Archaeologists trying to establish when our ancestors developed the cognitive and creative abilities we think of as distinctly human have pointed to a series of artifacts dating back some 40,000 years, most notably the cave paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux, as the earliest proof of a level of imagination and expression that we would recognize as human.
But as Robin McKie explains in The Guardian, some archaeologists argue that our ancestors exhibited that sophistication far earlier.
For example, Smithsonian archaeologist Alison Brooks, working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, found harpoon heads made of bone:
The little weapons, found by Brooks and her husband, John Yellen, more than a decade ago, show evidence of remarkable craftsmanship. Yet they are more than 90,000 years old. In fact, they are some of the earliest instruments ever shaped by modern humans using a material other than stone or wood.
It is an intriguing combination – startling sophistication mixed with deep antiquity – and it gives the blades considerable importance to science, says Brooks. They show, she believes, that our species’s final intellectual transition, from apeman to modern human, must have occurred at a different time and place than previously thought….
[Brooks] believes Homo sapiens reached its full intellectual and artistic potential much longer ago and much deeper in our prehistory: possibly more than 100,000 years ago when we were still evolving in Africa. In other words, our technological and artistic roots are far deeper than we believed, an error that came about because, for a long time, we lacked any evidence in Africa that could confirm our intellectual antiquity.
Then there is a new report on cave paintings in Indonesia, which turn out to be as old as those in Europe (not 10,000 years ago as previously though):
The crucial point is that the discovery shows that cave art, often considered the greatest achievement of Stone Age humans, was being made at opposite ends of the Old World at about the same time, a point stressed by the researchers’ leader, Maxime Aubert, another Wollongong researcher. “This suggests these practices have deeper origins, perhaps in Africa before our species left this continent and spread across the globe.”
It is a view that is backed by Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, London. “It has been argued that the final spark that brought modern humans to their full intellectual status only occurred when we entered Europe,” he said. “But this discovery shows modern humans were behaving with the same sophistication in Indonesia. If nothing else, that should allow us to move away from Eurocentric ideas on the development of figurative art to consider the alternative possibility that such artistic expression was a fundamental part of human nature 60,000 years ago when we still lived in Africa.”… “The bottom line is that cave art was practised in Europe and in south-east Asia at about the same time,” said Wil Roebroeks, of Leiden University, Netherlands, in a commentary in Nature about the Aubert group’s research.
Update: Kathy Olesko at Georgetown points out that South African archaeologists have been working on caves whose artifacts and paintings suggest modern cognitive abilities. One is the Blombos Cave:
Blombos Cave (BBC) is a cave in a limestone cliff in South Africa. It is situated near Still Bay in the southern Cape (34025?S, 21013?E), some 100 m from the coast and 35 m above sea level. Professor Christopher Henshilwood, discovered the site in 1991.
It is an archaeological site made famous by the discovery there of two pieces of ochre engraved with abstract designs, 75,000-year-old beads made from Nassarius shells, and c. 80,000-year-old bone tools. Some of the earliest evidence for shellfishing and possibly fishing has been discovered at the site and dates to c. 140,000 years ago. The engraved pieces of ochre are regarded as the oldest known artwork.
The use of abstract symbolism on the engraved pieces of ochre and the presence of a complex tool kit suggests Middle Stone Age people were behaving in a cognitively modern way and had the advantages of syntactical language at least 80,000 years ago.
Likewise, Lyn Wadley’s work on stone age multitasking shows that about 70,000 years ago, our ancestors were creating stone tools that required making complex adhesives.