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21 October 2003
The birth of modern minds

The theory that the emergence of modern Europeans was the result of a cultural Big Bang dating back 40,000 years will be challenged in a Last Word lecture in London (England) next month. Current dogma holds that the critical stage in the development of the modern mind coincides with the period when homo sapiens reached Europe from Africa. At this time our European ancestors began to decorate their bodies with beads, pendants and tattoos; they created cave art and stone figurines. The use of symbols and bodily adornment has been taken to indicate a step change in the way that humans thought about themselves and the world at large.
     Lord Renfrew, Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, would argue that art, like genetic research on brain development, does not tell the whole story of our cultural origins. Genetics suggest that modern ‘big brains’ emerged, with homo sapiens, 150,000 years ago and were fully developed about 60,000 years ago. Recent finds in South Africa have pushed back the earliest use of symbol to 70,000 years ago. Lord Renfrew suggests that the accepted 40,000 year threshold for artistic activity must therefore be questioned and points out that either side of this threshold – the boundary between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic – people lived in much the same way. Indeed, there is little evidence of innovation for another 30,000 years. His conclusion is that the modern brain represents the necessary ‘hardware’ for cultural development, but that the ‘software’ – the mental processes - that drove innovation was created by specific conditions. These conditions did not arise until 10,000 years ago, when the first permanent villages allowed our ancestors to work together in a more settled way. Villages were the result of the spread of agri-pastoralism, firstly through the Middle East from around 8,000 BCE and then into Europe. A similar process is recognisable in other parts of the world.
     Agriculture, domestic animals and permanent residences produced the concept of property and a requirement for mathematics and a written language to keep a tally of possessions. Lord Renfrew suggests that these were the catalysts that created the true ‘modern mind’. His argument would seem to indicate that modernism rode in on the wave of the Neolithic that spread westwards across Europe from the Middle East from about 7000 BCE onwards, reaching the Atlantic west by about 4000 BCE.
     The Last Word lecture will take place at lunchtime on 4 November at The Royal Geographical Society, London. ‘Figuring it Out’ by Colin Renfrew is published by Thames & Hudson.

Source: telegraph.co.uk (15 October 2003)

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