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12 December 2014
The origins of symbolic thought

Three years ago on an expedition to Sulawesi, one of the larger islands in the Indonesia archipelago, archaeologist Adam Brumm visited a cave decorated with ancient art: hand stencils, paintings of corpulent pig-deer and midget buffalo, and silhouettes of human hands speckled with growths of calcite known as "cave popcorn."
     A year later, Brumm returned with his colleague Maxime Aubert, a specialist in using trace amounts of uranium in calcite deposits to determine precise dates for ancient rock art. Researchers had long assumed that Sulawesi's cave paintings were less than 10,000 years old, but Brumm and Aubert's analysis revealed that one hand stencil is at least 39,900 years old - the oldest hand stencil on record. A nearby painting of a female pig-deer was estimated to be 35,400 years old - one of the most ancient examples of figurative art.
     Brumm says: "There has always been the belief that a light switched on in Europe, and there was this efflorescence of creativity. That's not the case. On the other side of the world, the same thing was going on at the same time."
     The use of symbolism appears to have emerged early on in Africa and spread from there. Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen, Norway, has found compelling evidence of pre-European symbolism in South Africa's Blombos cave. When he first started excavating there in 1991, few researchers believed that symbolism might have emerged before 50,000 years ago. At Blombos, Henshilwood and his team unearthed a 100,000-year-old animal-bone paintbrush, and abalone shells in which prehistoric humans mixed pulverised red ocher with bone marrow, charcoal and water to form a colourful paste. The cave also contained an ocher slab with 75,000-year-old geometric engravings and 41 sea-snail shells drilled through with holes so they could be strung as beads.
     To make hand axes - the oldest of which date to 1.76 million years ago - early hominins had to imagine a finished tool in a lump of rock. A few ancient hand axes are so handsome, large, and heavy, that some researchers argue they were not intended for practical use.
     Three million years ago in South Africa, an ancient hominin stumbled onto a red jasperite pebble resembling a face, carrying it back to a home base several kilometres away where it was found by modern researchers. Palaeolithic hominins also collected fossilised coral, snails and shellfish.

Edited from The New York Times (5 December 2014)

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