Bit wear and Prehistory

As a budding historian, I think books and written records are pretty awesome.  Written records in particular are pretty great because that’s is what history is really.  History began when people started writing things down, and everything before is lost in the mists of prehistory, ultimately unknowable.

That’s what I used to think, anyway.  This week’s readings, among other things, changed the way I think about the supremacy of the written word.  Archaeology lends so much insight into early human populations.  Actually analyzing animal bones and charred seeds and what they mean is a little beyond me, but I can recognize the insight they can give.  I think one of the most interesting aspects was how bones can tell the age and gender of animals in a settlement and this in turn can tell whether the bones came from wild or domestic horses.  This is obviously important for determining when people domesticated horses.

Bit wear is incredibly interesting, and the fact that it so recently became studied is interesting to me.  As someone completely ignorant about horses and bits and such things, it seems pretty obvious that sticking a piece of metal in a horses mouth would change the horse’s teeth.  The matter is not so cut and dry as it appears though.  Assuming that bits do cause ware, so much can be gleaned from old horse teeth.  The question of where horse back riding originated can be answered by bit wear patterns on teeth.  The question of where it spread can be answered by the same thing.  It seems like such a small thing, a bit of ware on an old tooth, but it can tell us so much about early humans and the domesticated animals around us.

Linguistics are another source that can tell us a great deal about the movement of peoples before there were written records.  Again, the specifics of it go mostly over my head, but I trust that people smarter than I can trace how Indo-European languages developed over the years and can figure out what this means in terms of early humans.  And from what I understand, so much information can be derived from language.  We already knew this though.  As Kessler taught us, we experience vestiges of age old pastoralism in our language every day.  Language is so central to our lives and can tell us so much about our past.

I suppose part of this class was about looking at history before the written word made everything so easy.  There’s so much evidence about early humans and their animals if we know how to look.  As a historian, it has been so interesting to learn so much about a time that I, like so many others, think of as being prehistory.

3 thoughts on “Bit wear and Prehistory

  1. Then my work is done! We do think of History as being preoccupied with human activity as recorded by texts, and until recently (the last few decades) have overlooked many other kinds of evidence (material culture, other animals, the environment, etc.). And scientists and historians have until very recently (that last decade or so) assumed there was a distinct boundary between “pre” history and the real thing, which was marked by the advent of writing, agriculture, “civilization,” etc. Similarly, we assume that natural history and history don’t have all that much to say to each other. The goal of the course is to think about how animals have indeed shaped the human experience — from its very beginnings until the present.

  2. I completely agree with what you have commented on in this post.It really is awesome how much we can determine from things as simple as bones and seeds. As more and more methods of discovering a date for horse domestication were presented by Anthony, I couldn’t help but wonder how many unique tests and examinations can be done to determine the history of not only the horse, but any animal. If there are this many ways to study horse history, one could assume that most other animals probably have features that become distinguishable when they come into contact with humans or other disruptive forces. I mentioned in my post that I really appreciate all of the work that anthropologists due because much of the time, they will never truly know the answers to their questions even after a lifetime of work. But the more I think about all the techniques that could be used to obtain information about the past, the more it seems like eventually you must have put together so many different pieces of data that the puzzle is complete!

  3. I was wondering if everyone would be sold by the bit experiment. I too found the study really interesting and I have a lot of faith in the validity of such an experiment. Anthony thoroughly convinced me that a couple millimeters on a thousand year old tooth can tell so much. I feel like he thwarted all possible issues regarding his validity. The only remaining problem that I see is simply the difficulty in obtaining samples.
    It seems that written records are favored among many historians. I was really surprised that people were hesitant about using carbon dating at first and would rather rely on some ancient writings instead. I was really interested about the discussion on ancient language but it was short and confusing to me. O agree that it too can be a valuable tool in mapping our past.

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