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From Becoming Human : Evolution and Human Uniqueness, by Ian Tattersall

CHAPTER ONE

The Creative Explosion

Becoming HumanHuman beings, in all their uniqueness, are the result of a long evolutionary process; and it is this which will be the central subject of this book. But since we started in Ice Age France, let's begin our evolutionary journey at the near end, so to speak, with a look at the astonishing record left by the Europeans of the late Ice Age. For these people provide us with the earliest good record of the unique human capacity, fully formed: evidence for what the science writer John Pfeiffer has called "the creative explosion." Not that this was an indigenous development; Europe was, until about forty thousand years (40 kyr) ago, inhabited only by the Neanderthals: a distinctive and now-extinct group of humans belonging to the species Homo neanderthalensis. The Neanderthals, whom we'll meet again in chapter 5, were complex beings and talented users of the landscape they lived in: a far cry, indeed, from the brutish image with which generations of cartoonists have endowed them. But they left no evidence of the creative, innovative spark that is so conspicuous a characteristic of our own kind; and they were quite rapidly displaced by the first European Homo sapiens, who arrived at that time fully equipped with modern behaviors.

These new Europeans are often known as Cro-Magnons, from the site in western France whence their fossil remains were first described. Exactly where the first Cro-Magnons arrived from is still not very clear (we'll return to this in chapters 5 and 6); but there's no doubt that they were us. Physically they were indistinguishable from living Homo sapiens; and, in its richness and complexity, the surviving material evidence of their lives indicates unequivocally that they were our intellectual equals.

These early Europeans were hunters and gatherers: people who lived off the resources available on the landscape. They arrived in their new land at a time when the climate was cooling considerably and the northern polar ice cap was building toward its maximum southward extent. By about 18 kyr ago, the edge of the northern ice sheet had crept south to the latitude of northern Germany and southern England, and beyond it stretched vast expanses of largely treeless landscape over which large-bodied grazing mammals moved in vast numbers. Cold times were thus not necessarily hard times for the first anatomically modern Europeans--although during certain periods, at least, the skeletons of Cro-Magnons often bear witness to difficult lives. For skilled hunters with all the cognitive powers of modern humans, the abundant fauna of the open steppic landscape was an incomparable resource to be exploited, sometimes with relatively little effort. And Cro-Magnon sites testify that these people took full advantage of what was available to them. The variety of animal bones left behind at places where Cro-Magnons camped vastly surpasses anything found previously: bird and fish bones, for example, show up virtually for the first time. This is not to say that Neanderthals, for example, never caught fish; bears do, after all. But if they did, they ate them on the spot, whereas the Cro-Magnons took them back to camp to be shared by all in typically modern human fashion. Dramatic evidence for such sharing comes from one locality in France, where archaeologists have identified the remains of a single animal distributed between three different campfire sites separated by hundreds of feet and presumably occupied by different families.

The Cro-Magnons also had an unprecedented knowledge of the habits of their prey. We see this not only in the wide range of animals they consumed, but in the placement of their camps and in their art. Many sites lie close to places at which herds of such mammals as reindeer would have had to ford streams, at which time they would have been particularly vulnerable to ambush hunters; and vast accumulations of animal bones, sometimes showing evidence of cooking, have been found in association with stone tools at the ends of blind valleys into which the victims must have been stampeded, or at the bases of cliffs over which they must have been chased. We know for certain that the Cro-Magnons carefully monitored their prey over the seasons of the year: animal depictions sometimes show bison in summer molting pelage, stags baying in the autumn rut, woolly rhinoceroses displaying the skin fold that was visible only in summer, or salmon with the curious spur on the lower jaw that males develop in the spawning season. Indeed, we know things about the anatomy of now-extinct animals that we could only know through the Cro-Magnons' art. For while soft-tissue features do not normally survive in the fossil record, they do so on cave walls and on small engraved slabs. We know only from the record left us by the Cro-Magnons, for example, that the extinct rhinoceroses of Ice Age Europe were adorned with shaggy coats, and that the extraordinary Megaloceros giganteus, a deer with vast antlers whose most recent bones date from 10,600 years ago, bore a dramatic and darkly colored hump behind the shoulders. The sole exception to the nonpreservation of soft structures, the frozen carcasses of extinct woolly mammoths found in the wastes of Siberia, serves also to emphasize the perceptiveness of Ice Age artists. For their peculiar features are exquisitely preserved on the cave walls, right down to their remarkable split-tipped trunks.

There's much more in the long record of Cro-Magnon life between about 40 and 10 kyr ago that is totally unprecedented in the record now available to us. Campsites were much more varied in size and complexity than anything earlier and if in sheltered spots, were usually placed to catch the warmth of the morning sun. Elaborate shelters were rigged up at open sites and were often much more complex than bare necessity demanded. The most remarkable such structures are known from localities on the central European plain about 15 kyr old. At the Ukrainian site of Mezhirich, the remains of four huts are known that were covered with complex arrangements of mammoth bones: tons of them. The deliberate and individualistic way in which the bones were chosen and disposed on each hut has led them to be dubbed the "earliest architecture." One hut is distinguished by a careful herringbone pattern of mammoth lower jaws; another by a palisade-like ring of long bones placed on end. At this same site, and others, it appears that the inhabitants dug pits in the permafrost: natural freezers in which meat was stored. This innovation may have allowed a semisedentary existence, the inhabitants living off their reserves of meat even when the migratory herds on which they depended had moved away. Uses of fire, which had been mastered in a rudimentary way even before the Neanderthals' time, became much more imaginative. In addition to the lamps used to light cave interiors, for example, elaborate hearths were constructed in a variety of styles, and it appears that hot stones were used to heat water in skin-lined pits. As long as 26 kyr ago, Cro-Magnons in what is now the Czech Republic were even baking clay statuettes (and maybe, for obscure ritual purposes, deliberately fracturing them) in kilns that heated to eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

Stone tools had been made for two and a half million years by the time the Cro-Magnons came on the scene, but the Upper Paleolithic stone implements brought by these people to Europe show unsurpassed technological skill. The basic technique involved shaping a large "core" of rock, preferably flint, into a cylindrical form from which numerous long, thin "blades" could be struck with a hammer that was normally made of wood, bone, or antler. The blades thus produced had long, sharp cutting edges and were modified into a variety of more specialized implements. Many of these were then hafted into wood or bone handles. This approach to stone toolmaking provided as much as ten times more cutting edge per pound of raw material than any technique ever used before; and routine hafting provided unprecedented versatility and effectiveness. For the first time, moreover, bone and antler were made into carefully crafted utensils. Expertly carved tapered bone points were made, and antlers were straightened to form spear-throwers, often elaborately shaped and decorated. These rodlike devices, still used by Eskimos and Australian Aborigines in historic times, have a hook at the back in which the base of the spear is placed, while the front is held by the hunter. Effectively increasing the arm length of the user, they allow spears to be hurled farther and more accurately than those simply launched from the hand.

By around 18 kyr ago or a little less, sophisticated fishing is indicated by barbed harpoons, sometimes with blood grooves to enhance their effectiveness, and by simpler devices that look like fish hooks. At about the same time, clay impressions reveal that vegetable fibers were being plaited into ropes. Tiny fine-eyed bone and antler needles were made as long as 26 kyr ago, announcing that carefully tailored clothing had arrived on the scene. This list of Cro-Magnon innovations could go on and on; for these people, already formidably equipped on their arrival in Europe, continued to add to their material and behavioral complexity with an amazing wealth of ingenuity and invention. Nothing like this appears in the record left by any earlier humans. Truly, a new kind of being was on Earth.

The Neanderthals had occasionally practiced burial of the dead, but among the Cro-Magnons we see for the first time evidence of regular and elaborate burial, with hints of ritual and belief in an afterlife. The most striking example of Cro-Magnon burial comes from the 28-kyr-old site of Sungir, in Russia, where two young individuals and a sixty-year-old male (no previous kind of human had ever survived to such an age) were interred with an astonishing material richness. Each of the deceased was dressed in clothing onto which more than three thousand ivory beads had been sewn; and experiments have shown that each bead had taken an hour to make. They also wore carved pendants, bracelets, and shell necklaces. The juveniles, buried head to head, were flanked by two mammoth tusks over two yards long. What's more, these tusks had been straightened, something that my colleague Randy White points out could only have been achieved by boiling them. But how? The imagination boggles, for this was clearly not a matter of dropping hot stones into a small skin-lined pit. Also found at Sungir were numerous bone tools and carved objects, including wheel-like forms and a small ivory horse decorated with a regular pattern of tiny holes. The elaborate interments at Sungir are only the most dramatic example of many; and taken together, these Cro-Magnon burials tell us a great deal about the people who carried them out.

First, in all human societies known to practice it, burial of the dead with grave goods (and the ritual invariably associated with placing such objects in the grave) indicates a belief in an afterlife: the goods are there because they will be useful to the deceased in the future. Grave goods need not necessarily be everyday items, although everything found at Sungir might have been, since personal adornment seems to be a basic human urge that was expressed by the Cro-Magnons to its fullest. But whether or not some of the Sungir artifacts were made specifically to be used in burial, what is certain is that the knowledge of inevitable death and spiritual awareness are closely linked, and in Cro-Magnon burial there is abundant inferential evidence for both. It is here that we have the most ancient incontrovertible evidence for the existence of religious experience.

Second, the sheer amount of effort put into the aesthetic productions found in the graves suggest that decoration, elaboration, and art were integral components of the lives and societies of the people who made them; they were no haphazard doodlings. Art was emphatically not an occasional or incidental occupation among these people; it was central to their experience of their environment and to the way they explained the world--and presumably also their position in it--to themselves.

Third, the societies concerned must have been running considerable economic surpluses to have allowed the disposal in this way of objects that were so valuable in terms of the time taken to make them. These people clearly didn't have to devote all their time to the basic business of making a living; they were efficient enough exploiters of their environment that leisure was available for symbolic pursuits of this kind. However, it's also fair to note that artistic production during the Ice Age was carried out in many environments, some of which were considerably more productive than others from the point of view of human hunters and gatherers. Once the practice of producing symbolic artifacts had become established, along with the ritual systems of which they formed part, it may well have been that artistic production became an integrated part of the economic system, viewed by Cro-Magnon societies as essential for maintaining their economic lives. When harder times arrived, as they must surely have done in the fluctuating climates of the Ice Age, these people may have seen their art and its associated ritual as something that was somehow necessary for their continued well-being: essential to their success in the hunt and in the other activities that sustained them from day to day.

Fourth, the fact that there is a considerable variety in the elaborateness and detail of Cro-Magnon burial (for the sheer opulence of Sungir is one exception, rather than the general rule) hints at a social stratification and division of labor in Cro-Magnon society. Richness of personal adornment in life often reflects social status, and this is in turn often mirrored by the objects taken to the grave. Some Cro-Magnons were buried with an extraordinary abundance of artifacts of various kinds; others were more simply interred. And while, given the erratic sampling of Cro-Magnon burials that we possess, some of this variation may simply have been due to difference in affluence of societies overall, there can be little doubt that part of it, at least, reflects a differing importance of individuals in society. Some of that difference in status may well have been inherited; for it is highly dubious that, for instance, the children of Sungir would have had the opportunity to make any significant mark on their society through their own accomplishments. What's more, it's hardly probable that these young people had made their richly adorned vestments themselves. It's much more likely that the sheer diversity of material production in their society was the result of the specialization of individuals in different activities. Those who ground the mammoth-tusk beads of Sungir, and who--by who knows what magic--straightened out those mammoth-tusk spears, may well have received far less elaborate interments when their own turn came to be buried.

Contrasting the Sungir site with other Ice Age burial localities also draws attention to the considerable local variation in mortuary practices that existed during Cro-Magnon times. In some places bodies were flexed in the grave; at Sungir they were stretched out. Some graves were covered with rock slabs; others weren't. The nature and abundance of grave goods varied from place to place. And on and on. Differences of such kinds in burial customs must, moreover, have reflected a wider cultural diversity. For example, in contrast to the relatively uniform material productions of earlier peoples, Cro-Magnon traditions of stone artifact making differed wildly from place to place. Sometimes, it seems, the people of each valley were busily developing their own particular ways of doing things, and it's even been suggested that hand in hand with this went linguistic diversification and the development of local dialects.

In this restless, innovative spirit we see our own modern selves mirrored, and the principal lesson to be learned from Cro-Magnon burials is this: That while we will never know exactly what rituals accompanied them and what exact sets of beliefs they embodied, these interments, taken overall, reflect not only the fundamental human urge to adorn and elaborate, but also the multifaceted subtlety and complexity of living human societies the world over.

Nonetheless, the material aspect of Cro-Magnon life that speaks to us most directly as human beings lies in the evidence these people left behind of art and symbolic representation. The astonishing art of the caves is well-known. But here our notion of art has to be used in its widest sense because some of the first Cro-Magnon sites have yielded evidence for music and notation as well. The earliest Cro-Magnon culture identified in Europe is known as the Aurignacian; and some of the oldest Aurignacian localities, dating from well over 30 kyr ago, have produced musical instruments: multiholed bone flutes capable of producing a remarkable complexity of sound. Later sites have also yielded what may have been percussion instruments; and at one locality, a series of enormous flint blades found laid parallel on the ground may have been the remains of a "lithiphone": the Stone Age equivalent of a xylophone. The earliest Aurignacian has also yielded bone and stone plaques bearing extremely complex markings; one 32-kyr-old plaque from the French site of Abri Blanchard has been identified as a lunar calendar, and many objects incised with regular patterns of marks have been interpreted as hunting tallies or other forms of record keeping. That's all as may be; we will never be certain exactly what particular abstract symbols meant to their long-departed creators, however evident it is that they were intentionally made. This is true even of what appears to our eyes to be representational art; for while we may readily recognize as such the animals depicted on cave walls and stone and bone plaques, to their makers they may well have been symbolically equivalent to the more obscure geometrical or superficially random-appearing markings that baffle us from the start. What is obvious, however, is that here we have evidence of highly complex symbolic systems.

Still, as I've said, among all the legacies left to us by the Cro-Magnons, it is what we instinctively feel to be "art" that most readily captures our imaginations. Art as such, of course, is a concept invented by Western civilization. The universal human urge to decorate aside, what we recognize as "art" produced by other cultures in the modern world tends to be quite distinct in significance from the aesthetic notions we attach to art in our own culture; and the same was evidently true of the Upper Paleolithic. Searching for the "meaning" of Ice Age art in the absence of the living society that produced it is thus likely to be unproductive. What we can do, however, is to develop a chronology for this art and to look for regularities in it that may help us to understand its structure. Chronology is especially important here because Ice Age art was not the outpouring of a single culture. Rather, it spanned a period of over twenty thousand years within which several cultures, as recognized by their technological traditions--archaeologists' normal touchstone--came and went. Thus, remarkably, the earliest European Ice Age art was over twice as remote in time from its latest expressions as the latter are from us. Yet working out the chronology of Ice Age art is turning out to be trickier than once thought.

Until quite recently it was generally believed, for example, that the practice of making paintings in deep caves was a relatively late development, getting under way--slowly--only about 25 to 24 kyr ago, 10 kyr later than the first three-dimensional sculptures. Of course, paintings on cave walls have always posed a problem of dating because they are free of any archaeological context. In contrast, "portable" art, images carved and engraved on small pieces of bone or rock, is always found in the layers of habitation detritus left behind by early people. Where a given site was inhabited, consistently or sporadically, over an extended period, later strata of this kind accumulated on top of the earlier ones, providing a "layer cake" sequence that maps cultural changes over time. In habitation layers, artworks are associated with the stone tools upon which Paleolithic ("Old Stone Age") chronologies have traditionally been based via the mapping of technological change. Further, cultural strata sometimes also contain organic objects that are directly datable by the carbon-14 method (good up to about 40 kyr ago, hence ideal for Cro-Magnon times). By combining studies of style in portable art with their archaeological contexts, students of Ice Age art have been able to develop a chronology of art styles over the various periods of the Upper Paleolithic: the final period of the Old Stone Age during which the Cro-Magnons flourished.

Even this laborious procedure is only rough-and-ready, however, especially since many of the most striking and important pieces of portable art were excavated in the early days of archaeology, when relatively little attention was paid to context. What's more, "styles" are often hard to recognize. But, added to consideration of the way in which images executed in different manners are superimposed on cave walls, it has been this stylistic chronology that has largely governed our ideas of the sequence in which the hundreds of works of cave art now known were created. Excitingly, though, direct dating of cave art has very recently become possible (by new radiocarbon techniques), although only in those few cases where the artists used organic materials such as charcoal in executing their works. And the little that has so far been learned from these new approaches has rocked our notions of the chronology of Ice Age art to their foundations.

For it has turned out that, far from being a relatively late development among Ice Age cultures, deep cave art was quite an early innovation. Thus, dating of the paintings in the newly discovered cave of Chauvet, in south-central France, has shown that at least some of the 300-plus animal images that cascade across the cave walls there date back to over 30 kyr ago. This contrasts dramatically with more traditional estimates of their age, made shortly after their discovery, of maybe 18 kyr. Nobody had imagined that wall art of this sophistication could be of such remarkable antiquity; but similarly early ages have since been derived from other sites, and it's clear that the chronology of Ice Age art is due for radical reappraisal. It's still unquestioned, however, that the golden age of Ice Age art--portable and wall alike--occurred during what is called the Magdalenian period, which began at about 18 kyr ago--interestingly, just as the last glaciation was reaching the maximum of its intensity.

What does all this tell us about the Cro-Magnons? First, it dramatically bolsters the conclusion that the first modern people arrived in Europe equipped with all of the cognitive skills that we possess today. Second, it underlines the tendency toward innovation and cultural diversification that is so fundamental a characteristic of Homo sapiens--and so foreign to all earlier human species. Some investigators have believed that--using the old chronology--they could trace a single strand of stylistic evolution all the way through Ice Age art, from the first productions of the Aurignacian at about 34 kyr ago, right up through the end of the Magdalenian at about 10 kyr ago. Such continuity was always inherently improbable over such a vast span of time, and it is now clear that this was not the case. At the same time, the pattern of sporadic technological innovation over the Upper Paleolithic still appears to apply: bone spear points appear at over 34 kyr ago, for instance, while bone needles do not show up until about 26 kyr and barbed harpoons not until about 18 kyr ago.

A lack of continuity makes it easier to understand--though no less astonishing--how the very earliest art we know of includes some of the finest creations of all time. At the German site of Vogelherd, dating to the earliest Aurignacian of the region, over 32 kyr ago, a series of small animal figures testifies to the highest standards of the carver's art. The most striking of these pieces is a horse, barely two inches long, made from mammoth ivory. Polished from long contact with someone's skin, this tiny figure, probably worn originally as a pendant, is one of the most elegant images ever carved. It does not closely resemble the chunky, stocky horses that roamed the European steppes at the time; rather, in its flowing, sinuous lines, it evokes the graceful essence of the horse. No crude representation this; its maker possessed both skill and imagination to rival any later artist. Symbolism of other kinds also made an early debut, as we've seen--and not just in the form of notation on plaques. Perhaps even earlier than Vogelherd is a foot-tall carving, from the nearby cave of Hohlenstein-Stadel, of a standing human with a lion's head. This is less finely executed than the Vogelherd horse; but what better reflection could we wish for of the exercise of the human imagination? This is surely a mythic figure, an embodiment of a complex mixture of myth, observation, and belief that explored and explained the place of humanity in the larger world.

As I've suggested, though, not all innovations appeared together. For the late Ice Age was remarkable for the cultural diversity it spawned, in time as well as in space. Following the Aurignacian, we find the Gravettian culture, most noted for its production of the female statuettes and engravings misleadingly known as "Venus" figures. These typically show women with heads lacking individual features, swollen midbodies with large breasts and buttocks, and small limbs. Some "Venuses," however, are more linear and modestly proportioned. These figures have traditionally been interpreted as fertility symbols, but in view of the fact that fertility is rarely an issue among hunting-gathering peoples, this is hardly a convincing explanation. Nonetheless, the fact that they are found over a huge swath of Europe over a long time period (between about 28 and 22 kyr in western Europe, until much later in the east) strongly suggests that these images were embedded in a powerful and durable cultural tradition. Still, local variants are clearly evident within this tradition. Perhaps most remarkably, at the Czech site of Dolni Vestonice, female and animal figurines were baked and apparently deliberately fractured in kilns during what were probably homesite rituals of some sort. This kind of production is known from nowhere else; and, indeed, the notion of baking clay subsequently lay fallow for as many as 150 centuries, until pottery was introduced in the New Stone Age, this time in the service of utilitarian purposes.

--From Becoming Human : Evolution and Human Uniqueness, by Ian Tattersall. 1997 by Ian Tattersall, used by permission.

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