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Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2005 - 2:44 a.m.

To re-calibrate the span of human history accurately, the paleontologist has three Mexicans cut down the oldest tree in the world. Then he kneels before the exposed stump and begins counting the tree rings, making careful pencil marks on the yellow surface. A new ring is laid down each year with strict periodicity and this is sometimes used to calibrate radiocarbon readings, to match one metronome of the earth to another. It is the first time in thousands of years, that the rings have seen sunlight.

How old is it? one of the workers asks in Spanish, brushing the sawdust off his forearms. The paleontologist checks his count again, tapping the outline of each circle with the tip of his pencil. He makes a mental calculation and says, the innermost ring is four thousand years old. That is the date of the earliest written human records.

He opens his file, full of data on extrapolated radiocarbon counts and datings, and realizes with a deep exhalation that they are all off by a few millenia. The Clovis site at Gault should be 13000 B.C.. The paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux in France are actually older by three thousand years. The moment was understated, like the discovery that the earth had three dimensions and not two. It would re-order the axis of our histories but all the moment had, was an ageing paleontologist, a broken Huon pine, and three Mexicans who did not realize that their bones, like the human species, were much older than previously thought.

The paleontologist thinks of Lascaux. He went into the caves for the first time when he was twenty-two and cried. There, the paintings of a magnificent ox, three metres tall dwarfing his young body, horses in mid-gallop caught on the cave ceilings, a freize of swimming stags, and in the Shaft of the Dead Man, an anthromorphic human figure falling away in the plane of the painting, in unmistakable grief. He cried because he could feel the figure's grief, one that echoed along Lascaux's walls for twenty thousand years to reach him.

Experts mark the Lascaux paintings as highly significant, because they show the birth of man's symbolic consciousness, a non-literal and emotive application of ochre to the lithic surface. But they cannot decipher the reason for the anthropmorphic figure's despair - which one of two deaths was it: the transformation into an animal, or the arrival as a man?

So the Dead Man had a longer history of grief, and had started falling three thousand years earlier. But the extra years of flight do not belong to the painted figure, but to the artist. Under the steady light of a wooden torch, the artist had projected his own sadness onto the wall, a lightless mirror of stone. He had noticed that quality of sadness in himself and in the rest of his species, even though the word to describe it had not been invented. His expression could only thus be artistic and not linguistic, with the black lines of the figure's arms reaching to close an open mouth. One finds in Lascaux these portent lines, the first depiction of a human figure grieving, a prophecy for all the twenty-thousand years of sorrow to come.


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