Here, Spit on This! Art, Music and ‘Modern’ Language Traced to Earliest Human History
The latest science shows that our long-established view of the role of art—serving as it does as a visible marker for cultural evolution—should now be broadened to include the place of early Paleolithic Man in its narrative.
Left: The Venus of Hohle Fels is an Upper Paleolithic Venus figurine dated to between 35 000 and 40 000 years ago, belonging to the early Aurignacian, and is the oldest undisputed example of Upper Paleolithic art and figurative prehistoric art in general. Photo: H. Jensen. © Universität Tübingen.
Sociologists and anthropologists have long contended that our oldest recorded ancestors pretty much lived hand-to-mouth: hunting, gathering, constructing shelters, fashioning utilitarian clothing and spear heads and hunkering down around a fire to consume plants, milled seeds, animal flesh and significant quantities of insects. Basic stone tools, woven and clay containers, cultivation and artifact-strewn graves were thought to be the earliest evidence, dating back some 30,000 years, that human intelligence was evolving in the direction of forming rudimentary communities. The prospects of an afterlife, where the ‘art’ of burial included tools, amulets, food stuffs, and perhaps a shaman’s prayers–offered on behalf of the deceased to enable their long, imagined journey—served as early evidence of rituals for the dead, a rudimentary awareness of the sanctity of human life and, by extension, an emerging concern for the quality of their daily lives. artes fine arts magazine
But now, analyses of recent discoveries, reported on in Smithsonian Magazine, Nature and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (as it appeared recently in The Washington Post), mean that these assumptions about our ‘primitive’ ancestors may have to be revisited.
Sculpture: The oldest well-known sculpture of a human being the Venus of Hohle Fels, is small enough to be hidden in the palm of your hand (right). It was discovered in 2008, at the bottom of a vaulted cave, in shallow Aurignacian-era* digs at Hohle Fels Cave in the Ach Valley, 30 miles west of Ulm, in southwestern Germany. This location has, over the course of several years, yielded an extraordinary cache of Ice Age artifacts. Carved out of mammoth ivory, the 35-40,000-year-old figurine clearly represents a woman, with ballooning breasts and elaborately carved genitalia. The head, arms and legs are merely suggested. Nicholas Conard, the Ohio-born archaeologist, whose University of Tübingen team found the sculpture says, “Head and legs don’t matter. This is about sex, reproduction. This is an extremely powerful depiction of the essence of being female”
The busty statuette is sometimes derisively referred to as “prehistoric porn.” But the ‘Venus’ renews a serious scholarly debate that has flared since Stone Age figurines—including waterfowl, lions and mammoths—were first discovered early last century at Hohle Fels and nearby caves. Were these literal representations of the surrounding world? Or were they artworks created to express emotions or abstract ideas?
Some experts viewed such pieces as “hunting magic”—representations of sought-after game animals and, therefore, survival tools, not works of art. The problem is, many of the figurines discovered so far—predators such as lions and bears—don’t correspond to what prehistoric people ate. (Their diet consisted largely of reindeer, bison and horse meat, according to bones that archaeologists have found.) Others perceive some prehistoric figurines—including a half-lion, half-man —not as imaginative works but literal depictions of hallucinations experienced by tribal shamans, as evidenced by another remarkable discovery was unearthed at the same German archeological site (left).
The ‘Venus’ has prompted new thinking, encouraging some scholars to focus on what the figure tells us about prehistoric perceptions of beauty and obesity. Anthropologists at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, recently published a study arguing that corpulent figurines symbolized the hope for a well-nourished community.
Conard remains convinced that the artifacts from these caves—regardless of whether they are art or talismans—mark a milestone in human development, an intense flowering of creativity that began in the region more than 35,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, he says, this impulse spread to Stone Age France and Spain—where it turned up in paintings of bison, rhinos and lions on the walls of caves like Chauvet and Altamira.
University of Illinois archaeologist Olga Soffer doubts that we’ll ever know the true nature of these creations, and cautions against speculating on prehistoric imagery in terms of “18th-century Western European art.” But, art or not, Conard emphasizes that Stone Age sculptors imbued their work with larger meaning.“They’re talking about something other than their daily lives.”
Music: Excavations in the summer of 2008 at the sites of Hohle Fels and Vogelherd produced new evidence for Paleolithic music in the form of the remains of one nearly complete bone flute and isolated small fragments of three ivory flutes.
The most significant of these finds, a nearly complete bone flute, was recovered in the same Ach Valley region (left). The flute was found in 12 pieces. The scattered fragments were re-assembled to become the most complete of all of the musical instruments thus far recovered from the caves of Swabia. The flute’s five finger holes are preserved, with the surface and bone structure revealing many details about its manufacture. The maker carved two deep, V-shaped notches into one end of the instrument, presumably to form the proximal end of the flute into which the musician blew. The maker carved the instrument from the radius of a griffon vulture, its light core providing ideal bones for large flutes. Griffon vultures are, in fact, documented in the Upper Paleolithic sediments of the Swabian caves. Other, smaller flute fragments, crafted of ivory have been excavated from the Hohle Fels caves and another nearby location, as well.
These finds demonstrate that music played an important role in Aurignacian life in the Ach and Lone valleys of southwestern Germany. Most of these flutes are excavated from sites that show ample discarded evidence of established hunter-gathering communities. This suggests that the inhabitants of the sites played musical instruments in diverse social and cultural contexts and that flutes were discarded, along with many other forms of occupational debris. In the case of Hohle Fels, the location of the bone flute just a few centimeters away from a female figurine of similar age suggests that a possible contextual link exists between these two finds.
The flutes from Hohle Fels and other sites demonstrate that a musical tradition existed in the cultural repertoire around the time modern humans settled in the Upper Danube region. The development of a musical tradition accompanied the development of early figurative art, among numerous other innovations The presence of music in the lives of Upper Paleolithic peoples did not directly produce a more effective subsistence economy and greater reproductive success, but music seems to have contributed to improved social cohesion and new forms of communication, which indirectly contributed to demographic expansion of modern humans relative to the culturally more conservative Neanderthal populations.
Language: You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.
That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.
The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.
A new study, however, suggests that’s not always true.
A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “spit,” “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.”
The existence of the long-lived words suggests there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that was the common ancestor to about 700 contemporary languages that are the native tongues of more than half the world’s people.
“We’ve never heard this language, and it’s not written down anywhere,” said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading, in England, who headed the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other.”
Right: This portrait was made from mammoth ivory and is about 26,000 years old. It shows a woman possibly wearing a fur hat, or more likely with her hair drawn up on the top of her head, with a fringe across her brow. The distinctive features of the face suggest this is a portrait and gives us a rare glimpse of an individual from so long ago. Courtesy: Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute
In all, “proto-Eurasiatic” gave birth to seven language families. Several of the world’s important language families, however, fall outside that lineage, such as the one that includes Chinese and Tibetan; several African language families, and those of American Indians and Australian aborigines. –
Genetics: Now consider an age-old question that DNA technology is in the process of resolving…
Did Neanderthal and modern man coexist in Europe during the critical period of art, music and language development, 30,000 years ago?
The ‘Aurignacian*’ artifacts found at the cave site have long been associated with modern humans, rather than our Neanderthal cousins who populated Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, dying out around 30,000 years ago. This would have been long enough for the two species to comingle and interbreed, in that they occupied common areas on the European and Asian continents. Germany’s Neander Valley bones were discovered in 1859. Since that time, many efforts have been made to find evidence of their distinctive traits in modern tribal populations, or in the German people, themselves. Every indication is that was some occasional contact and interbreeding between Neanderthal and Homo sapiens during the period 30-40,000 years ago. The inferior mental traits that characterized Neanderthal likely meant that these isolated families or communities would not successfully compete against the growing population of ‘Aurignacians’ in the region.
As reported on PBS’s show,NOVA, over the past 15 years, Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, and his colleagues have uncovered an entirely new source of evidence about the nature of Neanderthals: their DNA. Starting with those fossils from the Neander Valley, they extracted bits of genetic material that had survived tens of thousands of years. Eventually, they were able to assemble the fragments into the entire Neanderthal genome. It’s clearly different from the genome of any human alive today, sprinkled with many distinctive mutations. These mutations accumulated in a clock-like way, and by tallying them up, Pääbo and his colleagues estimate that Neanderthals and humans share a common ancestor from 800,000 years ago. It’s possible that the ancestors of Neanderthals expanded north from Africa then, while our own ancestors stayed behind.
Europeans and Asians carry with them a small portion of DNA inherited from Neanderthals—while Africans do not. The best explanation for our mixed genomes is that after humans expanded out of Africa, they encountered Neanderthals and interbred. Comparing the different Neanderthal-derived genes in different people, Pääbo and his colleagues estimate that this encounter occurred around 40,000 years ago. The tiny amount of Neanderthal DNA has been interpreted by some scientists as evidence that Neanderthals rarely mated with humans—perhaps just once, in fact. But as scientists sequence more genomes from more human populations, they’re exploring the possibility that our ancestors mated with Neanderthals several different times.
So, Europeans and Asians may, in fact, carry a small trace of the Neanderthal genome. But, over many millennia, the traits which define that prehistoric species have likely insured that it play a less important role in the evolutionary success of ‘modern’ man,’ Homo sapien. Europeans, particularly, and their American descendants, should most decidedly add ‘Neanderthal’ to our large and distinguished family tree, however.
*Learn more about Aurignacian culture here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurignacian