The prevailing opinion in Paleolithic art at that time was that Europe was the birthplace of art, invented by the first modern humans soon after their arrival on the continent. Based on this time line, the cave signs were thought to have started out around 35,000 years ago as simple, crude markings. Only much later—say, around 20,000 years ago—did the number, variety, and sophistication of the abstract motifs supposedly increase as the artists mastered this new ability. This was the assumption I was working with when I first started to compile those inventories back in 2007/8. I thought I would find only a small number of rudimentary signs at early sites, followed by the predicted increase over time.
I was wrong.
At first I had only a hunch that I was wrong—along with much of the literature. The thing with building a database is that you can only do it one site at a time, and it’s not until the end, when all the data have been assembled, that you can finally run tests to see larger patterns emerge. However, even as I sifted through hundreds of pages about the art, I sensed I was seeing a fairly wide variety of signs, even at the earliest sites. I resisted the urge to run the data before they were all in and complete, though.
After several months of data entry, the day finally arrived when I could search the database for the oldest geometric signs. As the results of my query showed up on the screen, the hair on the back of my neck literally stood on end.
Two-thirds of the signs were in use at the earliest sites. Even as early as they were, they were already distributed across a large geographic range. My first thought when I saw this astonishing result was, “There’s no way this is the beginning of the signs.”
These results got me pretty excited, because for much of the 20th century the majority of paleoanthropologists thought the modern mind emerged somewhere around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, in a rapid event known as the “creative explosion.” Some people believed this transformation occurred because of a genetic mutation, others that it was environmentally driven, or a sociocultural change, or some combination of the above. Africa was seen as the place of incubation for the human species, but Eurocentric paleoanthropologists assumed that all the interesting changes took place either during the migration out of Africa or after these ancient colonists had spread out across the Old World. Earlier waves of people had already left, but this is the time when the main waves of human migration moved into Europe, Asia, and beyond.
The arrival of modern humans in Europe around 40,000 years ago marks the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic (also often referred to as the Ice Age in Europe). At the start of this era, the invention of new types of tools accelerated and the creation of symbolic artifacts (jewelry, cave art, ivory figurines, etc.) increased exponentially.
There were some sites prior to 40,000 years ago in Africa where a hint of symbolism might have occurred on some well-designed tools or on a bone with a few scratch marks (though these were usually dismissed as being a by-product of butchering prey). Overall, though, most 20th-century scientists believed that the people who lived before the “creative explosion” were not fully modern like we are.
Now, however, these attitudes are changing. African examples of art from the Ice Age remain comparatively few, but more discoveries are being made, and more frequently than ever before. In the past two decades the traditional perception of where and when the creative explosion took place has been seriously challenged. There’s even some doubt now about whether it was an explosion at all.
Seeing how well established the geometric signs were at this early date, and given the conventional wisdom of that time, I felt as if a piece of the puzzle had just clicked into place. The ancient age of the signs also raised some very interesting questions. If producing abstract markings was already a widespread practice when the first humans arrived in Europe, where and when did it start? And, if people were already fairly fluent in their use of the signs, doesn’t that mean they were already able to think symbolically?
Although my main focus was on the European Upper Paleolithic, I realized that in order to really comprehend the symbolic capacity of those first arrivals in Europe, I needed to delve into the cognitive origins of our species and trace the roots of these abstract abilities back to their birthplace in Africa.
Homo sapiens first emerged as a distinct species in Africa somewhere around 200,000 years ago. Of course, this doesn’t mean that one day our ancestors were one species, and by the next day—or year, or even generation—they suddenly became modern humans. Evolution is a slow process. But geneticists and anthropologists have, nevertheless, been able to pinpoint a time frame in which most of the distinct genetic traits that make us human appeared—that made us different enough from other existing species that we became a species of our own.
So by around 200,000 years ago, people were living in Africa who were just like us: anatomically modern humans. Physically they looked the same as we do, and their brains were identical in size to ours. What we don’t know is if they were already thinking like us—or when they started to. They don’t appear to have been burying their dead, or wearing jewelry, or making decorative marks on their tools, or anywhere else for that matter. We don’t find evidence for any of these practices for another 80,000 years.
In other words, they were us, but at the same time maybe not quite us. I often wonder what it must have been like to be one of the first modern humans to walk this earth. Frankly, even as a paleoanthropologist, I find it hard to wrap my head around what that question actually means: If they didn’t yet know how to use their imaginations, or make art, or use symbols, then what did they think about? Did they experience self-awareness? How did they interact with each other? Could they tell jokes? Did they believe in worlds beyond what they could see?
Since we are looking for evidence of mental changes that took place within the soft tissue of the brain, we can’t identify them directly, but luckily there are other ways to gauge how our ancestors’ minds may have been developing. To this end, researchers have compiled a list of practices and artifact types that strongly hint that symbolic thought processes are at work. Evidence includes the selection and preparation of specific shades of ochre, burials with grave goods, personal ornamentation, and the creation of geometric or iconographic representations. If most or all of these elements are present, the chances are good that you’re dealing with fully modern humans.
Adapted from http://nautil.us/issue/40/learning/the-modern-mind-may-be-100000-years-old