RE: Carvings Spark Debate on Origin of Abstract Thought

From: Lawrence DeBivort (
Date: Sat Jan 12 2002 - 20:56:28 GMT

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    Subject: RE: Carvings Spark Debate on Origin of Abstract Thought
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    Interesting. I hope Science will have pictures.

    This reminds of a delightful spoof, Motel of the Mysteries. Any list
    memebers acquainted with this gem of a book?


    > -----Original Message-----
    > From: []On Behalf
    > Of Wade T. Smith
    > Sent: Friday, January 11, 2002 10:51 PM
    > To:
    > Subject: Fwd: Carvings Spark Debate on Origin of Abstract Thought
    > 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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