Received: by alpheratz.cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk id DAA12222 (8.6.9/5.3[ref firstname.lastname@example.org] for cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk from email@example.com); Sat, 12 Jan 2002 03:55:07 GMT Date: Fri, 11 Jan 2002 22:50:35 -0500 Content-Type: text/plain; charset=US-ASCII; format=flowed Subject: Fwd: Carvings Spark Debate on Origin of Abstract Thought From: "Wade T. Smith" <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: email@example.com Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit Message-Id: <88E9D21E-070F-11D6-B2A5-003065B9A95A@harvard.edu> X-Mailer: Apple Mail (2.480) Sender: firstname.lastname@example.org Precedence: bulk Reply-To: email@example.com
Carvings Spark Debate on Origin of Abstract Thought
Science: The discovery suggests the ability began longer ago than
believed, and in Africa, not Europe.
By USHA LEE McFARLING
TIMES SCIENCE WRITER
January 11 2002
The very modern human traits of complex and abstract thinking may have
evolved in Africa 77,000 years ago--almost twice as early as previously
believed--according to a team of anthropologists who unearthed intricate
geometric carvings on bits of rock from a South African cave.
The finding, if verified, could overturn much current thinking in
anthropology. But the sweeping claim is already generating controversy
among experts in the field.
The discovery suggests that modern human behavior evolved in Africa
rather than Europe. The artifacts, pieces of red rock etched with
geometric shapes, are more than 40,000 years older than another milepost
of complex behavior: the dazzling paintings of animals and humans on the
walls of French caves. "In light of this new evidence it seems that, at
least in southern Africa, Homo sapiens was behaviorally modern about
77,000 years ago," wrote Christopher S. Henshilwood, the anthropologist
who led the research. His findings are being published online today in
the journal Science. The etchings, he said, "may have been constructed
with symbolic intent."
Anthropologists consider the production of art, particularly the use of
symbols, a hallmark of modern human behavior. Others include the
development of specialized tools, including flaked spear points and
fishing nets, and the use of decoration.
Modern humans evolved in Africa about 100,000 years ago. About 50,000
years ago, they spread into Europe and began to displace the
Neanderthals--a separate humanlike species.
Almost all ancient traces of modern behavior, carved bone tools and cave
paintings have been discovered in Europe. That fact has led
paleoanthropologists such as Stanford's Richard Klein to suggest that
some kind of behavioral revolution occurred 50,000 years ago that fueled
improved abilities to hunt and gather, a population boom, worldwide
migration and some artistic abilities.
Klein suggests that the behavior changes were due to a biological
advance, perhaps a change in brain structure. Others say the primary
change more likely was cultural. Still others argue that no abrupt
change occurred, but that art and culture developed slowly.
Early humans living in Africa, many surmised, led a more primitive way
of life--one that did not include symbolic artworks.
The newly discovered objects could challenge all of those assumptions.
The find consists of seven carved pieces of ochre, a red stone used to
make pigment powders. Ochre powder is often mixed with animal fat to
create body paint for ceremonial and ritualistic use. Two of the ochre
pieces carry what look to be abstract carvings: parallel lines in a
Henshilwood said the patterns appear to be carefully and deliberately
carved onto rocks that were rubbed smooth beforehand. He believes the
patterns are abstract symbols that were probably created by one artist
but understood by others--an ability that would likely require the use
But some skeptics say that because the newly discovered etchings are not
found throughout Africa, they may have been a fluke or the work of a
single genius who left no cultural legacy.
Anthropologist Meg Conkey of UC Berkeley, who has studied the world's
oldest known paintings on the walls of France's Grotte Chauvet, says the
more interesting question is why the carvings were found in this cave
and not others.
Henshilwood said the coastal dwellers who occupied the cave could have
advanced more quickly because of a rich seafood diet. There is evidence
to suggest that early coastal civilizations often thrived, said
Henshilwood, an affiliate anthropologist at the Iziko South African
Museum in Cape Town and an adjunct researcher at the State University of
New York at Stony Brook.
He also predicts that more early art will be found in other African
caves when they are excavated as thoroughly as those in Europe.
But Klein, who has worked in several caves in Africa, including the
Blombos cave where the new carvings were discovered, counters that there
are excellent recent excavations throughout the continent. If
civilization was advanced so early, he asks, "Why are these [carvings]
Anthropologists, much like modern art critics, are also vigorously
debating the importance of the etchings. "Is it art, or somebody with a
stone tool just sitting there scratching?" asked Klein, who said the
patterns are "interesting" but not as compelling as the depictions of
animals and humans created on cave walls 30,000 to 33,000 years ago.
Added Steve Kuhn, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona: "It
could be just doodlings."
Henshilwood discovered the Blombos site in 1991, in a 120-foot cliff
overlooking the Indian Ocean 180 miles east of Cape Town.
In December, Henshilwood's team published the discovery of specialized,
decorative flaked stone and bone tools in the cave. Found in
70,000-year-old sand deposits, the tools suggested unexpected
advancements in civilization.
The carvings were found in sediments conclusively dated to 77,000 years.
The rocks themselves were not dated.
The carvings are far older than the oldest previously recorded artistic
artifacts in Africa--ostrich eggshell beads thought to be 40,000 to
50,000 years old and discovered by anthropologist Stanley Ambrose of the
University of Illinois.
A few carvings and ornaments older than 50,000 years have been
discovered elsewhere. One, which seems to be the etched form of a woman
with an elaborate hairdo, is 250,000 years old. But anthropologists
consider those to be rare, crude and lacking in any kind of systematic
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sat Jan 12 2002 - 04:07:22 GMT