40,000 years ago

- a page of ponderings on who we are, and when and how we became that way

This is a page exploring what various writers have thought significant about 40,000 years ago. 40,000 years ago, the boundary between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic, is often taken as marking the transition to fully modern humans. Some writers select another date, but with the same intention. For some it is marked by the rise of specifically Homo sapiens sapiens - though this can be a circular argument. Criteria proposed to indicate modern humankind include toolmaking, the development of trade and social organization and the creation of art (James). Perhaps the emergence of modern humans is when physical evolution became less important, or manifest and was overtaken by mental and cultural evolution as our powerful, versatile, problem-solving minds gave us the power to adapt in other ways.  (Evfit does not necessarily agree with all of the following, but has deliberately presented a wide range of views to stimulate thought.)

Art De Vany describes as The Big Idea 'Your brain and body are evolved for life in 40,000 BC; take care of the hunter gatherer body and mind that you carry in that pin-striped suit.' [11]

David Martel Johnson distinguishes between brain and mind.  He says that our brains today are little different from humans up to 150,000 years ago. Our minds, however, go back only as far as the ancient Greeks; even the Egyptians of that time thought very differently from the way we do today. Johnson's view contrasts with those who believe that an anatomically modern brain could be used for all modern purposes; the difference is the influence of culture.  For Johnson, the sign of modernity is objectivity: 'The ancient Egyptians were very cultured people.  But their minds worked differently. In their view of themselves they were always right and their enemies were always monsters'. In the distant past before objective thought, says Johnson, humans made decisions by relating to their environment in ways that were safe and tested, as animals do, rather than imaginatively searching for new solutions. Johnson rejects the possibility of humans regressing to the primitive certainties of the pre-rational world, whether through force or religion.  He believes that humanity's only chance of solving its contemporary problems 'is by proceeding even further down the path that separates us more and more from undisturbed nature'.

Loren Cordain contrasts the anatomical and behavioural perspectives on this question: 'for two million years until ... the agricultural revolution of roughly 10 000 years ago our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, so the adaptive pressures inherent in that environmental niche have exerted a defining influence on human genetic makeup. The portion of our genome that determines basic anatomy and physiology has remained relatively unchanged over the past 40 000 years ... Although anatomically modern humans first appeared perhaps 100,000 years ago, modern human behaviour first becomes recognizable in the fossil record of about 50,000 years ago ... between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago their creative and technological innovation increased dramatically ... During this period skeletal robusticity decreased somewhat suggesting that less muscular force was required for daily tasks.' (Compare with Renfrew, below)

John Zerzan suggests that language is perhaps less than 50,000 years old and arose with the first impulses toward art, ritual and social differentiation (p.9, [15]).  He writes that 'agriculture/domestication didn't suddenly appear out of nowhere, 10,000 years ago. Quite possibly, it was the culmination of a very slow acceptance of division of labour or specialization that began in earnest in Upper Paleolithic times, around 40,000 years ago' (p.197). More polemically, Zerzan writes that '... a closer look at Homo over our many, many millennia challenges the inexorability or "naturalness" of the dominance of symbols in our lives today ... Archaeologists are finding that more than a million years ago, humans were as intelligent as ourselves - despite the fact that the earliest evidence to date of symbolic activity (figurines, cave art, ritual artifacts, time recordings etc.) date only to 40,000 years ago or so. People used fire for cooking 1.9 million years ago; and built and sailed seagoing vessels at least 800,000 years ago!'  James quotes Deacon: 'We are still learning how to recognize symbolism in the archaeological record.'  Norman Weinberger (2004) reports that 'More than 30,000 years ago early humans were already playing bone flutes, percussive instruments and jaw harps--and all known societies throughout the world have had music. Indeed, our appreciation appears to be innate. Infants as young as two months will turn toward consonant, or pleasant, sounds and away from dissonant ones. ... did music originally help us by promoting social cohesion in groups that had grown too large for grooming, as suggested by Robin M. Dunbar of the University of Liverpool? On the other hand, to use the words of Harvard University's Steven Pinker, is music just "auditory cheesecake"--a happy accident of evolution that happens to tickle the brain's fancy?'

Robin Dunbar (Liverpool University, UK) heads up the Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain project of the British Academy that will run from 2003 to 2010. Their project starts from the position that it's not just that our brains are three times bigger than Lucy's; it is the way we use them that stands us apart from her. Dunbar says 'It is our minds not our bodies that make us human and enabled us to achieve what we have achieved.' A main focus of the project will be the creation and communal practice of religion. Dunbar says 'Social religion is one of the most complex activities we engage in. Religion was born with Homo sapiens.'  He believes religion probably first emerged between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.

Douglas Palmer (New Scientist, 6 December 2003) reports on  a 32,000 yo flint face, supposedly shaped by Neanderthals, and unearthed at La Roche-Cotard in France. The significance of this find for Palmer is that "... the lack of evidence for Neanderthal rock art has [till now] bolstered the view that these hominids did not possess a culture approaching that of our Cro-Magnon ancestors." Palmer goes on to quote British rock-art expert Paul Bahn on the find:  "After this, I don't see how any objective scholar can deny that the Neanderthals had art, and even quite sophisticated, complex art"

Colin Renfrew (Cambridge University, UK) , like David Martel Johnson (above) contrasts brain and mind.  He questions the currently dominant position that a creative explosion rocked Europe 40,000 years ago more than any advance in Palaeolithic technology.  Highfield writes: Our ancestors began to adorn their bodies with beads and pendants, even tattoos; they painted representations of animals, people and magical hybrids on cave walls in Lascaux, France and Altamira in Spain. They sculpted voluptuous stone figurines, such as the Venus of Willendorf.  This cultural Big Bang, which coincides with the period when modern humans reached Europe after they set out from Africa, marked a decisive point in our story, when man took a critical step beyond the limitations of his hairy ancestors and began to use symbols. The modern mind was born. Or was it? Next month, in a Last Word lecture in London, Renfrew will question the reassuring dogma (at least to Europeans) that the modern human mind originated in Europe and, instead, argue that its birth was much more recent, around 10,000 years ago, and took place in the Middle East.  He is troubled by what he calls the "sapient behaviour paradox": genetic evidence, based on the diversity of modern humans, suggests that our big brains emerged around 150,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus, and were fully developed about 60,000 years ago.  Renfrew notes changes in tool industry detail around 40,000 ya, but says the only striking development is the emergence of cave art.  Renfrew notes the patterns carved in ochre 70,000 years ago and found recently by Christopher Henshilwood in Blombos Cave 180 miles east of Cape Town.

Writing in February 2002 in Science, Henshilwood wrote 'Abstract or depictional images ... provide evidence for cognitive abilities considered integral to modern human behaviour'.  Henshilwood has also found decorated ostrich eggshell about 65,000 years old (James).

For Renfrew the real revolution occurred 10,000 ya with the first settled villages.  That is when the effects of the brainpower used to carve in the ochre 70,000 ya and paint the cave art 40,000 ya could manifest its potential fully, allowing our ancestors to work together in complex and sustained waysLiving in timber and mud brick houses led to a very different engagement between our ancestors and the material world. 'I don't think it was until settled village communities developed that you had the concept of property, or that "I own these things that have been handed down to me".'

Like Dunbar, Renfrew also looks to religionHe is excited by excavations now under way in Anatolia, a potential birthplace of the modern mind: in Catalhöyük, one of the earliest places where close knit communities were born, and Göbekli Tepe, a shrine that predates village life. He believes these spiritual sites may have seeded the first human settled communities by encouraging the domestication of plants and animals.

'Only with the emergence of Homo sapiens comes a diversity of toolmaking that reveals connexions being made across different parts of the mind.  Called Aurignacian, the tools that appear 40,000 ya are of a different order altogether …' Walking with Cavemen, p.131

Hilary Deacon and Randall White acknowledge the impact the Chauvet, Lascaux etc. cave art makes on us; the resonances are deep.  However, both agree with Robert Bedarnik, that 'Europe was always peripheral to human evolution, a cul-de-sac, an unimportant appendage to Asia' and that it is now thought unlikely that modern human cognition and behaviour emerged in the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe (see Cro Magnon).  James quotes from these three writers to caution us to recognize the preconceptions governing our idea of 'art', 'modernity' and 'humanity'.

Art is also favoured as the most significant manifestation of modern human-ness by Anthony Sinclair and Nicholas Conard. They see art as being used to represent religious thinking, specifically shamanism. They also believe that something occurred in the course of human evolution around 40,000 years ago that allowed humans to cross rapidly the threshold towards cultural modernity. There does appear to be quite a different life before and after about 40,000 years ago. Their views are based on Aurignacian discoveries (reported in Nature) of miniature statues include a horse, a diving waterfowl, and a half-man, half-lion, from Hohle Fels Cave in the Ach Valley in the Jura mountains of southwestern Germany.

David Whitehouse highlights symbolic reasoning in general.  Reporting on the discovery at Qafzeh Cave in Israel of ochre used for ritual purposes in burials 100,000 years ago he says: 'Symbolic thought - the ability to let one thing represent another - was a giant leap in human evolution ... 100,000 years ago ... is much older than the 50,000 years that some other scientists believe is the date for the emergence of symbolic reasoning. The association of ochre with burial indicates that the inhabitants had made the mental leap of associating the coloured pigment with death. Such symbolic thought spurred human progress allowing the development of sophisticated language and mathematics.  He quotes the author of the original article in Current Anthropology, Erella Hovers, as saying 'The humans at this time behaved in a way that was not just functional but symbolic as well'.

Population density is the explanans proposed by Mark Thomas in his June 2009 paper in Science. [17] Thomas used mathematical modelling to demonstrate that, although Homo sapiens dates from 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, it took this species - anatomically unchanged - tens of thousands of years before there was the blossoming of culture that this page dates at 40,000 years ago. Thomas notes that the first blossoming occurred not 40,000 years ago, but 90,000-100,000 years ago near the southern tip of Africa. (This has been described in Sale's After Eden. [16]) Signs of this blossoming include shell beads for necklaces, musical instruments, the use of pigments and delicate, sophisticated tools like bone harpoons. But these artifacts then disappear before popping up again (and also sometimes disappearing), until they really get going around 40,000-35,000 years ago in Europe. It was population density that turned out to be the key to cultural sophistication. The more people there were, the more exchange there was between groups and the richer the culture of each group became. Dr Thomas therefore suggests that the reason there is so little sign of culture until 90,000 years ago is that there were not enough people to support it. It is at this point that jewellery, art and modern weapons first appear. But then they go away again. That, Dr Thomas suggests, corresponds with a period when human numbers shrank. Climate data provides evidence this shrinkage did happen. According to Dr Thomas, therefore, culture was not invented once, when people had become clever enough, and then gradually built up into the edifice it is today. Rather, it came and went as the population waxed and waned. Since the invention of agriculture, of course, the population has done nothing but wax. The consequences are all around you and the paradox is that human population density has now reached the point at which it may bring down sophisticated modern culture.

Kate Wong writes that 'In an age of spacecraft and deep-sea submersibles, we take it for granted that humans are intrepid explorers. Yet from an evolutionary perspective, the propensity to colonize is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our kind: no other primate has ever ranged so far and wide. Humans have not always been such cosmopolitan creatures, however. For most of the seven million years or so over which hominids have been evolving, they remained within the confines of their birthplace, Africa. But at some point, our ancestors began pushing out of the motherland, marking the start of a new chapter in our family history.'

Michael Boulter looks at modern humans from quite a different perspective. Whereas all the above see the threshold as an advance or else with either positive or neutral consequences, Boulter seems to be saying that modernity, however we characterize it, leads directly or indirectly to the sixth great extinction. For Boulter, the extinction of the Neanderthals was one of the earliest megafauna extinctions. Rather than cleaving to our humanity, perhaps Boulter is saying we have to divorce ourselves from that - whatever it is - for the planet as we know it to survive.

Strengthened social relationships and kinship bonds are proposed by Caspari and Lee following their study of 768 fossilized teeth from a variety of sites.  They noticed they were finding a higher proportion of specimens from sites less than 30,000 years old than from older sites.  Their calculations point to the number of older people surviving quadrupling about 32,000 years ago (in the Upper Paleolithic and after the demise of the Neanderthals).  That is, there was a sharp increase in the proportion of grandparents.  They say that significant longevity came late in human evolution and its advantages compensated for the disabilities and diseases of older age.  They add that their research provides evidence for the previously-existing theory that modern humans predominated because they were wiser with the wisdom they had accumulated over a long life. This is a complementary theory to the 'grandmother hypothesis'. Together, these factors could have promoted the expansion of populations, creating social pressures that led to the growth of trade networks, increased mobility, and more complex systems of co-operation and competition. In this way, modern civilization could have been born, said the scientists.   The reports of their research say nothing about why the advantages of longevity kicked in at this time.

The possession of - and trade in - non-essential, luxury goods is proposed as a marker of the transition to modernity in a review article by Kate Douglas: "Recent finds in Africa suggest that decorative objects were being manufactured and traded more than 100,000 years ago. and some researchers are now proposing that our desire for material objects might have been what launched our ancestors on the long road to modernity.  Humans are born to trade ... the heart of commerce is an instinctive talent for what anthropologists call 'reciprocity '.  This probably evolved as the brains of our hominid ancestors grew and their societies became more complex, allowing individuals to keep a running tally of their interactions with others".  Douglas also asks when it was that humans started attributing special value to luxury objects. She points to the consensus until recently as being around 40,000 ya (particularly the 41,000 yo shell beads from Üçağizli in Turkey), but points to recent discoveries in the Blombos cave (300 km east of Cape Town) of ochre more than 100,000 yo.  Ochre does not occur naturally in the vicinity of Blombos.  There are impressive pieces of Blombos ochre dated at 77,000 yo and Christopher Henshilwood suggests ochre was used in Africa 120,000 ya. There has also been a string of 41 beads dating from 76,000 ya found at Blombos.

The introduction of clothing enabled our ancestors to extend their range in terms of latitude and altitude as well as over the seasons.  Mark Stoneking (reported by Kate Douglas) reasoned that body lice probably evolved from hair lice when a new ecological niche - clothing - became available.  His research place this at around 75,000 ya.  Other researchers have suggested that the earliest clothing would have conferred status and attractiveness on the wearer.

The display of prestige markers - Geoffrey Miller (quoted by Kate Douglas) suggests that both clothing and luxury items were valued for their utility in sexual attraction.  "Aimee Plourde shifts the emphasis from sex to prestige, suggesting an answer to one of the big questions about the origin of civilization - how our ancestors made the transition from living as egalitarian hunter-gatherers to the materialistic, hierarchical societies we equate with modern civilization."  Plourde reasons that, even in egalitarian societies, individuals would have been more successful hunters, craftworkers, holders of environmental knowledge and this gave them prestige. Those with prestige would have wanted to show of their talents.  "The best way to do this would be through material items that can be hard to fake.  Plourde: 'a good hunter, for instance, could advertise his skills by wearing the tooth of an animal that is elusive or dangerous'.  The prestige markers could, therefore, be sought in themselves and there would be a parallel increased in the complexity of social ranking systems as individual prestige led first to leadership of the group and later to the stratified hierarchies seen in more complex societies. Douglas: "If Plourde is correct, prestige goods form a direct link between our innate drive for trade and the development of complex, hierarchical societies. They are arguably the the first step on the road to modern civilization ..."

1. Michael Boulter, Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man (Fourth Estate, 2002)
2. Rachel Caspari and Sang-Hee Lee, in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, July 2004
3. Loren Cordain et al, Physical activity, energy expenditure and fitness: an evolutionary perspective, Int J Sports med. 19 (1998) 328-335
4. Kate Douglas, New Scientist, 18 September 2004 Born to trade
5. Robin Dunbar, quoted on the BBC website 9 September 2003
6. Bob Holmes, New Scientist, 18 September 2004 Manna or millstone
7. Victoria James, Taking Shape: Prehistoric Art and Us in the Japan Times, 17 August 2003, canvasses the opinions of Hilary Deacon (University of Stellenbosch), Christopher Henshilwood (Cape Field School), Robert Bedarnik (International Federation of Rock Art organizations) and Randall White (author of Prehistoric Art: the Symbolic Journey of Humankind, 2003)
8. David Martel Johnson, How History Made the Mind, 2004
9. Colin Renfrew, in the London Daily Telegraph article by Roger Highfield: The Birth of our Modern Minds on 15 October 2003, an article that serves to notice Renfrew's forthcoming book Figuring it out (Thames and Hudson, 2003)
10. Anthony Sinclair and Nicholas Conard, reported in the National Geographic on 17 December 2003
11. Art De Vany, on his now closed web page at UC Irvine (2003)    Back to text
12. Norman Weinberger, Scientific American, November 2004 in atricle 'Music and the brain'
13. David Whitehouse, on the BBC website (11 December 2003) writing in article: Cave colours reveal mental leap
14. Kate Wong, Stranger in a New Land in Scientific American, 13 October 2003, an article reviewing the work to date on the excavations at Dmanisi, Georgia
15. John Zerzan, Running on Emptiness (2002)
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16. Kirkpatrick Sale, After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination, Duke University Press, 2006    Back to text
17. Mark Thomas' paper in Science is summarized in The Economist of 4 June 2009
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For more on symbolic reasoning - particularly language - see my review of the 2003 book Default Country

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Page established 2002    Last updated on 6 June 2009