By Robert Ornstein, PhD, Sally Mallam, and Doug Keefe, PhD
During the Paleolithic era, from about 35,000 years ago and over the next 25,000 years, toward the end of the last major Ice Age, Cro-Magnon’s artistic expression reached a critical mass as seen in cave paintings all over Europe, Asia, Siberia, Australia and Africa – throughout the old world.
The earliest known example of deliberate patterns made by ancient humans predates Paleolithic cave art by several hundred thousand years. Identified in 2014 by an international team of scientists, a zig-zag patterned shell was carbon-dated to as far back as 430,000–540,000 years ago, which discounts the possibility that it was made by either Neanderthals or modern humans.
The shell was actually found in 1891 on the Indonesian island of Java by the Dutch paleontologist Eugene Dubois who discovered “Java Man,” now known as Homo erectus. It took 123 years, great advances in technology, and perhaps a change of expectation and attitude about our place in the world, before we were able to entertain the idea that abstract thought and the expression of it might possibly have existed in our pre-human ancestors – and to recognize that these shell markings were deliberately made.
Such deliberate markings were until then thought to be indicative exclusively of modern cognition and behavior, originating with Homo sapiens in Africa. This find was at least four times older than what was previously the oldest known etched artefact – geometric carvings in a sample of ochre found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave. This meant the shell engravings would have to have been made by our pre-Neanderthal ancestor, Homo erectus, and pushed the origin of the ability to deliberately engrave back by at least 300,000 years.
A Creative Explosion
About 45,000 years ago Cro-Magnon developed blades and spear-throwers with a considerably greater range, velocity and penetration than earlier examples so far found. Hunters could now kill large animals from a longer, much safer, distance. With these new inventions, diet improved, more people survived — with much more contact between bands. Hunting technologies were quite possibly shared between groups, and so methods and tools evolved rapidly as human migrations followed reindeer and bison.
Over this period our ancestors invented burins to help make tools from antlers, such as bone spears and harpoons that were often beautifully engraved and carved. They crafted small bone needles from which to fashion vital, multilayered clothing for insulation and to survive the extreme temperature fluctuations. Ornamentation symbols of kinships, status and collective identity have been found from this period.
Venus figurines dating from this same period have been found over an expanse of territory from the west of Europe into Russia. This suggests that people were linked across these vast distances, communicating and developing social relationships that would be advantageous at a time when food resources were limited or depleted in specific areas.
The Earliest Figurative Rock Art
From about 40 – 35,000 years ago, and over the next fifteen thousand years, throughout the last Ice Age, our ancestors’ artistic expressions reached a critical mass and spread not only all over Europe, Asia and Siberia but also appeared in Australia and Africa – throughout the old world.
For example, 40,000 years ago – at the same time as our early European ancestors began to create the well-known European cave paintings – people 13,000 kilometers away in the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi were also producing figurative paintings on cave walls.
By 35,000 years ago, the capacity for abstract thought and symbolic representation had finally become a stable and universal capacity of the human mind and one of the traits that we share with all other humans. It enabled us to communicate in unprecedented ways and build the world we know today.
We were the same human beings then as we are now.
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