Today, let's watch an archaeologist do detective
work. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Abu Hureyra is an
archaeological site in Northern Syria. Theya
Molleson has been studying skeletons of the people
who lived there between 8000 and 5000 BC. She asks
an old question: "How do we change
technologically?" The skeletons answer her.
Let's begin with big toes on the women's right
feet: They're bent upward. How odd! Did these late
stone age people play some strange sport? Did women
have to kick a stone football about?
Then someone pointed to Egyptian pictures of
kneeling supplicants. The big toe bends against the
ground. Sure enough, Molleson's women had enlarged
tibias where the knee would meet the ground. But
why should women spend long periods kneeling? And
why only the right toe? Back to the skeletons:
Women's lower backs and elbows show signs of having
been worked very hard.
Finally Molleson has the picture. Imagine you're a
woman grinding grain on a long flat quern or
grinding stone. You kneel with your left foot
crossed over the right to give you a stable
three-point suspension. You roll a cylindrical
pestle back and forth over grain on the stone.
Of course, that means these people had agriculture
9500 years ago. It also means they differentiated
tasks among men and women. Men hunted and grew
grain; women ground the grain.
That explains another skeletal defect. Early skulls
of both sexes show badly fractured teeth. The
problem with "stone ground" grain is that stone
flakes into the grain. Stone fragments and partly
ground kernels do terrible damage to teeth over the
Later, Molleson finds less tooth damage. She finds,
instead, that just a few women have deep grooves in
their front teeth -- the same grooves you find on
the teeth of modern Paiutes who use their mouth as
a third hand to hold canes when they weave baskets.
Around 6500 BC, Abu Hureyra women invented weaving,
but weaving was a job that only a few craftswomen
And weaving led to the invention of sieve making.
So the problem of tooth damage was partly solved by
sifting out stones and hard kernels. Later, the Abu
Hureyrans acquired another new technology that
finished solving the problem of tooth destruction.
By 5300 BC they'd learned to make clay pots in
which to soak grain and cook cereal. They'd begun
Those old bones say much about how technology went
into high gear in the late paleolithic period. Soon
the kin of these people would add the wheel, cloth,
metal-working -- and writing. Molleson's skeletons
were first in the same line of technologists who
are now making space ships -- and genetically
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds