Thursday, June 07, 2007

I see sea shells   posted by Razib @ 6/07/2007 02:36:00 PM

By now some of you have heard about the possibility of symbolism via sea shells 82,000 years ago (give or take 10,000 or so) on the Moroccan coast. This is important because it is another data point which precedes The Great Leap Forward around 40,000 years ago. In The Dawn of Human Culture Richard Klein argued that a biological rewiring of our brains resulted in the explosion of human creativity initiated during the Great Leap Forward. This is important, because anatomically modern humans preceded the cultural explosion by over a hundred thousand years (this includes the attainment of brain sizes in the range of the modern). These ancient finds in Africa prior to the Great Leap Forward imply that the basic raw material might have long been bubbling in the background before the take off. I don't know what to make of this really as I am not particularly "up to speed" on the enormous sample space of findings and the nuances of the extant fossil data. But this caught my eye from the story in The Economist:
Even more intriguingly, although the beads from Grotte des Pigeons are not from precisely the same species used at Blombos, the two are indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Stone-age South Africans, like their northern cousins, could have chosen any one of hundreds of shell shapes to make into beads, yet they adopted essentially the same fashion. The immense distance between the two ends of the continent makes an ancient African exchange system appear improbable. Then again, a chance predilection for the same beads is unlikely as well.

From what I recall the Olduwan toolkit persisted roughly the same form over millions of years and on a transcontinental scale. Is this because a world wide system of trade and cultural exchange existed to stabilize the motifs and techniques? I doubt it, rather, it seems plausible that there was a biological origin for this "cultural complex". It seems possible that our erectine predecessors flaked away stones to produce hand-axes just as the bower bird instinctively constructs its nests or the beaver their dams? The Great Leap Forward is different perhaps not because of the evidence of symbolism or creativity, but the rate of change of that creativity and its exuberant diversity, which resembles modern humans in their variation. Of course, own species has seen a ramp up in the rate of acceleration of cultural evolution. Consider that Egyptian culture maintained its basic outline for nearly 2,000 years, the same period which separates us from Classical Rome!

Related: John Hawks has more.