Re: First Chapter of Tattersall's "Becoming Human"

Stephen Jones (
Tue, 05 May 98 23:16:35 +0800


Attached is the First Chapter of Ian Tattersall's book "Becoming
Human", which I found on at:
/002-0328609-7193833. If this URL doesn't work, just try and search for 'Tattersall, Ian".




The Creative Explosion

Human beings, in all their uniqueness, are the result of a long
evolutionary process; and it is this which will be the central
subject of this book. But since we started in Ice Age France, let's
begin our evolutionary journey at the near end, so to speak, with a
look at the astonishing record left by the Europeans of the late Ice
Age. For these people provide us with the earliest good record of
the unique human capacity, fully formed: evidence for what the
science writer John Pfeiffer has called "the creative explosion."
Not that this was an indigenous development; Europe was, until about
forty thousand years (40 kyr) ago, inhabited only by the
Neanderthals: a distinctive and now-extinct group of humans
belonging to the species Homo neanderthalensis. The Neanderthals,
whom we'll meet again in chapter 5, were complex beings and talented
users of the landscape they lived in: a far cry, indeed, from the
brutish image with which generations of cartoonists have endowed
them. But they left no evidence of the creative, innovative spark
that is so conspicuous a characteristic of our own kind; and they
were quite rapidly displaced by the first European Homo sapiens, who
arrived at that time fully equipped with modern behaviors.

These new Europeans are often known as Cro-Magnons, from the site in
western France whence their fossil remains were first described.
Exactly where the first Cro-Magnons arrived from is still not very
clear (we'll return to this in chapters 5 and 6); but there's no
doubt that they were us. Physically they were indistinguishable from
living Homo sapiens; and, in its richness and complexity, the
surviving material evidence of their lives indicates unequivocally
that they were our intellectual equals.

These early Europeans were hunters and gatherers: people who lived
off the resources available on the landscape. They arrived in their
new land at a time when the climate was cooling considerably and the
northern polar ice cap was building toward its maximum southward
extent. By about 18 kyr ago, the edge of the northern ice sheet had
crept south to the latitude of northern Germany and southern England,
and beyond it stretched vast expanses of largely treeless landscape
over which large-bodied grazing mammals moved in vast numbers. Cold
times were thus not necessarily hard times for the first anatomically
modern Europeans--although during certain periods, at least, the
skeletons of Cro-Magnons often bear witness to difficult lives. For
skilled hunters with all the cognitive powers of modern humans, the
abundant fauna of the open steppic landscape was an incomparable
resource to be exploited, sometimes with relatively little effort.
And Cro-Magnon sites testify that these people took full advantage of
what was available to them. The variety of animal bones left behind
at places where Cro-Magnons camped vastly surpasses anything found
previously: bird and fish bones, for example, show up virtually for
the first time. This is not to say that Neanderthals, for example,
never caught fish; bears do, after all. But if they did, they ate
them on the spot, whereas the Cro-Magnons took them back to camp to
be shared by all in typically modern human fashion. Dramatic
evidence for such sharing comes from one locality in France, where
archaeologists have identified the remains of a single animal
distributed between three different campfire sites separated by
hundreds of feet and presumably occupied by different families.

The Cro-Magnons also had an unprecedented knowledge of the habits of
their prey. We see this not only in the wide range of animals they
consumed, but in the placement of their camps and in their art. Many
sites lie close to places at which herds of such mammals as reindeer
would have had to ford streams, at which time they would have been
particularly vulnerable to ambush hunters; and vast accumulations of
animal bones, sometimes showing evidence of cooking, have been found
in association with stone tools at the ends of blind valleys into
which the victims must have been stampeded, or at the bases of cliffs
over which they must have been chased. We know for certain that the
Cro-Magnons carefully monitored their prey over the seasons of the
year: animal depictions sometimes show bison in summer molting
pelage, stags baying in the autumn rut, woolly rhinoceroses
displaying the skin fold that was visible only in summer, or salmon
with the curious spur on the lower jaw that males develop in the
spawning season. Indeed, we know things about the anatomy of
now-extinct animals that we could only know through the Cro-Magnons'
art. For while soft-tissue features do not normally survive in the
fossil record, they do so on cave walls and on small engraved slabs.
We know only from the record left us by the Cro-Magnons, for example,
that the extinct rhinoceroses of Ice Age Europe were adorned with
shaggy coats, and that the extraordinary Megaloceros giganteus, a
deer with vast antlers whose most recent bones date from 10,600 years
ago, bore a dramatic and darkly colored hump behind the shoulders.
The sole exception to the nonpreservation of soft structures, the
frozen carcasses of extinct woolly mammoths found in the wastes of
Siberia, serves also to emphasize the perceptiveness of Ice Age
artists. For their peculiar features are exquisitely preserved on
the cave walls, right down to their remarkable split-tipped trunks.

There's much more in the long record of Cro-Magnon life between about
40 and 10 kyr ago that is totally unprecedented in the record now
available to us. Campsites were much more varied in size and
complexity than anything earlier and if in sheltered spots, were
usually placed to catch the warmth of the morning sun. Elaborate
shelters were rigged up at open sites and were often much more
complex than bare necessity demanded. The most remarkable such
structures are known from localities on the central European plain
about 15 kyr old. At the Ukrainian site of Mezhirich, the remains of
four huts are known that were covered with complex arrangements of
mammoth bones: tons of them. The deliberate and individualistic way
in which the bones were chosen and disposed on each hut has led them
to be dubbed the "earliest architecture." One hut is distinguished
by a careful herringbone pattern of mammoth lower jaws; another by a
palisade-like ring of long bones placed on end. At this same site,
and others, it appears that the inhabitants dug pits in the
permafrost: natural freezers in which meat was stored. This
innovation may have allowed a semisedentary existence, the
inhabitants living off their reserves of meat even when the migratory
herds on which they depended had moved away. Uses of fire, which had
been mastered in a rudimentary way even before the Neanderthals'
time, became much more imaginative. In addition to the lamps used to
light cave interiors, for example, elaborate hearths were constructed
in a variety of styles, and it appears that hot stones were used to
heat water in skin-lined pits. As long as 26 kyr ago, Cro-Magnons in
what is now the Czech Republic were even baking clay statuettes (and
maybe, for obscure ritual purposes, deliberately fracturing them) in
kilns that heated to eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

Stone tools had been made for two and a half million years by the
time the Cro-Magnons came on the scene, but the Upper Paleolithic
stone implements brought by these people to Europe show unsurpassed
technological skill. The basic technique involved shaping a large
"core" of rock, preferably flint, into a cylindrical form from which
numerous long, thin "blades" could be struck with a hammer that was
normally made of wood, bone, or antler. The blades thus produced had
long, sharp cutting edges and were modified into a variety of more
specialized implements. Many of these were then hafted into wood or
bone handles. This approach to stone toolmaking provided as much as
ten times more cutting edge per pound of raw material than any
technique ever used before; and routine hafting provided
unprecedented versatility and effectiveness. For the first time,
moreover, bone and antler were made into carefully crafted utensils.
Expertly carved tapered bone points were made, and antlers were
straightened to form spear-throwers, often elaborately shaped and
decorated. These rodlike devices, still used by Eskimos and
Australian Aborigines in historic times, have a hook at the back in
which the base of the spear is placed, while the front is held by the
hunter. Effectively increasing the arm length of the user, they
allow spears to be hurled farther and more accurately than those
simply launched from the hand.

By around 18 kyr ago or a little less, sophisticated fishing is
indicated by barbed harpoons, sometimes with blood grooves to enhance
their effectiveness, and by simpler devices that look like fish
hooks. At about the same time, clay impressions reveal that
vegetable fibers were being plaited into ropes. Tiny fine-eyed bone
and antler needles were made as long as 26 kyr ago, announcing that
carefully tailored clothing had arrived on the scene. This list of
Cro-Magnon innovations could go on and on; for these people, already
formidably equipped on their arrival in Europe, continued to add to
their material and behavioral complexity with an amazing wealth of
ingenuity and invention. Nothing like this appears in the record
left by any earlier humans. Truly, a new kind of being was on Earth.

The Neanderthals had occasionally practiced burial of the dead, but
among the Cro-Magnons we see for the first time evidence of regular
and elaborate burial, with hints of ritual and belief in an
afterlife. The most striking example of Cro-Magnon burial comes from
the 28-kyr-old site of Sungir, in Russia, where two young individuals
and a sixty-year-old male (no previous kind of human had ever
survived to such an age) were interred with an astonishing material
richness. Each of the deceased was dressed in clothing onto which
more than three thousand ivory beads had been sewn; and experiments
have shown that each bead had taken an hour to make. They also wore
carved pendants, bracelets, and shell necklaces. The juveniles,
buried head to head, were flanked by two mammoth tusks over two yards
long. What's more, these tusks had been straightened, something that
my colleague Randy White points out could only have been achieved by
boiling them. But how? The imagination boggles, for this was
clearly not a matter of dropping hot stones into a small skin-lined
pit. Also found at Sungir were numerous bone tools and carved
objects, including wheel-like forms and a small ivory horse decorated
with a regular pattern of tiny holes. The elaborate interments at
Sungir are only the most dramatic example of many; and taken
together, these Cro-Magnon burials tell us a great deal about the
people who carried them out.

First, in all human societies known to practice it, burial of the
dead with grave goods (and the ritual invariably associated with
placing such objects in the grave) indicates a belief in an
afterlife: the goods are there because they will be useful to the
deceased in the future. Grave goods need not necessarily be everyday
items, although everything found at Sungir might have been, since
personal adornment seems to be a basic human urge that was expressed
by the Cro-Magnons to its fullest. But whether or not some of the
Sungir artifacts were made specifically to be used in burial, what is
certain is that the knowledge of inevitable death and spiritual
awareness are closely linked, and in Cro-Magnon burial there is
abundant inferential evidence for both. It is here that we have the
most ancient incontrovertible evidence for the existence of religious

Second, the sheer amount of effort put into the aesthetic productions
found in the graves suggest that decoration, elaboration, and art
were integral components of the lives and societies of the people who
made them; they were no haphazard doodlings. Art was emphatically
not an occasional or incidental occupation among these people; it was
central to their experience of their environment and to the way they
explained the world--and presumably also their position in it--to

Third, the societies concerned must have been running considerable
economic surpluses to have allowed the disposal in this way of
objects that were so valuable in terms of the time taken to make
them. These people clearly didn't have to devote all their time to
the basic business of making a living; they were efficient enough
exploiters of their environment that leisure was available for
symbolic pursuits of this kind. However, it's also fair to note that
artistic production during the Ice Age was carried out in many
environments, some of which were considerably more productive than
others from the point of view of human hunters and gatherers. Once
the practice of producing symbolic artifacts had become established,
along with the ritual systems of which they formed part, it may well
have been that artistic production became an integrated part of the
economic system, viewed by Cro-Magnon societies as essential for
maintaining their economic lives. When harder times arrived, as they
must surely have done in the fluctuating climates of the Ice Age,
these people may have seen their art and its associated ritual as
something that was somehow necessary for their continued well-being:
essential to their success in the hunt and in the other activities
that sustained them from day to day.

Fourth, the fact that there is a considerable variety in the
elaborateness and detail of Cro-Magnon burial (for the sheer opulence
of Sungir is one exception, rather than the general rule) hints at a
social stratification and division of labor in Cro-Magnon society.
Richness of personal adornment in life often reflects social status,
and this is in turn often mirrored by the objects taken to the grave.
Some Cro-Magnons were buried with an extraordinary abundance of
artifacts of various kinds; others were more simply interred. And
while, given the erratic sampling of Cro-Magnon burials that we
possess, some of this variation may simply have been due to
difference in affluence of societies overall, there can be little
doubt that part of it, at least, reflects a differing importance of
individuals in society. Some of that difference in status may well
have been inherited; for it is highly dubious that, for instance, the
children of Sungir would have had the opportunity to make any
significant mark on their society through their own accomplishments.
What's more, it's hardly probable that these young people had made
their richly adorned vestments themselves. It's much more likely
that the sheer diversity of material production in their society was
the result of the specialization of individuals in different
activities. Those who ground the mammoth-tusk beads of Sungir, and
who--by who knows what magic--straightened out those mammoth-tusk
spears, may well have received far less elaborate interments when
their own turn came to be buried.

Contrasting the Sungir site with other Ice Age burial localities also
draws attention to the considerable local variation in mortuary
practices that existed during Cro-Magnon times. In some places
bodies were flexed in the grave; at Sungir they were stretched out.
Some graves were covered with rock slabs; others weren't. The nature
and abundance of grave goods varied from place to place. And on and
on. Differences of such kinds in burial customs must, moreover, have
reflected a wider cultural diversity. For example, in contrast to
the relatively uniform material productions of earlier peoples,
Cro-Magnon traditions of stone artifact making differed wildly from
place to place. Sometimes, it seems, the people of each valley were
busily developing their own particular ways of doing things, and it's
even been suggested that hand in hand with this went linguistic
diversification and the development of local dialects.

In this restless, innovative spirit we see our own modern selves
mirrored, and the principal lesson to be learned from Cro-Magnon
burials is this: That while we will never know exactly what rituals
accompanied them and what exact sets of beliefs they embodied, these
interments, taken overall, reflect not only the fundamental human
urge to adorn and elaborate, but also the multifaceted subtlety and
complexity of living human societies the world over.

Nonetheless, the material aspect of Cro-Magnon life that speaks to us
most directly as human beings lies in the evidence these people left
behind of art and symbolic representation. The astonishing art of
the caves is well-known. But here our notion of art has to be used
in its widest sense because some of the first Cro-Magnon sites have
yielded evidence for music and notation as well. The earliest
Cro-Magnon culture identified in Europe is known as the Aurignacian;
and some of the oldest Aurignacian localities, dating from well over
30 kyr ago, have produced musical instruments: multiholed bone
flutes capable of producing a remarkable complexity of sound. Later
sites have also yielded what may have been percussion instruments;
and at one locality, a series of enormous flint blades found laid
parallel on the ground may have been the remains of a "lithiphone":
the Stone Age equivalent of a xylophone. The earliest Aurignacian
has also yielded bone and stone plaques bearing extremely complex
markings; one 32-kyr-old plaque from the French site of Abri
Blanchard has been identified as a lunar calendar, and many objects
incised with regular patterns of marks have been interpreted as
hunting tallies or other forms of record keeping. That's all as may
be; we will never be certain exactly what particular abstract symbols
meant to their long-departed creators, however evident it is that
they were intentionally made. This is true even of what appears to
our eyes to be representational art; for while we may readily
recognize as such the animals depicted on cave walls and stone and
bone plaques, to their makers they may well have been symbolically
equivalent to the more obscure geometrical or superficially
random-appearing markings that baffle us from the start. What is
obvious, however, is that here we have evidence of highly complex
symbolic systems.

Still, as I've said, among all the legacies left to us by the
Cro-Magnons, it is what we instinctively feel to be "art" that most
readily captures our imaginations. Art as such, of course, is a
concept invented by Western civilization. The universal human urge
to decorate aside, what we recognize as "art" produced by other
cultures in the modern world tends to be quite distinct in
significance from the aesthetic notions we attach to art in our own
culture; and the same was evidently true of the Upper Paleolithic.
Searching for the "meaning" of Ice Age art in the absence of the
living society that produced it is thus likely to be unproductive.
What we can do, however, is to develop a chronology for this art and
to look for regularities in it that may help us to understand its
structure. Chronology is especially important here because Ice Age
art was not the outpouring of a single culture. Rather, it spanned a
period of over twenty thousand years within which several cultures,
as recognized by their technological traditions--archaeologists'
normal touchstone--came and went. Thus, remarkably, the earliest
European Ice Age art was over twice as remote in time from its latest
expressions as the latter are from us. Yet working out the
chronology of Ice Age art is turning out to be trickier than once

Until quite recently it was generally believed, for example, that the
practice of making paintings in deep caves was a relatively late
development, getting under way--slowly--only about 25 to 24 kyr ago,
10 kyr later than the first three-dimensional sculptures. Of course,
paintings on cave walls have always posed a problem of dating because
they are free of any archaeological context. In contrast, "portable"
art, images carved and engraved on small pieces of bone or rock, is
always found in the layers of habitation detritus left behind by
early people. Where a given site was inhabited, consistently or
sporadically, over an extended period, later strata of this kind
accumulated on top of the earlier ones, providing a "layer cake"
sequence that maps cultural changes over time. In habitation layers,
artworks are associated with the stone tools upon which Paleolithic
("Old Stone Age") chronologies have traditionally been based via the
mapping of technological change. Further, cultural strata sometimes
also contain organic objects that are directly datable by the
carbon-14 method (good up to about 40 kyr ago, hence ideal for
Cro-Magnon times). By combining studies of style in portable art
with their archaeological contexts, students of Ice Age art have been
able to develop a chronology of art styles over the various periods
of the Upper Paleolithic: the final period of the Old Stone Age
during which the Cro-Magnons flourished.

Even this laborious procedure is only rough-and-ready, however,
especially since many of the most striking and important pieces of
portable art were excavated in the early days of archaeology, when
relatively little attention was paid to context. What's more,
"styles" are often hard to recognize. But, added to consideration of
the way in which images executed in different manners are
superimposed on cave walls, it has been this stylistic chronology
that has largely governed our ideas of the sequence in which the
hundreds of works of cave art now known were created. Excitingly,
though, direct dating of cave art has very recently become possible
(by new radiocarbon techniques), although only in those few cases
where the artists used organic materials such as charcoal in
executing their works. And the little that has so far been learned
from these new approaches has rocked our notions of the chronology of
Ice Age art to their foundations.

For it has turned out that, far from being a relatively late
development among Ice Age cultures, deep cave art was quite an early
innovation. Thus, dating of the paintings in the newly discovered
cave of Chauvet, in south-central France, has shown that at least
some of the 300-plus animal images that cascade across the cave walls
there date back to over 30 kyr ago. This contrasts dramatically with
more traditional estimates of their age, made shortly after their
discovery, of maybe 18 kyr. Nobody had imagined that wall art of
this sophistication could be of such remarkable antiquity; but
similarly early ages have since been derived from other sites, and
it's clear that the chronology of Ice Age art is due for radical
reappraisal. It's still unquestioned, however, that the golden age
of Ice Age art--portable and wall alike--occurred during what is
called the Magdalenian period, which began at about 18 kyr
ago--interestingly, just as the last glaciation was reaching the
maximum of its intensity.

What does all this tell us about the Cro-Magnons? First, it
dramatically bolsters the conclusion that the first modern people
arrived in Europe equipped with all of the cognitive skills that we
possess today. Second, it underlines the tendency toward innovation
and cultural diversification that is so fundamental a characteristic
of Homo sapiens--and so foreign to all earlier human species. Some
investigators have believed that--using the old chronology--they
could trace a single strand of stylistic evolution all the way
through Ice Age art, from the first productions of the Aurignacian at
about 34 kyr ago, right up through the end of the Magdalenian at
about 10 kyr ago. Such continuity was always inherently improbable
over such a vast span of time, and it is now clear that this was not
the case. At the same time, the pattern of sporadic technological
innovation over the Upper Paleolithic still appears to apply: bone
spear points appear at over 34 kyr ago, for instance, while bone
needles do not show up until about 26 kyr and barbed harpoons not
until about 18 kyr ago.

A lack of continuity makes it easier to understand--though no less
astonishing--how the very earliest art we know of includes some of
the finest creations of all time. At the German site of Vogelherd,
dating to the earliest Aurignacian of the region, over 32 kyr ago, a
series of small animal figures testifies to the highest standards of
the carver's art. The most striking of these pieces is a horse,
barely two inches long, made from mammoth ivory. Polished from long
contact with someone's skin, this tiny figure, probably worn
originally as a pendant, is one of the most elegant images ever
carved. It does not closely resemble the chunky, stocky horses that
roamed the European steppes at the time; rather, in its flowing,
sinuous lines, it evokes the graceful essence of the horse. No crude
representation this; its maker possessed both skill and imagination
to rival any later artist. Symbolism of other kinds also made an
early debut, as we've seen--and not just in the form of notation on
plaques. Perhaps even earlier than Vogelherd is a foot-tall carving,
from the nearby cave of Hohlenstein-Stadel, of a standing human with
a lion's head. This is less finely executed than the Vogelherd
horse; but what better reflection could we wish for of the exercise
of the human imagination? This is surely a mythic figure, an
embodiment of a complex mixture of myth, observation, and belief that
explored and explained the place of humanity in the larger world.

As I've suggested, though, not all innovations appeared together.
For the late Ice Age was remarkable for the cultural diversity it
spawned, in time as well as in space. Following the Aurignacian, we
find the Gravettian culture, most noted for its production of the
female statuettes and engravings misleadingly known as "Venus"
figures. These typically show women with heads lacking individual
features, swollen midbodies with large breasts and buttocks, and
small limbs. Some "Venuses," however, are more linear and modestly
proportioned. These figures have traditionally been interpreted as
fertility symbols, but in view of the fact that fertility is rarely
an issue among hunting-gathering peoples, this is hardly a convincing
explanation. Nonetheless, the fact that they are found over a huge
swath of Europe over a long time period (between about 28 and 22 kyr
in western Europe, until much later in the east) strongly suggests
that these images were embedded in a powerful and durable cultural
tradition. Still, local variants are clearly evident within this
tradition. Perhaps most remarkably, at the Czech site of Dolni
Vestonice, female and animal figurines were baked and apparently
deliberately fractured in kilns during what were probably homesite
rituals of some sort. This kind of production is known from nowhere
else; and, indeed, the notion of baking clay subsequently lay fallow
for as many as 150 centuries, until pottery was introduced in the New
Stone Age, this time in the service of utilitarian purposes.

Tattersall. (R) 1997 by Ian Tattersall, used by permission.

Copyright and disclaimer (R) 1996-1998,, Inc.

Stephen E (Steve) Jones ,--_|\
3 Hawker Avenue / Oz \
Warwick 6024 ->*_,--\_/ Phone +61 8 9448 7439
Perth, West Australia v "Test everything." (1Thess 5:21)

Stephen E (Steve) Jones ,--_|\
3 Hawker Avenue / Oz \
Warwick 6024 ->*_,--\_/ Phone +61 8 9448 7439
Perth, West Australia v "Test everything." (1Thess 5:21)