Tuesday, October 18, 2011

100,000-year-old cave art studio means our ancestors might be smarter than we thought

Early humans were mixing and storing ochre 100,000 years ago in Blombos Cave


While the human race wasn't playing games until about 4,000 years ago, it was certainly busy with paint. Deep within a cave on Southern tip of Africa, archaeologists just made a landmark discovery that pushes back the date of the earliest known painting by early humans. Previously, historians had placed the era that Homo sapiens first began mixing earth pigments for paint at 60,000 years ago, while the first known cave paintings date back 40,000 years.

The painting studio just discovered in Blombos Cave (a cliffside history-rich hotspot located 200 miles east of Cape Town) dates back an unprecedented 100,000 years. The cave housed an assortment of primitive mortar and pestle-like tools and the golden yellow mineral mixture known as ochre, which was commonly used for painting and body art in the ancient world.

The discovery isn't just making a splash in the world of archaeology. The selection of ochre-tinged tools suggests that these early Homo sapiens were capable executing higher level mental tasks just like more modern brains. Not only did they also have a basic command of chemistry that allowed them to mix the mineral pigments, but findings in the cave indicate that they stored materials and planned ahead in mixing the paint.

Displaying "the conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices" these early humans exercised advance thinking and long-term planning — two of the most sophisticated cognitive behaviors and the exclusive domain of only the most developed mammals. Considering that humans didn't reach what is known as full behavioral modernity until 50,000 years ago, the sophistication of these ancient paint-mixers is shaking things up across research disciplines.

According to the report, the discovery that our ancestors were planning ahead 100,000 years ago "is a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition" — no small praise for the ancient painters, or the evolution of the human race. 

Original Article

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