25 July 2010

"Cutting edge" research

Sadly I cannot take credit for that title (thanks Jack Sasson!), but it just about sums up the ridiculousness in this AOL News article: "Researchers in Israel find world's first steak knives." In sum, archaeologists excavating a cave site in Israel that dates back some 200,000 years are claiming these microflakes (about the size of a quarter) had two razor-sharp edges and two dull edges making them perfect for holding in the hand and close to the mouth. Now I'm no chipped stone expert, but even I know enough about this stuff to see these flakes were either debris from tool making (tiny chips that break off as you are fashioning a spear point, for example) and/or actual micotools that could be used for cutting.

However I am much quicker to believe these tools were used to cut things "on the fly" than picture a family sitting around the camp fire daintily cutting their individual rib bones with their "steak knives." The whole point of cooking meat is to make it tender enough to cut and chew with your teeth alone. [begin sarcasm] For example, note the ease at which our ancient hominid chews the meat of a leg bone in this 1969 "classic" DC Comic [end sarcasm]. The fact these tools were found with animal bones around a hearth could just as easily be interpreted as carcasses being butchered before cooking than individual cutlery to aid in eating. Later these stone cutting tools will become helpful in the butchering of meat into smaller pieces to fit in pots for stewing.

Another thing that irks me about the article is the underestimation about the skill and craft involved in stone tool making. According to the article, "procuring this mini-cutlery was almost as easy as running out to the supermarket. An early human who needed a steak knife at dinner had only to grab a stone, often a discarded tool, and tap it just so." Tap it just so? Seriously? I thought at least some kind knowledgeable selection of the right kind of stone and then some shaping were necessary to get these tools? Again I am not a lithic expert, so maybe someone out there is and could enlighten us all?

Not to end this post on a sour note, I have some good news from the world of open access and ancient materials. Leif Isaksen at the University's School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) is working together with Dr Elton Barker at The Open University and Dr Eric Kansa of the University of California-Berkeley on the "Google Ancient Places (GAP): Discovering historic geographical entities in the Google Books corpus" project. The GAP researchers will enable internet users worldwide to search the Google Books corpus to find books related to a geographic location and within a particular time period. The results can then be visualised on GoogleMaps or in GoogleEarth. Web widgets will make it possible for webmasters to add links to the ancient texts within their websites, enabling the public and researchers to search for them easily. Find out more at The Guardian and the University of South Hampton news briefing.

This sounds like a fabulous project and an effective and easy way to bring ancient text and other documents to the public using mediums most people are already comfortable with (Google Maps and Earth). The project begs the question though: are libraries beginning to be obsolete?

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