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Paperback and three amazing archaeological finds

December 6, 2014

The main purpose of this post is simply to announce publication of the softback version of The Artful Species, ISBN 978-0-19-870963-3.


The book is available via Amazon for US$26.15, at Book Depository for NZD$34.23 (+US$26.39) including post and packaging, and £16.99 from Oxford University Press.



But there are three very exciting archaeological developments that I want to share with you



Hominin bones by the hundreds


The first is the ongoing Rising Star Cave Expedition in South Africa


This excavation began last year. The entry to the chamber was so small that, to get to the site, they had to recruit extremely petite archaeologists!


Though bones of ancient hominins have been found at this site before, they were encased in stone. At this extremely rich site, the bones are in sediment.


Whereas archaeological discoveries are often kept secret for years until the data has been analyzed, this dig is remarkable for its openness, with blogposts, online film, and daily twitter feeds.




Indonesian cave art older than that in Europe


Cave art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has recently been aged to 40,000 years ago.


The art, which includes hand stencils and animals, has been known for some time but has not previously been dated. It was assumed to be only 10,000 years old.


The older date is remarkable, because it corresponds with the oldest known European art. Paintings in Chauvet Cave, France, are dated to 30-35,000 years old.


The Sulawesi find suggests that humans were creating cave art across the world in the Upper Paleolithic. People were in Australia at the same time, and there is much cave art there, but this has proved notoriously difficult to date.





Very ancient “symbolic” behavior


There is a debate in the literature about the mentality of our Homo sapiens predecessors. Our species emerged about 190,000 years ago and anatomically modern examples date from about that time, but did they have minds like ours? This has been called the problem of psychological modernity.


Some people think that there was a kind of light-bulb moment about 50,000 years ago. Others try to push the date back to the Middle Stone Age or earlier. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that we were psychologically modern from the outset and that the ravages of time, small, isolated populations, and population bottlenecks constantly witnessed the loss of earlier technological advances. Certainly, there was a flurry of innovations and new technologies about 40,000 years ago in Europe, but this might have been a consequence not of mental change but of a cultural tipping-point, with sufficient numbers of people and extended lines of communication and trade seeing the spread and retention of new ideas.


In any case, one marker of symbolic thinking and modern mentality has been taken to be the production of patterns and artworks. The oldest abstract patterned object were incised ochre crayons in Blombos Cave, South Africa dated to about 77,000 years ago.


How remarkable, then, that material from a site in Java occupied by Homo erectus has yielded a shell engraved with a symmetrical pattern that dates to 430-500,000 years ago.



Perhaps the mental sophistication we associate with our species has deeper roots than we thought. Homo erectus used horse-hunting techniques that required coordination and cooperation, and their minds and levels of communication obviously were up to this. Homo heidelbergensis and their later descendants, Homo neanderthalensis, traded and transported materials over fairly long distances, which are again suggestive of fairly advanced thinking.

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