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Design inference: What do these Stone Age markings on beads mean?

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From Ice Age Europe, about 20,000-13,500 years ago:

During this period, around 19,000 years ago in southwestern France at a site called Saint-Germain-La-Rivière, an adult woman dies and is prepared for burial by members of her society. She is adorned with 70 red-deer teeth that were perforated by a flint tool to be used as beads; many of which have a unique engraved design and were smeared with red ochre. These beads provide a window into the period, giving an insight into the way our Magdalenian ancestors negotiated relationships, and the importance of this meshwork of relations to their survival. The burial context of these beads demonstrates how these relations took centre stage in the social lives of Magdalenian people. Untangling the object biographies of these beads – the way they were made, used and deposited – can reveal the creative ways our ancestors used objects to negotiate and embody intricate human-animal-object-landscape relationships. Insight into the ‘lives’ of these beads can be achieved by contextualising the successive stages of their biographies within the environmental and social conditions of the Magdalenian.

Nigel Warburton, “What a deer-tooth necklace says about our Ice Age ancestors” at Aeon

The bone deer teeth with the symbols are here, along with a proposed guide to Stone Age signs.

When “evolution” becomes history, it knocks a lot of nonsense off its pedestal. Remember when people couldn’t think that way back then?

See also: Oldest jewelry found so far at 46 kya

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This piece is a good example of the varying degree of certainty that arise in science publications. At the most certain, and accurate end of the spectrum, scientists looking at these teeth can say what species the 70 teeth came from with some strong assurance that no one is likely to gainsay. With almost the same level of assurance, the authors can say how the teeth were perforated. At a somewhat lower level of certainty, but still quite reasonable, they can say the teeth were beads used to adorn the buried woman, because that is the sort of thing human cultures do, and science has found similar arrangements before. Thus, these conclusions are probably good. Moving along, we enter the regime of supportable hypothesis, when they start talking about the engravings and the insights suggested about social practices. Here too, humans still bury their dead in similar ways, so it is somewhat reasonable to assume that we understand what is going on in this context, although we cannot prove it, and some may cast doubt on the detailed interpretations. At the next level, we have conjectures about the scene, the social organization behind it, and how the people of that group related to each other socially. For example, the social status of the woman. These would be suppositions, based on similar experiences today, but subject to a variety of alternative interpretations. At this level authors usually use words like, "probably, most likely, apparently, seemingly" to bracket their conclusions. Finally, at the lowest level, we have speculation or "educated guesses" about the society, the purpose of the engravings, the other aspects of the woman's life, and so on. There authors use contingent words like, "could have, might explain, suggested", and so on to bracket their views and opinions, showing that there is considerable doubt. The problem in publicizing science arises when the author or the media reporting on the paper put their emphasis on these lower levels of interpretation, rather than the hard science of the higher levels. Thus we get headlines based on wild speculation rather than supportable facts. After all, the speculative aspects of the story (e.g. "Woman chieftain's burial shows gender equality and advanced religious beliefs 19,000 years ago!") are usually more interesting and exciting than the hard facts ("Engraved deer teeth found in 19,000 year old burial site."). The public then overlooks the contingent and evocative aspects, and simply accepts the speculations as certain science. The same can (as does) happen in various sciences, although the social sciences are particularly prone to speculative interpretation sold as firm conclusions. Fasteddious

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