Advent Calendar of Science Stories 2: Begin at the Beginning

She kneels on the dirt and watches the elder study the rocks she brought. Five fist-sized chunks of red stone, laboriously hacked from an outcrop. Half a day walking there and back, and half a day pounding rocks against rocks to yield this offering.

The elder's hands are stained the same red as the stone, from years of grinding and mixing the paint that is her people's sign. Behind him in the cave, she can see others banging, grinding, and mixing. The summer festivals are coming soon, and a great deal of paint will be needed. He turns her rocks round and round, studying all sides.

Finally, he grunts, turns his head and spits into the bushes. "Your offering is acceptable. We will offer it to the gods, surely they will favor you." The standard formula offered, he begins the wheezing process of getting to his feet. When he finishes, he is surprised to see her still kneeling. "Why are you still here?"

This is the whole point of her trip, but finds she can't speak under his glower. Wordlessly, she holds out the other rock, the color of dead grass, chipped from a different outcrop a short walk from the first. He squints at it. "That is not the right stone," he says gruffly.

"Yes, but..." she scrapes it against a flat grey stone, lifts it up to show the yellow mark. That's what had drawn her eye-- the yellow stain on a rock that glanced off the second outcrop after missing a hare. "It has the same feel as the red stone, but look..." He bends down to look, and she grinds the yellow stone some more. He dips his finger in the pile of powder this makes, holds it up. The yellow is bright against his red-stained hands.

"You say our red paint is a sign the gods favor us," she says quietly. "Think how great a sign two colors would be..."

With a grunt, he sits back down heavily. "Tell me more..."

This is, obviously, completely fanciful-- it has to be, as it's set around a hundred thousand years ago, at the southern tip of Africa. I'm not attempting to pass this off as archaeologically accurate, just having a bit of fun dramatizing the very oldest of the examples I used in the book, and one of the earliest clear indicators we have of the practice of science: the ochre processing workshop at Blombos Cave in South Africa.

The cave was occupied by early humans for a very long time, and excavations there have yielded both chunks of red ochre engraved with abstract patterns from about 80,000 years ago, and a collection of tools for processing ochre from about 100,000 years ago. This paint workshop consisted of shells containing residue from a couple of different types of minerals, and stone tools used to grind the pigments. Some of these show evidence of multiple uses-- first grinding one pigment, then being re-sharpened before grinding another.

The engraved blocks have been touted as some of the earliest evidence for abstract art, but to my mind, the whole operation speaks of science. The pigment-grinding process wasn't a simple thing that might happen by accident, but a multi-step process, involving grinding then mixing with animal fat to make a kind of paste. The ochre and goethite used for this come from deposits some distance away, so they had to be deliberately selected and brought there. And the re-sharpening indicates that they knew how to make different colors, and took care to avoid mixing them.

All of this would've had to be discovered scientifically. Some early human looked at the world, and noticed some kinds of stone were brightly colored. They thought that maybe these could be used for some decorative purpose, and tested their ideas, eventually arriving at a multi-step process for making a kind of paint. And they told other people about this, passing this process down the many generations that the cave was occupied.

That's science, right there, a hundred thousand years ago in southern Africa. And that's what I really like about this story-- it's a dramatic counter to people who say that not everyone can handle scientific thinking. As far back as we have evidence of human activity, though, we see signs of people doing science. Science isn't some weird and alien mode of thinking, it's the defining trait of our species, going back over a hundred millennia. And if our distant ancestors in Blombos Cave could think like scientists, nobody alive today should deny that they have an inner scientist.


(Part of a series promoting Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.)

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I'm enjoying your book and these related pieces but I feel like when I read your - look, think, test, tell - narrative of science, it seems to be missing the "listen" counterpart to the "Tell". It doesn't do any good to tell people what you found if they aren't listening, and you won't get as far if you don't listen, i.e. check out what others have done related to what you are doing.

Just an observation from a reader.

That's a good point, and indeed, there are some great stories of miscommunication in the history of science where people didn't listen, and went wrong as a result (I'll probably include at least one of those in this series). In my very coarse grouping of the steps, I would include "listen to other scientists" in the "Looking" stage, but I didn't really call it out explicitly.

Maybe if there's a sequel...