Saturday, June 7, 2014

If we found evidence of a digital age in prehistoric times, would we even realize what we found?

When I get coupons in the mail, I tend to just drop them in a little container by my front door and figure I will look through them later.  I don't really do a lot of shopping, so I don't really do much couponing, so by the time I get around to going through the pile of coupons I do have, a lot of them are already expired.  As I was going through them today, I was thinking how much nicer it would be to just have all the coupons saved digitally instead of on paper that just creates clutter.

After that, I got to thinking about what it would be like if we eventually went to just having everything we get on paper saved digitally.  A lot of things are already available digitally -- books, bank statements, receipts, etc -- but paper versions of all those things still exist.  But what if the time comes when there are no paper versions?

My next thought after that was what if a long lost advanced civilization had developed to the point of a digital age and kept all of their records on some sort of digital recording devices?  Would we even be able to find evidence of such sophistication if they no longer kept records on paper (or stone) and had not done so for a long time prior to the fall of their civilization?

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you probably already know the topic of lost civilizations fascinates me.  Some people who are interested in the topic tend to have rather grandiose views on the subject, oftentimes imagining some highly advanced civilizations equal or beyond our own today, with things like advanced flying machines and nuclear technology (you can just search Google for fantastical interpretations of stories from the Mahabharata or of Atlantis).  But I tend to think that any prehistoric advanced civilization that has been lost to time would probably be something more along the lines of a Renaissance Italy, but thousands or even tens of thousands of years earlier.  In other words, a high level of architectural skill, formal government, and sophisticated culture (and, to be fair, I think it may be possible they could have had some sort of aircraft, but probably something more simplistic like a glider or balloon).  

But just to have some fun with conjecture, lets go with one of those more fantasy-like lost civilizations.  Let's say some advanced prehistoric culture not only had flying machines, but digital archives.  If we unearthed evidence of those digital archives, would we even know what we had found?

Imagine an ancient Roman farmer tilling his land and then finding something like one of our modern USB drives.

What would he do with it?  Well there's a chance he might think it to be some small, insignificant rock and just continue to do his work.  There's also a chance he might stop and think it to be something fascinating and take it to show to a priest.  The priest may say it is something from the gods, or he might take it and show to some great magister.  Or he might just say it's a rock.  But no matter how many people saw it, I think it is doubtful that it would cross anyones mind at the time that the funny little rock they had found potentially contained someones tax records and photos of their trip to Spain.  They just wouldn't have even had the concept that all of that information could somehow be contained in that funny little rock.  

So what would happen to that funny little rock?  Well, assuming the farmer didn't just ignore it, it might have ended up in a temple or maybe even the Emperor's personal collection.  This could be particularly likely if it was a novelty usb.

Realistically though, there's probably a better chance the farmer would have ignored it.  If the civilization that developed the USB had existed 10,000+ years before the farmers time, there's a good chance the USB would have deteriorated to the point of not really being recognizable as anything, perhaps even to the point of essentially being non-existent as an artifact at all.  So if we found something like that today, would we even know what we found?  

Considering the academic community that would study such an artifact today is generally of the opinion that prehistoric civilizations consisted primarily of hunter-gatherers and farmers, it's unlikely it would even cross their minds that an artifact could potentially contain some prehistoric person's bank statements and videos.  

We do, however, have the story of the Dropa stones.  As the story goes, the allegedly 12,000 year old circular stone discs known as the Dropa stones were said to have been found decades ago and that a Chinese researcher determined that grooves in the discs were actually very tiny hieroglyphs.  It is said he eventually deciphered the hieroglyphs and determined that they told the story of an alien people known as the Dropa whose spacecraft crash landed on earth and, because they could not fix their spacecraft, they had to learn to adapt to living on earth.  

Ridiculed for his research, the Chinese researcher exiled himself in Japan and the stones were allegedly sent to Russia to be studied.  It is said the Russian researchers determined that when the discs were placed on a special turntable, they would hum in an unusual rhythm like an electrical charge was passing through them.

After that, it is said the stones ended up in some Chinese museum, but have not been seen since at least 1994.  If the story were true, then it would appear to be evidence of a prehistoric advanced civilization (albeit, an alien one) that potentially had some sort of digital archive...or at least something of that nature that was different from the usual rock art of prehistoric times.  The problem is the story of the Dropa stones is probably, at best, wishful thinking about some unusual artifacts, and at worst, an outright hoax.

But true story or fabrication, I find the story of the Dropa stones interesting either way because it makes me wonder what we would do if we actually found something like that.  If someone found a prehistoric digital archive, would anyone even be able to figure out how to view the contents of the archive?  Would it even occur to anyone that an artifact could potentially be a digital archive?

Prehistoric digital age or not, sometimes I wonder if we find stuff that is so old, and become so unrecognizable, that we don't even know we've found something interesting at all.

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