Nature is about to publish a fantastic archaeological discovery. A cave site in South Africa has been excavated by archaeologists, revealing an ancient human encampment complete with cooked mussel shells, small stone tools, and some red ocre.
What makes this ensemble so incredible is that it has been dated to @ 160,000 years ago – roughly 40,000 years “too early” by yesterday’s history textbooks. If the dates are not contested, this has some powerful new implications for the way human evolution is seen to occur.
Here’s the whole AP story about Curtis Marean’s find.
From a consciousness studies perspective, I am drawn to Marean’s interpretation of the red ocher as “symbolic behavior.” Ocher is commonly interpreted in prehistoric contexts as used for fabric dying, wall drawing, and possible body marking. Marean really likes the body and face marking hypothesis, but until his actual article is published in Nature and explains the context I remain slightly skeptical. But any of these behaviors are certainly breaking new cognitive ground much, much earlier than we have ever seen.
The adornment issue pokes at a sore spot in evolutionary psychology. This sore spot is our lack of understanding of how consciousness really intertwines with our early history. Body marking is considered a socially complex behavior that emerges only with higher levels of cognition, levels that can handle abstractions such as group identity and individuality. More body marking = more consciousness = more modernity. Here lies the bug-a-boo of creativity, that much celebrated proof of modern humanity’s uniqueness from all other hominids. It’s a pretty astounding discovery in the first place, so it’s interesting that Marean played up the sensationalist “symbolic cognition” angle for the press.
Basically, the fact that a small group of artistic, clam-baking beach combers partied through the lower paleolithic while the rest of the early humans bopped each on the heads with clubs is very troubling to our notions of “human progress.” It’s also another nail in the coffin for the supposed “creative revolution” in the upper paleolithic in Europe.
Naturally, Fox News reported this press release with the headline “Early humans used make up.” Yes, progress is definitely on the up and up.