August 3, 1908 The Old Man of La Chappelle

Research suggests that we all carry Neanderthal genes and that these may have changed our immune systems, leaving us vulnerable to diseases such diabetes and cancer.

In the 17th century, the German Reformed Church teacher and hymn writer Joachim Neander liked to hike a valley outside of Düsseldorf. The beauty of nature was inspirational, clearing his mind and inspiring verses like “See how God this rolling globe/swathes with beauty as a robe…Forests, fields, and living things/each its Master’s glory sings.”  The theologian contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of thirty but lived on in a way, in the valley which came to bear his name.

Nearly 200 years later, three years before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, workers quarrying limestone in the Neander Valley discovered an unusual skull.  This was no ordinary head, elongated and nearly chinless as it was, with heavy ridges over the eyes.  Heavy bones were found alongside,  which fitted together, oddly.

From top, clockwise:  a) Neander Valley by Friedrich Wilhelm Schreiner, oil on cardboard, 1855, b) original bones discovered the following year, and c)Artist’s conception of what he looked like, H/T Artist: Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions

The state of archaeological science had much to learn in 1856.  Who knows, 22nd century historians and scientists may look back at our time, and say we had a long way to go.  At the time, even to discern fossils from ordinary rock was beyond the ability of many scientists. One common method involved licking the fossil. If the thing had animal material, it would stick to your tongue.

Despite such misconceptions, scholars of the day had no shortage of theories. This was a lost Cossack, a bowlegged rider suffering from rickets, a painful condition resulting in weak and misshapen bones. To some, the life of pain resulting from such a condition made perfect sense, the bony eye ridges resulting from perpetually furrowed brow.

British geologist William King suspected something different. Something more radical. This was no aberrant human being nor even a lost ancestor. This was a member of a long lost alternate humanity.   An extinct but parallel species to our own.  King published a paper in 1864 hypothesizing his idea of an evolutionary dead end, naming the long lost species after the poet who had once wandered the valley in which it was discovered. He called it Homo Neanderthalensis: Neanderthal Man.

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“Neanderthal sculptures, named Nana and Flint, at the Gibraltar Museum”. H/T Jaap Scheeren, New York Times

Having no context from which to draw conclusions, King fell back on the pseudo science of phrenology to describe Neanderthal man, along with preconceptions of “primitive” and “savage” races. The image of a stupid and grunting brute emerged from this analysis. King opined that “The thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute.” Today we may look at such thinking as itself savage and primitive, but applying modern ideas to earlier times is a dangerous undertaking. Ideas of Eugenics survived well after King’s time, and into the modern era.

On this day in 1908, the brothers Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie found the most complete Neanderthal skeleton to date in a small cave near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France.  This skeleton includes the skull, jaw, most of the vertebrae and several ribs, along with most of the long bones of his arms and legs, plus a number of smaller bones from the hands and feet.

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The Old Man of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints reconstructed burial in the Musée de l’Homme de Néandertal, France

French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule studied the remains and envisioned a brutish, hairy and gorilla-like beast with opposable toes and bent spine, walking on bowed legs with bent knees.  Boule’s reconstruction was influential. Decades later, scientists and popular culture viewed Neanderthal as bent and stupid brutes. Boule got it wrong that time but, to his credit, was one of the first to recognize Piltdown Man, as a paleoanthropological hoax.

Subsequent analysis of the “Old Man of La Chappelle” revealed not the bent-over beast of Boule’s imagination, but a fully erect biped, bent with advanced osteoarthritis.

What’s more, massive tooth loss and lack of mobility revealed that this specimen could neither hunt nor scavenge with ease, and would have had great difficulty in chewing his food. This and the unmolested state of the skeleton compared with animal bones found nearby suggest a man greatly cared for by his contemporaries, as well as deliberate burial of the body.

This wasn’t even an “old man” by our standards.  The skeleton is currently estimated to have been that of a man between 25 and 40 years, demonstrating the Hobbesian adage that life was once indeed, “Nasty, Brutish and Short”.

Today, to call someone a “Neanderthal” is to insult him as a stupid savage.  It appears that our cousin was nothing of the sort.

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The hyoid bone situated at the floor of the mouth serves as a connecting-point for the tongue and other musculature, giving humans the ability to speak. A delicate structure likely to be lost in most fossilized remains, the first Neanderthal hyoid was only discovered in 1989.

An international team of researchers analysed this fossil Neanderthal bone using 3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modelling and, yes.  Neanderthal could not only speak, but was capable of highly complex speech not unlike ourselves, though his voice was likely high and grating.  Certainly not the base grunting commonly associated with “cave-men”.

img_1054neanderthalsmShorter in stature and considerably more powerful than Cro-Magnon, our direct ancestor and all but indistinguishable from ourselves, Neanderthal bodies were suited to the ice age of the early and middle Paleolithic era.

Neanderthal emerged on the Eurasian landmass between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.  Possessed of a brain only slightly smaller than Cro-Magnon, Neanderthals walked upright, formed and used simple tools and controlled fire.  They even buried their own dead, at least sometimes, and some researchers theorize that they built boats and sailed the Mediterranean.  Imperfectly formed tools and weapons found alongside more sophisticated specimens even suggest that he educated his children.

He might even fit in if you brought him back today, provided you dressed him right.

Despite all that, Neanderthal man is an evolutionary dead end and not our ancestor, though he did “coexist” for a time, with our Cro-Magnon forebears.  It’s even possible if not probable that the two bred together and produced children, though this was likely your random hookup rather than any long-term cross-breeding.

Modern DNA analysis suggests that the two species even shared some genetic disorders, such as psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and a variety of auto-immune conditions such as Lupus.

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Research even suggests that we  carry Neanderthal genes, every one of us, and that these may have changed our immune systems leaving us vulnerable to diseases such diabetes and cancer.

The idea is not as strange as it sounds. Last year, Sir Richard Branson was in the news, claiming that he had looked into his family ancestry. Forty generations back, it turns out that Branson is related to Charlemagne.  That’s no big deal, according to Genetecist Adam Rutherford. Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, Rutherford explained that “Literally every person in Europe is directly descended from Charlemagne. Literally, not metaphorically. You have a direct lineage which leads to Charlemagne,” adding “Looking around this room, every single one of you … is directly descended between 21 and 24 generations from Edward III.”  The only difference between celebrities and the rest of us it turns out, is the means to prove it.

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So, maybe calling someone ‘Neanderthal’ isn’t such an insult, after all.  Perhaps there’s one in there somewhere, peering back at us from our bathroom mirror.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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June 1 (hypothesized) 10,000BC Domesticated Animals

There are stone engravings depicting teams of hogs hauling war chariots. I wonder what that sounded like.

The first dog may have approached a campfire looking for a morsel, or someone could have taken in a sick or wounded pup.  A wolf pack may have learned to shadow human hunting parties, the two groups learning to work together for their mutual benefit.  Two social, hierarchically organized species such as humans and wolves, would have found themselves on familiar ground.

The earliest known evidence of a domesticated dog comes to us from a cave in Iraq and dates to about 12,000 years ago. The specimen differs from that of a wolf, in that it was bred to have smaller jaws and teeth

1417509_origIt may be hard to imagine but, Canis lupus, the wolf, is the ancestor of the modern dog, Canis familiaris.  Every one of them, from Newfoundlands to Chihuahuas.

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Ovis aries, sheep, were the next to be domesticated, probably in the Middle East. They provided milk, meat and the warmth of wool from around 8000BC.

Pig Drawn CarriageSus scrofa (the pig) was domesticated around 6000 BC throughout the Middle East and China. Pigs were originally used as draft animals.  There are stone engravings depicting teams of hogs hauling war chariots. I wonder what that sounded like.

Bossie made her debut at a couple of points in history, females providing milk and meat and castrated males providing the massive strength and capacity for work, of the ox.  Over time, different branches of Bos primigenius came into domestication. The branch which came to be known as Bos taurus, the domestic cattle seen in the US today, began about 8,000 years ago in the Middle East. Bos indicus, the familiar humped cattle seen throughout modern day India and Pakistan, came around about 2,000 years later.

The animal making the greatest impact on Mankind entered the picture around 4000-3500BC on the Eurasian steppes near Dereivka, in central Ukraine. Equus caballus, the horse, provided milk, meat, shelter and transportation, as well as an endless capacity for work. From farm carts to war chariots, the horse could haul a load faster and over a greater distance, than any animal of its time.

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Heck Horse

The first domesticated horse was called a Tarpan, a steppe sub-species which is now extinct, at least in the wild. The “Heck Horse” is a breed claimed to resemble the extinct wild Tarpan or Equus ferus ferus, created by the German zoologist brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck. The first Heck horse, a stallion named Duke, was exported to the United States in 1954, followed by two mares in 1955 and a third in 1962.

Today most camels are domesticated, except for a few of the Bactrian (two humps) variety surviving in the Gobi Desert. Wild camels originated in North America, and were wiped out during the spread of Native Americans from Asia into North America between 8000 and 10000BC.

Camelid_origin_and_migrationEarly camelids spread across the Bering land bridge, moving the opposite direction from the Asian immigration to America, surviving in the Old World and eventually becoming domesticated and spreading globally by humans. The first “camelids” became domesticated about 4,500 years ago in Peru: The “New World Camels” the Llama and the Alpaca, and the “South American Camels”, the Guanaco and the Vicuña.

Of the only two surviving true camels, Dromedaries may have first been domesticated by humans in southern Arabia, around 3000 BC, and the Bactrian in central Asia, about five hundred years later.

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Genetic analysis of the modern house cat, Felis silvestris catus, suggests that every one of them descends from one of five wild feline ancestors: the Sardinian, European, Central Asian, Subsaharan African, or the Chinese desert cat.

The first depiction of a cat wearing a collar appears on a tomb in the ancient Egyptian burial ground of Saqqara, dated 2500-2350 BC, however there is archaeological evidence of domesticated cats on the Greek island of Cyprus, as early as 7500BC.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

Yonaguni

In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

220px-Plainofjars_1The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

urnOn February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

September 12, 1940 Lascaux Caves

Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.  Four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzer columns had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people shocked and prostrate in the wake of their surrender, that June.  All those years their government had told them, the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot Line was more than a match for the German military.

France had fallen in six weeks.

On June 18, Charles DeGaulle addressed the French nation from his exile in Great Britain, exhorting his countrymen to fight on.  Resist.  The idea caught on quickly in occupied regions.

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the southern part of “La Métropole” in July, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Resistance against this new government in Vichy was slower to form.  This was, after all a French government, and French attitudes took a decidedly anti-English turn with the July 3 British attack on the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kébir.

Before long, Vichy’s collaborationist policies hardened French attitudes against itself. The French Resistance was born.

Sometime around this period, a tree fell unseen near the French village of Montignac.  On September 12, 1940, 18-year old Marcel Ravidat was walking his black & white mongrel dog “Robot”, in the woods.  Coming upon the downed tree, the pair noticed a deep hole had opened up, where the tree had once stood.  Stories differ as to which of the two went down the hole first, but it soon became clear.  Marcel Ravidat and his dog had discovered something more than a mere hole in the ground.

The boy returned to the site with three buddies, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas.  Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.

History is no single narrative.  It is a thousand times a thousand, each layered and intertwined with the other.  Here, four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

Lascaux 1The Lascaux Caves are located in the Dordogne region, in Southwestern France.  Some 17,000 years ago, Upper Paleolithic artists mixed mineral pigments such as iron oxide (ochre), haematite, and goethite, suspending pigments in animal fat, clay or the calcium-rich groundwater of the caves themselves.  Shading and depth were added with charcoal.

Colors were swabbed or blotted onto surfaces.  There is no evidence of brushwork.  Sometimes, pigments were placed in a hollow tube, and blown onto the wall.  Where the cave rock is softer, images are engraved.

The colour, size, quality and quantity of the images at Lascaux, are astonishing.  Abbé Breuil, a Catholic priest and the first expert to examine its walls, called it the “Sistine chapel of prehistory”.

Lascaux 3The artist or artists who created such images, nearly 2,000 of them occupying some 37 chambers, would have been recognizable as modern humans.  Living as they did some 5,000 years before the Holocene Glacial Retreat, (yes, they had “climate change” back then), these cave-dwellers were pre-agricultural, subsisting on what they could find, or what they could kill.

More than 900 of their images are recognizable as animals. 605 of them have been precisely identified. Hundreds of images depict horses, stags, cattle, lions and bison.  Other subjects appear with less frequency.  There are seven cats, a bird, a bear, a wooly rhinoceros, and one human.

LascauxThe purpose served by these images is unclear.  Perhaps they tell stories of past hunts, or maybe they were used to call up the spirits for a successful hunt.  At least one professor of art and archaeology postulates that the dot and lattice patterns overlying many of these paintings may reflect trance visions, similar to the hallucinations produced by sensory deprivation.

36 animals occupy the “Great Hall of Bulls”, including a single black Auroch specimen measuring 17ft long, the largest such image ever discovered in cave art.  One semi-spherical chamber, the “Apse”, is covered from the floor to its 8’9″ vaulted ceiling with overlapping, entangled drawings and engravings, demonstrating that these people erected scaffolding to create such work.lascaux4b

The Lascaux caves were used by the French Resistance for weapons storage during the war, and opened to the public in 1948.  That would prove to be a mistake.

The underground environment had been stable for all those thousands of years.  Now the light, the air circulation, and the exhalations of thousands of visitors a day, were irreparably changing the cave environment.  By the 1950s, colors had noticeably begun to change and fade.  Crystals and lichens began to grow on the walls, black and white molds grew quickly throughout the cave complex.

The cave was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings restored and a monitoring system installed.  Molds, lichens and crystallized minerals bedevil the ancient cave art to this day.  Only a handful of scientific experts are now permitted access to the site, and that’s only for a few days per month.  Some of the most eminent preservation specialists on the planet continue to wrestle with the problem.

The prehistory buff can find a lot to like in the Vézère region of France.  The valley has 147 prehistoric sites, 15 of them listed as Unesco World Heritage sites.

“Lascaux II” opened in 1983, an exact replica of the Hall of the Bulls and the “Painted Gallery” areas at the original, educating and informing the public without further harm to the archetype.

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Inside the museum that houses Lascaux 4 (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images)

The 800 square meter mobile “Lascaux 3” began a world tour in 2012, scheduled to continue through 2020.  Most recently, the exhibit departed the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka, Japan, on September 3.  The €57 million ($68 million), multi-media Lascaux IV opened last December, 8,500 square meters of high-tech exhibit space where each visitor is free to explore four exhibition rooms, equipped with an electronic compagnon de visite, a tablet-like device which looks like it’s been flaked and formed out of slate, Fred Flintstone style.

Kindly permit me a personal note, on which to end.  Years ago, the Long family convened our annual “Blue Gray Ramble” at the Petersburg battlefield, in Virginia.  There’s a cut running parallel to the lines there, almost a ravine, not far from the crater.  The thing has got to be 12 feet deep, narrowing downward to a hard, dry stream bed.

Working our way down the bottom of the cut, we encountered an archaeologist’s dream of fossils:  Gastropods, scallop shells, copepods, shark’s teeth.  The denizens of a long forgotten sea, cast in stone and exposed to the light of a Civil War battlefield.

We were there that weekend to discover history, and that is what we did, albeit from a new and unexpected perspective.