Magazine article American Scientist

Prehistoric Arts and Crafts

Magazine article American Scientist

Prehistoric Arts and Crafts

Article excerpt

If you've ever wondered where human creativity comes from, try this simple experiment: Gather a random assortment of three-year-olds, anywhere in the world; distribute plenty of crayons, paper, and lightweight play blocks; and stand back.

In no time at all, the tiny research participants will begin to make things. Admittedly, what they make more than anything else will be a mess, but in their mind's eye they are building a great big tower or drawing an awesome picture. Long before they can put together the words to describe it, these young humans are demonstrating the deep roots and the universality of the creative impulse.

Just how deep into the past those roots extend was a question that came up several times at the September meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution, in Leiden, The Netherlands. Researchers from more than 30 countries discussed new findings regarding some truly ancient examples of human creativity.

Some of the most enigmatic examples, which have been studied intensively over the past few years, are found in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. On the floor of a large natural chamber, hundreds of stalagmites stand or lean in what appear to be deliberate arrangements: two large circles and several smaller piles. Many of the artifacts, or speleofacts (a term coined by researcher Jacques Jaubert to acknowledge their human origin in caves), have been broken off at both the tip and the base, as if to make each one a certain length.

"These are exquisitely selected single stalagmites," says Jaubert, professor of prehistory at the University of Bordeaux. The piling of smaller speleofacts into wedges at the base of larger, upright ones suggests they were used for support-a sign of intentional construction, Jaubert says. As another sign that they were deliberately handled, more than 120 of the speleofacts show traces of fire: Assuring, red discoloration or black soot, and localized increases in magnetic susceptibility, which are characteristic of cave substrate that has been exposed to fire. The evidence includes the remains of at least 18 fireplaces.

The chamber containing the speleofacts is located well inside the cave (336 meters), a placement that implies a great deal of planning and coordination. Creating tire speleofact structures "would have required adequate lighting, combined with long-term access to the chamber," Jaubert points out. In his view, the structures were a team effort, requiring both complex thinking and social adeptness-a combination of abilities that might be thought to distinguish the modem human mind at its best.

And yet, the evidence shows that these structures are much too old to have been built by humans like ourselves. Jaubert and his colleagues used uranium-series dating (which assesses the ratio of uranium-234 to its decay product, thorium-230, in a given sample) to calculate the age of calcium carbonate regrowth on the stalagmites after they had been broken off and handled. Judging by their results, the speleofacts must have been arranged about 175,000 years ago-some 130 millennia before anatomically modern Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. Throughout the continent, the only members of the human family who have left traces from this time are our nowvanished cousins the Neanderthals. For the present, Bruniquel Cave continues to hold onto the mysteries of how they created this assemblage and what its creation may have meant to them.

Who, Where, and When

It's easy to understand why there are many contenders for the title of "world's earliest cave art"-that is, the first images created by human hands-but it is less easy to distinguish among the competing claims. "Cave art is extremely impressive evidence for human symbolic behavior," explains Dirk Hoffmann, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "Unfortunately," he adds, "it is also one of the most difficult kinds of evidence to date accurately. …

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