Answering the unanswerable

Back in late 2011, I got a temporary position for six months as Lecturer at Saxion University of Applied Sciences in Deventer (which is located, as fate would have it, only one train stop away from Zutphen, where you can find the office of Karwansaray Publishers). I was asked to replace the previous lecturer and give courses on Dutch prehistory.

I was initially a little hesitant, since my specialty is, after all, Mediterranean archaeology, and Greek archaeology in particular. But, as the person who invited me for the job pointed out, I had studied at the VU University in Amsterdam and European prehistory had been part of the curriculum for the first two years. If I read up on the subject, I was sure to be fine and could teach these first-year courses.

Indeed, I delved into the matter and prepared what I think were entertaining and insightful lectures on the earliest history of mankind up to the coming of the Romans. The students also gave my teaching high marks when they evaluated it at the end of the year, which was gratifying. At the end of those six months, my contract was up and I was off to my next assignment (a short stint as a web developer and online marketer at an ad agency, of all places!), before landing my current job as editor of Ancient Warfare magazine.

Saxion is a ‘University of Applied Sciences’, essentially a polytechnic. To study at Saxion, you need to have taken the second-highest level at high school or secondary school (what we in the Netherlands call ‘HAVO’), whereas at regular universities – like what I attended, back in the day – you need to have taken the highest-level (what we call ‘VWO’), more or less comparable to A levels in the UK. The students who take archaeology at Saxion prepare themselves for a practical career in the field, in conservation, and so forth, rather than an academic career as a researcher. When they graduate, they are awarded a BA and those who wish can then take up further studies to acquire an MA at another university, and so on.

The result is that the students at Saxion, in my experience, were a little different from those that I encountered at other institutions. Not better or worse, but different in character. They were clever, enthusiastic, and very active, with a particular interest in practical, down-to-earth issues. In particular, one question raised by a student has stuck with me. I was giving a talk about the Stone Age (I think it was the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic), when a student raised his hand and asked, ‘Did people in the Stone Age shave?’

Honestly, I had no idea if they did. I still don’t have any idea. And, in fact, I’m not sure if anyone can really answer that question definitively. I was silent for a minute after the issue was raised, thinking it over, and finally admitting that I didn’t know. What a good question, though! So instead, I proposed that we look at the evidence and try to come up with a reasonable supposition: a case study, if you will, about how to answer something that is, quite possibly, unanswerable.

We simply don’t know what people looked like exactly in the Stone Age. At a relatively late stage, we have cave paintings – such as those from Lascaux, which are more than 17,000 years old! – and figurines, but these are stylized. Many depictions of humans in paintings are little more than stick figures. We have some idea about what they wore (if anything), but as regards personal grooming, we are less well informed. Finds of combs suggests that at least by the Neolithic era, people had taken to comb their hair, probably to remove nits.

But did they shave? The only tools that could have worked would be the same tools that they generally used for cutting and cleaning the skins of animals. Hand axes would probably have been difficult to use for shaving purposes. But by the very end of the Palaeolithic era and beginning of the Mesolithic, humans had developed microliths: small stone tools often made of flint or obsidian, which in the Mesolithic era came to be used as teeth in a saw, arrowheads, and so on. Small blades could, we postulated in class, indeed be used for shaving. Humans have always seemed to want to take care of themselves, and it may well have been important for men to remove facial hair to appear younger and therefore more attractive to the opposite sex.

By taking a look at the evidence, it is possible to reason your way to an explanation, thereby attempting to answer what seems to be something that is essentially unanswerable. Did people in the Stone Age shave? Based on certain tools, it seems like they should have been able to by at least the Mesolithic era, thanks to the invention of microliths. Did they, though? That, I think, is much harder to answer, since it requires more proof than we actually have.

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