Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The drowned wall

Humans have been modifying their own environment for a very long time.

Our capacity for building stuff is pretty extraordinary.  Birds build nests, some mammals and reptiles burrow, spiders spin webs -- but compared to what we do, it's all pretty rudimentary stuff.  No other species on Earth looks around, takes materials from nature, and says, "Hey, if I cut this to pieces and move it around, I could do something new and useful with it" to the extent that we do.

I was thinking about all this when I read a paper this week about an archaeological discovery in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Germany.  As I discussed in more depth in a post a couple of days ago, ten thousand odd years ago the Earth (especially the Northern Hemisphere) was coming out of a catastrophic and sudden cooling episode called the Younger Dryas event, during which the sea levels were considerably lower (because so much seawater was locked up as polar and glacial ice).  In fact, much of what are now the Baltic and North Seas were dry(ish) land; you could walk from England to France across a broad, grassy valley that is now at the bottom of the English Channel.

The result is that a great many of the artifacts produced during that time are now underwater, and finding them can be a matter of luck.  That was certainly the case in this instance, where scientists demonstrating a multibeam sonar system for some students in a research vessel ten kilometers offshore in the Bay of Mecklenburg saw something extraordinary -- the remains of a 971-meter-long rock wall archaeologists say "may be the oldest known human-made megastructure in Europe."

Nicknamed the "Blinkerwall," it is made of rows of a total of fourteen hundred smaller stones connecting three hundred boulders that were pretty clearly too large to move.  What the wall's builders apparently did was built a barrier out of the smaller stones connecting the large ones into a zigzagged line.

Part of the Blinkerwall [Image credit: Philipp Hoy]

The purpose of the wall, of course, can only be guessed at, but the researchers suspect it was used for hunting.  "When you chase animals [such as reindeer], they follow these structures, they don’t attempt to jump over them," said Jacob Geersen, of the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research in Warnemünde, a German port town on the Baltic coast.  "The idea would be to create an artificial bottleneck with a second wall or with the lake shore."

Once the animals were funneled into the narrow strip of land between the two barriers, they would be more vulnerable to spear-wielding hunters lying in wait.

The next step in the research, Geersen said, is to send divers down to the base of the wall, now submerged under twenty-one meters of water, to try and bolster this explanation by finding spearheads or other hunting implements.

You have to wonder what else might be down there.  Our intrepid ancestors have been finding new ways to make stuff for tens of thousands of years.  Wherever that impulse came from, there's no denying that it's served us well.  It always makes me wonder what traces will be left of our culture in ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million years -- and what deductions our descendants will make about our habits, practices, and lifestyles.


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