Saturday, 13 December 2008

Paleolithic art, part 2: The Human Revolution

There seem to have been two main spurts of growth in the human brain, the first associated with Homo habilis 2–1.5 million years ago, and the second 500,000–200,000 years ago. Another major change in humankind is traditionally dated at around 40,000 years ago during the transition from Middle to Upper Paleolithic: it was then that unequivocal works of art appeared for the first time, along with the technological impetus that would take us towards agriculture and civilisation. It is a matter of dispute how far biological change was involved in what was clearly an extraordinary cultural phenomenon.

Some prehistorians argue the existence of a ‘Human Revolution’ because of the flowering of culture at this time — it has been described as an ‘explosion’ or ‘big bang’. Instead of the laborious creep of evolutionary change, the main dynamic in human development became one of rapid cultural innovation. In the words of the anthropologist Randall White, “It is not an exaggeration to state that just a few square metres at certain Aurignacian sites have yielded more representational objects than are known for the entire planet in the period before 40,000 years ago.” [1] Besides unambiguous representational art, the archaeological record provides us with many new features: tools made of bone and ivory, tools made of multiple parts, abstract symbolism, body decoration such as beads and pendants, sculpture, musical instruments and ritual burial (itself in turn implying religious beliefs). Not only did tools become more complex and specialised — giving us the bow and harpoon — but so did hunting, with fish and bird bones appearing at prehistoric sites for the first time. There was more regional diversification, and humans emigrated from Africa, including crossing the seas to new territories like Australia. All this is hugely exciting, because such behaviour shows these humans were just like ourselves.

The achievement was the greater for taking place at the end of the Pleistocene era, when the last glacial period or Ice Age made the environment particularly harsh. In addition, the Toba catastrophe theory suggests that the human population, following a massive volcanic explosion around 77,000 years ago, may have been on the brink of extinction. The almost identical DNA shared by all living humans has prompted some scientists to suggest we are all related to a single African population of a few thousand — perhaps, at that time, the only surviving humans on earth.

Was there a revolution?

The idea of a ‘Human Revolution’ is not accepted by all prehistorians. The innovations of Homo sapiens, the critics contend, were not a sudden ‘revolution’ but developed incrementally since our emergence around 200,000 years ago in Africa; the appearance of advanced tools and art only seemed sudden because of the inconsistency of the evidence and a huge emphasis upon European sites such as Lascaux. As we discussed in the previous article, finds in Africa — such as those in the Blombos cave — imply that modern human behaviour appeared thousands of years before the more celebrated European cave paintings, making art twice as old as previously thought.

These are very strong arguments, but do not prove wrong the theory that a kind of revolution took place.

Firstly, although there is no doubt that our species originated in Africa, the current material record is relatively small and inconsistent. We have already mentioned the finds at Blombos Cave in South Africa. The Klasies River Mouth Cave produced evidence of occupation by Homo sapiens possibly 125,000 years ago, including notched bones and pieces of red ochre, a soft stone that can be used to make paint; archaeologists believe it was used for body painting, which is suggestive of the use of symbolism. Although evidence of the use of symbolism does exist, these are isolated finds and we should be careful not to construe them as evidence of fully-developed artistic activity. It is one thing to say that humans were capable of notching, incising and piercing objects before 40,000 years ago — there must have been some period of development before the appearance of fully-formed, sophisticated works of art. It is quite another to say that they had developed an artistic culture. What we seem to be looking at is sporadic flarings of a new kind of behaviour: at Blombos, for example, the two blocks of ochre that had symbolic incisions lay among 8000 other pieces. Of course, this may simply be a matter of what has been preserved and found. But the scraps of evidence that we have do not remotely compare to the many thousands of artifacts that appear later and provide clear evidence of highly-developed symbolic, cultural systems.

Another problem is the speed and scale of the change. Out of a species history spanning 3 million years, civilisation has existed for just 5000, yet in that time we have travelled from handaxes to personal computers, from the wheel to international space stations. By contrast, the Acheulian technology lasted a million years with barely any changes at all. It is obvious that something extraordinary had happened to Homo sapiens which we have seen in no other species, human or otherwise. At what rate this developed over the course of existence of Homo sapiens is still open for debate, but there is still no denying a dramatic qualitative change in the behaviour and skills of our species.

It is instructive, as always, to enlist dialectics. Art could only be produced by the new consciousness unique to Homo sapiens, which was an innovation. But recall the image of the spiral: all new forms contain within them the old forms that created them. The new form is a return, upon a higher level. The modern mind grew out of intelligences that had already existed for many thousands of years, giving us technical, social and linguistic powers (whether or not one believes that each forms a separate ‘module’ in the brain). It was both a continuation of those powers and a qualitative step beyond them: the final evolutionary leap to modern humans. If this was more gradual than the ‘big bang’ that has sometimes been claimed, it is still relatively fast by the sluggish standards of evolution.

So I would argue that from a Marxist viewpoint the ‘Human Revolution’ is still valid, provided it is redefined as a general human development (containing contradictions and complexities that are still poorly understood) rather than a sudden cultural explosion in Europe 40,000 years ago.

What happened?

The idea of the ‘Human Revolution’ of course begs the question of what precisely happened to turn Homo sapiens into modern, self-aware and cultured humans. Anatomically-modern Homo sapiens seems to have appeared about 200,000 years ago, according to DNA estimates and to fossil evidence from the Omo river in Ethiopia. Yet stone tools created by members of this species in the Levant are the same as those of Neanderthals in the same region. How do we explain the gap between our species’ first appearance and the flowering of our consciousness and art — a delay of many thousands of years? The gap up until the agricultural or Neolithic revolution, which inaugurates a wave of technical and cultural innovations that have shaped human society ever since, adds another 10,000 years again. We cannot explain art, religion and symbolism by a change in our genes. There were no changes in body morphology or brain capacity in that time, and humans alive today share essentially the same genotype as those who dispersed from Africa 60,000 years ago. The potential for our fully developed humanity must be already present in the genome.

This is the problem that Colin Renfrew has termed the ‘sapient paradox’: or ‘the time gap between genotype and take-off’ [2]. Solving it is one of the great tasks of modern archaeology, for it is in this transformation, and with it the rise of art, that the real Human Revolution lies.

At the moment, we don’t know for sure what happened. But there are of course a few theories.

Firstly let us return to Steven Mithen, who argues that what differentiated modern humans from Neanderthals was their acquisition of ‘cognitive fluidity’ — that is, that the barriers came down between the various areas of intelligence. A key result of this was that we started to think in very new and creative ways. For example we could think of nature, including landscapes and animals, as if it were a social being.

Give a child a kitten and she will believe it has a mind like her own: anthropomorphising appears to be compulsive. Give a child a doll and she will start talking to it, feeding it and changing its nappy. That inert lump of moulded plastic never smiles at her, but she seems to use the same mental process for interacting with it as she uses for interacting with real people.[3]

Homo sapiens can mix areas of knowledge at will using the imagination. We can invest rocks and trees with sentience, conceive of people flying (like birds), walking on water (like pondskaters), living forever (like stones). Such fluidity made possible works like the half-human, half-lion figurine from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany, or the horned human image from the cave at Trois-Frères. Mithen argues that Neanderthals could never have anthropomorphised animals in this way — they would not have understood stories that required us to believe, say, in talking animals, because they could not get past the fact that animals cannot talk. He speculates that at some point, the different chapels in the metaphorical ‘cathedral’ of our minds connected not just to a general intelligence but also to each other, possibly through a kind of ‘superchapel’ or clearing house:

Now in this clearing house all kinds of mischief can occur. Ideas from different modules, and those which have no home to go to, can get together in some peculiar ways. For instance, knowledge about dogs can get mixed up with knowledge about physical objects and with knowledge about beliefs and desires, so that when a child is given a toy dog — an inert lump of stuffed material — he or she makes it behave like a dog, while also giving it human-like beliefs, desires and intentions.[4]

In Mithen’s opinion, the motor for the creation of cognitive fluidity was language. Once language had appeared, it could draw upon not just social intelligence but every kind, creating connections in the mind between the different chapels of the cathedral. Links from each area of intelligence to every other area would be the final step to modern human consciousness, producing a cultural explosion.

Language could be seen as the ultimate human tool. Language assisted the expansion both of our society and of our consciousness: it may be that certain forms of thought are simply not possible until words and images have been created through which to imagine them. Abstractions, named and ordered, helped us to assimilate and integrate the mass of our social and material knowledge.

A cultural explosion would not have been the ‘intended’ outcome of this evolutionary change. Art, like religion, was in this view made possible by it, and appeared as a side effect — what the scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin described as ‘spandrels’.[5]

Although Mithen’s conception of human consciousness is interesting, the problem with the ‘modular’ view of the mind is that there is no neuroscientific evidence that such modularity exists. It is also unclear what genetic process would be able to pull down the barriers between modules.

An alternative and more recent view to Mithen’s comes from Randall White (cited earlier), who has proposed that humans may have had “the neurological hardware for representational thought” long before they learned to practise it:

There is a distinction to be drawn here, between the neurological capacity for a particular kind of action and the actual performance of it. For example, no one doubts the capacity of the Cro-Magnons of late Ice Age Europe to plant and harvest crops. The fact that they did not do so requires explanations that are purely ecological and cultural in nature. Likewise, the frequently noted inability (until taught) of non-Western peoples to read photographs shown to them by Western anthropologists is not to be understood as a lack of neurological capacity. Rather, it is based on the absence of a social, cultural, technological, and historical context for understanding and applying the visual logic of photography.[6]

White argues that the emergence of art must have had some adaptive value in the context of 40,000 years ago. “There is little room in an evolutionary view for art as a divinely inspired struggle to create beautiful or novel forms.” Rather than being caused by a biological change, it arose out of the encounter between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in Eurasia [7]. Long established in the region and very well adapted to its cold climate, the Neanderthals must have been difficult competition, and cultural skills such as symbolic representation may have given Homo sapiens the adaptive advantage they needed. It allowed brand new ways of thinking and of organising; it made possible highly complex social structures and identities (communicated for example through body painting or adornment); and it coincided with a revolutionary period of technological innovation that must have been connected with new, creative ways of thinking.

Once humans gave themselves the power to manipulate form in transposing it from its original context into stone, paint, or ivory, the cultural capacity for human creativity mushroomed. The transfer of qualities from one context to another is an essential part of the construction of metaphors. It is perhaps not surprising then... that among the earliest known images are imaginary creatures, part human, part animal, that reconfigure nature in human terms.

White’s solution may simply offer us a different route to cognitive fluidity, with competition with the Neanderthals, rather than language, as the driving force.

White shares common ground with probably the most important contemporary framework, set out by, amongst others, Colin Renfrew in Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind. Renfrew argues that the ‘speciation’ phase of Homo sapiens, i.e. the period in which the genotype was established, must have effectively ended by 60,000 years ago, when we spread from Africa. All our subsequent developments in consciousness, with the emergence of art, religion, symbolism etc, must then belong to a ‘tectonic’ phase that is culturally determined.

What I shall suggest is that it was most certainly the shared ideas, concepts and conventions that developed in [human] groups, and which became specific to each trajectory of development, that guided and conditioned further innovations. These shared conventions, the ‘institutional facts’... shaped the way that these groups, and the individuals who comprised them, interacted with each other and the world. This interaction with the world, this material engagement, involves not only those people themselves but also their encounter with the physical properties of the material world. It is in this process of material engagement that the origins of growth and change are to be understood.[8]

We shall return to some of Renfrew’s ideas when we examine the origins of symbolism. He offers a materialist framework for the study of human creativity which, with its emphasis on humans’ material engagement with the physical world, offers no contradiction with Marxism. His view that it was culture that led to our species’ ‘take-off’, rather than any genetic process, is my view the most compelling, and it is one we will return to again (see for example our discussion of human nature).

Other theories exist, of course. One contends that the small population of Homo sapiens from which all modern humans are descended was living in perilous conditions, and only the most ingenious survived. Another (proposed by Richard Klein) contends that the leap was down to a genetic mutation. The fact is that the causes and course of the Human Revolution remain uncertain. In my view, however, it is evident that some kind of ‘revolution’ did occur.


Anatomically and cognitively modern humanity has existed for a very short time — perhaps 60,000 years — during which the species has barely changed. The study of our evolution, however, never stands still. The origins of modern human beings remain the subject of an immense amount of research and discussion. One of the most important fields of inquiry today is the development of a cognitive archaeology — to combine what we know from the material remains of previous ages with empirical study of the modern brain to reconstruct the evolution of the human mind. This process has to draw upon sociology, anthropology, neuroscience and other disciplines, and how these different processes interact.

Cognitive archaeology therefore must be both materialist and dialectical. The relevance of Marxism to contemporary science is clear.

It is not my intention to claim a particular position for Marxism as a whole on the Human Revolution, nor to try and give its stamp of approval to the theories of Steven Mithen, Randall White or others (even if I had the authority to do so). Archaeology has come far enough for us to know that what seems obvious today may be thrown into doubt by a new find tomorrow, or that long-standing controversies sometimes are solved. There is no Marxist magic wand that can conjure up a correct answer through theory alone. Our interest is in seeking materialist explanations of the origins of art and culture, and Marxism will continue to embrace the latest scientific thought upon what makes us human beings.


[1] Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (2003).
[2] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007). In the same book, Renfrew opposes the idea of a ‘Human Revolution’ arguing with some justification that the evidence is partial and localised. I would respond that the Human Revolution can only be understood in very broad terms.
[3] Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (1996).
[4] ibid. The theory that language is responsible for triggering our creativity is also supported by, for example, Jared Diamond in his book The Third Chimpanzee (2006).
[5] See Gould and Lewontin’s paper, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm (1979).
[6] Randall White, op. cit.
[7] White supports the theory of a ‘human revolution’, and is sceptical about the existence of significant symbolic activity prior to modern humans’ arrival in Eurasia.
[8] Renfrew, op. cit.

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