Really Old Stuff: A Reading List About Our Prehistoric Past

Image: Lisa Weichel

Even with digital archives and electronic records keeping track of our lives, we often find it a challenge to piece together our own pasts, to say nothing of our parents’ or grandparents’. What, then, of the lives of humans and organisms whose only traces are already thousands of years old?

From an aspen colony that has been cloning itself for over 80,000 years to a coral reef fossilized eons ago, these stories bring to life irretrievable worlds and challenge our notions of time and durability.

1. “First Artists” (Chip Walter, National Geographic Magazine, January 2015)

Admiring intricate cave paintings in France, Germany, and South Africa, Walter explores how humans laid the foundation to visual art in “sporadic flare-ups of creativity” some 30,000-60,000 years ago.

2. “What Archaeology Tells Us about the Bible” (Christa Case Bryant, Christian Science Monitor, October 2013)

“In experimental science, usually there is a way to rehearse the experiment, to redo it, to rerun it. In archaeology there is no rerun because we destroy our own experiment.” Reporting from a contentious archaeological excavation in Israel, Christa Case Bryant digs into the layers of politics, religion, and science that weigh on experts’ interpretations of the artifacts they uncover.

3. “The Deep Time Question: A Conversation with Artist and Naturalist Rachel Sussman” (Tom and Siena Oristaglio, Immaterial, October 2014)

Rachel Sussman has spent a decade photographing the world’s oldest living organisms: an 80,000-years-old aspen colony in Utah, moss dating back 5,500 years in Antarctica, and many others. In a wide-ranging interview, she discusses how the proximity to such fantastically old plants has shaped her own notions of time, the limits of human knowledge, and the intersection of science and art.

4. “Reading the Book of Life in Prehistoric Dung” (Eliza Strickland, Nautilus, November 2013)

What can T.rex’s feces tell us about the world it inhabited before going extinct? Strickland traces the career of Karen Chin, a leading paleoscatologist (a researcher who studies fossilized excrement), who discovered the secret of our planet’s resurrection after a devastating extinction event by looking at the dung of the organisms that survived it.

5. “When Texas Was at the Bottom of the Sea” (Olivia Judson, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2015)

“Two hundred sixty-five million years. Easy to say. Hard to imagine.” Hiking up Texas’ highest peak, part of a corral reef from a long-vanished sea, Judson describes the sharp contrast between the area’s contemporary landscape — Walmarts, fracking outfits — and its sublime, incomprehensibly old beauty.