Ancient Yet Cosmopolitan-Our Ancestors

Art, adornment and sophisticated hunting technologies flourished not only in prehistoric Europe but across the globe

Gaia Vince – Aeon – 18 June 2020

“In 1868, workmen near the hamlet of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in southwestern France opened up a rock shelter and found animal bones, flints and, most intriguingly, human skulls. Work on the road was paused while a geologist, Louis Lartet, was called to excavate the site. What he discovered would transform our understanding of the origins of humanity.

Lartet unearthed the partial skeletons of four adults and an infant at the Cro-Magnon rock shelter, as well as perforated shells and animal teeth fashioned into necklaces, flint tools, a worked reindeer antler and an object crafted from ivory. The human remains were eagerly compared with fossils of an archaic species, called Neanderthal Man, found 12 years earlier in Germany. However, the 30,000-year-old skeletons of what became known as the ‘Cro-Magnon Men’ (at least one of them was a woman) were different to Neanderthals’, being more slender and having the same rounded skull with a high, vertical forehead as us, Homo sapiens.

Cro-Magnons lived at the same time as Neanderthals in Europe, during the last Ice Age, but they had a more advanced culture. They were identified as a prehistoric subspecies or race of humans that emerged in Europe and went extinct when our own ancestors arrived.

In the 150 years since their discovery, Cro-Magnon remains and artifacts have been found across Eurasia and beyond. This was a people capable of extraordinary creativity, who made stunning artworks depicting their natural world. Such works include a piece of mammoth tusk engraved with two beautifully observed reindeer crossing a river, carved at least 13,000 years ago and discovered near Toulouse in the 1860s, and the extraordinary Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave, made 40,000 years ago and discovered in the Lone valley in Germany in 1939. These works took great skill, patience and time: the Lion Man – a 30 cm sculpture with a man’s body and a lion’s head – is carved from tough mammoth ivory, which researchers calculated would have taken about 400 hours. Cro-Magnons lived in societies that were successful enough to support craftsmanship – able to look after their artists with food and other resources, even during the harsh climate of the Pleistocene, when much of the landscape was covered in ice.

Perhaps the most famous example of Cro-Magnon creativity is the astonishing Lascaux cave complex, not far from Lartet’s skeleton site, whose richly decorated walls were discovered by teenagers in 1940. The imagination and ambition of the artists who created these colourful paintings 20,000 years ago, which include scenes of animals and even constellation maps, is remarkable. For instance, painted on the wall on the Shaft of the Dead Man cave is a bull, a bird-man and a bird on a stick – their outlines, with the eyes of the bull, represent the bright stars of the northern hemisphere’s Summer Triangle. When they were painted, this region of sky would never have set below the horizon and would have been especially prominent at the start of spring. Nearer to the entrance of the Lascaux cave complex is a magnificent painting of a bull with a map of the Pleiades star cluster hanging over its shoulder. Remarkably, within the bull painting, there are spots that might represent other stars found in the region that, today, forms part of the constellation of Taurus the bull. The people who made these detailed cosmic maps were making sense of their world through measurements of natural phenomena, and conveying this through beautiful, lasting ornamentation.

To put the Cro-Magnons in context, nothing beyond a few shaped flints had been discovered in the archaeology of earlier Stone Age humans. There appeared to be something different about the way that Cro-Magnons thought and behaved – far more like the way we think and behave. It led to the theory that modern human culture, including the use of symbolism and the development of complex language, began to emerge 40,000 years ago in a creative explosion in Europe. Over the past century, the term ‘Cro-Magnon’ has been replaced by the name ‘behaviourally modern humans’. This is to distinguish them from the more ancient, but also anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) that palaeontologists discovered. Human-origins experts, in other words, began to think that we are actually the direct descendants of the Ice Age artists – that they didn’t go extinct, they just developed into us over many generations.

Fossil evidence reveals that anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa at least 200,000 years ago. Recent finds have pushed that date back to perhaps 300,000 years. We also know from fossil and genetic evidence that people outside Africa are descendants of a human population that migrated from the continent roughly 80,000 years ago. These African ancestors took advantage of a rare wet spell, relying on a network of aquifer-fed springs, and ventured into the Middle East. From there, they moved slowly eastwards at a rate of an estimated kilometre per year.

Some of these migrants made it all the way to the great expanse of Australia, around 60,000 years ago, undertaking humanity’s first audacious sea voyage – an intrepid migration across 100 km of open ocean. In time, our African ancestors would also venture further east into Asia and north into Europe (around 45,000 years ago) and, finally, across an Arctic land bridge to the Americas (between 23,000 and 13,000 years ago), eventually occupying all the continents bar Antarctica and entirely replacing all other human species.

At some point, from around 40,000 years ago in Europe, we see evidence of these behaviourally modern humans in a sudden flourishing of cultural artifacts in the archaeological record. So what caused anatomically modern Homo sapiens to turn into behaviourally modern people? Was it a genetic switch that created a different type of cognitively superior person? These questions matter because the notion of a great leap forward in our species’ cognition occurring in Europe has contributed to a longstanding belief in there being some sort of European exceptionalism, which has been used to justify everything from colonial expansion to racist laws.

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