World

A glimpse into the Palaeolithic

Museums worldwide preserve and record the remains of technology used by our predecessors. Use of particular materials has led to a way of categorising whole groups of people in specific places and times. We refer to people of the Palaeolithic Age, the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and more recently, the Industrial Age.

Stored safely in small drawers in a Whanganui Regional Museum collection storeroom is a whole series of Palaeolithic stone tools produced by our human and pre-human predecessors. This amazing collection of stone tools was collected by H W Seton-Karr in North Africa during the late 19th century and donated to our Museum in 1935.

Looking at these tools leads to a sense of wonder about the people who made them, who they might have been and what their lives were like.

1. Oldowan stone tool

 Oldawan stone tool

One drawer holds extremely ancient, rounded chipped stones called Oldawan tools which were created by pre-human hominids over 1.5 million years ago. These very clever hominids called Homo habilis (known as the Handymen) walked on two feet, lived in Africa and used stones gathered from around them as their technological solution to practical tasks. Perhaps they were skinning animals, cutting meat, or processing plant materials. The tools are rounded stones, small enough to fit into a modern human hand and flaked at one end, probably to create sharp stone fragments to use like a knife.

2. Acheulian hand axe

 Acheulean stone hand axe

Yet another iteration of humankind, living in the period from  1.8 million to 300,000 years ago, developed much greater skill in working stone, creating teardrop shaped tools called Acheulean hand-axes, named after the valley in Europe where these tools were first discovered. These tools are shaped, working hand-axes made from stone by an upright-walking hominid species called Homo erectus (or Upright man), who used fire, created pigments and transported different kinds of stones across great distances. The remains of Homo erectus have been found associated with Acheulean tools. Acheulean tool technology lasted more than a million years and several hundred thousand of them have been discovered in numerous localities across Africa, Europe and Asia. A significant collection is held in Whanganui Regional Museum. Acheulean hand-axes are also associated with the hominid species, Homo heidelbergensis.

Stone tool manufacture was further developed by two later human species, Homo sapiens neanderthalus (Neanderthals) and Homo sapiens sapiens (us). This period of greater technological advancement is referred to as the Upper Palaeolithic. The tools are more intricately worked, with evidence of many more flakes of stone being removed, greater care in the overall shaping of the tools and a wider variety of tools created, including arrow-heads and spear-points.

3. Neolithic stone axe-head

 Neolithic stone axe head

Over thousands of years the technological skills of Homo sapiens sapiens became increasingly more complex and stone tools were created that are instantly recognisable to us today. One Neolithic stone axe-head in the Museum collection resembles a modern axe-head. It is a beautifully made tool, smooth, carefully shaped and fit for purpose. The person who made it was probably not all that different to us.

At some time in the far distant future, as with all the ages of humans who have gone before us, our discarded technology could provide a picture of who we are and how we lived.

 

Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Insects of Java

5. Antheraea larissa

There are many species of silk moths in Asia: this one, Antheraea larissa, doesn’t even have an English name. Its caterpillars only live on the endangered forest tree Shorea glauca.

I recently spent nearly three weeks in Indonesia, mostly looking for tropical insects. In New Zealand we’re proud of our beautiful forests and amazing birds, but even a short time in Java drove home to me just how impoverished our flora and fauna are in comparison to the tropics.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. Two hundred and sixty million people live there, 141 million in Java alone, an island smaller than the South Island. Even in a densely populated and developed landscape, there were still national parks and botanic gardens housing enormous biodiversity.

4. Milionia fulgida

Not all moths come out at night. Some, like this beautiful iridescent Milionia fulgida, pollinate flowers during the day.

We stayed in the Botanic Gardens of the town of Cibodas in the mountains south of Jakarta. The Gardens had guest houses for tourists and they left the outside lights on all night, for security reasons. Every morning all we needed to do was to stroll around the building to see extraordinary numbers of colourful moths and beetles that had been attracted to the lights overnight.

Each day we photographed about 15 species we hadn’t seen before; each morning would bring a new harvest, showing almost no overlap with the diversity of the night before. After a week of spotting a dozen new species every day without even trying, we realised we were barely scratching the surface of the biological richness of the tropics.

1. Grey Pansy

The grey pansy (Junonia atlites) is found throughout Southeast Asia; it was common in the Bogor Botanical Gardens.

New Zealand has a well-supported conservation movement, and DOC does its best to preserve our forests and endangered wildlife. We learn the names of our native birds, and every bookshop has shelves of coffee table books about kiwi and kākāpō as well as field guides to birds, insects and trees.

In Indonesia conservation operates on a shoestring. The national parks are full of litter. Poaching of endangered bird species is rampant. The bookshops have no field guides, just racks of publications about agriculture and fish farming. Huge swaths of untouched rain forest are being cut down for palm oil plantations – the same forests our shining cuckoos migrate to each winter.

3. Atlas beetle

Named after Atlas, who supported the world on his back, males of the giant Chalcosoma atlas beetle fight with each other over potential mates, using their enormous horns.

Most visitors to Indonesia holiday in Bali, but a better choice might be supporting ecotourism in Sumatra or Sulawesi where your money goes directly to preserving rain forest. New Zealand has thousands of threatened insect species that most people neither know nor care about, but our species are in safer hands than Indonesia’s. It sounds like heresy, but donating money to conservation projects in the tropics may do far more good for the world’s biodiversity than spending it here.

 

2. Hawk moth

Sphinx moths or hawk moths can hover like hummingbirds, and have long coiled tongues for drinking from tubular flowers. There are hundreds of species in Asia, and just one in New Zealand.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum

Powerful Pompeii

The city of Pompeii was located in the Campania region of Italy, founded by the Oscans around the ninth or eighth century BC. It was built on lava terracing produced over centuries by Mount Vesuvius, about 10 km away, and was a rich and fertile land which helped the development of a thriving agricultural town.

Contact and trade with nearby Greek colonies lead to the adoption of Greek lifestyle and religion in the settlement. The lava terracing on which it was built offered some protection from invasion, but Pompeii was still fought over by the Greeks, Etruscans, and Samnites before finally becoming part of the Roman Empire and formally named Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeii in 80 BC.

1. Postcard

 A postcard of the remains of the garden at the house of Marco Lucrezio Frontone, a nobleman living in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. The garden is rich with ornamentation which includes statues, paintings, pillars and fountains. Ref: 1802.2770.

Pompeii’s population grew to around 20,000 residents, and the economy became so strong it was considered a prestige location with higher status than other Campania towns. The standard of living rose dramatically across most strata of society and the middle class merchants and entrepreneurs competed with the noble families of the town in their displays of wealth. Large and opulent villas, luxurious embellishments and precious ornaments and jewellery displayed the affluence of the town and its inhabitants.

But the peace and prosperity would not last. On 5 February 62 AD a violent earthquake shook the region and devastated much of the city and surrounding countryside. Associated damage included the death of 600 sheep after breathing “tainted air”.  It took a long time to recover from the disaster and buildings were still being repaired and strengthened when the next catastrophe occurred.

On 24 August 79 AD, the previously dormant Mount Vesuvius woke and began one of the most famous eruptions in history. The volcano spewed a massive cloud of debris over 20 km into the air and rained ash, lapilli (loose rock) and lava down over the surrounding towns. Most of the population of nearby Herculaneum and Stabiae were evacuated and many people from Pompeii had left for good, but a significant number had remained in the town.

2. Artifacts from Pompeii

 A needle, ring and brooch recovered from Pompeii. Ref: 1908.2.1-3. 

The eruption continued for several hours before the pyroclastic surges began. These clouds of ash, pumice and gas rolled down the volcano and over the towns, travelling at over 110 km per hour and reaching temperatures over 700ᵒ C, annihilating everyone and everything in the path almost instantly.

By the time the volcano had quietened and the debris settled, an area of around 200 square miles was covered, Pompeii was buried under five metres of ash and lapilli, and thousands of people had died. The landscape had changed so much that there was no visible evidence of the town remaining and in time Pompeii was forgotten.

Explorers rediscovered Pompeii in 1748 and were surprised to find the city remarkably intact, due to the debris being soft ash and lapilli, rather than harder rocks and lava, which destroyed other towns and turned them to stone.

The level of preservation was incredible and allowed a glimpse into the daily life of Pompeiians. Electoral propaganda and risqué jokes were written on walls. Signs above shop doorways advertised the businesses. Foodstuff was still sitting on tables and counters or in storage jars. Artworks and mosaics were very well preserved, providing valuable insight into Roman paintings of which very little was known.

3. Narcissus

A copy of a statue of Narcissus which was found in the ruins of Pompeii. Ref: 1903.24.

During further excavation in 1863 the diggers were surprised to come across pockets of air among the hardened ash. Giuseppe Fiorelli realized these pockets were probably left after dead human bodies had decomposed. He started filling them with plaster before digging them out, resulting in striking casts that captured the terrifying last moments of those who remained in the town.

About a third of Pompeii remains unexcavated. Mount Vesuvius last erupted on 17 March 1944, destroying several villages and causing damage at a nearby United States Army Air Force Base. With its history of sudden and violent eruptions, and three million people living within close proximity, Mount Vesuvius is considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.