Lascaux’s Picassos: What prehistoric art tells us about the evolution of the human brain.
Everyone answers the question “What makes humans human?” in her own way, but if you were ever a liberal arts student, you might have to resist the urge to roll your eyes and reply, “The humanities.” Maybe you’d get more specific, quoting the critic Haldane McFall: “That man who is without the arts is little above the beasts of the field.”
OK, so you’d be pretty pretentious, but would you be wrong? Not really. Paleontologists tend to link the development of modern human cognition to the rise of our ability to express ourselves as artists and historians through cave painting, sculptures, and other prehistoric art. Representing the world in symbols may have heralded the beginnings of language. Creating paint from charcoal, iron-rich ochre, crumbled animal bones, and urine meant understanding how materials could combine to form substances with new properties. Storing the paint—perhaps in an abalone shell that would be discovered 100,000 years later in a cavern on the South African coast—required innovation and planning ahead.
Since at least the 1970s, the question of when we first acquired our humanness has been tangled up in discoveries about when we began making art. Richard Klein at Stanford used carvings such as the 30,000-year-old Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel to substantiate his theory that a genetic mutation caused a sudden mental flowering in our ancestors 40,000 years ago. (Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years, but apparently they spent much of that time twiddling their opposable thumbs.) Yet in 1991, the excavation of 77,000-year-old beads and engraved shards of red ochre in South Africa upended Klein’s hypothesis. It suggested that symbolic thinking had emerged much earlier than anyone had thought—maybe even at the same time that our modern bodies evolved. The notion of a game-changing genetic mutation fell out of fashion as older and older artifacts were uncovered. By 2012, Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University, was voicing conventional wisdom when he told Smithsonian’s Erin Wayman: “It always made sense that the origins of modern human behavior, the full assembly of modern uniqueness, had to occur at the origin point of the lineage.”