9 December 2002
Nobody could have guessed that the Italian find would change our ideas of Neanderthal life - culture - quite so much. Indeed, even once the full scale of the 2008 dig had been discovered, an entire village quite literally frozen for thousands of years, nobody suspected the wealth of information that lay waiting to be decoded in the buried artifacts.
A string of coincidences -- one of my graduate students spotting the same colour sequences in the rugs and the necklaces. An associate recognising another necklace with a pattern similar to ones she'd found in Spain. And, critically, the Neanderthal bead rug that could've languished forever in that basement in Prague if it wasn't for the 2012 floods. Without these, we'd never have started looking for commonalities in what we'd previously disregarded as simple craft.
It seems almost certain now that the the necklaces we've found were used in an elaborate, organised method to send information across the Eurasian landmass.
The first 30 beads of so of a necklace, we've historically thought was just an aesthetically pleasing pattern customarily used by a particular tribe. But this pattern actually acts as a kind of address, each tribe having its own.
The rugs we've learned are giant lists, themselves of lists of addresses. Judging by the genetic distribution of the Neanderthal people, individuals themselves didn't actually travel more than a few score miles from their home territory in a lifetime, but these beads definitely did.
Handed on from tribe to tribe, strings of beads would continually move around the ancient world, each tribe adding their own address to the end, as well as to a separate bead-per-day timer. Efficient routes would thus be found, and the best of these copied onto rugs. The rug we've found shows, for hundreds of tribe-pattern-addresses, lists of how to reach them leapfrogging from tribe to tribe. For hundreds again, it gives partial routes, perhaps showing how to get into the general area.
The purpose of the necklaces is thus thrown into sharp relief. We're looking at nothing less than encoded messages addressed and routed across the entire continent. Each necklace carries with it its destination bead-pattern, its origin, and a tribe-by-tribe route so far, each tribe directing the necklace onward guided by the routes recorded in the tribe-rugs. And of course a message, a long, seemingly random pattern of beads.
And so many messages! We see three women in the 2008 Italian find squatted by necklaces, over the largest rug, sorting them into piles at the very moment the avalanche struck. The bone abrasion in the fingers indicates this was a full-time job. A messenger we've also found, carrying a full bag of necklaces, some bearing patterns we've since discovered signify Spain, and others the furthest reaches of the Russian steppes.
The messages themselves! I cannot overemphasise what a massive linguistic project this has been, and the genius of those with whom I have been privileged to work. These magnificent fellows have translated the necklace corpus found in Italy, and subsequently so-called primitive necklaces in museums and new digs from all over Europe.
It's gossip, largely. Recipes and discussion about game also figure. Boasting too. Judging by the strict regularity of the messages from one particular tribe, it seems growing-season announcements were also broadcast by specialists in monitoring such things.
But what is most spectacular is that the catastrophe for the tribe in Italy has been most fortuitous in its timing for us, falling at a period of massive cultural change for the Neanderthal people.
News is coming in of a new people from the East, travellers. The news contains warnings. These new people are violently displacing the existing inhabitants of the land, refusing to settle into the established system. Already a not insignificant number of tribes have become unreachable.
Mostly the news is a combination of scared and bemused. Who are these people who waste their time taking their bodies places?, the beads spell out the comments, Isn't it enough to [word untranslatable]? Further alarming news comes in notices of necklace loss in transit, the proportion of which has been rising in recent times. It seems these new people are considerably further into Western Europe than this particular tribe realises, a new culture living in the gaps of the old static one, disrupting the communication routes.
Cro Magnon man entirely replaced the Neanderthal eventually of course, if not genetically then certainly culturally. It stands as a sad loss of a hitherto unsuspectedly sophisticated people, and leaves me to speculate what could have been had this mentality been inherent in our own human history, this ability and nature to encode and trust message delivery not to a single messenger but to society itself?
The social cohesion would have been totally different. Perhaps the signal bonfires so famously used to signal the arrival of the Spanish Armada would have been the rule rather than the exception, message streams flying across the country, navigating their way from hilltop to hilltop. And then perhaps with mirrors, could beads of light be relayed, strings of encodings directed in different directions by professionals with routemaps on paper? How would telegraph be different? Would the railway contain whole trains, or instead carriages routed junction-to-junction? I doubt the industrial production line, a goal-obsessed tunnel vision if ever there was one, would even play a part.
It's hard to tell what sort of people would inhabit Europe in our year of 2020, so many thousands of years after the bead rugs. A world where each individual is more aware of those around it? A decentralised world lacking the concentrated marketplaces and libraries, storing the entire cultural knowledge in dynamic transit instead of dead recordings. And maybe a world less prone to the disease that sweeps through close-packed living, and lacking the territorialism that comes from squalid, claustrophobic urban life.
But alas we'll never know, for our ancestors were the destroyers of a foreign culture. We are the descendants of the Italian Neanderthal's barbarian at the gate.