The Makapansgat Pebble, a Mirror Into Our Past?
Neat looking rock, eh? It’s about 2 by 3 inches (5 by 8 cm,) around half a pound (260 grams.) It would fit nicely in a hand in other words. It’s a stream worn piece of jasperite, a reddish rock that polishes up nicely. The markings on it are completely natural, the result of bouncing around in a stream bed. The resemblance to a human face is obvious, in fact there are three faces on it depending on how it is oriented. It’s not too hard to imagine that someone might have seen it laying in a creek bed, been intrigued, and carried it home to show around or even just because the person who found it thought it was cool looking. I’ve certainly carried home the odd looking rock in my time, as I’m pretty sure many or most people have.
So, a rock that has chance resemblance to a human face, what’s the big deal? Well, this particular rock was found in a cave, many miles from the creek bed where it was created. There’s only one way this rock got into that cave, someone had to carry it there. And this is where it gets interesting. This particular rock, known as the Makapansgat pebble or the pebble of many faces, was carried into that cave some 2.5 to 2.9 million years ago. This makes the Makapansgat pebble one the oldest known manuports in existence, an object moved from its natural context by human agency but otherwise unmodified.
My astute readers at this point are thinking, “Wait, there weren’t any humans around that long ago, so humans couldn’t have moved it.” Absolutely correct. The pebble was found in a cave that was inhabited by Australopithecus africanus, a gracile bipedal hominid that may have been an ancestor of the human race. So not only is this rock a candidate for the first known object moved by “humans,” it may be the first known example of a human ancestor exhibiting symbolic thought or an aesthetic sense. Yes, when that ape-like hominid fished this stone out of a creek, and stared at it in his or her hand and wondered at its resemblance to a face, this was the very first glimmering of what it meant to be human.
To me this is just amazing. Looking at the rock and imagining what it must have meant to the, well, ape-like person who found it. And knowing that every human on Earth might be a descendant of the individual who first gazed at this rock is pretty wild. I don’t think we can even imagine what they were thinking, and it’s a pretty safe bet they couldn’t imagine that millions of years later the funny rock they found would end up in a museum half the world away to be contemplated by their great great great etc grandchildren. Still, we are connected in a way because then and now we can gaze at this rock and see a face, like an image captured in a mirror for millions of years.
Granted, this is all pretty speculative. And the pebble might have been dropped there just a million years ago by a Homo erectus or another hominid, in which case it wouldn’t be quite as amazing. It’s just one of those quirky little things that make at least some of us shaved chimps think about how we got here. Especially since I don’t really want to think about where we’re going right now. Yes dear readers, I am so sick and dismayed by so many current events as we slide into the radioactive zombie apocalypse that I can’t bring myself to write about them now. So in the near future I am going to post about weird old things. Lots of fun to be had there, especially since I’m getting to be a weird old thing myself.
Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, and it’s central to illustrating the post. An image of Australopithecus africanus can be found here, don’t be scared, she’s smiling. I hope.)
This i the Makapansgatpebble