Fwd: Carvings Spark Debate on Origin of Abstract Thought

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    Carvings Spark Debate on Origin of Abstract Thought

    Science: The discovery suggests the ability began longer ago than
    believed, and in Africa, not Europe.

    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
    crosshatched design.
    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
    of language.
    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]
    so rare?"
    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
    symbolic representation.


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