The cultural big bang hath died

Lascaux2One elegant model of the origin of modern humans as we understand them is that we exploded upon the hominin scene, and swept all before us with our suite of cultural creativity. This is the “Great Leap Forward” thesis, supported by the sudden appearance of symbolic expression in European ~40 thousand years ago. In this telling our “archaic” cousins were pre-humans at best, evolutionary dead ends. The archaeology in this case dovetailed with an extreme interpretation of the “Out of Africa” thesis, whereby H. sapiens sapiens issues fully formed in all its glory, and unleashes a demographic supernova on its cousins. Richard Klein’s The Dawn of Human Culture encapsulates this view in totality.

This model had many upsides. One of them was simplicity. Another is that our mental image of ourselves as sui generis, made in the imagine of the gods themselves, is suitably flattered. Unfortunately it seems entirely the case now that this model is wrong. The New York Times reports on the discovery of haunting symbolic expression on the island of Sulawesi, Cave Paintings in Indonesia May Be Among the Oldest Known:

A team of researchers reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday that paintings of hands and animals in seven limestone caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi may be as old as the earliest European cave art.

09cave-master1050The paper in Nature is Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Note that these findings are in Wallacea. Modern humans were certainly there around this time, though it is likely that there were also other lineages, such as H. floresiensis around. What all this is telling us is that we don’t know as much about the past as we think we did, and, that it was complex and multi-faceted.

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