Prehistoric shapeshifters in equatorial Indonesia

Our ancestors were a lot smarter than we give them credit for.
Megalithic stone in central Sulawesi. Photo courtesy of Oliver van Straaten
We think we know the history of art, and then something comes along to upset that narrative. For example, it’s long been accepted that the first figurative art (which means art that retains references to the real world) was made in Europe. Recent re-dating of cave art in Sulawesi, Indonesia has set that theory on its head—at least until something else is discovered.
Prehistoric cave art and megaliths in Sulawesi are not news. What’s changed is how old we think they are, based on more recent uranium-series dating. You can find the methodology here. However, what interests me is the shift in how young scientists see ancient man.
Too often, pop anthropology involves discussions of ancient man’s credulousness. In the 20th century, scientists seemed to buy wholly into the idea that intelligence is a modern trait; our lowbrow ancestors had no higher end thinking, except that they walked closely with the Otherworld.
Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel is a prehistoric ivory sculpture discovered in a German cave in 1939. It’s about 40,000 years old. Photo courtesy of Dagmar Hollmann
All unexplained prehistoric behavior was thrown into the black hole of spiritualism. Once, a park ranger in Mesa Verde carefully explained that regularly-spaced drilled holes in the rock were religious in significance. My husband whispered to me that they looked like footings for a now-missing superstructure. Since they were in front of a cliff dwelling, that seemed clear, but when I suggested it, the expert brushed the idea away. In his mind, the ancestral Puebloans were incapable of that kind of engineering.
This NPR story does a good job of balancing that. “I think the overall theme here really is that we’ve vastly underestimated the capacity of our ancestors,” said Australian paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger.
Researchers Adam Brumm et alrecognize that the important part of their discovery has to do with ancient man’s abilities “for inventing, telling and consuming stories.” Because prehistoric man didn’t have written language, the best place to see their creative life is in narrative cave art. When we recognize the interactions between the characters in these paintings, we are reading their thoughts.
Photostitched panorama showing a therianthrope hunting, from Leang Bulu’ Sipong in Indonesia. Photo courtesy F3News

Along with recognizable figures and obvious abstractions (dot, swirls, etc.) paleolithic cave art contains figures that anthropologists call therianthropes. We lay-people are more likely to call them shape-shifters. They are a clue to just how complex and intelligent prehistoric man was.

Therianthropes “arguably communicated narrative fiction of some kind,” wrote Brumm. The previous oldest-known example is from Germany, a figurine of a human with a feline head. It’s about 40,000 years old.
The limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong in Sulawesi portrays several of these shapeshifters hunting wild pigs and dwarf bovids. These are about 4,000 years older—hence the excitement. Because there are no humans doing the hunting, it’s a tantalizing version of early human fiction—one we don’t have the key to read.
Unsurprisingly, the paintings are deteriorating at a rapid rate. Merrit Kennedy projects another modern shibboleth when she suggests the culprit is climate change. The cave art at Lascaux degenerated rapidly after its discovery in 1940. Human visitation meant humidity changes, increased carbon dioxide levels, and rises in temperature from artificial lighting. These triggered infestations of a variety of molds, fungi, and bacteria, which eat into the limestone and required enormous intervention to ‘cure.’ The caves were closed to the public in 1963. And Lascaux is in the temperate Dordogne, whereas Sulawesi is an equatorial jungle-covered volcanic island.
A special thanks to Sandy Sibley for bringing this story to my attention.

Mysterious stone balls

Math, engineering and art are never very far apart. They’re all creative processes.

Stone balls in the Terraba Plain, the Boruca region, Costa Rica. Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology, 1948. (Courtesy Doris Stone) *
A petrosphereis a round stone artifact shaped by human hands. Since no practical purpose has ever been assigned to them, they should properly be considered art.
Among known examples are the stone spheres of Costa Ricapainted pebbles from Scotland, plain sandstone balls from Traprain Law in Scotland, and the Carved Stone Balls of Scotland.

There’s definitely a Scottish bias in the distribution. Clearly, our Caledonian ancestors had a thing for stone balls.

Roman dodecahedron.*
Petrospheres shouldn’t be confused with Roman dodecahedra. These have no known purpose or meaning either. They are small, hollow bronze devices with twelve flat faces and knobs at the corners.  They are beautiful artifacts, but compared to carving a stone sphere from igneous rock, casting a brass shape was easy.
There are roughly 300 known stone spheres in Costa Rica. They range from pebble-size up to two meters in diameter. They were carved from granodiorite, which is a common, coarse-grained, hard, igneous rock. Since most of them have been removed from their original locations, scientists are guessing about their age. (It’s impossible to radiocarbon-date a rock.) But they’re generally thought to be “pre-Columbian,” which means they were there when Europeans arrived.
Pre-Columbian stone balls at Palmar Sur, Costa Rica.*
There’s no easy way to measure the rotundity of a large object, especially when it’s partly sunk into the ground. Photographs tell us that the Costa Rican stones are very spherical. The mystery to me isn’t why, but how. There was metallurgy in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, but it would have been useless for carving rocks. All they had for tools were other, harder rocks. Even with that limited technology, they carved shapes that rival those we can make today. And, of course, they are pure abstractions.
Six-knob Scottish stone ball, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.*
The Scottish Carved Stone Balls are less abstract. They are usually knobby and sized to be comfortably carried in the hand. Many of them have six concentric circles incised on them. They are mostly made of igneous greenstone, but there are sandstone versions as well. There are almost 400 known examples. Their distribution suggests that they originated in Aberdeenshire, in the northeast corner of Scotland.
They are much older than the Costa Rican spheres, being generally ascribed to Neolithicor Bronze Age people. Their decorative, incised surfaces hint at meaning and purpose, but these hints vanish under hard scrutiny. Were they fishing weights? Ball bearings to move stones for Neolithic stone circles? The Scots are, after all, famous engineers. Weapons? Or, that last refuge of an unimaginative archaeologist, religious symbols? There isn’t enough context for us to know.
Six-knob Scottish stone ball, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.*
But what there is in both the Costa Rican and Scottish examples is a kind of mathematical perfection. We make modern stone spheres with machines; they did them with eye and hand, and they’ve lasted for thousands of years. They are a reminder that math, engineering and art are very closely intertwined.