The First Alchemists Were Masters of — GlueCory Panshin on May 16, 2009
According to a story at Wired this week, “Researchers who reverse-engineered an ancient superglue have found that Stone Age people were smarter than we thought. Making the glue, originally used on 70,000-year-old composite tools, clearly required high-level cognitive powers.”
That’s pretty neat in itself — even though this whole “smarter than we thought” business does tend to inspire kind of a “What You Mean ‘We,’ Kimosabe” reaction.
But the really interesting part is how this superglue was created. It seems that when the researchers tried to use acacia gum — of which they’d found traces on the ancient stone tools — to attach their replicas to wooden handles, it didn’t work. It wasn’t until they added in the iron-rich pigment of which they’d also found traces that everything held together.
“Making the glue required much more than simple mixing,” the Wired article continues. “It demanded careful and sustained attention. Keeping the fire at the right temperature required certain types of wood, with a certain degree of moisture content. If glues were mixed too close to the fire, they contained air bubbles. If too dry, they weren’t cohesive; if too wet, they were weak. The Sibudu Cave’s Stone Age inhabitants, wrote the researchers, were ‘competent chemists, alchemists and pyrotechnologists.’”
Yeah — alchemists. Their word, not mine. But it was very aptly chosen.
Scholars have debated for years why the medieval alchemists were so obsessive about the precise details in their use of fire to either purify or combine elements — and have tended to conclude that perhaps maintaining that degree of sustained attention was some sort of strange mystical discipline.
I’ve written before about the Paleolithic origin of alchemy — but I only pegged it at around 20,000 BC, when people began to use available resources in a far more intensive and creative way. It seems I was also wrong.
In fact, alchemy may actually go back a lot further than 70,000 BC. Paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson speaks in his latest book, Lucy’s Legacy, of discoveries at another South African cave which show that the people who lived there 164,000 years ago were not only making composite tools but also collecting lumps of bright red iron ochre — the same pigment referred to in the Wired story — which they ground into a fine powder.
The excavator who spoke to Johanson thought the powder might have been mixed with animal far to create a red paint for use in fertility rituals — but based on this latest study, it seems more likely it was used to produce those composite tools. That would put the beginning of alchemy very close to the origin of our own species, now dated at about 180,000 years ago.
Have we been alchemists, then, for exactly as long as we have been human?
Was the need to maintain a particular kind of sustained mental focus in order to transform material substances what also transformed us into what we are today?
And does that mean that the desire to create a “new man,” which is sometimes described as the ultimate goal of alchemy, is actually a recollection of the long-ago creation of Homo sapiens?
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