crouches, hammering stone upon stone with all the intensity and precision of a man driving pitons. He tests the force of each blow. He changes the strike angles. Who has not done this with rocks, even playing as a child? It is irresistible. Strangely satisfying. And the sound is very old.

Pak! . . . Pak! . . . Pak!

The impacts ring off the canyon walls. I look down at the valley. I listen. The valley remains empty.

“Success at last,” I hear Gnezdilov say. “My hands are bleeding.”

http://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/out-of-eden-walk/articles/2017-04-walking-global-knife-edge

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