It’s very exciting to find out that the earliest cave art in Europe predates the arrival of our own species here by 20,000 years. It blows our theories of human uniqueness to pieces, once again. What it means is that Neanderthals, still a by-word for brutishness and ignorance, were capable of abstract thought, and of painting those ideas onto cave walls. This capacity for abstraction was, until recently, thought to be the preserve of our own species, Homo sapiens. It was considered to be part of a suite of changes to mind that happened 40-50,000 years ago, including language, art, an explosion in the types of specialised tools made and the materials used. It’s supposed that this advantage of modern consciousness was one of the deciding factors that allowed our species to colonise the whole globe and to eventually out-compete all other human species. It’s interesting that some of the 64,000-year-old art does not represent anything we can see in the ‘real world’, but is composed of the lines and dots that are common in cave paintings and may, it’s been suggested, be representations of entoptic phenomena – visual effects made by the eye or the brain and experienced during altered states of consciousness including intoxication and migraine. What does that mean in terms of our similarities of mind?
Of course, the story of our evolution is endlessly fascinating and endlessly changing. A small fossil, a footprint, a new date can change the whole picture. And this is often due to the scarcity of the evidence, the difficulty of finding it, and limitations to our technology. As archaeologists and anthropologists devise more and more ingenious ways of using new technologies to interrogate physical evidence such as tools or bones, we see in ever-greater detail the story unfold. The recent discovery of Graecopithecus freybergi, who lived in modern Greece 7.2 million years ago and seems to have been a direct human ancestor, shakes the family tree once again (I apologise for the melodramatic title of this linked article, but it seems a good source for general readers and more scientific information about the animal can be found online).
What all of this ever-changing evidence points to is an evolution composed mainly of a continuum of change, rather than one of dramatic revolutions in consciousness or technology as had previously been thought. This is perhaps an Enlightenment vision, a desire to wall ourselves off from the primitive and the non-cultural, which was very much a product of its time. The passion of the Enlightenment for dividing, cataloguing, collecting, and discriminating is entirely understandable. Roads were made of mud. People lived in harsh conditions and regularly died of plagues in their thousands. To draw a boundary between nature and culture was deeply comforting. In the Western world, this was the first time such progress had been made and it has formed the basis of our modern world. Revolutions are ‘good to think with’ (a phrase coined by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in relation to animals, which has often been used by interpreters of cave art), perhaps. Frameworks and models seem to be the way in which the human mind works, as I suggested in my post The story so far?, and are useful in constructing a reality in which we can function. But this mental construction is only a model and does not describe reality.
If we interbred with our ancient relatives, as DNA evidence has revealed, and the offspring of those experiences were fertile, then how do we now draw a dividing line between species? If our ancestors had speech of some kind (I believe that they did, all the way back to Homo erectus at least a million years ago), practised body decoration and painted on cave walls, navigated open ocean, used all kinds of materials to make objects, performed some sort of funerary rituals, then how can we divide ourselves off as unique and special? The idea of hanging out with Denisovans around the camp fire, drumming, exchanging gifts, and getting off with one particularly handsome fella, is not now an impossible one. This level of difference makes modern concerns about race seem paltry. It speaks of a shared humanity which is much bigger than we ever suspected. I hope in time that we can learn to remember that the simplistic and definite models we carry around in our heads are very dim images of the reality of life. Don’t get too attached to any of these models – they will be revised as soon as new information comes along! Reality is actually complex beyond our capacity to calculate, interconnected in every way, always sliding and shifting. It’s beautiful that way and it allows us humans to sometimes switch off our questing minds, lie back and just marvel at the magical universe that we form part of.