The Ice Age Mind: Indonesia update

Hand painting40,000 years ago people were thinking, believing and feeling like us in Europe. But what about elsewhere? New evidence has been found in Indonesia, which challenges some of what we thought we knew.

I wrote last year about the excellent Ice Age Mind exhibit at the British Museum, which had artefacts dating to 40,000 years ago which were:

the earliest evidence we have of humans who seem to have had minds like ours.

I also wrote about the excellent talk by Gamble and Zeki who were speculating that the shock of the Ice Age may have triggered this explosion of art. But, new evidence from Indonesia shows that this wasn’t the whole story. Paintings in a limestone cave on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia have recently been scientifically dated, despite being known for decades. When discovered, they were assumed to be 10,000 years old. But, these scientific dates has pushed back the date for their creation to 40,000 years old. Which, incidentally, shows why archaeological science is so important! This discovery shows that sophisticated cave painting was happening in Europe and southern Asia at roughly the same time. Only remnants now remain, but caves were originally probably filled with such work.

Prof Chris Stringer says (in the video, which is well worth watching) that this re-dating suggests that modern humans had already evolved this creativity before they spread out of Africa. This is supported by the work of archaeologists in Africa, such as Alison Brooks who has been working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Amongst other things, she has discovered carved-bone harpoon blades, dating from 90,000 years ago. Brooks uses this evidence, along with the evidence of carved ochre, the heat-treatment of quartz, and so on to argue that the modern human level of creativity arose at least 100,000 years ago in Africa. This pushes back the date of modern human creativity by 60,000 years.

Writing in the Observer , Robin McKie writes that all the evidence suggests that:

the roots of human intellect, our capacity for symbolic reasoning, our inventiveness and our ability to create works of figurative art, are part of our African birthright

In short there are very probably:

ancient African origins for the soul of human art and inventiveness

I think that he is right, which is very exciting, not least as it suggests that there are many more discoveries waiting to found over a much wider area than previously thought! I was also very interested in his use of the word ‘soul’. Because, this also feeds into the theological reflection of our origins as humans. When and how we were created in the image of God is something that needs more work both theologically and scientifically to discover.


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