Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Ur-language: "Tax"

A recent archaeological discovery in the Caucasus is being hailed as the most important find for over a century.

Deep in a cave complex whose location is still secret lies extensive evidence of life before the last Ice Age. Cave Six, dubbed "Rosetta Max" by the researchers based there, is festooned with images and writing spanning tens of millennia, yielding radical new insights almost weekly into human prehistory, social development and the evolution of language. Yet last week's revelation may be the most dramatic of all: Palaeolithic political graffiti.

Cave 11c - a tiny and obscure offshoot of one of the most remote spaces in the system - appears to have been visited only once before in all of history. Examination of the dust and debris has uncovered the ashes of a fire and a single human coprolite. The latter is provisionally dated to 25,000 BCE, but a more precise figure will be ascertained with the use of advanced scientific instruments. However, the season of the ancient visit (autumn) is already established, because of the type of pollen grains found in the stool. And although hunting was a key element in the society of that time, there is no trace of animal matter here.

Low down on the wall, just where the fire might have shed a fitful light, is a crudely-executed image scratched into the rock and enhanced with ashes. This shows a number of stick-figures accompanied by goats, proceeding between lines of other, larger figures armed with short clubs and spears, towards a seated group wearing some ceremonial head-dress. The artist has depicted the latter with large abdomens and above them is a bison, unmistakably defecating.

There are glyphs beneath the sketch, most of which are currently untranslatable as they are not found again elsewhere in the cave-chain; except for one, phonetically rendered as "taks." Wild, but very tempting speculation has it that there is a connexion between what appears to be the exaction of payment in the form of herd-animals, the artist's meatless coprolite, the word "taks", the apparently disrespectful drawing and the use of rare language.

The work continues.


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