Research into the skeletal remains of Stone Age Man has been undertaken in parallel with work to clarify the cultural and cognitive skills of these people. The dominant paradigm has been gradualism linked to the slow transformation of ape-like creatures into Modern Man. Darwinism has influenced the way people have approached the data and the interpretations they have placed on findings.
Papers are regularly published which point out the earliest example of a cultural trait: use of fire, hunting using spears, artefacts (like jewellery) indicating the presence of aesthetic values, Venus figurines, and so on. Two recent examples are noted in this blog.
Musical instruments like these allow inferences to be made about the cognitive skills of the users (Source here)
The first example concerns hafted spears, which are said to date back to 200,000 years ago. These are compound tools, where a sharp, hard point is hafted to a shaft. Archaeologists recognise that this invention has implications for our understanding of the minds of the spear-makers. The newly reported discovery is of spears where the hafting was found to be associated with a number of naturally occurring materials. Why were these materials located at the join? By an extensive programme of experimentation, the researchers came to the view that the artisans were using the materials as adhesives, and that the manufacturing process demonstrated a high level of abstract thinking.
"Wadley et al. identified naturally available materials (acacia gums and beeswax) that could be combined with ochre (found as residue on the tools), after which they experimented with various combinations to find the most effective mixture. They also tried different techniques for producing the actual haft, including the use of fire for rapid drying of the adhesives. With the most effective procedure in hand they could then ask themselves what an artisan needed to understand in order to conceive of and execute this task. "We propose that these artisans were exceedingly skilled; they understood the properties of their adhesive ingredients and they were able to manipulate them knowingly". In particular the artisans needed to understand the properties of their ingredients (e.g., cohesiveness), to be able to judge the effects of temperature, to be able to switch attention back and forth between separate rapidly changing variables, and to be flexible enough to adjust to the variability inherent in naturally occurring ingredients."
In a Commentary on the paper, Wynn points out that the reasoning that leads to such a conclusion must be "based on a sequence of inferences, each of which must be explicit and persuasive if the argument as a whole is to be credible." He spells out the details of that reasoning process, "borrowed loosely from Botha's detailed critique of an archaeological argument for the use of syntactical language by people at Blombos Cave 77,000 years ago." The merit of this approach is that observations and inferences can be clearly identified and each step can be scrutinised carefully. Archaeologists have new avenues to explore, which is very exciting.
"Most of the focus in this debate has been on the role language and symbolism but, as Wadley et al. make clear, there is more to modern cognition than language and the use of symbols. Indeed, language has proven to be a particularly intractable topic for archaeologists, a point made cogently by Botha. By focusing on activities that tax reasoning ability and are also visible archaeologically, such as hafting, archaeologists are in a better position to contribute to an understanding of the evolution of the modern mind."
The second paper concerns the finding of musical instruments. "Researchers universally accept the existence of complex musical instruments as an indication of fully modern behaviour and advanced symbolic communication." Previously, the oldest instriument was about 30,000 years ago, but the new finds come from a site dated at about 35,000 years. Some of the reported comments are as follows:
"It's becoming increasingly clear that music was part of day-to-day life," he said.
"Music was used in many kinds of social contexts: possibly religious, possibly recreational - much like we use music today in many kinds of settings."
The researchers also suggest that not only was music widespread much earlier than previously thought, but so was humanity's creative spirit.
"The modern humans that came into our area already had a whole range of symbolic artifacts, figurative art, depictions of mythological creatures, many kinds of personal ornaments and also a well-developed musical tradition," Professor Conard explained.
The first general point I want to make is that the procedures described (for making inferences from archaeological data) are not dissimilar from the procedures used by Intelligent Design scholars for making inferences about design in nature. These procedures are not arbitrary or poorly conceived, but rigorous and evidence-based (and exciting!). This is why the objections most often heard are based on demarcation arguments: 'Design is not part of Science'. Clearly, in archaeology, design is part of science!
The second general point concerns the creeping awareness that Stone Age men were far more "modern" than we have given them credit for. The problem is that most scholars understand consciousness, capacity for abstract thought and aesthetics as emergent properties of evolving animals. They do not allow the thought that these capabilities might be present by design. So, the data is moulded to fit a slow evolutionary transformation and other ways of interpreting the data are neglected. To show that design perspectives can propose hypotheses that can be tested, here is possible scenario. All these Stone Age men are human and have essentially modern cognitive skills. However, they lived in environments where they needed to adopt survival strategies and this prevented the flowering of sedentary communities and limited evidences of creativity. The prediction is that evidences of modernity will continue to be found, pushing the appearance of cultural artefacts earlier and earlier in time.
Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa
Lyn Wadley, Tamaryn Hodgskiss and Michael Grant
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, Published online May 11, 2009 | doi: 10.1073/pnas.0900957106
Abstract: Compound adhesives made from red ochre mixed with plant gum were used in the Middle Stone Age (MSA), South Africa. Replications reported here suggest that early artisans did not merely color their glues red; they deliberately effected physical transformations involving chemical changes from acidic to less acidic pH, dehydration of the adhesive near wood fires, and changes to mechanical workability and electrostatic forces. Some of the steps required for making compound adhesive seem impossible without multitasking and abstract thought. This ability suggests overlap between the cognitive abilities of modern people and people in the MSA. Our multidisciplinary analysis provides a new way to recognize complex cognition in the MSA without necessarily invoking the concept of symbolism.
New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany
Nicholas J. Conard, Maria Malina, Susanne C. Munzel
Nature (online 24 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08169 (Abstract)
Considerable debate surrounds claims for early evidence of music in the archaeological record. Researchers universally accept the existence of complex musical instruments as an indication of fully modern behaviour and advanced symbolic communication but, owing to the scarcity of finds, the archaeological record of the evolution and spread of music remains incomplete. Although arguments have been made for Neanderthal musical traditions and the presence of musical instruments in Middle Palaeolithic assemblages, concrete evidence to support these claims is lacking. Here we report the discovery of bone and ivory flutes from the early Aurignacian period of southwestern Germany. These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe, more than 35,000 calendar years ago. Other than the caves of the Swabian Jura, the earliest secure archaeological evidence for music comes from sites in France and Austria and post-date 30,000 years ago.
Ghosh, P. 'Oldest musical instrument' found, BBC News, 25 June 2009.
Wynn, T. Hafted spears and the archaeology of mind, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 2009 | doi: 106:9544-9545 (Extract)
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