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Art Prehistory

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

Stony Brook, NY (1/10/02)- The discovery of paleolithic art in a cave in South Africa is causing researchers to consider an older and less Euro-centric view of the origins of what is considered 'modern behavior'.

While excavating a cave near the southernmost tip of South Africa, U.S. and South African paleontologists discovered two pieces of ochre rock decorated with geometric patterns. The site, called Blombos Cave, is near the southern Cape shore of the Indian Ocean, nearly 200 miles of Cape Town, South Africa. Sophisticated dating techniques led the researchers to conclude that the artifacts date back more than 70,000 years. That is more than 35,000 years older than any other 'stone age' art.

The earlier discovery of Paleolithic art such as the beautiful cave painting in the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet along the northern slopes of the Pyrenees revolutionized ideas of what primitive human culture might have been capable of. The creation of art is considered to indicate an advance in both the linguistic and cultural development of a population. The discovery of the cave paintings in the 1940s in France led to an hypothesis that while humans most likely originated in Africa, and learned to make tools there, it was not until the time of the French cave paintings, 35,000 ago at most, that forms of modern behavior including advanced language and symbolic expression (i.e. art) began to appear.

The artifacts discovered in Blombos cave were made of the iron ore stone ochre. Small pieces of ochre were first scraped and ground to create flat surfaces. The early artist decorated the stones with a complex geometric array of carved lines.

These findings suggest that early Homo sapiens were able to think abstractly, behaving like modern humans much earlier than was previously believed possible. The geometric rather than representational quality of the carvings hints at the development of written, symbolic language, believes Christopher Henshilwood, the State University of New York (Stony Brook) professor who led the expedition. "They may have been constructed with symbolic intent, the meaning of which is now unknown. These finds demonstrate that ochre use in the Middle Stone Age was not exclusively utilitarian and, arguably, the transmission and sharing of the meaning of the engravings relied on fully syntactical language," Henshilwood said.

Welsh and French researchers used two new luminescence-based dating methods to date the artifacts. One technique, thermoluminescence, dated burnt stone fragments found near the artifacts to 77,000 years. A related technique, optically stimulated luminescence, showed that grains of sand in the same strata could be dated back 70,000 years.

These findings come at a time of considerable debate among paleontologists studying the origins of the human race. There is an abundance of evidence that stone tools were used in the Lower Paleolithic Era - 2.5 million to 100,000 years ago. By the Middle Paleolithic Era, between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, humans had become quite good at chipping stone for tools and weapons. Here the consensus ends. Some hypothesize that modern behavior, characterized by language and art appeared relatively recently, less than 50,000 years ago, in Europe. The less popular hypothesis has been that modern behavior goes back quite a bit further, coinciding with the evolution of the modern human anatomy, perhaps as long ago as 200,000 years. The current discoveries may lend support to the second hypothesis and cause 'late origins' proponents to reconsider.

The southern tip of Africa has become one of the hot spots of paleontology research. The strata in which the engraved ochre stones were discovered has also produced an array of well-made tools for fishing and hunting. The very fact that ochre was used itself indicates some level of culture, since the ochre would have come from at least 20 miles away. This is also the same geographical area where the oldest fossilized human footprints were found. These footprints, estiamted to be 117,000 years old, were dubbed the footprints of Eve.

The research appears in the January 10, 2002 issue of Science. Related research appeared in the December 2001 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

 

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