Saturday, April 03, 2004

New Scientist - Ostrich Beads Indicate Early Symbolic Thought

I've long held that the notion of a uniquely European "creative explosion" in the Upper Paleolithic was an absurdity, an artifact arising from the fact that most of those who'd bothered to look for evidence from the period happened to be Europeans looking on their home-ground. Earlier finds from South Africa dating back to c. 77,000 BC had already begun to cast doubt on the old story, but this latest news makes it even less plausible than before that modern human creativity post-dated the dispersal out of Africa 50,000 years ago.

Stone Age beads revealed by archaeologists on Wednesday could be the strongest evidence yet that humans developed sophisticated symbolic thought much earlier than once thought.

The ostrich egg beads and numerous other artefacts, including ochre pencils, carved bone and stone tools, were recovered from the Loiyangalani River Valley, in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

The archaeologists who discovered the relics have yet to date them precisely, but believe they originate from the African Middle Stone Age - between 280,000 and 45,000 years ago. This is because they were found in a sedimentary layer along with many items characteristic of the Middle Stone Age.

They believe that the carefully worked ostrich beads, which have no use as tools, provide the clearest evidence to date that humans could think symbolically before 35,000 years ago. That is the time when artwork and sophisticated artefacts start to appear commonly, although so far only outside Africa.

"I'm fairly sure that these items are very old, and if that is so this could be a very important site," says Audax Mabulla, one of the archaeologists behind the find from the University of Dar er Salaam in Tanzania. "The beads are unambiguous examples of symbolic behaviour."

Mental capabilities

The ostrich egg beads were probably made by cracking ostrich eggs, boring holes into the pieces and then smoothing them. Ethnographic records show that similar pieces of jewellery are often used by modern hunter-gatherer groups for trading or other forms of social interaction.

But not everyone is convinced that the Loiyangalani find proves that the earliest "modern" humans had similar mental capabilities and social structures.

"It is certainly debatable whether ostrich egg beads are symbolic," says Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in the UK. "If they can convincingly date them, they also need to demonstrate that they are symbolic rather than simply decorative."

Pettitt also points out that 70,000-year-old ochre crayons, covered with carvings that might have symbolic relevance, have already been recovered from the Blombos Cave in South Africa. Mabulla and his US colleagues acknowledge this, but argue that the ostrich shell beads are much less ambiguous.

Paul Pettitt is simply splitting hairs; what difference is there between saying something is symbolic as opposed to decorative? Is it even meaningful to speak of a thing being decorative without carrying symbolic meaning? I rather doubt it.

However one chooses to parse this find, the bottom line is that it is evidence of behavior that is simply unheard of amongst earlier species of men; to date, not a single item of a decorative nature, or even one made of anything other than stone, has been found that could be unambigously attributed to Neandertals, H. Erectus or any other archaic populations. These ostrich egg beads, ochre pencils and carved bone tools are indisputably hallmarks of a modern sensibility.