When Did the Human Mind Evolve to What It is Today?

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Archaeologists excavating a cave on the coast of South Africa not long ago unearthed an unusual abalone shell. Inside was a rusty red substance. After analyzing the mixture and nearby stone grinding tools, the researchers realized they had found the world’s earliest known paint, made 100,000 years ago from charcoal, crushed animal bones, iron-rich rock and an unknown liquid. The abalone shell was a storage container—a prehistoric paint can.


The find revealed more than just the fact that people used paints so long ago. It provided a peek into the minds of early humans. Combining materials to create a product that doesn’t resemble the original ingredients and saving the concoction for later suggests people at the time were capable of abstract thinking, innovation and planning for the future.

These are among the mental abilities that many anthropologists say distinguished humans, Homo sapiens, from other hominids. Yet researchers have no agreed-upon definition of exactly what makes human cognition so special. 

“It’s hard enough to tell what the cognitive abilities are of somebody who’s standing in front of you,” says Alison Brooks, an archaeologist at George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. “So it’s really hard to tell for someone who’s been dead for half a million years or a quarter million years.”

Since archaeologists can’t administer psychological tests to early humans, they have to examine artifacts left behind. When new technologies or ways of living appear in the archaeological record, anthropologists try to determine what sort of novel thinking was required to fashion a spear, say, or mix paint or collect shellfish. The past decade has been particularly fruitful for finding such evidence. And archaeologists are now piecing together the patterns of behavior recorded in the archaeological record of the past 200,000 years to reconstruct the trajectory of how and when humans started to think and act like modern people.

There was a time when they thought they had it all figured out. In the 1970s, the consensus was simple: Modern cognition evolved in Europe 40,000 years ago. That’s when cave art, jewelry and sculpted figurines all seemed to appear for the first time. The art was a sign that humans could use symbols to represent their world and themselves, archaeologists reasoned, and therefore probably had language, too. Neanderthals living nearby didn’t appear to make art, and thus symbolic thinking and language formed the dividing line between the two species’ mental abilities. (Today, archaeologists debate whether, and to what degree, Neanderthals were symbolic beings.)

One problem with this analysis was that the earliest fossils of modern humans came from Africa and dated to as many as 200,000 years ago—roughly 150,000 years before people were depicting bison and horses on cave walls in Spain. Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford University, suggested that a genetic mutation occurred 40,000 years ago and caused an abrupt revolution in the way people thought and behaved.

In the decades following, however, archaeologists working in Africa brought down the notion that there was a lag between when the human body evolved and when modern thinking emerged. “As researchers began to more intensely investigate regions outside of Europe, the evidence of symbolic behavior got older and older,” says archaeologist April Nowell of the University of Victoria in Canada.

Written By: By Erin Wayman
continue to source article at smithsonianmag.com

14 COMMENTS

  1.  This is all wonderful stuff being discovered and it really is cool to have some idea of how are early ancestors might have lived or possibly even thought. To be quit honest though, I’m more concerned with figuring out how we can get from where we are today, to where we hopefully will be in the future.   

  2. Hands, language, and the use of fire. The development of the sense of pattern recognition from the primeval feed/fight/flee utility was crucial. My thought is that once fire was domesticated, people had ample leisure at night to develop language and culture, instead of cowering in total silence, darkness, and dread.

  3. The find revealed more than just the fact that people used paints so
    long ago. It provided a peek into the minds of early humans. Combining
    materials to create a product that doesn’t resemble the original
    ingredients and saving the concoction for later suggests people at the
    time were capable of abstract thinking, innovation and planning for the
    future.

    These are among the mental abilities that many anthropologists say
    distinguished humans, Homo sapiens, from other hominids. Yet researchers
    have no agreed-upon definition of exactly what makes human cognition so
    special.

    Some Capuchins leave nuts to dry to make them easier to crack, and squirrels store seeds for future use.

    Wild capuchin monkeys (Cebus libidinosus) use anvils and stone pounding tools.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pu

    YouTube Video of Capuchins breaking into palm nuts with hammer stones :- after a week or so in the sun to dry the nuts and make them brittle.  The young watch and learn.
    http://www.ask.com/web?q=capuc

  4. Fire is everything.

    Much more economically relevant
    uses than warmth at night or the intimidating prowling predators. Use of fire
    pretty much explains all of human history and evolution of intelligence,
    language, cooperation etc.

    Perhaps we should rename our species as homo ignisiens.

    Human’s greatest achievement is to move
    from flint stones and rubbing sticks together to acquiring the ability to
    explode the entire planet with thermonuclear technology. The most prestigious
    award for scientific achievement remains the Nobel prize. So fire technology and
    the ability to set things on fire or explode things seems a more definitive
    label, and more objectively definable than something relatively immeasurable like
    ‘intelligence’ and wisdom – perhaps the ability to know what to set fire to and
    when. But having the ability to burn things comes first.

  5. Loren Eiseley is essential reading on this topic (speaking as a lay person). His poetry and imagination are so appropriate for these almost metaphysical(sic) issues.

    I’ve often considered using tools to make tools to be most significant, if not for the cognitive leap then for the beginning of temes. May I commit heresy in the name of Susan Blackmore and suggest temes and memes influence the sequence of our GATC?

    ZenDruid,

    I’m not so sure about domesticating fire. Perhaps we were pyronated, living in the predator-free perimeter of perpetual forest fires, eating charred bits and kicking cinders long before we ever corralled any flames. I mean, as long as we are speaking from imagination my theory is just as sound as a supposed gnosis moment when an ape reached a twig into a wild fire. If anything, the Aquatic-Ape theory needs a competitor in its same class (non-scientific but really cool ideas).

    Many primates enjoy having their daily calories met in just a few hours, leaving the rest of the day open. Baboons spend their free time being complete assholes to each other (establishing social order). Macaques lounge about in hot springs. Bonobos… they have a good time. The primate form seems very conducive to allowing for creative evolution, cephalization without an immediate purpose.Is orthogenesis dead as the Irish Elk?

  6.  Of course we also have to remember to take into account the corollary of memory…forgetting. Must we assume that they both developed together?

    Since the shell and contents were found near the paintings perhaps the artist forgot where the cave was !

  7. I have documentaries about elephants and cats who clearly enjoyed painting.  However the tools were provided for them.  It would be very difficult for even the most intelligent elephant or cat to prepare the paints and brushes.

  8. This is the third time the editor has discarded my entire post before I submitted it. This time I am preparing it off-line.

    IIRC I saw a 30-minute TV documentary about 5 years ago on cat painting. I was impressed by how dedicated the cats were and much they appeared to enjoy it. They seemed to understand the function of paint (perhaps only as a lubricant). They would dip their paws in various colours of paint when they got dry. I was also impressed by the results. They were quite “cheerful”.

    I found a book called Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics, not to be confused with Why Paint Cats.

    Here is a Youtube video, not as impressive as what I saw, but still it gives you the idea.

  9. Cats do seem to have a lot of free time.

    If they lived in caves then cave art might eventuate. My cat lives in the lounge and expresses herself by shredding the upholstery on the lounge suite. Possibly an art form that is ahead of it’s time and yet to be fully appreciated.

    Assuming that excessive leisure time enables creativity and promotes intellectual development then we might be able to predict that cats either will become the dominant intelligent species on our planet, or that they actually are already the dominant life form. (Having successfully domesticated humans via their relationship with the 
    Toxoplasma gondii ).

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