13 January 2003
The oldest burial object?
They have called it Excalibur, though it was plucked from a pit of bones rather than the stone of Arthurian legend. To the ordinary eye it is a hand-sized, triangular chunk of ochre and purple rock, its surface slightly scratched. But the palaeontologists who found this axe-head buried in a deep cavern on a Spanish hilltop, it is the world's oldest burial artefact. The discovery of the axe-head placed among ancient bones in a cave at Atapuerca, near the city of Burgos in central Spain, started a fierce scientific debate about the exact moment when man's mind was lit by the spark of imagination and creativity.
Deliberately tossed into a primitive burial chamber, the placing of the axe was a ritual act and evidence that, in the minds of some very ancient Europeans, death had become something more than a mere, brutish fact of nature. This idea first dawned more than 350,000 years ago on the squat, powerful examples of Homo heidelbergensis whose remains are being slowly excavated from the so-called Pit of Bones at Atapuerca. The find means that man's development of a mind capable of thinking beyond reality and needs into a world of shared ideas, symbols, fantasy and imagination, may have developed 310,000 years earlier than was thought.
"The biggest debate in human evolution is when men's minds appeared, when the spark was lit," Ignacio Martinez, one of the Atapuerca team, told El Pais news paper. The only proof of that spark, he said, would come from rock art, the earliest examples of which are only 40,000 years old, from proof of language use or from burial ceremonies. The discovery at Atapuerca, if it turned out to be a true example of a ceremonial burial, would be remarkable. As such, it can expect to raise bitter controversy.
Experts said they were surprised and generally rather sceptical about Excalibur. "If they could prove it, it would be staggering," said Dr Michael Petraglia, lecturer at Cambridge University's Leverhulme centre for human evolutionary studies. "It would push intentional or symbolic thought back much further than is currently accepted."
The Atapuerca team have produced some of the most remarkable palaeontological finds of the past decade, producing 350,000-year-old crania and proof that Homo heidelbergensis was a cannibal. They seemed yesterday to have the backing of at least one scientific heavyweight for their claims that these were also thinking, imaginative, potentially artistic cannibals. Even if Homo heidelbergensis was an intelligent, creative, artistic type, it did him no good. He eventually evolved into a neanderthal and then became extinct. Homo sapiens came out of Africa to replace him.
Source: The Guardian (9 January 2003 http://www.guardian.co.uk/)