Monday, 28 January 2013

Ice Age art: as modern as a Picasso

Did language create the modern mind? 

Picasso loved this
The Venus de Lespugue

 Picasso loved this figure so much he reputedly kept two copies of it. Between 26,000 and 24,000 years old, it will be one of the exhibits from around the world to be displayed in the British Museum's 'Ice Age Art' exhibition (February 7 until May 26).
The exhibition's curator, Jill Cook, believes that this figure "demonstrates a visual brain capable of abstraction, the essential quality needed to acquire and manipulate knowledge which underpins our ability to analyse what we see. By looking at the oldest European sculptures and drawings we are looking at the deep history of how our brains began to store, transform and communicate ideas as visual images."

Read more about the exhibition here.

Mind in transition

The Transition from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic (45,000 to 35,000 years ago) has been described as a 'revolution' or an 'explosion' in the development of human cognitive abilities. The modern mind, with its capacity for innovation, had arrived - and we can see how that mind manifested itself (in the context of a high degree of social organization) through art.

What caused this sudden advancement?

Anatomically modern humans existed in Africa by 100,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence shows that, by 60,000 years ago, symbol handling and social organization were well developed: seashells that had been perforated so they could be worn as beads found on the southern Cape coast (Blombos Cave) are between 80,000 and 75,000 years old (Cook, 2013).

Henshilwood and Marean (2003) found that “there is no anatomical evidence (and there may never be any such evidence) for a highly advantageous neurological change after 50,000 years ago.”

Language meets big brain: the 'feedback loop'

A study (Stout et al.)  of the neural correlates of Early Stone Age  (2.6 Myr ago  - 0.25 Myr ago) toolmaking used PET scans to determine which areas of the brain were activated when volunteers (professional archaeologists with many years stone  toolmaking experience) made stone implements of different types.  The results demonstrated that subjects producing the more advanced tools showed activation in areas of the brain associated with language: "... in a region also associated with discourse-level prosodic and contextual language processing (Bookheimer 2002)."    

Significantly, Gabora (2007) observed that  "syntactic aspects [of language] appear to have emerged at the start of the Upper Palaeolithic (Aiello and Dunbar 1993; Bickerton 1990, 1996; Dunbar 1993, 1996). Syntax enabled language to become general-purpose, put to use in all kinds of situations, whereas previously it had been reserved for social situations ."

An increase in the capacity of the prefrontal cortex may not have been enough, per se, to give pre-Palaeolithic  humans  the ability to encode abstract information about disparate domains into symbolic memories and recursively encode judgments about that information that we would recognize as following a logical 'train of thought' . The coordination of mental processing of abstract concepts in differing contexts would have been greatly facilitated by the development of language, and the resulting 'feedback loop' consisting of an increased capacity for symbol handling combined with the capacity for contextual processing that sophisticated language enabled  would have been sufficient to produce the rapid cultural development associated with the Upper Palaeolithic Transition.

How did cognition evolve? The Stout study and other papers on this topic were published in 'The sapient mind: archaeology meets neuroscience' theme issue, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Aiello, Leslie C. & Robin Dunbar 1993. Neocortex size, group size, and the evolution of language. Current Anthropology 34: 184-193.
Bickerton, Derek. 1990. Language and species. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Bookheimer, S. 2002 Functional MRI of language: new approaches to undertanding the cortical organization of semantic processing. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 25, 151-188. (doi:10.annurev.neuro.25.112701.142946)
Cook, J. 2013. Ice Age Art. London: British Museum Press.
Dunbar, Robin. 1993. Coevolution of neocortical size, group size, and language in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16(4): 681-735.
Dunbar, Robin. 1996. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language, Faber and Faber.
Gabora, L. (2007). Mind. In (R. A. Bentley, H. D. G. Maschner, & C. Chippendale, Eds.) Handbook of Theories and Methods in Archaeology, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek CA, (pp. 283-296)
Henshilwood, Christopher S. & Curtis W. Marean. 2003. The Origin of Modern Human Behavior. Current Anthropology 44: 627-651
Stout, D., Toth, N., Schick, K. & Chaminade, T. Neural correlates of Early Stone Age toolmaking: technology, language and cognition in human evolution. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 363, 1939-1949. (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0001)


  1. Excellent test post Debra. Should it stay around?

    1. I would like to expand on this for a 'real' post, when we get to Anthropology, if that's OK, in which case it can go. If not OK, maybe it can stick around!

  2. You don't have to wait until then!! Feel free to expand it already.