A Second Look Back – Part 2

Although I have listed these before, I want to make sure that they stay fresh in readers’ minds while look at this and other posts.  So here are the questions and the elements of measurement that I will continue to address and reference.

The Questions:

1. What is measurement?

2. How is it done?

3. How did it develop, when and why?

4  Why is it so important: what is the function of measuring?

5. Is it being used appropriately?

The Elements:

  • Measurement is a social activity, in that measurement is not usually for one person only
  • Measurement is done to something (object, process, performance) in order to capture some characteristic of that something, for comparison, communication or replication
  • There must be sufficient language to communicate the measurement of that something’s characteristic(s), not just the words but the concepts behind the words
  • A way to record or capture the measurement of that something beyond language, such as writing, symbolic marks, numerical system, etc.
  • Scales against which to compare the measurement, either previous measurements done in a similar fashion or perhaps, some standards

The last post was devoted to looking principally at the third element, and elaborating on the way it was discussed in the earlier post: A First Look Back.   The discussion of language evolution took us up to the beginning of agriculture: now let’s look at the last two blocks in the timeline.

The human activities called ‘agriculture’ began roughly ten to twelve thousand years ago, in the wake of the retreat of the last glacial period or ice age.  By then, the evidence is fairly clear that language had been used for some time: nothing written, to be sure, but activities such as cave paintings; evidence of groups “hunting” together, which implies planning beforehand which in turn implies communication; and possibly musical instruments.  There are probably other parts of the archeological record that similarly imply communication resulting from language.  It is during the period after the glaciers retreated that we finally have some indications of the beginning of measurement.  While not necessarily yardsticks, carpenter’s squares, plumb bobs and levels, the results of what I believe can only be accomplished by using measurements can be seen as evidence that some form of measurement was used.  While the first writing shows up in the Fertile Crescent, approximately five to six thousand years ago, some “measurement” had to have developed before then.  As evidence, I will start by citing the cuneiform writing that is understood to be enumeration of accounts.  Based on several sources, early in the development of cuneiform writings were “packets” of clay containing some number of identical items.  The shapes of the identical items show up on clay tablets which appear to have been inscribed later in time than the packets, and finally symbols for numbers show up preceding the shape of one of those items, as if the progression is from markers, to marks representing the markers on tablets, to number symbols for how many of the markers need to be noted. This appears to be accounting, or at least enumeration of objects deemed valuable enough to keep a record of.

Also as indicators of measurement being used, I would cite some of the large stone constructions, which not only could not have been built without using measurements, but since some have been found to be oriented to provide views of astronomical events that repeat, could only have been built that way if there were some manner of capturing the occurrence of the repeating events.  At the point when structures such as Newgrange (Ireland, c 3100 BC), Stonehenge (England, c 2400-2100 BC) pyramids (Egypt, earliest about 2600 BC) and others were built, spatial measurement, necessary for building, was used not only to build, but in some (all?) cases to ‘represent’ a temporal pattern.  Both kinds of measurement were used, although the temporal pattern was captured and translated into objects – spatial representations of temporal events.

Additionally, in all of the reconstructions of early language, whether Indo-European, proto-Indo-European or hypothesized earlier languages, there appear to be numbers up to at least ten.

Thus I think you can understand my confidence that the beginning of measurement and its tools goes back to the time when agriculture was becoming a way of life for a number of societies.  The measurements for which there is evidence would not have developed just to show future cultures that ‘we know how to measure too’: they had to have been developed, most likely gradually, to the point where they supported accounting, building and orienting of building, over many years.

Before that, the record of human achievement has been found in stone tools, some artifacts that are decorative, maybe, and cave painting.  Cave painting, as mentioned in an earlier post and as best I understand it, could have been done without measurement.  A cave painter could have used his judgment about the correct proportions of the legs and body of a painted cave bull to the size of its head, rather than laying it out on a pre-measured grid.  There are plenty of sketchers today who can draw quite proportional drawings by using their “sense of proportion” without actually resorting to a tape measure.

Stone tools could be made based on an earlier version, but could also be done without specific measurement, using only judgment based on eye and experience.  The same could have been used for the decorative artifacts as well.

So, I conclude that, as of the information I’ve been able to find regarding cave painting, the manufacture of stone tools and the decorative artifacts, they do not necessarily represent the beginnings of measurement, subject to revision, however, as more information about the activities that predate the end of the last ice age is discovered.  Of course, missing from this equation is any “perishable” evidence, such as wooden tools that have decayed to dust, clothing that is likewise dust, bone tools that have not lasted, etc.  So revision is entirely possible.

After the beginning evidence, though, the techniques of measurements and measuring are used more frequently and in more and more areas beyond accounting, building and calendars.  Now to the why of that, while trying to avoid “just-so” explanations.

There are several threads that appear to be fairly common in human existence.  Among them are the development of a system of ownership or possession, a drive for control of the environment, a drive to insure a constant supply of food, and development of methods for resolving conflict.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but, to my mind (should I say to my just-so story mind?), they seem to be those most linked to motivations for measuring.  Since not all societies have had similar systems of ownership, methods of resolving conflict, etc., there must be some conditions which initiate the cultural growth of these ways of relating to each other and to the objective world.  I won’t speculate (not yet, at least) on what those conditions are or could be.

A system of ownership or possession shows in the cuneiform enumerations of accounts.  Why else would there be accounts, unless there were owners and exchanges between owners of objects?

The control of the environment is shown by building (at least) to ward off inclement weather – dwelling in caves would achieve something similar, except that caves are not always under the control of humans.  In some of the caves in France where there are paintings, there are also bones of animals that appear to have scrapes on them that match cave-bear teeth, possibly human bones with similar scrape marks.  Bats live in caves, not to mention insects, etc.  Control in the cave could be more difficult than in a human constructed dwelling, whether portable “tent” like structures or even huts of some other natural material, like straw, wood, clay/brick, etc.  So, the fact that approximately 5000 years ago, elaborate stone structures were made like Newgrange means that after the not-so-permanent buildings had been built, some simple stone buildings would have been constructed, otherwise the techniques to build such a structure would not have been learned.  The roof of Newgrange “…has not been restored, and is still perfectly watertight after five thousand years of Irish weather…”1, as reported by Dan Falk in In Search Of Time, in conversation with Claire Tuffy, from the Irish Office of Public Works.  This indicates a level of sophistication in building that could not have happened without practice beforehand.

To that must be added the fact that the orientation of Newgrange is aligned so that sunlight penetrates the inner chamber through the entryway upon the rising of the sun on the day of Winter solstice.  The likelihood that this is accidental would be hard to believe, so one must posit sufficient astronomical or “timing” knowledge to set up the alignment.  Capture of repeating astronomical patterns and timings would be critical to controlling agricultural timings, which leads to the next activity that I feel shows evidence of humans measuring: insuring a constant supply of food.

Of course, any time a pattern like the repeating astronomical pattern associated with specific repeating seasons is discovered, humans, with their sometimes over-active pattern discernment facility, would try to ascribe meaning or causation to the pattern.  This would lead to explanations based on something larger than just one person, and could invoke spirits or other supernatural explanations.  These are beyond the scope of my concern, however, and I would treat them as accidental areas, much in the spirit of Gould’s and Lewontin’s Spandrels of Saint Marcos: there is a pattern there which needs some sort of explanation to color it in, so let’s come up with something, anything, based on the barest of evidence.

Insuring the constant supply of food would lead to several types of measurement being important: granaries to keep this year’s surplus in, which would have to be built, and careful observation of when the stars in the sky are in the same position as the right time to plant, or how much longer until the next migration of the reindeer past here.  While what I’ve said is oriented toward growing or catching passing food, some weeks ago, I read a report of a beginning to domestication of animals, which also addresses a question raised in the last post – which type of animal was the first to be domesticated – and appears to bear on control of the food supply.

The report2 comes from the New York Times on September 7, 2009, written by Nicholas Wade.  In the report he describes the work of a team of geneticists at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, who have worked with the mitochondrial DNA of dogs.  It seems that the conclusion that they have reached is a follow-on to another biologist’s theory, which says that “…wolves probably domesticated themselves when they began scavenging around the garbage dumps of the first human settlements.”  (Ray Coppinger, of Hampshire College in Massachusetts).  The Swedish add-on, attributed Dr. Peter Savolainen, the team leader, based on their analysis, is that there was one domestication event, probably in southern China, 11,000 to 14,000 years ago (near the close of the last Ice Age?), and the wolves were captured and bred as food.  The animals proved to be able to perform other tasks, [which led to their subsequent divergence, as artificial selection was used to breed specific characteristics for human use. – my addition to the information from the article.]

Evidently this theory is not without controversy, and is far from being universally accepted.  Perhaps at this point, it would be better to describe it as a hypothesis.  I’m sure at some point, a detractor will describe it as a just-so story – but I’ll leave it to the professionals to vet this – prove or disprove it.  I only mention it because it seems like yet another description of ways that humans tried to insure a constant supply of food.

As an interesting aside, there was further elaboration on domestication of dogs – with no one hurling “just-so story” at anyone else as far as I can tell – in the New York Times of March 17, 2010.  Nicholas Wade reported on another study3 which sequenced the genome of dogs and wolves, and concluded that dogs were domesticated approximately 15,000 years ago in the Middle East, with no mention of their being used for food.  I think I’d be wise to stay out of this one and let the professionals work it out.

The final activity that I mentioned was a means to settle conflicts.  This shows up later than 6000 years ago: based on a look at Wikipedia, the oldest listed set of laws is about 2350 BC, and is called the “Reforms of Urkagina of Lagash”.  The Wikipedia listing says that it is not extant, which I assume means that there are no actual cuneiform tablets with these reforms on it, but, as the Wikipedia listing says, are ‘”known” through other sources’.  If they are reforms, then there may have been laws that preceded the reforms that needed to be reformed.  In any event, this gives an approximate date of 4350 years ago.

The Code of Hammurabi should also be mentioned here, which dates to 1700 to 1800 years BC, or 3700 to 3800 years ago, if only to acknowledge its presence.  I have known about it since I had my first in Ancient History in high school, quite some time ago, and believe that it was mentioned in the book that was used then that I no longer have, written by Robinson, Breasted and Smith, if my memory is still working correctly.  The code not only has laws but remedies for conflict in it. It is preserved in stone as well as on clay tablets, written in cuneiform.

Among the remedies found in cuneiform codes of law were valuations for losses, such as “If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half a mina of silver.”4 This is from the Code of Ur-Nammu (2100 BC to 2050 BC, or about 4100 years ago), and shows another use of measurement, in the form of valuing objects for compensation purposes.

Cuneiform dates back another 1500 to 2000 years before the Reforms of Urkagina of Lagash, so codified laws are somewhat late in development.  Before then, there would still have been ways to settle conflicts, which would probably have been similar to tribal laws, depending on a chieftain or priestly class to determine outcomes of conflict.  All of which trails the one-on-one settling of conflict that would be closer to how animal societies settle them: who’s stronger, who bites harder, who fights better.  ‘Stronger’, ‘harder’, ‘better’, measured how?  Subjectively, I think.  But more in later posts.


1 Falk, Dan, In Search of Time, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y. 2008. P. 11.

2 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/08/science/08dogs.html?ref=wolves

3 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/science/18dogs.html?_r=1&ref=wolves&pagewanted=all

4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuneiform_law

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