Monday, January 11, 2010

Caveman chic

If you're interested in vintage fashion and jewelry, then this discovery might perk you up. Good luck finding any of this stuff, though. Going to a thrift shop and saying, "Do you have anything from, say, 50 thousand years ago," might not be very productive.

The researchers found brightly-colored shell ornaments and the remains of several colorful pigments in a cave that would have been a few kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea 50 thousand years ago, in an area that is now southern Spain. At another site nearby, they found more shell ornaments and pigments. What's remarkable is that many of these objects predate the era when Neandertals and early homo sapiens lived together in Europe. That means the Neandertals independently hit upon the idea to create shell jewelry and pigments. Previously, it's been difficult to determine whether Neandertal ornaments were the result of cross-pollination between the immigrant human population and the native Neandertals.

On a more serious level, this is a very positive discovery. Art and decoration are seen with some reason as indicators of symbolic thinking. And many scientists looking at the past have claim-jumped every art artifact for modern humans. When they come from unambiguous Neandertal sites, they may be downgraded to purely functional objects. For the most part Steven Mithen does both these things in his nonetheless interesting book The Singing Neanderthals. If only we have art, therefore symbolic thinking is also ours alone, and thus language, science, and higher intellect are limited to our circle.

To point out the obvious, at one time in the not-too distant past, this "us" included only well-bred whites of Northern European stock. Old habits die hard.

We may be special, but the suggestion that another related-but-different race had innovations and accomplishments means that we're not alone at the top. Not in the big picture.

As with each of us individually, so with us as a race. We don't know how long exactly we'll exist on this planet. Understanding those who've been dismissed as an evolutionary dead end (which they may have been, but who isn't?) could increase the quality of our time.


susan said...

I'm still waiting for some enterprising (and brave) archeologist to discover that there were dinosaurs at a high cultural level. Maybe they'll come across a giant drum kit with a t-rex sitting fossilized on a 20' tall stool surrounded by other band members. That would be cool. After all, they were the dominant species on the planet for 160 million years so logic would presuppose they were doing something. People, on the other hand, have been around for about 100k years and apparently not doing much of anything until Christianity and the Industrial Revolution showed us our true purpose which seems to have been making an effort to seriously muck the place up.

We do have some bad habits when it comes to respecting other cultures that are human. We're still very far from recognizing the other than human as our brothers and sisters.

Ben said...

I'm guessing the t-rex would have to have the drums on some kind of high platform. 'Cuz of the short arms and all.

I like to take a forgiving view of our mistakes, but boy howdy have we made a lot of them.