Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Neanderthal mind

Troglodytes who couldn't compete, or humans with complex culture? The mystery of our nearest relatives deepens.

An exhibit of a Neanderthal child looking at its reflection in the water at the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia 

Among the oldest human objects that unequivocally defy practical explanations are shells punctured with holes. Try as you might, it’s hard to see them as anything other than beads or pendants. Traces of ochre at sites occupied by ancient humans offer earlier hints of adornment, perhaps even of symbolism, but sceptics argue that the pigment might have been used for some practical purpose: tanning hides, for instance. In perforated seashells, however, we find the first truly compelling tokens of expressive humanity.

Early humans must have reached beyond their immediate concerns in many ways that have left no traces. But they did reach for shells very early. Some 75,000 years ago in southern Africa, they gathered and pierced them, perhaps to make bracelets or necklaces. Twenty-five thousand years later and nearly 10,000km away, in what is now southern Spain, others collected naturally perforated shells. Independently and far removed from each other, humans took similar paths into expressive culture. What does that tell us about the human mind?

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