The hand ax and black swans

Once I was shown what to look for, I could see the beveled edges that the Neanderthals had crafted. One tool in particular stood out: a palm-sized flint shaped like a teardrop. In archaeological parlance, it was a hand ax, though it probably was not used as an ax in the contemporary sense of the word. It had been found near the bottom of the trench, so it was estimated to be about seventy thousand years old. I took it out of its plastic bag and turned it over. It was almost perfectly symmetrical and—to a human eye, at least—quite beatiful. I said that I thought the Neanderthal who had fashioned it must have had a keen sense of design. McPherron objected. 

“We know the end of the story,” he told me. “We know what modern culture looks like, and so then what we do is we want to explain how we got here. And there’s a tendency to overwinter-it the past by project the present onto it. So when you see a beautiful hand ax and you say, ‘Look at the craftsmanship on this; it’s virtually an object of art,’ that’s your perspective today. But you can’t assume what you’re trying to prove.” 

-Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The past, even more than the present, will be fought over, remapped and attempted to be fashioned to fit the shape of whatever argument we’re trying to make. 

We have to worry in the same for those who claim the future. But futurologists have fewer details to spar over, which may be why we can make more things up. One idea about the future, or at least prognostication, is the black swan: The unknown, abstract, imprecise event that completely comes out of the blue. It’s such a surprise we really only see it when we’re looking back.  For many people the Sept, 11, 2001 attacks came out of the blue; they only saw the signals leading up to the attack in hindsight.

Can we have a black swan in the past? What if the hand ax is not a hand ax, but something else completely? Could a single item, a solitary find, possibly change the entire narrative we have for neanderthals? 

Of course, we do know the story. We ended up here, and I guess there are no other examples of what we think as a hand ax being used for something completely different. But that doesn’t mean those things aren’t there. 

If our contemporary history is a fight over competing narratives, we also have to worry that ancient histories—biological, ecological, anthropological—is also a series of theories fighting for supremacy. In a good story, we put in parts that fit. We don’t always care about telling the truth.