In case you were wondering how to write pig in cuneiform—and who isn’t?—I just saw this on Twitter. And if you were in Ur four thousand years ago you’d see this pig, think “sah”, because that was the Sumerian word for pig, but you probably couldn’t write it because not many Sumerians could. Cuneiform was hard. 12 separate strokes in the clay to write sah. We can write pig in a mere six. Type it in three. Then again, you could have written pig on a tablet in Sumerian on a clay tablet in twelve strokes and somebody could find it four thousand years later and go wow, pig.
Hippo sculpture from the Ancient Egyptian 1st Dynasty, about 500 years before the Great Pyramid. Googling around on a lazy retired guy afternoon—hippo 1st dynasty were the magic words—I found a whole mess of little hippopotamus statuettes, though this one was by far the cutest. Whether it was cute to an Egyptian five thousand years ago I have no idea. Often the hippo statuettes were gifted to a funereal deity they’d dubbed Khentiamentiu, who from what I could tell of the absurdly academic prose (perfect grammar, confusing writing, people learn the wrong stuff in school) is that this undefined deity “precedes Osiris”, your guess being good as mine. Hippos were also strong and murderous and dangerous so sometimes the statuettes represented those characteristics, and sometimes they’re pregnant and represent fertility, the Egyptians being a wonderfully horny civilization. Mesopotamian civilizations were too, though fertility there tended to go with war. It’s complicated. In Egypt fertility instead often went with hippos, not so much complicated as it was kinky. Anyway, our darling little hippo here really looks far too cute to be either warlike or kinky. It just looks cute. So maybe instead it’s the Nile. Sometimes a hippo just represented the Nile. Egyptians way back when could look at a little hippo figurine and think oh, that’s the Nile. Really. Don’t ask.
Wow, this is unbelievably cool. Amazing that this painting has survived in such incredible condition for over forty four millennia in such a hot and humid climate. Must be an extremely dry microclimate in that cave. Whoever it was that painted this late Paleolithic masterpiece 44,500 years ago during the Ice Ages, the climate near the equator was cooler and much drier than today because so much of Earth’s water was locked up in the enormous glacial ice sheets that covered so much of northern Eurasia and North America. So much water was frozen in the glaciers that the world’s sea level was hundreds of feet below what it is today. The shallow seas of today were land then. You’d never notice, if you were suddenly plopped back then by some space time mishap, except that the beaches would be much farther away. So what is now the oddly shaped island of Sulawesi would have been part of the India sized land mass that connected nearly all of what is now Southeast Asia, so that continental Asia continued eastward and stopping just sort of New Guinea by channels of deep water. The first Australians had passed that way twenty or so thousand years before making the boat crossing to New Guinea, itself connected to Australia by land that now lies underwater. The people who painted this extraordinary wild pig were local residents, part of a population that had been slowly expanding eastward. Were they the same as the people whose ancestors later populated the length and breadth of Australia? Probably not. The Australians had apparently been descendants of people who’d left Africa at least 20,000 years earlier (and from the looks of this painting on Sulawesi, the Australians had a different style of painting—entirely different traditions of painting, perhaps) and would have passed through Sulawesi long before. But the people who did paint this painting are not the same as those who inhabit Sulawesi now, who arrived only a few thousand years ago. Populations shift profoundly over immense periods of time, and peoples who seem to have been the original resident, they’re just the latest residents, even if they’ve been there for thousands of years. There’s history and there’s deep time. We’re talking human deep time here, measured in blocs of tens of thousands of years. History means nothing over scales like that. Yet here we are with a window into a moment where two humans—probably of our species, Homo sapiens, though perhaps they were Denisovans, who were as close and as distant to us as Neanderthals—left this extraordinary portrait of a warty pig upon a cave wall. It will take a bone fragment (with viable DNA) as old as the painting to discern what species of humans they were. But no matter, who ever this human was, 44,500 years ago he watched a warty pig with an artist’s eye and turned to a limestone wall and painted this. He didn’t sign it, but he left a handprint in paint for us to wonder about, and his friend left one too.