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Posts Tagged ‘stone age’

You know about my love of prehistoric cave paintings. The famous images at Chauvet were painted over 30,000 years ago – quite a distance in time. This makes it all the more astonishing that painting kits used about 100,000 years ago have been discovered in a cave in South Africa, evidence not just of the production of art and the presence of a symbolic imagination, but also of an ability to mix chemicals and store materials.

Etologic horse study from cave at Chauvet

This is the abstract describing the research in Science.

The conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices represents a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition. Excavations in 2008 at Blombos Cave, South Africa, revealed a processing workshop where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced and stored in two Haliotis midae (abalone) shells 100,000 years ago. Ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammerstones form a composite part of this production toolkit. The application of the mixture is unknown, but possibilities include decoration and skin protection.

Ian Sample comments:

Two sets of implements for preparing red and yellow ochres to decorate animal skins, body parts or perhaps cave walls were excavated at the Blombos cave on the Southern Cape near the Indian Ocean.

The stone and bone tools for crushing, mixing and applying the pigments were uncovered alongside the shells of giant sea snails that had been used as primitive mixing pots. The snails are indigenous to South African waters.

“This is the first known instance for deliberate planning, production and curation of a compound,” Christopher Henshilwood at the University of Bergen told Science, adding that the finding also marked the first known use of containers. “It’s early chemistry. It casts a whole new light on early Homo sapiens and tells us they were probably a lot more intelligent than we think, and capable of carrying out quite sophisticated acts at least 40,000 to 50,000 years before any other known example of this kind of basic chemistry,” he added.

“You could use this type of mixture to prepare animal skins, to put on as body paint, or to paint on the walls of the cave, but it is difficult to be sure how it was used,” said Francesco d’Errico, a study co-author at the University of Bordeaux. “The discovery is a paradox because we now know much better how the pigment was made than what it is used for.”

So we were there, we Homo sapiens, 100,000 years ago – imagining, thinking, planning, cooperating, collecting, mixing, experimenting, storing, painting; and whatever else this painting led into…

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It’s not a great film. And, despite what the reviewers say, the 3D cinematography doesn’t work – the images lose their sharpness, the focus of the eyes never quite stabilises, and you constantly feel that you are in a cinema struggling to see the screen rather than in a French cave dancing with your paleolithic ancestors. (See my previous rant about 3D cinema and the decline of human civilisation.)

But Werner Herzog’s new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still a wonderful way of experiencing the Chauvet paintings ‘at first hand’. I think I’ve seen reproductions of them before (although perhaps I’m muddling them up with the images from Lascaux). They are astonishingly beautiful. The YouTube trailer above gives you some good glimpses of the main walls – and without the 3D!

What struck me in the film was their size. They are huge! The fact that there was no space to hide the film crew actually helped, because you kept being reminded of the scale of the paintings – the sound man bobbing in and out of the images with his boom like the stone-age hunters with their spears.

In one sense it’s breathtaking that the images are so old. That’s what makes them interesting – beyond their artistic merit alone. This is just one manifestation of ‘the cognitive leap’, when modern human beings ’emerged’ (whatever that means) onto the scene, and began to paint, decorate, adorn themselves, make musical instruments, honour their dead, and carve those well-known Venus figurines.

Yet in another sense, why should it astonish us? It seems to be the beginnings of what we would call civilisation, or modern human culture, but as far as we know these Cro-Magnons, these Early Modern Humans, were just like us – the same species, the same human nature. And human beings paint.

So the fact that you walk into a cave hidden for 30,000 years and discover a painting of a horse that looks just like one of Franz Marc’s (one of my favourite painters) shouldn’t surprise us. But it does. And they are astonishing. As is Franz Marc.

Children's interpretations of Franz Marc

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It’s Ash Wednesday – another excuse, if any were needed, to post about human origins. After all the festivities of Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras, we approach the priest on this first day of Lent to have our foreheads marked with ashes. The traditional words spoken at this point are: ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ (The priest standing next to me this morning as we distributed the ashes, a former Carthusian monk of a venerable age, used the Latin phrase that was still lodged in his memory: ‘Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris’.)

I was connecting this with last week’s philosophical anthropology lecture about human origins. Much is still unclear, scientifically, but one of the fascinating discoveries is that human beings who are anatomically modern emerged in pre-history many thousands of years before there is any evidence of characteristically modern human behaviour.

So you can find homo sapiens skeletons from about 200,000 years ago, and in terms of their anatomy there is hardly any difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’. If a crowd of such homo sapiens came towards you on a summer’s afternoon you’d say, ‘Look, there are some human beings’.

Dame de Brassempouy: le visage haut de 3,6 centimètres (reproduction)  by fredpanassac.

The "Dame de Brassempouy", perhaps the first representation of the human face, from about 25,000 years ago

But the evidence for modern human behaviours comes much later, sometime between about 100,000 and 50,000 years ago (we are not sure exactly). Only in this period do we begin to see the cognitive leap that gives us our name (homo sapiens, wise-rational man), so that by the time of our Cro-Magnon ancestors in the upper paleolithic period (about 40,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago) there is an astounding proliferation of new behaviours. The pattern of intermittent innovation is gone, replaced by revolutionary advances: sophisticated hunting and fishing tools; elaborate architectural designs constructed with mammoth bones; kilns that could bake clay statuettes to 800 degrees Farenheit; decorated bone tools; elaborate burial sites filled with grave goods; the well-known cave art from central France; and – my favourite – a multi-holed bone flute from some 30,000 years ago.

The question is: What happened? And why is there this lag between the emergence of anatomically modern humans and what we think of as modern intelligence and creativity? There are three possibilities: (1) The intelligence was there in potential, but some other factor needed to develop in order for it to be released; (2) the intelligence was working away, gradually, as human culture developed and human wisdom accumulated, and the revolutionary consequences of this would only become apparent, with their archaeological evidence, over a hundred thousand years later; or (3) something else happened to allow the emergence of creatures we would recognise, behaviourally as well as anatomically, as full-blown homo sapiens – people we could call our brothers and sisters.

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