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Kinez Riza

Archaeologists Find 30,000-Year-Old Jewelry in Indonesia

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Kinez Riza

We have thousands of examples of Ice Age works from Europe—curvy Venus figurines, beads carved from bone, and cave paintings of saber-toothed cats and mammoths dating back some 35,000 years. Those sites are also the best documented in the world, having been studied since the 19th century.

Evidence of the earliest art on other continents is much more scant, but it's increasingly being recorded across the world. In the latest study that attempts to offer a more complete picture of human creativity, researchers report that they’ve discovered jewelry and pigments inside of an Ice Age cave in Indonesia that are between 22,000 and 30,000 years old. They published their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Archaeologist Adam Brumm and his colleagues have been seeking traces of the earliest inhabitants of Sulawesi. The island is shaped a bit like a withered starfish and it’s the biggest in Wallacea, the region between the Asian and Australian continental shelves.

The researchers made headlines in 2014 when they discovered [PDF] that cave artwork among the towering karst formations on Sulawesi’s southwestern peninsula could be among the oldest in the world. Using a precise dating method, they documented hand stencils that are nearly 40,000 years old. They also found a figurative painting of a pig-deer (or babirusa) that was more than 35,000 years old, rivaling the age of the animal paintings inside France’s famous Chauvet Cave.

As detailed in the current study, the archaeologists excavated the floor of another cave known as Leang Bulu Bettue.

“We started digging at this limestone cave because it was the only site I had seen in the region which seemed to have escaped the ravages of erosion and disturbance from local farmers digging up the guano-rich cave earth for use as fertilizer,” Brumm, who is an associate professor at Griffith University in Australia, tells mental_floss. The cave also had rock art preserved on its walls and ceilings—red and purple hand stencils that are identical to some of the nearby cave paintings described in 2014.

So, the researchers suspected they would find some undisturbed archaeological deposits—and indeed they did.

They dug up stone artifacts carved with geometric patterns like Xs and parallel lines, as well as chunks of ochre, a natural pigment that was used in cave painting. They unearthed a perforated finger bone from a local bear cuscus, a kind of marsupial, that was possibly used for a necklace, and they found unfinished disk-shaped beads made from a babirusa tooth. The artifacts date to between 22,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Prehistoric ornaments excavated from the cave site Leang Bulu Bettue, along with how the archaeologists think they might have been worn. Image Credits: Prepared by M. Langley and A. Brumm; bear cuscus bone image is courtesy of Griffith University/Luke Marsden; bear cuscus and babirusa photographs: Shutterstock

Brumm says that of Wallacea’s 2000 islands, only seven have so far yielded archaeological deposits from the Pleistocene, the epoch when the last Ice Age occurred. Therefore, the total number of artifacts from the region is “pitifully small,” he says, perhaps numbering only a dozen or so.

“This profound imbalance in research intensity makes it extremely difficult to draw meaningful comparisons between the ‘Ice Age’ cultures of Wallacea and Europe,” Brumm says.

The fact that the newly discovered artifacts were made from the bones of animals that are only found on Sulawesi suggests that early humans were “drawn to the symbolic potential of the exotic species they encountered” when they colonized this region, Brumm says.

“This speaks of a flexibility in early human culture in this little understood part of the ‘Ice Age’ world—an ability to adapt existing art forms and symbolic culture to entirely new environments and ecosystems,” Brumm adds. And he thinks it’s exactly this kind of flexibility that would have allowed people from this region to colonize an isolated continent like Australia around 50,000 years ago.

Archaeologist Iain Davidson, an emeritus professor at the University of New England in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study, similarly thinks the same skills that allowed people to make watercraft and navigate across Wallacea “should have enabled them to represent their world symbolically.”

Davidson calls the discovery very important "primarily because it adds to the emerging picture of an early rock art world in the region where there has been thought to be none; now it is clear that there is,” Davidson tells mental_floss. “It was always likely, but maybe only a matter of looking and using the appropriate techniques, which is what this team has done really well.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.