Deeper roots of culture

There has long been a pervasive aroma of eurocentrism in cultural palaeoanthropology, encouraged by the spectacular cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain that are no more than 40 ka in age and the first to be discovered. This undoubted flowering of art as we appreciate it today has been linked to much more than figurative expression. Some have argued that Homo sapiens only became fully human after Europe was colonised. Thankfully, the archaeological record is rapidly being set straight by more and more discoveries of symbolic representation from elsewhere (Balter, M. 2009. On the origin of art and symbolism. Science, v. 323, p. 709-711). Blomberg Cave In South Africa is a repository for 100 ka old inscribed ochre artefacts (Balter, M. 2009. Early start for human art? Ochre may revise timeline. Science, v. 323, p. 569), which represent symbolism of some kind and the imagined uses to which the ochre was put – ritual or cosmetic body painting? But there are tantalising objects that push art back even further. In 1999 a cache of stone tools at Tan-Tan in Morocco was found to include a 6 cm quartzite chunk that looks like a rough version of the ‘Aurignacian Venuses’ of later times, yet the find dates back to 300 to 500 ka. Something similar turned up in the 250 ka site of Berekhat Ram in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights of Syria. Both predate the evolution of fully modern humans. And what of the tear-drop shaped biface ‘axes’ associated with H. erectus and H. ergaster as far back as 1.6 Ma? These are extremely odd objects, for several reasons: it is hard to visualise their use; many finds are in pristine condition, as if never used; to make one demands a mental model of what potentially lies within a rock; they are more difficult to make than later blade tools that are more utilitarian. Arguably, the ‘Acheulean hand axe’ may be more of a symbol than a tool.

The reason for renewed discussion in print of these matters is, of course, the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of publication of his Origin of Species. Darwin drew a link between tool making and language in his Descent of Man. He would have been delightedly surprised to learn details of the emergence of new tool-making skills in Africa, from where he insisted we all came (Morgan, L.E. & Renne, P.R. 2009. Diachronous dawn of Africa’s Middle Stone Age: New 40Ar/39Ar ages from the Ethiopian Rift. Geology, v. 36, p. 967-970). Morgan and Renne, of the University of California at Berkeley, discovered that the oldest sites in the Main Ethiopian Rift that contain the novel tools that mark the onset of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) span a much greater interval than assumed hitherto. In one site such tools date to 276 ka, whereas at another such objects appear only at 183 ka. The more delicate work to make MSA points and blades, and a much diversified ‘tool kit’ has been called the Levallois technique, thought to have been associated with a cognitive leap from the Lower Palaeolithic Oldowan and Acheulean techniques. For some it came to signify more: the appearance of fully modern humans. But the new ages do not tally with the fossil record of H. sapiens or with estimates from mitochondrial DNA molecular clocks. All in all, culture, whether art or technology, seems to be characteristic of the genus Homo. Given a push bike, could H. ergaster have ridden it and, more important, had fun? What would a Neanderthal, male or female, have done with a tube of lipstick?

The Neanderthal genome is coming!
Some computer owners take part in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, allowing SETI to combine their processing power with that of hundreds of others, on the off chance that the meaning of  (pi) pops up in a systematic burst of non-static microwaves. Personally I would far rather wait for a message from a relative than from some seriously weird being whose motives we might never guess. A Neanderthal lady – more precisely her leg bone –from Croatia is very close to speaking volumes about our own history. Two teams of DNA sequencers are putting the finishing touches to her genome. That it would ever happen was a fevered dream not so long ago. That it will opens up a revolution in understanding our origins. To keep in touch, read Elizabeth Pennisi’s account of the pending revelations (Pennisi, E. 2009. Tales of a prehistoric human genome. Science, v. 323, p. 866-871). Svante Paabo gave a glimpse of his team’s rough draft of the genome at the AAAS annual meeting in February 2009. When analyses are finished palaeoanthropology will explode onto the news channels, blogs, and among the twittering classes. Should SETI get a result, I would first eat my trousers and then prepare to be eaten myself. As for Darwin, maybe you have noticed his prominent brow ridges…

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