Good Reads: Innovation and survival as seen through caveman cosmetics factory, post-Jobs Apple

Today's Good Reads focuses on offbeat news stories, including the discovery of a 100,000-year-old caveman cosmetics factory in a South African cave, and a profile of a young executive at Apple who may keep the creative juices flowing.

Toby Melville/Reuters
A model poses for photographers with a mirror after having makeup applied using historical Egyptian beauty items and toiletries at The Science Museum in London in 2010.

Good Reads highlights the best reporting and analysis available on the top international stories of the day – and other key topics you shouldn't miss.

Today’s papers reveal a world of today that was very much like the world of yesterday. The global economy is still slumping, Muammar Qaddafi is still on the run, Barack Obama is still miffed about that whole Iranian assassination plot, and Herman Cain is still comparing himself to black walnut ice cream.

When the top stories of the day fail to dazzle, offbeat news features can shine. How offbeat? Try caveman cosmetics.

In The Christian Science Monitor, science reporter Pete Spotts writes about a cosmetics studio dating back 100,000 years or more, discovered in a cave near Cape Town, South Africa. It’s the earliest sign yet that early human beings had moved beyond simple hunter-gatherer survival and had developed the skill to organize, to combine various materials, and apply them to their bodies, presumably to hear their significant others mumble, convincingly, “no really, you look great.”

What makes the Blombos cave discovery, announced in this week’s edition of the British magazine Science, so striking is not the materials – ocher was known to be used by humans for at least as far back as 160,000 years – but rather the tools themselves and the evidence of how much planning and hard work went into producing the ocher, Spotts writes.

The two tool kits were found about 6 inches apart and consisted of grinding stones, stones used as hammers, and abalone shells that the occupants used as mixing containers.

In addition to the tools, the team found raw materials for converting ocher into what they say likely would have been paint: fatty bone, charcoal, powdered and larger-grained ocher, and quartz grains. With the fat from ground bone as a binder, the ingredients could have been mixed with a liquid to form paint.

Spotts doesn’t say it, but the New Scientist’s Andy Coghlan does: the liquid component of the mixture was “probably urine.” Nice one, Adam. Thanks.

Amina Khan, in the Los Angeles Times, writes that paint doesn’t have much utilitarian value, but early humans began to find a need to distinguish themselves from each other as their numbers grew.

... the ability to mix and use paint signals a lot of important behaviors that are key to social and cognitive development, said Alison Brooks, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University who was not involved in the study. Unlike weapons, utensils or other artifacts, paint has little utilitarian value. Paint could be used to decorate objects, clothing or the body, often to send a social message in an increasingly complex society.

"If you only see the same people in the same face-to-face group you've known your entire life, there's no need to make a statement," she said. And as those groups became larger and people traveled farther from home, "there was a need to demonstrate to somebody — at a considerable distance, before they could shoot you — who you were."

One hundred thousand years later, humans are still obsessed with innovation and survival, and nowhere more is this true than in Cupertino, Calif., where the Apple Corporation is struggling to find its way in a post-Steve Jobs world. Businessweek magazine’s Adam Satariano focuses on one young man, Scott Forstall, who shares both the positive and the negative qualities that made the late Mr. Jobs such a powerful force (and a polarizing figure) in the high-tech industry.

Like Jobs, Forstall has an ability to motivate his team to drive for perfection, and his rise as head of the software side of Apple’s business comes at a time when software and business applications are fast outpacing the innovations of the hardware itself. But if executives like Forstall are to succeed in leading Apple to new success, they’ll have to overcome significant internal rivalries to do so, Mr. Satariano writes.

Apple’s executives “have to learn new roles, but if somebody among them rises up and lords over the others, they can be resented for being presumptuous, [of trying to] assume Steve Jobs’s legacy,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of the Yale University School of Management. “But if they treat it as a shared legacy, there is a way to keep that spirit alive.”

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