14,000-year-old map, or just a rock with doodles?

Have you ever read an article in the newspaper and wished you were one of the reporters covering the story, because the guy or girl that did cover it failed to ask any useful questions?  That’s how I feel reading this account of an extraordinary 14,000-year-old rock from Navarre, which a team of archaeologists from the University of Zaragoisa say is an ancient map.  And certainly when you take a monochromatic rock, minimise the scratches which don’t figure into the mapping scheme, and color the scratches that do blue and green (like a real topo map), then what you end up with is something that seems a lot more map-like.

A team led by Pilar Utrilla from the University of Zaragoza in Spain, discovered the rock in 1994 but it has taken them 15 years to disentangle the mess of etched lines.

They appear to show a prominent peak nearby as well as rivers, ponds and scrubland. There are also recognisable sketches of animals including reindeer, a stag and some ibex.

‘All of these engravings could be a sketch or a simple map of the area around the cave. It could represent the plan for a coming hunt or perhaps a narrative story of one that had already happened,’ they wrote in the Journal of Human Evolution.

…’The engraving seems to reproduce the meandering course of a river crossing the upper part of side A of the block, joined by two tributaries near two mountains,’ they wrote.

‘One of these is identical to the mountain that can be seen from the cave (San Gregorio), with herds of ibex depicted on its hillsides, on both sides of the gorge in front of which the cave of Abauntz is strategically located.’

— Bates, Claire.  “Oldest map in western Europe found engraved on 14,000-year-old chunk of rock.” Daily Mail, 06 August 2009.

But not everyone is sanguine about this interpretation.  Ms. Jill Cook, head of the prehistory division at the British Museum, downplays the idea.

…According to Jill Cook, head of the prehistory division at the British Museum in London, hundreds of similar etchings have been found sprinkled across Europe.

“Multiple lines positioned over animal figures is not unusual in slabs of this period. We haven’t traditionally considered them to be maps.” She also doesn’t believe humans at the time had any need for maps (see next week’s issue of New Scientist). “Their intimacy and knowledge of the landscape, including the location of individual trees and plants, would be such that maps would be less vital to them. On the whole, art of this period doesn’t include landscape elements – no trees, rivers or hills – so this interpretation is very brave,” she told New Scientist.

— Choi, Charles and Catherine Brahic.  “Found: A pocket guide to prehistoric Spain.” New Scientist, 05 August 2009.

I have to admit I am on the fence with this, as when you look at the bare rock it doesn’t appear to be overly clear; there are lots of overlapping and apparently unrelated scratches.  Still, this is a map, right?  And if the Pyrenees and rivers can be assumed to be in more or less the same position, give or take ten thousand years of erosion and slight tectonic movement, then you should be able to compare it to a modern topo map and say “this is where I think it is”.

Except of course no newsman reporting the story bothered to depict the ancient map overlaid or side-by-side with a modern map.  Terrific.  Perhaps they want to protect the site from looters and Indiana Jones fans?  Very well.  Strip out all the place names from the modern topo map.  Maybe even change some of the non-essentials like add or remove a mountain or plateau to further obfuscate its true location.  But give me a freaking map to compare it to.  It is not as if I have to have a doctorate in anthropology with numerous articles on prehistoric European cultures to know whether scratchy Line A on monochromatic rock is roughly equivalent to River Track B on modern topo map.

When Ms. Cook says that the art of the period doesn’t include landscape items, that seems somewhat conclusive.  But on the other hand it strikes me as unlikely that humanity would not invent rudimentary maps very early on; they would certainly be handy for remembering (and passing on to younger generations) the grazing and foaling areas and migratory routes of early humanity’s various prey animals.

Seems to me a little in-depth reporting would be just the thing for newspapers feeling the squeeze of declining readership and increased competition from other media.  They are never going to surpass the glitz and sensationalism or TV, or the immediacy of the web.  But they do have (or ought to have) a niche in superior research and insight.  Give us stories with meat in them, and not half-baked efforts that leave us wondering whether any of the reporters thought about asking a question.

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