The Ancient Alchemists

on July 9, 2004

When modern humans first ventured out of East Africa some eighty or a hundred thousand years ago, they were few and the world was very large. For tens of thousands of years, they were free to wander at will, always seeking the next horizon. Driven by curiousity and a spirit of adventure, they spread over the entire planet with amazing speed.

Eventually Homo sapiens filled every corner of the Earth, from England to Tierra del Fuego — and at that point things started to get crowded. Suddenly people were having to deal with nearby neighbors, who might even be competitors, and they could no longer just pull up stakes and move to the next valley. Instead, they had to apply their ingenuity and make do with what was available.

The archaeological evidence shows a far more intensive exploitation of resources starting in the late Ice Age. People at that time learned how to spear fish and snare birds, they increased their level of cooperative interaction with dogs, and they worked hard at finding useful new food plants.

Most important of all, they began to take increased control of their environment. They became gardeners, altering local conditions to encourage the growth of plants which they favored. They developed the habit of bringing home interesting samples to replant and of herding animals to keep them close at hand. And they devised novel ways of processing plants which had previously been unpalatable, or even toxic, and turning them into heathy and delicious meals.

These new techniques of food preparation, which we take for granted today, were at the leading edge of human intellectual activity 20,000 years ago. They even set the paradigm for what may have been the earliest form of experimental science. The central organizing principle of this science was the realization that materials could be radically transmuted through the judicious use of fire and water — together with certain other procedures, such as grinding things up small and then reconsituting them.

The application of these basic techniques to foodstuffs would lead to such marvelous discoveries as how to bake bread. But the alchemists of the Epi-Paleolithic were not merely chefs. They were also hackers, eager to work their newly-discovered magic on every available material and see what wonders it might produce.

Those experiments proved extraordinarily fruitful. For example, it turned out that the same methods which changed grain into bread would also change clay into pottery. (And with pots came a whole new range of possibilities for soaking things in water and then heating them over the fire.) Burning certain rocks, crushing them, and mixing the powder with water produced plaster. Other rocks, when heated to a high enough temperature, yielded metal.

As archaeological fieldwork fills in the details of the period between 15,000 and 7000 BC, it is becoming apparent that this was an era marked by a rapid succession of major scientific advances — possibly even more so than the eight millennia which followed. Not until the our own time would technological change again become as central to the overall course of society as it was during those years of the Epi-Paleolithic.


First use of wild grains in the Near East (21,000 BC)
Milling and baking of grains in the Near East (21,000 BC)

Earliest pottery in Japan (14,000 BC) (but see note below)
Domesticated rice in Korea (13,000 BC)

Plaster in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Near East (12,000 BC)
Domesticated wheat and rye in Syria (more) (11,000 BC)
Domesticated squash in Ecuador (10,000-8000 BC)
Hammered copper in Turkey (before 7000 BC)

Note: When I first posted this item at my website in 2004, the Jomon pottery of Japan, dated as starting about 14,000 BC, was the oldest known. More recently, in June 2009, it was announced that researchers had dated fragments of pottery from a cave in southern China to 16,000 BC. Northern China and Siberia have also yielded pottery nearly as old.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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