The first human revolution and creative explosion – a prelude to another possible Great Leap Forward?


Did your DNA overturn any family folklore?

My results are fairly typical demonstrating northern European descent. I did have some Neanderthal—2.1 percent.

What was your family’s reaction?

I think my wife always suspected.

A Q&A about Our DNA with Geneticist Spencer Wells

The earliest Homo sapiens probably had the cognitive capability to invent Sputnik, but they didn’t yet have the history of invention or a need for those things.

Sally McBrearty, University of Connecticut

The Neanderthals…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. […].Cro-Magnons…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…The first modern people arrived in Europe equipped with all of the cognitive skills that we possess today…[with] the tendency toward innovation and cultural diversification that is so fundamental a characteristic of Homo sapiens–and so foreign to all earlier human species.

Ian Tattersall, Becoming Human. Evolution and Human Uniqueness, 1998


geico_cavemanThe ethnographic evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that human imagination and creativeness are unbounded. However, this hasn’t always been the case, for culture is a manifestation of human consciousness and they have both dramatically evolved over the past 60 thousand years.

 There is no evidence for symbolic behaviour prior to the rise of “Homo sapiens” around 150,000 years ago.

The famous cave paintings in Spain and France (Chauvet, Cosquer, Altamira: radiocarbon dated at 40,000-30,000 years BP) have been the product not of hunters but of consummate, passionate and meticulous artists who shaped an artistic canon which would endure for thousands of years, with very little alterations (Were the First Artists Mostly Women?, National Geographic, 3 October 2013).

Thus far, the oldest example of hand stencilling in the world (39,900 years old) has been found in caves in Sulawesi, Indonesia (Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia, Nature, 8 October 2014).

The magnificent Aboriginal rock art engravings in the Burrup Peninsula of Western Australia may be 30,000 to 40,000 years old (Burrup Peninsula rock art among world’s oldest, Australian Geographic, 18 April 2013; How Old is Australia’s Rock Art?), which proves a long history of creativity for Oceania.

The most ancient flute was carved 43,000 years ago, in Slovenia, by one of the first known Cro-Magnon musicians (see also Ice age lion figurine: Ancient fragment of ivory belonging to 40,000 year old animal figurine unearthed, Science Daily, 30 July 2014).

1400118738428This empirical evidence appears to be pointing to some kind of “cultural big bang” (Tattersall, The Creative Explosion, New York Times, 1998).

I believe Stanford paleoanthropologist Richard G. Klein is exactly right when he states that (Richard Klein, anthropology professor, looks into humanity’s evolution, The Stanford Daily, 24 April 2013):

We know they [modern human beings] emerged in Africa first, and were confined there until perhaps 50,000 years ago when they moved from Africa and replaced other kinds of people elsewhere, like the Neanderthals from Europe… in probably just a few thousand years… I’m interested in trying to find out why that happened…[The best explanation] is that there was genetic or genomic change in Africa. It’s not a popular idea. To some people it almost seems like some kind of intellectual Nazism– like you’re suggesting people before 50,000 years ago were not human. I’m not. We know that over the course of evolution, there’s been a huge amount of genetic change. We start with people with brains one-third the size of ours, and then we have us. That’s not population increase, that’s genes.

This raises the question as to why that happened and the answer is: no-one knows. There was no population increase, no change in brain size and Neanderthals dealt with the harsh environment of an Ice Age for hundreds of thousands of years without any appreciable increase in their skills. Anything is possible, even retrovirus-based evolution.

The thing is, hominid evolutionary history is far from clear. Paleoarchaeology, paleoanthropology and fossil genomics are mostly based on conjectures and rife with unsupported speculations. This should never be forgotten. We know very little about our past because, due to ice ages, sealevel fluctuations, weathering and decaying, we’ve got incomplete information.

With the aforementioned caveat in mind, here I try to shed some light on the plausible prehistory of human creativeness, defending the so-called “human revolution” thesis. This is the claim that, between 60,000 and 35,000 years ago, a sea change in human behaviour occurred, which is responsible for the rise of art, spiritual life and complex social interactions.

Jared Diamond calls it the “Great Leap Forward” and ascribes it to an anatomic alteration of the muscles of the vocal tract that made verbal communication possible. Curator emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City Ian Tattersall is pretty much of the same mind about this alleged “creative explosion” (Unesco Courier):

One thing truly sets us apart from every other species: consciousness. Human consciousness has been described as a kind of inner eye, which allows the brain to observe itself at work and therefore permits us to have the complex interpersonal relationships that far exceed those of any other animal. Modern human anatomy goes back over 100,000 years but it wasn’t until maybe 40,000 years ago that modern cognition suddenly burst on the scene, as evidenced by the cave art of the Cro-Magnon, for example, in Europe. What triggered this cognitive explosion? It is impossible to be sure what this innovation might have been, but the best current bet is that it was the invention of language. For language is not simply the medium by which we express our ideas and experiences to each other. Rather it is fundamental to the thought process itself. It involves categorizing and naming objects and sensations in the outer and inner worlds and making associations between resulting mental symbols. It is impossible for us to conceive of thought (as we know it) in the absence of language, and it is the ability to form mental symbols that is the fount of our creativity, for only once we create such symbols can we recombine them and ask questions like “What if…?”

Personally, though, I believe language is a very poor substitute for telepathy and it definitely feels like a cage, or an impairment, to an artist. And there are so many of them! Art is abut overcoming barriers, not creating new ones. Language could be viewed as an evolutionary advantage only within a strictly reductionist paradigm which is becoming less and less tenable (Remarkable new evidence of the power of dream telepathy, Psychology Today, 15 April 2014).

Be that as it may, Stanford anthropologist Richard G. Klein believes that a genetic mutation leading to a brain reorganization could be implicated in this Upper Paleolithic behavioural shift, a veritable quantum leap of our ancestors’ consciousness, which became far more complex and expansive. Since then, human minds have become inventive, generative, creative as never before, whereas, anatomically speaking, our bodies have changed only slightly and, I am sad to say, for the worse (Jared Diamond, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66). That modern mind (consciousness) invented language and the pace of evolution suddenly quickened.

This is only an hypothesis, but we do know that chemical, epigenetic modifications to our DNA have turned on and off genes that differentiate us from our Neanderthal cousins (How are we different and what gave us the advantage over extinct types of humans like the Neanderthals? Science Daily, 22 April 2014; Research supports Neanderthals as a separate species, Past Horizons, 20 November 2014).

Cro-Magnon is the first modern human being from the point of view of symbolic-behavioral capacities and anatomical features and represents a sensational evolutionary leap. The first Cro-Magnon arrived in Europe, from Africa or Asia, about 40 thousand years ago, displaying a remarkable spectrum of skills and a refined aesthetic sensibility. They weaved, painted, made ceramics (25,000 to 29,000 years ago) andsculptedwith style,graceandimagination. They built musical instrumentsandintroducedthe first, rudimentarymusical notations. They shared resourceswithin their communities,held women inhigh esteem-andnot for theirfertility, since for hunter-gatherers this is seldom a problem-,customized thearchitectureof their homes.

Unlike the Neanderthals who, over the course of tens of thousands of years, introduced relatively few new techniques and technologies, almost always only as a reaction to climate pressures, our ancestors were sophisticated and creative innovators. They were the first to bury their dead with care and respect (sometimes lavishly), to shy away from cannibalism, and to display clear indications of empathic behavior, solicitude, hospitality and conviviality (Tattersall 2012).

cave-dwellers-pop-culture-gallery-22Conversely, what we do know about the Neanderthals, who lived mainly in Western Europe and Israel, is that they were aggressive, competitive and promiscuous (Neanderthal Males Had Popeye-Like Arms, Discovery, 6 July 2010; Digit ratios predict polygyny in early apes, Ardipithecus, Neanderthals and early modern humans but not in Australopithecus, Proceedings of the Royal Society, 3 November 2010), xenophobic, uninterested in exploring large territories. Overall, they showed little or no curiosity, creativity and capacity for innovation. They had no art, their culture was eminently utilitarian, with no trace of symbolic thought and, as mentioned before, their tools remained unchanged for 200,000 years. They do not appear to have traded with or learnt anything from the Cro-Magnons (Thomas Wynn, Frederick L. Coolidge, How To Think Like a Neandertal, 2012).

They practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism (A Look at Neanderthals as Cannibals, Los Angeles Times, 4 November 1999), treating humans as preys (Defleur et al. Neanderthal Cannibalism at Moula-Guercy, Ardèche, France, Science, Vol. 286 no. 5437, 1999, pp. 128-131) and were genetically not predisposed to develop a capacity for language, symbolic thought and what makes us uniquely human.

In fact, they did not suffer from schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s or autism (Why we get autism but our Neanderthal cousins didn’t, New Scientist, 17 April 2014), because they were not endowed with complex social cognition (Schizophrenia ‘helped the ascent of man’, Guardian 18 March 2001; Schizophrenia genes ‘favoured by evolution’, Nature, 5 September 2007) and uncommon faculties (Joseph Polimeni, Shamans Among Us: Schizophrenia, Shamanism and the Evolutionary Origins of Religion, 2012). They may have lacked empathy as well (Paolo Brambilla & Andrea Marini (Eds.), Brain Evolution, Language and Psychopathology in Schizophrenia, 2014).

Interbreeding lasted for a relatively short period (Neanderthals died out earlier than previously thought, new evidence suggests, Science Daily, 11 May 2011; Neanderthals ‘overlapped’ with modern humans for up to 5,400 years, Science Daily, 21 August 2014), but was still sufficient to confer on us an evolutionary advantage in terms of metabolism, strength and self-healing of wounds, together with type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, biliary cirrhosis and addictive behaviour (Neanderthals’ genetic legacy: Humans inherited variants affecting disease risk, infertility, skin and hair characteristics, Science Daily, 29 January 2014).

Homo Neanderthalensis were not incomplete humans, bound to evolve into fully fledged humans. They were fully modern Neanderthals and palaeontologists should devote more of their time to seeking how unique they were, instead of feeling compelled to adopt a misguided “anti-racist” and “politically correct” approach to the study of our past, which leads them to emphasise only those attributes that we share with them.

We could probably grasp their behaviour, but the notion that they could get on a subway train without being noticed is, frankly, absurd, and typical of those in the habit of projecting backwards present-day concerns. They would look and act like hominids, uniformly – for they possessed no cultural variability, cognitive flexibility or symbolical communication, all human-specific features –, and would be perceived as such. Our hallmark is culture and culture is the manifestation of consciousness: different levels of consciousness mean different levels of culture (Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Figments of reality. The evolution of the curious mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997):

Consciousness is… not just awareness, but a kind of introspective awareness in which the possessor has a definite feeling of individuality. A conscious being has an ‘I’ in its mind, and it knows that it has.

Empathy is related to individual consciousness and the civilising process (Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011; Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, 2010; Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, 1939). It is the reason why we help the weak, even other animals, to survive. Something that Neanderthals most likely did not do.

It can be argued that this, our creativity, and the fact that – once again thanks to our empathic perception of reality – our cognitive skills allow us to be both subjective and objective, is the reason why we are still here and the Neanderthal have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Art is one of the ways in which humans create their own environments, that is to say, we adapt our environment to ourselves and to our aesthetic needs and judgments. In doing so, we are able to overcome our “natures” through collective socio-political activity and forge an “artificial” (and artistic) history.

urlUltimately, it is not our intelligence that has evolved, but rather our consciousness and, with it, cultures and civilizations.

Now, if art is the outcome of a radical break due to epigenetic switches, then it is reasonable to assume that humanity has yet to reach its highest level of consciousness, creativity and artistic expression. Our present civilization could well appear to be uncannily primitive and atavistic to our descendants. We will be their Neanderthal. It is to be hoped, however, that the next micro (macro?)-evolutionary leap won’t make us as sociopathically-inclined as Luc Besson’s Lucy.

Dedicated with gratitude to Jesse S. Cook III


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