God spaketh, but why? Part 11: Art

In an earlier post, I referred to human population bottlenecks. These are periods during which a population (of any species) reduces in size dramatically, due to environmental events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, or droughts. There is more to bottlenecks than merely the number of people remaining as the smaller a population, the lower the genetic diversity within that population. If, for example, those few survivors were just lucky, say by being in the right place at the right time, then the gene pool should roughly reflect that of the larger population. But what if the survivors only survived because they had certain abilities, or potential abilities, coded into their DNA and passed on to their children? Perhaps a volcano has reduced global temperatures—a more efficient metabolism, a more highly functioning immune system, or an inherent tolerance to cold conditions could make all the difference between life and death, infusing the gene pool of the surviving population. As might the ability to communicate and cooperate. Or maybe the ability to create stories and artefacts, not useful tools but culture-building ‘adornments’ and ‘art’.

Pinnacle Point, mentioned in Part 4, is a promontory that juts into the Indian Ocean near the town of Mossel Bay in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, where early humans survived the long glaciation between 195,000 to 123,000 years ago. Numbers are thought to have dropped from more than 10,000 “breeding individuals” to just hundreds and some believe that the Pinnacle Point survivors were the only survivors, giving rise to all Homo sapiens and explaining our relatively low genetic diversity as a species.

Findings from the Pinnacle Point Caves, which were occupied between 170,000 and 40,000 years ago, support the idea that advanced cognitive abilities evolved earlier than previously thought. Excavations have revealed the earliest evidence for the systematic exploitation of marine resources such as shellfish; the earliest evidence for the use of dyes in ‘symbolling’ (particularly the use of ochre, possibly for body painting or decorative arts); the use of advanced bladelet technology (embedding smaller blades into larger strata to create complex tools); and the earliest evidence for the use of heat treatment in the manufacture of stone tools. At Blombos Cave, located about 100 kilometers west of Pinnacle Point, pieces of ochre with systematic engravings, beads made of snail shells and refined bone tools have been discovered, all of which date to around 71,000 years ago.

Hand prints are another form of art

As of 2007, the earliest pieces of jewellery are small perforated seashell beads from Taforalt in Eastern Morocco, dated at 82,000 years old. Similar beads dating back to a similar time have been found at sites in Algeria, Israel and South Africa. Such discoveries continue to push back our understanding of how modern humans evolved, and remind us that the so-called Eurasian ‘cultural revolution’ of some 40,000 years ago was merely a continuation of processes that began long before. Art was not invented by Europeans.

What is interesting is that these beads were made from seashell, yet reaching the coastline would require a day’s walk or more. So even this long ago, making jewellery was not a random, spontaneous act—it required organisation to collect raw materials. As we move through the Palaeolithic period, there seems to be an increase in production rates, as this type of cultural expression went mainstream, possibly aided by greater concentrations and networks of humans. Perhaps making art was the first sign of what Yuval Noah Harari refers to as the Cognitive Revolution, thought to have taken place some 70,000 years ago. But why?

According to an article in the Smithsonian Magazine in January 2016, “Intellectual breakthroughs in human evolution such as tool-making were mastered by other hominin species more than a million years ago. What sets us apart is our ability to think and plan for the future, and to remember and learn from the past—what theorists of early human cognition call ‘higher order consciousness’. Such sophisticated thinking was a huge competitive advantage, helping us to cooperate, survive in harsh environments and colonize new lands. It also opened the door to imaginary realms, spirit worlds and a host of intellectual and emotional connections that infused our lives with meaning beyond the basic impulse to survive. And because it enabled symbolic thinking—our ability to let one thing stand for another—it allowed people to make visual representations of things that they could remember and imagine. ‘We couldn’t conceive of art, or conceive of the value of art, until we had higher order consciousness’, says Benjamin Smith, a rock art scholar at the University of Western Australia. In that sense, ancient art is a marker for this cognitive shift: Find early paintings, particularly figurative representations like animals, and you’ve found evidence for the modern human mind.” Smith continues, “They’re not just doing it to create pretty pictures. They’re doing it because they’re communicating with the spirits of the land.”

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is away to ponder that last sentence for a while!


About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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2 Responses to God spaketh, but why? Part 11: Art

  1. Percy Mark says:

    Thank you Cheery Pessimist. I much enjoyed reading your Part 11and also read the fascinating article in the Smithsonian Magazine. But I must take issue with one bit of the article which you have quoted:
    The claim of “what sets us apart….” I can think of few things that require more precise ‘learning from the past” and “planning for the future” than ‘tool-making”. You sit there thinking of how difficult it was to do whatever you were trying to do last week or month, and you wonder how you could make that easier next time – next week or month or season. Then you have an idea, and you imagine that if you took that stone and gave it an even sharper edge and you whittled that stick and split its end and tied that stone securely into the end of the stick, that would help you succeed better next time.
    If that’s not planning for the future and learning from the past – I don’t know what is.
    So if we want to “set ourselves apart” from other toolmaking species, we’ll have to do better than that……:-)

    • Hi Percy, I agree. As with fire, language + writing, for example, incremental changes would have taken place over time. It’s mind-boggling to think of how tiny the fossil human record is compared to the number of individuals who have existed. I wonder what we’ll discover in next 20 years?

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