Archive for the ‘History’ Category

When my brother was down from Brisbane recently we visited my parents and took the opportunity to go through the stuff in the shed. Both of us have, over the years, salvaged most of our treasured childhood loot but we still have many boxes stashed away. From among the school books, stamp collections and “licky-down books” we unearthed a 1979 Rigby Usborne publication entitled: The World of the Future: Future Cities by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis. The front page boasts of “Colonies in Space”, “Solar heated houses”, “Amazing sports” and “Wristwatch TV,” while the salient image is of a sizeable city on the moon, housed in three glass domes. This rather optimistic publication proved to be a time capsule in its own right and was great grist to the mill of one of my favourite subjects – past visions of the future.


This very idea of imagining how things will look in the future is a relatively recent concept. Most medieval Europeans looked more to the past and sighed at their small stature before the glories of Rome, while in East Asia at the same time, despite advanced technical innovation, societies looked inward, more interested in maintaining traditions than imagining a vastly different future. People certainly dreamed of greater prosperity, but this vision was likely just a wealthier version of the present society, without wholly new technologies and innovations.

It is only really since the late Renaissance and the industrial revolution that we have more broadly imagined the idea of a future in which societies were far more advanced technologically. There have long been people who thought up and, in some cases, implemented, radical social shifts, alongside more fantastical, idealistic utopias, but in recent times these ideas have become more wedded to technologies not yet invented or those in a nascent form which promised immense change. Our rate of technical advancement reached such an extreme in the 20th century that, in 1970, Alvin Toffler coined the term “Futureshock” in his book of the same title, which basically posited that humanity was experiencing a psychological condition of culture shock caused by “too much change in too short a period of time.” So accustomed did we become to the whirlwind of advancement and the expectation of radical societal shifts that we were able to imagine an entirely different world emerging within a single generation.


These past visions of the future are fascinating in the way they reveal our inevitable naivety as much as our impressive ambition. They show us not only the overzealous hopes of our imagination, but also its limitations. How quaint and pathetic seems the idea of wrist-watch TV, compared to the miraculous multifunctionality of contemporary smart devices. Yet, how utterly ludicrous the idea of a city of ten thousand people orbiting the Earth is in contrast to the three astronauts presently occupying the International Space Station. As for solar-heated houses, at least they were right on this score. Though we may not yet live in a world where we all have solar panels on our roofs, it is a well-established technology with increasingly rapid uptake.

This last prediction sits with several other sensible and well-considered ideas, which are probably best illustrated in the double-spread “A House of the Future.”


This suggests that future houses will rely increasingly on renewables, such as wind and solar; that our communications will increasingly take place via satellite; that we will be driving electric cars and that many home functions might be controlled by a central computer. While electric cars might be slowly arriving, what we now call “the internet of things” – the interconnection of practical electronic devices like fridges, washing machines, dryers, air conditioning – hasn’t really taken off, despite years of talk.

Over the page, the arrival of flat-screen, wall-mounted televisions is rightly predicted, though their date of the late 1980s is now recognisably far-fetched. The clunky “TV telephone,” the enormous home computer unit with its antiquated buttons and the drink-dispensing robot reveal, once again, the limitations of our imagination, most obvious in the total absence of anything like the internet.


Whereas the “Risto” – a digital watch with unattractive antennae poking out on four sides – is promoted as a “wrist-watch, radio-telephone” that could be used for electronic voting, secure police communication and as a panic-button in emergencies. They also suggest that by “punching out an enquiry number” a lost person could “ask for guidance back to the nearest town.” While the idea that the Risto would rely on something similar to the GPS satellite array is certainly on the money, the inability to conceive of anything as all-encompassing as the internet, makes this all seem rather dull.


Perhaps inevitably, the most glaring over-optimism in this book lies in our imagined future in space. Just as Bladerunner, made in 1983, expected much of humanity to be living in off-world colonies by 2019, so this book suggests that the 2020 Olympics might take place on the moon. Unfortunately for the dreamers of the past, the Tokyo games will be all too sublunary.


The authors also posit a skyscraper that stretches all the way into space, with vast tubes up which people might travel in shuttles fired along see-through vacuum tubes; a city of 10, 000 people orbiting Earth in one of the gravitationally neutral Lagrange points; space-shuttle refuelling stations; a huge city on the moon with an already well-established industrial sector firing materials into space to build further orbital cities. It goes without saying that none of this has happened, not even remotely.


I’ve written elsewhere about how long I expect it will be before any significant human presence is established outside of the Earth – more likely hundreds of years than decades. Sure, a long-desired observatory on the far side of the moon might be possible, and maybe we’ll see five or six people on Mars, but none of this is likely to happen before the second half of the 21st century and, even then, at a stretch. It must be noted however that my projections are based on current levels of investment and the rate of realisation of necessary technologies, whereas, coming off the crest of the Moonshot and Space Race, had the levels of funding that went into the Apollo program been sustained, I suspect we’d at least have several larger space stations orbiting the Earth by now and some sort of minor, token presence on the moon. None of these, however, would be even remotely on the scale proposed in this book.

Probably the most silly idea of all, despite coming initially from Carl Sagan, is that of seeding Venus with bacteria and algae to feed on the carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases that blanket the planet, eventually producing enough oxygen to cause water-rain to fall. “It will not get as far as the surface, boiling to steam before it gets there,” say the authors. “But each time it rains, surface temperatures drop a little.” Eventually, they suggest, increasingly heavy rain will scrub the noxious gases from the atmosphere and allow a more Earth-like climate to develop there. I love this idea, but it seems little more than a pipe-dream, as is evident when taking into account all the other problems we would face in making Venus even remotely habitable. Carl Sagan himself later shot down his own plan, in the wake of a more sophisticated understanding of Venus’ atmosphere.

Finally, though it appears relatively early in the book, there is a double spread which posits two possible futures for the inhabitants of Earth – the “Garden city on a cared-for planet” or the “polluted city of a dying world.”


I’d like to think that, in the developed world at least, we are moving increasingly towards the garden city idea, but the stubborn persistence in burning fossil fuels, the scale of the human population, the stupidity of post-truth polities who repeatedly elect neo-conservative capitalists intent on burning up the entire planet in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe, makes that future very uncertain indeed. The authors were indeed right about one thing – that it is advancements in technology and increasingly clean and efficient practices which will ensure a better future for us all. I salute their positive vision of a cleaner, greener Earth, which is, in many ways, coming true at a grass-roots level if not at the all-important level of government. Fingers-crossed, the worst-case scenarios of our present visions of the future won’t come to pass, and several decades from now, we’ll be able to chuckle at those pictures of a stifling, suffering world of hunger, conflict and inequality.

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Easter Road Toll

In February 1988, at the tender age of 15, some friends and I decided to form a punk / thrash band. Like so many young people going through puberty we were electrified with the spirit of rebellion and longed to make ourselves heard. After some lengthy lunch-time discussions of possible band names, one good friend, Owen, suggested Easter Road Toll as an appropriately offensive moniker and we were all instantly taken with it. Six of us agreed to meet at Owen’s place on the following Saturday and, keen to drive the project and play a leading role, I went home that night and wrote 10 songs in a couple of hours.

Having no musical training whatsoever, being practically tone deaf and entirely unable to carry a tune, I just wrote lyrics with simple rhymes and meters. When I showed these songs to “the band” at school the following day the excitement around the project grew to a fever pitch and we eagerly awaited that first “recording session.”

What followed on that first Easter Road Toll Saturday was an awful mess of teenage boys screaming into a tape-recorder and making a tuneless, discordant racket in Owen’s bedroom. Only three of us – Demitri, Max and Chez – had any recognisable musical ability, yet with no preparation or rehearsal, very little of this shone through on the day.

That first “album”, which we titled Gate Crashing at the Doors of Hell, is really very painful to listen to. A series of poorly chosen drum beats on the Casio, the squealing of boys on the verge of adolescence, the hammering of misshapen chords on poorly tuned guitars, the thumping of various items of furniture and the gang shouting of incomprehensible lyrics, does not make much of an album. It was, however, a first attempt and it got us excited enough to strive for something more orderly and complete.

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Easter Road Toll, with “Chez” as guest bassist, c. 1988

Within a few months the band’s numbers had been whittled down to three – Demitri, Mike and me – and D actually took the time to compose music for the lyrics which I churned out at a rate of knots. I bought a guitar and started taking lessons, but I was far too lazy to practise properly and could at best provide a sloppy rhythm section. Mike, our drummer, couldn’t yet afford a kit and so we either recorded with a drum machine or got him to play – wait for it – chairs. The stretched pleather of the cushions had to suffice for any “live” recordings which were made in Demitri’s garage. Other noise-making implements were also employed, including a real whipper snipper, pots, pans and a bicycle, adding a hint of German industrial to something otherwise entirely unclassifiable.

The main problem with Easter Road Toll was not the lyrics, which were universally pretty awful, but the fact that I sang most of the songs. Whereas I’d like to think I could write some decent lyrics these days, and have spent years trying to improve my singing, I certainly couldn’t write anything worthwhile back then and I most certainly could not sing. We did improve over time – Mike got a drumkit and achieved a basic level of enthusiastic competence, Demitri developed into an accomplished guitarist and singer, and my guitar playing improved marginally, yet I remained by far the weakest link. The last recording we ever made was after a four-year hiatus – in 1994 – where we laid down a couple of old favourites – Schwarzenegger and Zombies are Philosophers on a four-track. Despite being drunk and stoned and the songs being unrehearsed, those two tracks are without a doubt the best standard we ever achieved, largely due to the fact that Demitri’s tradecraft had improved so much in the intervening years.

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Easter Road Toll 14

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The final line-up, D, Mike and Me – acne, angst and the garage

The reason I am summoning Easter Road Toll back from the grave is that recently I bought a USB cassette player and have begun converting all our recordings into digital format. I haven’t owned a working cassette player in roughly fifteen years and it must be almost twenty since I last chose to listen to the old ERT tapes. Initially, I was deeply moved by the process – the excitement of rediscovery, the very fact that the cassettes still worked, the deep nostalgia of hearing sounds from a time now long ago – but this soon deteriorated into a sense of impatient disappointment. Why? Because most of the songs were so utterly dreadful and reflected embarrassingly intolerant stupidity and naivety.

The basic remit was to shock and offend as much as possible, something embodied in the deliberately insensitive band name. As big teenage fans of 80s action movies, many Easter Road Toll songs revolved around killing people with shotguns, whipper-snippers, chainsaws, hacksaws and pretty much any other household implement you could get your hands on – an immature celebration of gratuitous violence. Somewhere, Somehow, Someone’s Gonna Pay – a title ripped off from the rather cheesy song at the end of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando – is about killing the conservative premier of New South Wales and taking his whole damned party with him. Blow up your Relief Teacher is a song about having a relief teacher at school who makes the class do work, rather than letting the students “bludge”. Like most Easter Road Toll songs, it advocates an entirely disproportionate response: “Blow up the whole fucking class, burn down the school and blow it up with a howitzer!” Indeed, it finishes with a line about delivering the “coup de grace, with an 80 megaton ICBM”. Yep, pretty disproportionate stuff.

Rather too many of the songs focussed on the band’s title and featured people “increasing the road toll” by running over “peds”. Songs such as Hitch-hiker, Testing a Tank, Top 50 Victims, Roadtoll Rap, Car Accident, The Morgue ain’t a Bad Place to be and Shopping Mall Massacre all involved running people over just for the hell of it.

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Easter Road Toll “side-project” jam at Max’s, c. 1989

There was also a desire to express forthright political opinions, inspired by the fine example of Midnight Oil. The problem was, however, that when it came to writing lyrics, I knew absolutely nothing about politics – except that the conservatives were downright evil. At least I was right about something. There were a lot of songs expressing anti-McDonalds sentiments as well, mildly ironic considering how much I loved quarter-pounders at the time. Some songs were a genuine attempt at youthful wisdom and social commentary: You’ve got the Sack, Gun-toting Customs Officer, Fuck I hate Nazis, Drugs fuck you up and He’s no Value, all tried with astonishing naivety to make some kind of point that went beyond merely advocating massacres and banging on about “twelve-gauge shotguns”.

Most disappointing of all, however, was the degree of homophobia expressed in the lyrics of some songs. One such outing, That Winning Feeling, was about a guy running rampant through the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras in a Mack truck and killing as many people as possible. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so deeply disturbing and so awfully ignorant. It is, however, curiously indicative of a time when attitudes to homosexuality were in a swift transition. Paranoia about AIDS and HIV was rampant and Australia was yet to tackle the problem of homophobia in its society. Indeed, the word homophobia was rarely ever used – the term de rigueur was “gay bashing” – and there was no education about it in schools and no public campaign to stop it – at least so far as I recall. As a teenage boy in a boys’ school I fell all too easily into the lazy use of the words “gay,” “faggot” and “poofter”, words I still continually hear from the teenage boys I now teach, despite the far greater degree of education and awareness of this issue.

I’ve written elsewhere of how, in part, in my case, this was a response to being a nerdy kid in my first two years of high school and being called a “faggot” pretty much every day by the jocks. My homophobia reflected a resentment that I should be stuck with a label that wouldn’t exist were it not for the existence of homosexuals. Go figure. My attitude at the time must also have been rather confused, considering I went to watch the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras when I was fourteen and fifteen and enjoyed the show and felt no dislike or resentment towards gay people on those occasions. Perhaps, in the desire to shock and offend, which is really what Easter Road Toll was all about, there was simply an absence of sense or judgement on this matter and everyone and anyone who could be labelled was an equally valid target. It probably goes without saying that my views are now unambiguously gay-friendly and I whole-heartedly support same-sex marriage in Australia and the rest of the world. This is the greatest source of shame and disappointment when I listen to these old Easter Road Toll songs, yet thankfully there are only two or three songs of a large collection which contain homophobic lyrics.

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Easter Road Toll’s gear – quite a collection of not especially great instruments

Fortunately there are a number of tracks which I genuinely enjoyed hearing again, if only for their energy and outrageous silliness. Lemmings Know What They’re Doing suggests that lemmings are right to jump off cliffs to avoid living an empty, meaningless life:

“What’s the point of living a life spent in a burger joint?” Fingers Don’t Grow Back is purely and simply hilarious – unless of course you’re an amputee. The chorus “Fingers don’t grown back, not even when you glue them back on, so be careful with chainsaws, and things like electric knives, cos it may cause your fingers to suddenly not be there anymore,” isn’t easily put to a tune, yet somehow, we pulled it off.

I’ve always had a real soft spot for Schwarzenegger, a celebration of the man himself, who was, at the time, our biggest action hero – and, dare I say it, my last action hero. This probably constitutes our most complete song, neatly structured and arranged, it flowed better than any of the others and I still find myself singing it.

Yet, after recently listening to all this “music”, I think my new favourite Easter Road Toll song, is, beyond a doubt, Car Alarms. Of course, it’s just another puerile attempt to make a rather offensive statement about how we all (fucking) hate car alarms, yet it is fast and punchy and has a certain verve about it. I reproduce the entire song here, with apologies to any law-enforcement officers.


One thing we all fucking well hate

is when people’s car alarms go off late

no wonder people steal their cars

the fucking Martians can hear ‘em on Mars.

Cobra, Piranha, they’re all the same

They all piss you off right out of your brain


Fuck I hate car alarms, they piss me off

cops should smash them, then go piss of somewhere else cos I hate them.

Fuck I hate car alarms, fuck I hate them

Fuck I hate car alarms they’re buckets of phlegm.


But most of all I hate car alarms

in every fucking street

cops should authorise twelve-gauge use

so we can get some fucking sleep.

Steal the fucking hub-caps, slash all the tires,

smash the fucking windows and cut out all the wires – aaaahh!


Fuck I hate car alarms they piss me off,

cops should smash them then go piss off somewhere else cos I hate them.

Fuck I hate car alarms, fuck I hate them

Fuck I hate car alarms they’re buckets of phlegm.


I do still dream of having a re-union of some kind and trying to record a few of these songs as well as possible. Modern technology makes this a far easier prospect, as does greater wisdom and experience, yet I can’t imagine how or when this is likely to happen. Fortunately all the members of Easter Road Toll are still good friends, so there is little risk of “artistic differences” getting in the way. As for now, our three “albums” Gate-Crashing at the Doors of Hell, Loitering with Malicious Intent and From the Maw of Oblivion, are never likely to be available on iTunes, but that is probably for the best.

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The ability to throw accurately and at high velocity is a uniquely human trait. Other primates don’t even come close to our range, speed and aim. The chimpanzee, despite being immensely strong physically, can only throw at around 20 miles per hour and is not especially accurate. A twelve-year-old human child, on the other hand, can achieve more than three times that speed and a far sharper aim.


Deadly ranged attack – Bushman throwing a spear

The ability to kill from a distance wrought changes in the lifestyle and diet of early humans by revolutionising their capacity to hunt and to defend themselves. This not only had significant physical and developmental impacts, it also had social, psychological and moral implications as well. The capacity for a weaker individual to slay a stronger one without engaging in physical contact must have transformed early human social relations.

To be able to kill at a distance in the first place, early humans had to learn how to throw effectively, and this is something they did to a quite astonishing degree. The adaptations that enabled such fast and accurate throwing began to develop around two million years ago in Homo Erectus. The key changes, as identified recently in a study by Dr Neil Roach of George Washington University, were a wider waist, the lower position of the shoulders on the torso, and the capacity to twist the upper arm bone.

Humans vs chimps, throwing

Competitive advantage – Rotating arm, low shoulder, wide waist

Studies tracking the movement of American baseball players clearly illustrate how the human shoulder works like a slingshot by storing and releasing energy in its tendons and ligaments, allowing humans to hurl projectiles with incredible and deadly speed.


Slingshot action – Baseball Pitcher

The action of throwing begins by first rotating the arm backwards, during which movement elastic energy is stored in the shoulder. When the arm rotates forward, that energy is released in a lightning motion and transferred through the arm to the missile.

Throwing diagram

The Art of Javelin Throwing

It is hardly surprising that this throwing action became so greatly refined and specialised, considering the enormous advantages that it offered. Indeed, one could argue that learning to throw quickly and accurately drove human evolution more powerfully than any single factor outside of upright walking and language. The morphology of organisms is determined by a number of environmental factors, and one of the most key is how they acquire their food and defend themselves. Hence long beaks and tongues for dipping into flowers; huge teeth for grinding bone; incredible speed for chasing or fleeing; sharp claws for climbing or rending flesh, venomous bites for attack or defence – the diet and the nature of external threats drives the design.

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This never happened…

If you studied the morphology of hominids over the last two million years and asked, how do these creatures acquire food and how do they defend themselves? – the most obvious answers would be by running, climbing and throwing. Focussing on diet, we then might ask – which of these techniques provide the most protein? – and throwing is the obvious answer. Those more capable of throwing not only made considerably better hunters and had a wider variety of meat available to them, they were also better adapted to seeing off rivals in a dispute. Once humans began to rely on throwing as a key hunting technique, natural selection ensured that those better adapted to throwing passed on their genes.

Consider how natural the inclination is for people to practise throwing and to gain pleasure from it. Just as other animals chase, spar and wrestle in play as a kind of innate training program for skills they will need in adulthood, so almost all human children practise throwing from a young age and derive immense pleasure and satisfaction from their accuracy and skill. We are designed to throw – it is the only explanation as to why we are so good at it. Once early humans began to hurl rocks and spears, there was no looking back – it was, quite simply, the best means by which to acquire rich sources of protein.

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Designed to Throw – It’s a human thing

Being able to take down prey at longer range meant access to a great deal more meat, providing more fuel for growing brains and supporting larger social groups. The skill itself must have driven brain development through the complex calculations required to judge a throw – distance, angle, height, wind-speed, tracking the prey’s movement and knowing exactly when to release. The ability to make aerodynamic spears, or choose the most effective stones must also have called upon significant brain power and encouraged manual dexterity.

The range and variety of habitats available to early humans would also have changed dramatically. No longer required to stay near rich sources of fruit and vegetables, or to use the cover of the woods to surround and ambush prey, early humans were free to enter new habitats, acquiring their food through long-ranged attacks on the herds grazing the savannahs.

The point at which early humans first began to rely on missile weapons has long been debated by archaeologists. Whereas the evolutionary adaptations begin to appear almost two million years ago, archaeology can only provide much more recent evidence for the use of throwing spears, with dates ranging from less than 100,000 years ago, to half a million years. Indirect evidence derived from impact fractures on spear tips suggest people were throwing spears at least as far as 500,000 years ago, but this interpretation is widely disputed and it is difficult to determine conclusively whether spears were thrust or thrown. The failure of wood to preserve well means we lack sufficient evidence and, as the dictum goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Chimpanzees are well known for using a variety of simple tools. Poking sticks into ant and termite nests to collect insects, breaking nuts with rocks, and, it seems, even attempting to spear smaller primates with sharp sticks.


Chimpanzee fishing for termites

This latter behaviour is, evidentially, rare, and chimpanzees are not known for throwing spears or using them in combat or hunting. Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to consider that if an ancestor with whom we parted ways some seven and a half million years ago uses such technology, then early humans might have taken the sharp stick a few steps further and started throwing them at creatures. On these grounds some anthropologists have suggested that hominids may have been using spears as weapons as early as five million years ago.

Whatever questions may hang over the archaeological evidence, it seems the only place we need look to determine when early humans began to use throwing as a principal means of hunting is the biology. If the adaptations were there two million years ago, then surely this is because early humans were increasingly throwing things two million years ago – it’s the only logical explanation. It is hardly likely to have just been for play, or courtship – the most logical driver is the benefits it offered in food acquisition and self-defence. As to what those early humans were throwing, it is hard to be sure. They likely began with rocks, possibly for dislodging things from trees, before graduating to more refined and aerodynamic missiles.

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Chimp with simple stone tool

The huge competitive advantage offered by this skill ensured that humans were able to dominate their environment. It may also have played a significant role in developing the codes of ethics and morality which kept inter and intra-clan strife to a minimum. Dominant males could no longer rely on brute strength and intimidation alone to see off rivals. The knowledge that a weaker, less dominant individual – male or female – could, through a carefully aimed spear, assassinate them, would have transformed the social landscape. More tact, more consideration, more rigid rules might well have emerged in the wake of developing such deadly capability.

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I wonder what will happen if I throw this…

From the humble rock and primitive throwing spear, humans later took their ranged attacks to new heights through the development of better spears, then spear-throwers – Atlatls and Woomeras – and ultimately, bows and arrows, for which the earliest archaeological evidence dates to roughly 13,000 years ago. Some have suggested that these technological advances might in part explain how Homo sapiens outcompeted Neanderthals, but, like so many theories on that front, it is based on a number of assumptions and guesses. Even without the use of spear-throwing implements, which have been shown in tests to have an effective, accurate range of between 45-55 metres, with a maximum range considerably longer, it is possible to hurl a spear a significant distance.

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The Woomera and Atlatl (spear throwers) dramatically increase velocity

The Olympic javelin record is just under a hundred metres, and whilst no one would suggest such ranges were achievable or desirable with prehistoric weapons, light, wooden spears can be deadly at tens of metres, allowing the hunter to keep a very significant gap between prey – or predator for that matter – especially when the prey failed to perceive that such a distant human could be a threat.

Whatever the case, the development of throwing is one of the main reasons we are here today. It is one of our most refined skills, and for millennia, likely for millions of years, it remained our species’ preferred means of hunting and acquiring food. That we are so good at throwing is no accident – it is simply natural selection favouring the genes of the better hunters. The preying mantis uses lightning speed, the snake has deadly venom, the honeybee favours a suicidal sting and we humans have missiles – that’s just how we roll.

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Ice Age Masters

A recent exhibition at the British Museum entitled Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, brought together an extraordinary collection of early human artworks, dating back as far as 40,000 years. The broad thesis of the exhibition was indicated by its subtitle: an attempt to locate and contextualise the point at which our sophisticated artistic ability, and hence “the modern mind”, first emerged. Having migrated from Africa into Europe some 40,000 years ago, and finding themselves caught in the grip of an ice age, Homo Sapiens began producing complex and subtle artworks – the product of modern minds, not unlike ours. The exhibition explored questions such as what caused this to happen, and what was the purpose of this form of expression.


The Arrival of the Modern Mind exhibition at British Museum

One thing that is immediately striking about ice-age art is the contrast between depictions of people and animals. Whilst the animals are depicted with incredible attention to detail and a faithfulness that is manifested either through expressive dynamism or accurate realism, humans are depicted in a highly abstracted way. Consider the bulging, drooping, hugely overweight female figures, whose bodies seem to be a grotesque exaggeration of the female form.


Many have long assumed that the attention to detail with the animal figures is linked to hunting rituals – that depicting the animals in this manner somehow gave the artist power over these creatures. The images potentially represent a mix of love, respect and awe for creatures who could both feed and kill one in this wild world. The figures of the females, on the other hand, have traditionally been seen as fertility symbols – exaggerations of the female form to emphasise child-bearing attributes.

Bison, exhibition

Yet these are big assumptions about the mindset and purpose of artists in a time so utterly remote – long predating cities, towns, agriculture and writing – that we must be very cautious before showing any confidence in our conclusions. After all, we don’t know if the artists were men or women, nor how the art was used or viewed. Were the female figures considered erotic or motherly, both or otherwise? There is one rare exception to this rule – a female head carved from mammoth ivory which has rather grandiosely been called the first true portrait of a woman for its somewhat quirky appearance, which gives it more individuality than the otherwise generic, simplified features or featureless heads on female statuettes.

Ice Age portrait

In an attempt to draw links between and to juxtapose these ancient cultures with the modern, the exhibition placed works by modern artists alongside the ancient – a sculpture by Henry Moore, a drawing by Mondrian, among others. Many reviewers were critical of this attempt to show how the ancient resonated in the modern, dismissing it as a distraction which only served to confuse by not giving the viewer sufficient room in which to forget their own culture and mindset and try to imagine one that was, in all likelihood, utterly different to that which produced these modern works.

Irrespective of this somewhat misguided pairing of old and new, the sheer peculiarity, quality and antiquity of the ice-age objects speaks for itself. The Lion Man, a carved ivory statuette which depicts a human figure with a lion’s head, found in fragments in a German cave and reconstructed, is dated at roughly 40,000 years old.

The Arrival of the Modern Mind exhibition at British Museum

As one author put it, it reeks of “dreams, terror, magical rites and myths.” The “Venus of Lespugue”, a 23,000 year-old female figurine with grotesquely pronounced thighs, buttocks and breasts, was also featured here.

That it long fascinated Picasso might lend some sense to the presence of the modern works here, yet really, it says nothing about the ancient world which produced it. Again, we are left with mere speculation as to its purpose and production, and our best guesses, logical as they may seem, must remain circumspect.

Art Historian, Professor David Lewis Williams, a major contributor to this field, has long argued that Palaeolithic Homo Sapiens “could only engage in image-making upon developing “fully modern consciousness.” He argues that cave art was a by-product of religious belief, which played a role in establishing and sustaining social hierarchies. He views the production of cave art as some kind of Shamanic ritual, perhaps even undertaken in an altered state. As much as we might find certain parallels with more recent, or even extant rock and cave art cultures, there is no way to confirm any of these conclusions. Whilst no doubt these artworks had a significance beyond the decorative and practical, surely in part their function was educational and commemorative – a visual aid in story-telling, a record and celebration of successful ventures. Australian Aborigines certainly use rock art in this way – as an aid in story-telling and passing on cultural information – yet this is also closely intertwined with religious ritual and mythological and spiritual beliefs.

Whatever the reasons for the production of this art, and whatever its function, it is certainly worthy of our admiration. To consider that people with minds as flexible and creative as ours, with equal artistic talent and capability, lived and produced art so long ago, is enough to move one to tears. The quality of the paintings from the caves of Lascoux or the Chauvet cave in southern France is breathtaking. It is not merely the understanding of movement, proportion, dynamism and grace shown in these renderings that is so striking, but also the deep sense of pathos which they convey. The eyes of these animals are hauntingly expressive, imparting a strong sense of individual feeling in some instances. Perhaps this is just my awed nostalgia combined with a tendency to anthropomorphise, yet in the absence of sophisticated human portraits, it is through the eyes of these animals, along with their meaty flanks, that we see the fleshy reality of their once having lived.

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Lascaux 3

Two bison

Anyone who is interested in this subject and has not seen Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, should do so immediately. I saw this in 3D at the cinema on its release and, whilst it has an occasionally frustrating, meandering style, it creates a powerful sense of awe around the art it showcases. I was deeply affected by this film and couldn’t stop Googling the images for weeks to come, out of awed admiration and a desire to look at great art, but also just to think, as I looked at it, that this was art produced by people, very similar in capacity to ourselves, who lived almost thirty thousand years ago in a world barely touched by the human presence. These artworks, and these spaces, have a quaintness for being both so beautiful and so discrete. They represent a time before humans had dominated their environment, when they both hid from its dangers and bravely took it on, spears in hand, made bold by the secret of fire and the tight social bonds of a rich and emerging culture. Take a look at the images and just ponder their antiquity, consider what was waiting them outside, in all its beauty, danger and uncertainty. It is staggering.


Chauvet horses

Chauvet cave rhino

All this attention on European rock art, much as it deserves it, neglects potentially more ancient and significant contributions in Africa and Australia. The ancestors of the Australian Aborigines migrated out of Africa roughly 70,000 years ago and arrived in Australia via Asia some 50,000 years ago. Whether or not they were producing rock art prior to this is uncertain, yet considering how close in time the oldest dated works are to their date of arrival, it would be sensible to assume that this means of expression evolved beforehand and was brought to Australia with them, rather than arising spontaneously after their arrival. As Homo Sapiens with direct links to the same groups that migrated into Europe, this suggests we might locate the origins of art prior to the migration into Europe, though we cannot dismiss the possibility of such artistic expression developing independently on these separate continents.

The antiquity of Australian Aboriginal rock art is remarkable. Some rock art is so old that it depicts long extinct megafauna which was still extant in Australia when the Aborigines arrived.

genyornis painting


Excavations at the the Narwal Gabarnmang rock shelter in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia have indicated that this is the oldest known rock art site in the world. The earliest definite date for the paintings there is 28,000 years old, though there is evidence of human occupation and use of the site which indicates humans were present as much as 45000 years ago, some five-thousand years older than the oldest known rock art at the El Castillo cave in Spain. The site has been described as the Sistine Chapel of rock art, not only on account of the huge number of paintings, stencils and drawings, but also because it is, to some degree, a man-made structure.

Narwal 1

Narwal 2

The pillars which support the flat rock canopy were shaped and carved by human hands to widen and open the space in which they worked. Even more remarkable is that the local Jawoyn community have a continuous, possibly unbroken link to this site. Their tribal elders, who were taken there and inducted into the culture and stories attached to the place, are now passing on this knowledge to their descendents.

narwal 3

This is, arguably, the longest example of cultural continuity anywhere on the planet, by a quite considerable margin. Many of the rock art sites in Australia are still in use and still maintained by the traditional custodians of the land, who, at times, refresh the images with new paint. Aboriginal culture, despite its social, religious and mythological sophistication, never advanced technologically beyond the Palaeolithic and remained as such until the arrival of Europeans. On account of this, despite having undergone evolution and adaptation over thousands of years of changing climate – ice-ages, great droughts, rising sea-levels, the lost of coastline, land-bridges and inland seas – Aboriginal cultural traditions remain an embodiment of beliefs and practices which go deep into prehistory. So deep in fact, that through their art and mythology, we can almost trace a line leading all the way back to Africa and those first Homo Sapiens who ventured out into the wider world.

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Gobekli Tepe is the site of what appears to be the oldest temple in the world. So far. Its antiquity is staggering, enough to leave you gasping for breath. That it is older than the Pyramids of Egypt  (earliest date, Pyramid of Djoser, c. 2630 BCE–2611 BCE ) is perhaps not surprising, nor is it all that surprising that it is older than Stonehenge (c. 2400-2200 BC). Yet, that it is as much as 7000 years older than Stonehenge, and of a more sophisticated construction, is enough to cause paroxysms of disbelief. Gobekli Tepe is so old –  at least 11,600 years (c. 9500BC)  –  that it predates agriculture and farming.

Gobekli Tepe 9

Gobekli Tepe, which literally translates as “Potbelly Hill”, sits atop a mountain ridge in south-eastern Anatolia. The site, which was first identified as Neolithic by Professor Dr. Klaus Schmidt in 1994 (initially it had been dismissed as a Byzantine graveyard), consists of a series of dry-stone rings, roughly 20-22, ranging from 10 to 30 metres in diameter, with T-shaped limestone pillars both inset into the walls at regular intervals, or free-standing in the centre of the circles. The stone circles also typically have a walled passageway leading from them, giving them a saucepan-like shape. The pillars, the tallest of which are 6 metres high, have been carefully shaped and decorated with images of animals and insects: snakes, foxes, boars, scorpions and gazelles.

Gobekli Tepe 7

Gobekli Tepe 5

Gobekli Tepe 4

The stone circles cover an extensive area – roughly 300 square metres, much of which is yet to be excavated, but which has been shown, through ground piercing radar and magnetic resonance imaging to contain further structures. Whilst the earliest radio-carbon date is c. 9500 BC, other areas of the site could be considerably older – as much as three to four thousand years older. A great deal of stone and flint tools and animal remains have been found at the site – but no signs of permanent habitation. As yet no burials have been discovered, nor any evidence of wealth or social status differentiation – such as high status ornaments. The archaeological evidence points to this site not as a permanent settlement, but as a place used by hunter-gatherer communities, which most likely served a ritual, communal function, possible as a sort of pilgrimage site for local tribal groups.

Gobekli Tepe 12

What makes this site so fascinating is that it significantly challenges established ideas about the origins of civilization and urban society. Traditionally it had been believed that the domestication and corralling of animals, along with the development of agriculture and farming, led people to settle more permanently in areas and thus to the development of towns.

Gobekli Tepe 3

Not only does Gobekli Tepe predate the earliest archaeological evidence we have for organised farming, but it does so by almost 1500 years, and possible considerably more. This suggests that it was, in effect, ritual practice of some kind – (the role and function of these buildings is still open to speculation, however much they might resemble temples) which initially brought people together in more permanent communities. Some scholars have  even suggested that agriculture itself might be an off-shoot of this kind of centralised religious activity. The consumption of wild grain at sites such as Gobekli Tepe may have induced a proliferation of edible grasses around the site, thus sparking an attempt to harvest this resource in a more planned fashion.

Gobekli Tepe 8

The site also challenges ideas about the capacity for people to organise and carry out work on this scale during this period. Traditionally, town or village-based urban civilization has been seen as a prerequisite for this scale of building activity, on account of the need to organise and feed a considerable work-force. In hunter gatherer societies, without grain storage or food surpluses, it was assumed that it was not possible to dedicate the time and labour to something so superfluous to survival. The freeing of people from the need to hunt and gather was understood to be a product of organised town or village life, in which roles were able to diversify and agricultural surpluses could support other activities. The construction of the largest structure at Gobekli Tepe, which is estimated to have required a bare minimum of fifty dedicated labourers, has significantly challenged this established model.

Gobekli Tepe 6

One curious aspect of the site is its historical progression and transformation.  Over time the stone rings were buried, with new rings erected over and beside the old, each of which was successively smaller than what came before. This gradual reduction in size might represent either a decline in the capacity to build such structures, or a declining interest in maintaining structures of such magnitude at this particular site, the importance of which might have waned.

Gobekli Tepe 13

This latter point makes more sense when we consider the local context. Lying roughly 30 kilometres north of Gobekli Tepe, and now submerged beneath the dammed waters of the Euphrates River, is the site of Nevalı Çori, a Neolithic village, the earliest radio carbon date for which – somewhat speculatory – is the middle of the 10th millennium BC. More definite dates place Layer II – its second construction phase – in the second half of the 9th millennium BC – more than a thousand years after the earliest known construction phases on Gobekli Tepe, but still within the period known by the acronym PPNB – Pre-Pottery Neolithic B.

Nevali Cori 2

The excavated architectural remains at Nevalı Çori consisted of long rectangular houses containing two to three parallel flights of rooms. Attached to these were a similarly rectangular structure subdivided by wall projections, likely residential space. As fascinating as these early pre-agricultural, pre-pottery settlements are in themselves, what is most striking for our understanding of Gobekli Tepe is the presence of what appears to be a temple / cult complex cut into the hillside. This consisted of a square space with monolithic pillars similar to those at Göbekli Tepe built into its dry stone walls, and two free-standing pillars, each three metres tall, in the centre. The pillars were carved with images very similar to those at Gobekli Tepe and appear to be a part of the same cultural milieu. Some archaeologists have speculated that the construction of local temple sites in emerging villages reduced the importance of the site of Gobekli Tepe, with religious practice becoming more focussed on local village structures.

Nevali Cori 1

Nevali Cori 3

Further excavations will ultimately shed more light on this important period in human development. Gobekli Tepe may yet reveal itself as a settlement, not just a meeting place for ritual. Even its function as a ritual centre is uncertain owing to the difficulty in understanding the beliefs and motivations of people so remote. Were the stone circles at Gobekli Tepe meeting places, schools, markets, dining halls or even an arena of sorts? Professor Schmidt, who has been excavating the site continuously since its discovery, considers Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead. He believes the carved animals were there to protect the dead. Despite the absence of tombs or graves, Schmidt thinks that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls. Either way, whatever their function, they mark the first known attempts at monumental architecture, placing the revolution of “civilization” much closer to the end of the last ice-age then previously thought.

Gobekli Tepe 10

Gobekli Tepe and Nevalı Çori are by no means the only contemporaneous sites in the region. Others include the so-called tower of Jericho – a tall, conical structure with an internal staircase, roughly 11,000 years old; Tell’Abr, a village characterised by central, communal storage buildings, also roughly 11,000 years old,; Jerf el-Ahmar, an 11,200 year old village with large communal buildings and Wadi Faynan, another village with communal buildings dating to roughly 11600 years ago. The emergence of these settlements in the wake of the last ice-age, c. 13000 years ago, is reminiscent of the Cambrian explosion of bio-diversity in the wake of the last Snowball Earth period. It appears that as the environment changed, ever-adaptable humans began to fill available niches and make use of more abundant resources. Perhaps the transition to villages and sites like Gobekli Tepe marks an attempt to recreate the centralised activity of cave-dwelling, though this rather keenly assumes these people were in fact transitioning from cave-dwelling, rather than altering an already open, nomadic lifestyle.

Gobekli Tepe 1

Recent studies in which ancient strains of grain and grass were grown in different levels of carbon dioxide – representing those of the last ice-age, and those of today – produced astonishing results. In the case of wheat and barley, the heads fattened up to and beyond double the size of those in grown in ice-age conditions. Was it as much the availability of this newly rich food source, along with the abundance of animals that drew people to this region in the first place? Was it the sheer abundance of food that allowed them to remain largely in the one area, rather than needing to forage more widely? Whilst we cannot identify evidence of organised farming and agriculture, it is almost certainly the case that people were harvesting wild grains prior to this development. Were Neolithic people storing wild grain in their communal buildings? As mentioned above, perhaps agriculture, and indeed, animal husbandry, came about as an offshoot of other, centralised activity. Whether that activity was religious or otherwise is uncertain, but the nature of sites like Gobekli Tepe certainly suggest a ritual purpose.

Gobekli Tepe 14

Professor Schmidt estimates another fifty years of work are required to unearth most of Gobekli Tepe’s secrets. This ongoing work may push the date back further, and may yet reveal further monumental structures buried beneath the hill. Other sites may yet be discovered, offering further insights into this fascinating period of human history. Whatever the case, it seems civilisation is a lot older than we originally thought, and may be older still – a more direct consequence of the end of the last ice-age than previously believed.

original night shot

Disclaimer: These images are not my own, but come from various sources freely available on the web

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Ancient Faces

It is haunting to look into the faces of ancient people long dead, especially when they appear to be looking back at you. There are many thousands of examples of ancient and medieval portraits surviving from past civilizations for whom depicting the human form was acceptable – almost all, for that matter, prior to the rise of iconoclasm. Many of these portraits, however, are either stylised or idealised and whilst they may display certain individualistic traits, they often lack the convincing sense of having captured an individual as they genuinely appear.


Greek idealism

This, however, is not the case with Roman realism. Whilst the Greeks tended to make the features of their sculptures and reliefs more uniform and ideal, the Romans were into warts and all verism.

Roman realism

People are too often ready to criticise Roman art as somehow secondary to Greek – at worst, they are seen as a bunch of unimaginative copyists and imitators, who never had an original idea of their own, whilst at best they are considered to have adopted and perfected existing styles and techniques. Inevitably the Romans borrowed heavily from their predecessors – both Greek and Etruscan – just as any artist of any time is guided and influenced by the artistic context in which they operate. After all, their empire spread from a city once ruled by Etruscan kings in close proximity to the long established Greek colonies in southern Italy. The Greeks had taken landscape painting, mosaic design and sculpture to such a level, that there was little room left for progress so far as technique was concerned. Take a look at this life-size Hellenistic bronze of a boy jockey and racehorse from the 2nd-3rd century BC.

Perhaps, despite the astonishing skill and beauty of Roman art, it is for these reasons that we think of the Roman contribution as far more pragmatic  – architectural, technological, logistical. After all, the Romans invented concrete, the arch, aqueducts, waterwheels, the monumental dome, the force pump, greenhouses, hydraulic mining and the multifunctional pocket-knife to name a few.

Yet the ancient world was by no means all Roman hardware and Greek software, so to speak. The Romans invented glass-blowing, for example, and, despite its fragility, we have countless examples of astonishingly fine Roman glassware to admire.

It is also important to remember that by the end of the 1st century BC, the Roman world incorporated all of Europe, West and East, including Greece of course, North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East – a world rich in artistic traditions including and predating Greek contributions and refinements, and one that blurred the boundaries between “Roman” and other artistic traditions. The vast international, multicultural enterprise that was the Roman Empire, the world’s first truly global superpower, continued to thrive for centuries beyond this, during which time the blending of these cross-cultural influences continued. The Roman “Baroque” of the thriving second century AD is the technical high-point of this multicultural enterprise. In AD 212 Emperor Caracalla passed an edict extending Roman citizenship universally across the Empire. From thereon, where can one truly draw the line across this huge cultural melting pot as to who was Roman or otherwise? Consider traditions such as the Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits of Roman Egypt – a classic example of this cultural blending.

0149 Ancient face

0087 Romano-Egyptian portrait

0090 Late Romano-egyptian portrait

Yet, irrespective of all this, there is one outstanding and significant and distinctly Roman contribution to art – veristic portraiture. Whereas the Greeks were dreamers who preferred idealised figures and faces – most of which appear post-coital – the Romans tended towards an almost painfully acute realism.

Frowns, double chins, jowls, bushy eyebrows, laugh lines, stern expressions, baldness, all abound in Roman realist portraiture. And the portraits themselves are hauntingly life-like. This is no approximation of an individual’s appearance, but rather an exquisite rendering of a person’s insecurities, burdens, life experience and temperament.

5203 Ancient Roman

3992 Roman matron

5201 Living ancient

5209 Roman realism

Roman matron

0142 Ancient faces

5219 Roman matron

5197 Cicero

4289 Augustus

5217 Cicero in profile

5218 Roman realism

Artistically the tradition derives from an early Republican habit of keeping family death-masks in the house, usually displayed in niches in the walls. Wax portrait heads of ancestors were also displayed in public processions. With the early Romans being so focussed on discipline, both within the family and public life, one can imagine how effective being watched by ones ancestors might be as a means of keeping one in line. There was also a certain distaste for the indolence of Greek and Etruscan life and Roman realism was not merely a reflection of their austere virtues and military traditions, but also a reaction against the rendering of people with a divine aspect. The Romans, despite their love of Greek art, liked to keep it real when not romanticising the mythical past.

Part of the appeal of Roman realism is that it constitutes an appreciable form of commemoration to which I can relate. These days, we probably wouldn’t be happy if the only image we had of our parents looked nothing like them, but rather some stylised, or idealised representation. Sure, we want them to look their best, but we do want them to look at least somewhat like they did in life. So it was for the Romans.

Consider this head of Julius Caesar, for example.


Bearing in mind the skill of Roman realist sculptors, one gets the sense that this is actually what Julius Caesar looked like (though the amount of hair atop his head might be an exaggeration.) How many ancient figures, apart from certain prominent Romans, can we convincingly recognise as clear and distinct individuals and feel we have a real sense of their features? With the exception of some excellent earlier Greek examples – take Socrates, for instance – we have very few life-like portraits from antiquity outside the Roman period. Alexander the Great has a recurrent uniformity to his images, yet still they look like a gloss – an idealised, air-brushed image of a god-like youth.

Head of

His face contains some pathos, yet I remain unmoved by it.  Only with Roman realism do I feel convincingly that I have come face to face with people from the classical world.

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