Monday, June 26, 2006

The human culture "big bang" myth

Until recently, researchers generally believed that the first signs of modern human culture appeared 40,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe. The cave paintings, musical instruments, jewelry and other artwork preserved from this time period, the Upper Paleolithic, indicate that humans were capable of symbolic thinking.

Jewelry probably conveyed many aspects of people's social and cultural identities, and most archaeologists agree that personal decoration was one of the most important expressions of modern human culture.

"Personal ornaments are a powerful tool of communication," says Francesco D’Errico at the Institute of the Prehistory and Geology of the Quaternary in Talence, France, one of the team that studied the beads. "They can indicate social or marital status, for example. But you need to have a complex system of language behind that."
D'Errico and Marian Vanhaeren of University College London have now shown that 100,000-year-old perforated shells found in Israel and Algeria were decorative beads. They had also previously found similar shells in the Blombos cave in South Africa dating to about 75,000 years ago.
"Our paper supports the scenario that modern humans in Africa developed behaviors that are considered modern quite early in time, so that in fact these people were probably not just biologically modern but also culturally and cognitively modern, at least to some degree," said d'Errico. "This idea has been postulated before now, but the evidence has been quite scant."
The two researchers and their colleagues searched through museum collections and found bead-like shells from the sites of Skhul, in Israel, and Oued Djebbana, in Algeria. The shells were of the same kind as those found at Blombos. They are perforated in the same place and showed signs of wear, as if they had been strung together.

Moreover the shells have been found so far from the sea -- 200 km in case of Oued Djebbana -- that they must have been intentionally brought there, most likely for beadworking. By studying modern Nassarius shells from Mediterranean beaches, the scientists also determined that shells with single holes in the centre are rare in nature and that Skhul and Djebbana inhabitants must have purposely perforated or deliberately picked out such shells, arguably for symbolic use.

The discovery brings more evidence in support of the idea that modern human behavior and culture developed gradually in Africa following the appearance of anatomically modern humans around 200,000 years ago. This contradicts the conventional archaeological wisdom claiming that a 'cultural revolution' happened in Africa or Eurasia just 40,000 years ago.
"That sort of prejudice is being continually eroded with these kinds of discoveries," says Bernard Wood at George Washington University. "But it still raises the question, in order to make holes in beads and to have the need for beads, does that mean you have language?"
D'Errico thinks so: "To me [these beads] are very powerful archaeological evidence that these people were able to speak like us." Sally McBrearty at the University of Connecticut in Storrs explains the appearance of the Upper Paleotilic Cultural Revolution: "In European sites all of these symbolic artefacts appear together in a package. But even one of these things shows the capacity for symbolic communication. You find them all together in Europe because it was many tens of thousands of years after they were invented in Africa."


Anonymous said...

Is there a source for this??

Vlad said...

Science (vol 312 p 1785)

Anonymous said...

Wow. that article somewhat brings good infos, but I feel it remains a very incomplete, misinformed, and a rather romantic point of view on culture and the evolution of humans.

There has indeed been a boom in human culture around 40 000 years ago, but of course it’s not a ‘big bang’ of culture, it’s just a boom. Duh. Culture actually exists among primates. It also exists in species like elephants for example. It can exist, in a limited form, in many species’ brain. For example, if a lion or dog or dolphin has been taught tricks, well that is culture—ideas (‘neurone links’) not biologically determined, being introduced in a brain. What happened is that humanoids gradually evolved to host culture better than apes and other animals (cf The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore). Certain ‘teams’ of humanoids/cultures were outmatched by others in the competition. The last great biological improvement in ‘the hosting of culture by humanoids’ was language, in us, Homo Sapiens. Language allowed a massive cultural evolution (the culture ‘boom’ of 40 000 years ago) based on inter-individuals exchanges of information (instead of the limited cultural evolution of Neanderthals for example, that took place through personal trial and error and gestural imitation). That massive cultural evolution allowed by language gave us an advantage over the other prototypes of human, like Neanderthal, that were competing with us at that time. That massive cultural evolution gave birth to very complex memes/technologies, like agriculture, and many other technologies that were not the invention of a sole individual but rather the combination of many inventions. Were inventions like shells the product of language or just personal trial and error and gestural imitation, just like most tools made by humans before – 40 000? D’Errico should explain why he thinks that yes, because it doesn’t make any sense to me for now :S

Note: it’s very plausible that some earlier isolated groups of humans could speak before – 40 000, but we didn’t see the effects of a massive cultural evolution before that. Cultural evolution is based on language and on the relatively massive exchange of information between a large number of humans; so we could assume that these first speaking humans of before – 40 000 while being able to speak, were not numerous enough or too isolated to actually start a massive cultural evolution together. This is a hypothesis. But what’s sure is that making shell necklaces doesn’t necessarily mean you have language.

Thinking about these issues without taking into account memetics and Susan Blackmore’s theories about culture gene co evolution, is I think incomplete. Ignoring theories of culture-gene co evolution leads to keeping a very romantic vision of the evolution of humans. So I just wanted to highlight that.

Blackmore, Susan The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, reprint edition 2000, ISBN 0-19-286212-X
Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. 1997 W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-06131-0
Van Schaik, C. P., Deaner, R. O. and Merrill, M. Y. (1999). The conditions for tool use in primates: implications for the evolution of material culture. Journal of Human Evolution, 36(6), 719-741.

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