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Prehistoric science

Scientific practice is much older than we think

The essence of science Chad Orzel

We might think of science as a profoundly modern feature of human life, extending our understanding of the world around us far beyond what we can see and touch. But the essence of science - observation, experimentation, adaptation - has been around since the dawn of humanity. 

In September 1991, a pair of German hikers in the Ötztal Alps, near the border between Austria and Italy, spotted something brown and human-shaped sticking out of a glacier. They immediately reported this to the authorities, thinking they had discovered the body of someone who had died while hiking. While they were correct about it being a dead body, they were a little off on the timing: what they found turned out to be the mummified corpse of a man who had died sometime before 3100 BCE.

The mummy, quickly nicknamed “Ötzi” after the mountains where he was found, was a middle-aged man from the Copper Age, who had been killed by an arrow in the back. His body was quickly frozen into the glacier, along with his clothes and other possessions, leaving it incredibly well preserved. Over the last 29 years, he has been the subject of intense scientific investigation by a wide range of techniques, down to DNA sequencing to determine the species of the hides used to make his clothing, and isotopic analysis to determine the source of the copper ore for his axe. From all these studies, scientists have been able to reconstruct his final days in considerable detail: he was killed in early summer, having been wounded in a fight a few days earlier. His last two meals consisted of ibex meat and grains, one eaten at a much lower altitude than where he was found, suggesting a vivid narrative of battle and pursuit.

The real essence of science, though, is a process for developing reliable information about the world and how it works.

There are, of course, a great many things that we’ll never know about the “Alpine Iceman,” including who killed him and why. One thing is absolutely clear from the body and his belongings, though: Ötzi came from a society with a history of doing science.

That may seem a surprising assertion, given the modern tendency to use “science” to refer to a body of facts, or a collection of recently developed institutions such as professional societies, research universities, and national labs. The real essence of science, though, is a process for developing reliable information about the world and how it works. This process has four steps:

            Look at the world and identify some phenomenon that you want to understand better.

            Think about it carefully, and develop a model for how and why it works.

            Test your model by experiments and further observations.

            Tell other people about your results, so they can make use of your findings as well.

This process of science is not a recent invention - it’s as old as the human species. As far back as we have evidence of humans, we see signs of people doing science. Ötzi’s belongings are full of evidence that his culture practiced science.

The most notable of Ötzi’s possessions was an axe with a head of nearly pure copper bound into a fork of a yew branch, held in place with tar and leather cords. The end result is a sophisticated and effective tool — tests with a modern replica show that Ötzi’s axe would have been very effective for felling trees.

Everything about this axe speaks of the existence of prehistoric science. The head alone requires a large body of scientific knowledge: in order to make it, Ötzi’s people needed to gather ore-bearing rocks, heat them in a fire to separate out the copper and melt it, then cast the head in a stone or clay mold. No step in this process is possible without some science. Somebody had to determine which types of rocks contain copper suitable for smelting. The temperatures needed to melt copper require a charcoal fire and bellows, themselves the result of much research and development. Casting the copper into the appropriate shape, and forming it to fit the handle would require more trial and error. Once the head was made, shaping the handle and attaching the head require yet more basic science.

Ötzi’s other possessions are similarly the product of a substantial history of science. His clothing was stitched together from hides of several different animals, and his shoes were a sophisticated two-layer construction insulated with grass, ideal for walking on snow. He carried a fire-starting kit containing flint and tinder and a container for carrying hot coals, and a “first-aid kit” including bits of a birch fungus now known to contain anti-inflammatory and antibiotic compounds, along with oils that are toxic to a specific parasite that was found in Ötzi’s gut. While the exact purpose of all these items cannot be determined, everything known about them suggests that they were purposefully selected by people who knew what they were doing. That knowledge could only be the result of careful study and experiment: that is, science.

The look-think-test-tell process of science is accessible to every human, a part of our collective heritage. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that science is what makes us human.

We don’t think of things like fire-starting kits and copper axes as the result of science, because the discoverers who enabled them were long forgotten by the time we invented written language. And even if we were able to speak to them, they would not describe their knowledge in terms that we would recognize as science in the modern sense — copper age tribesmen in the Alps 5000 years ago didn’t know modern physics or biochemistry, and wouldn’t explain their tools in terms of atoms and molecules. But they knew how to make fires, how to smelt copper, and what fungus was good for treating wounds. And they knew how to figure things out, and build on earlier knowledge by looking at the world, seeing how things work, and sharing that knowledge with others.

One of the most problematic aspects of our tendency to identify “science” as its products (facts and institutions) rather than the fundamental process is that it feeds the mistaken belief that science is something that requires special abilities beyond the reach of normal humans. This leads to science being set off as an elite pursuit, something arcane and alien. We see this even in the language we use to describe academic pursuits, which sets science in opposition to a collection of disciplines referred to as “the humanities.” The clear implication is that science is fundamentally inhuman.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The look-think-test-tell process of science is accessible to every human, a part of our collective heritage. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that science is what makes us human. The scientific process of investigation and refinement is what has allowed us, through millennia of steady incremental improvements, to develop the tools that have made us the dominant species on Earth. Stone tools made us hunters of other animals, despite not having impressive natural weaponry. Clothing made from plants and animal skins, and control of fire allowed us to expand into even the most inhospitable climates. The domestication of animals and the development of agriculture allowed us to accumulate resources and free up time for both the pursuit of more forms of science and also the development of art and literature.

That process has carried us inconceivably farther in the millennia since his death, and there’s every reason to hope it will take our descendants to places we can barely imagine.

From our ancient origin as a not especially distinguished offshoot of chimpanzees restricted to a smallish part of Africa, we have expanded our range to cover the entire planet and some distance above it. We have also expanded the reach of our culture to encompass everything from highly refined forms of art and literature, to mathematical theories spanning the range from infinitesimal particles (quarks and leptons) to the large-scale structure of the universe as a whole. All of that is made possible through the process of science: observing the world, making models, testing and refining those models, and passing the results on to others to build on.

Ötzi the iceman thus stands as a testament to the power of science, not just through the modern tools and techniques that have let us learn so much about his life, but through the ancient tools that he carried with him when he died. His metal axe, layered clothing, and fire-making kit are the end products of the essentially human process of science, which even five thousand years ago had carried us to places that would’ve been difficult for the earliest members of our species to comprehend. That process has carried us inconceivably farther in the millennia since his death, and there’s every reason to hope it will take our descendants to places we can barely imagine.

 

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