A Glimpse From A Distant Past


Almost every day we hear in the news of endangered species – meaning animals. But this applies to plants and flowers as well. The main cause for extinction these days is deforestation and the man made destruction of natural habitats. Every day we lose in the Amazon, exotic and barely-known plants in large quantities, and with it, the knowledge of their medical properties the natives had passed on in oral traditions – traditions which even in this day and age would have been of great value for the research in our pharmaceutical laboratories.

Of course, to show pictures of a flower that had gone extinct, say, 30,000 years ago is impossible even if the bones of extinct animals are still accessible in fossil records. The very same conditions that had preserved the bones have turned the surrounding plants to mulch, mud and peat.

So, in order to get an idea about plant life of a distant past we have to explore the cold climate zones where glaciers cover ancient ground and preserve frozen plants and animals and the composition of the gases these organisms had been breathing in the ancient air. We know exactly what the mammoth had been snacking on, mostly from the content found in the frozen animal’s stomach. And with modern gene technology it is no longer science fiction to think of cloning frozen organisms and bringing them back to life – including the frozen bacteria that had killed the animal.

As far as the mammoth is concerned, paleontologists agree that it was man who caused the demise of the woolly giants. Not that the ancient hunters could be accused of excessive hunting - their weaponry was too ineffective to do much damage - but elephants have long gestation periods and it takes only a fraction of a percent to be added to the naturally occurring fatalities to have caused the catastrophic collapse of a population already living on a precariously narrow margin in the extreme climate of the north.

On a more cheerful note, flowers have provided evidence for the thoughts and emotions of a not too distant cousin of homo sapiens. Humans and neanderthals share a common ancestor, but between 800,000 and 400,000 years ago, Neanderthals branched out into a different direction.

A hardy race of tough hunters and gatherers (their bone chemistry reveals that Neanderthals were essentially 97% meat eater) they had spread out to Europe and Asia long before homo sapiens. The Neanderthal people managed to survive two major ice ages and intermittent climate changes (of which the latest had reduced homo sapiens to less than a thousand individuals, before some of our own ancestors decided to leave Africa).

For a long time the archaeological evidence didn’t provide many clues about the ways of Neanderthal-man. Although endowed with bigger brains than homo sapiens, our cousins didn’t seem to display much innovation in their way of life. Maybe it was an impairment of their language that slowed down the thought process: we have reason to believe that homo sapiens inherited the FOXP2 gene (critical for our linguistic capabilities) from chance encounters with Neanderthals (there was interbreeding between the two species) some 40,000 years ago, and it has worked wonders for us ever since. You should plan a holiday visiting Altamira in Spain. For neanderthals, however, the benefits of this gene seemed to remain largely dormant, apart from the presumed use of sign language to coordinate the hunting in groups. Tests on the fossil remains of a Neanderthal voice box produced high pitched screeching sounds, not unlike those of a modern chimpanzee. So initially it didn’t surprise the archaeologists to see these people clinging for tens of thousands of years to the same old design of their tools and implements.

The layout of Neanderthal living quarters remained just as conservative and unchanged over very long periods (contrary to common belief, Neanderthals didn’t live in caves but preferred to settle at the entrance to caves and even in the open and windswept plains). Modern archaeology got the impression of an entirely matter-of-fact guy who didn’t waste time and effort on elaborate burials (i.e. no thoughts of an afterlife) or some or other ornamental carving.

And then we discovered something that has opened our eyes to a distant world and even made us reevaluate our previous findings: Cornflowers!

A Neanderthal girl reconstructed from remains found at the excavation site.

A retreating glacier had opened access to a burial site in which the carefully positioned corpses of adults and children wore garlands of cornflowers. Obviously there was more to homo neanderthalensis than hitherto had met the eye. By now we have extracted and mapped out more than a third of the Neanderthal gene, we know for sure our ancient cousin belonged to a different, albeit closely related species, and we have evidence for the existence of the ominous FOXP2 gene in the neanderthal genome prior to ancient homo sapiens. The latest findings give us less and less reason to think of our ancient cousin as the dour and brutish fellow one normally associates with his name, and we owe this insight to the evidence of flower arrangements – garlands, necklaces and bracelets woven from cornflowers.  Why only cornflowers? That is the intriguing question, isn't it? Neanderthals are not known for exuberant inventiveness, so we look at an age-old custom linked to habits and beliefs we can only guess. Why this preference for perishable flowers instead of more durable ornaments? (We now have evidence for tattoos, but still no remains of carvings and ornaments made from minerals.)

Centaurea cyanus is an annual (therophyte) that germinates more or less together with cereal crops, and has been particularly prevalent in rye fields on the European continent. However, with the increasing use of herbicides, the cornflower has become rare in many parts of Europe.

The grave site of the neanderthals is about 40,000 years old and the beginnings of our own civilization were still a tale from the remote future – so it takes some leap of reasoning and imagination to draw parallels, but In ancient Egypt, reproductions of cornflowers as a symbol of life and fertility have been found dating back to the first half of the 4th millennium BC (the beginning of the Bronze Age). It was even cultivated as a garden plant, portrayed on wall friezes and floor designs in houses and palaces. Flower heads appeared on faience and glazed earthenware, which was also used for pendants of earrings, necklaces, and collars for ladies. Who is to say we are not witnessing here the end of a cultural undercurrent that reaches way back and across the species? In the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amun, the archaeologists found wreaths and garlands of cornflowers together with petals of the blue lotus flower on the three coffins. Plants were given to the deceased to accompany him on his way, as an aid for reanimation. Until the Roman period florists continued using cornflower heads for grave decorations. That, to me, is more than a coincidence.

By then Neanderthal-man had gone extinct for almost 30,000 years. We are not sure why. Neanderthals had endured and outlived extreme climate changes and everything hostile Granny Nature threw at them over a period that outlasted the existence of homo sapiens by three or four times, and then, sporadically, they started interacting with our own ancestors, passing on to us the gift of language. In return we passed on the measles.

(That is my guess. To give an example: when Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztec empire of about 6 million people he had less than 500 men at his disposal and millions of bacteria unknown to the Precolumbian Americas. In the final count it wiped out 90% of the indigenous population.)


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