Make-Up at the Dawn of Mankind; History Could Our Rise as a Species Have Come as a Result of a Desire to Make Ourselves More Attractive to the Opposite Sex?

Article excerpt

Byline: David Charters reports

LANGUAGE leaves no bones in the earth for the archaeologists, so we cannot tell when man first spoke.

But we can stretch our imaginations back to the edge of a pond, where a young woman completes her ablutions by rubbing a pigment into her cheeks. She smiles at the reflection.

"Wow", or "phew", or "mmmm", says the young chap on the far bank, not realising that his utterance changed the world.

For this vocal appreciation of colour used as a beauty treatment was the most important advance in human evolution.

Some 300,000 years later, another man with a refined face and pale fingers is stroking the sharpened edge of a stone that lies on the table by his plastic bottle of mineral water.

And so his hands are linked by touch to those of a fellow who fashioned this tool from chert a long time ago, when the world was younger and its face had not been bruised by the bombs of hate or resurfaced with roads to carry the wheels of man's ambition.

But they were not very different, these two men divided in time, but joined by common emotions and desires, while blessed with an upright stance and a big brain.

As a little boy, Dr Larry Barham delighted in the discovery of Indian arrow-heads around his childhood home in Austin, Texas.

Now he is a senior lecturer in archaeology at Liverpool University and internationally renowned for his research into the development of abstract thought in early humans.

For it is our capacity to plan ahead, to understand the past and the future, and to appreciate what in us would be pleasing to others, which differentiates man from other animals, whose actions are nearly always responsive.

Crucial to his own thinking was the discovery of mineral pigments or ochres in ancient human settlements in Zambia, where he has worked every summer since 1993.

For he believes that these "paints" were used as colourful symbols on the body to denote rank or group-identity, maybe even as a primitive make-up used to heighten sexual attraction.

"There is an argument that you might by trying to attract a mate by looking a little bit nicer or a little bit different," Larry says. "We all put a bit of make-up on, some people more than others. That means we have a certain standard, a body image, of how we should look. You are altering your appearance because you anticipate that somebody from the opposite sex will fancy it."

His argument is that such symbolism is abstract, demonstrating not only self-awareness but an understanding of what might please, or frighten, others. This kind of thinking cannot happen without language.

Before coming to Liverpool in 2003, Larry was based for seven years at the Department of Archaeology at Bristol University "There has been a debate for 20 years or so about what makes humans, and in particular homo sapiens, different from earlier human ancestors as well as from chimpanzees and other apes," says Larry, 48, who has a PhD in archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, after studying at the universities of Texas and Pennsylvania.

"A consensus has formed that language and the ability to express thoughts through symbols, through words and usage, is a key feature of humans. One of the difficulties for archaeologists is trying to recognise this ability to form abstract concepts, to communicate with others when we have to rely only on the material record of stone tools and visible human remains.

"Without knowledge of the language, we have to look for the activities which expressed those abilities of thought' complex ideas of thinking about the past and the future and what other people might be planning and intending to do, whether to anticipate ways around them or co-operate with them - important behaviours. But we have a real task on our hands because we can't see thoughts. Only when you get things like rock art is it very obvious that people are putting symbols on places and mixing colours together. …