What It Means to Be Human Essay

Submitted By archanth
Words: 1777
Pages: 8

What it means to be human
The fascination with humanity’s African origins, singular or otherwise, remains unabated. Great strides in understanding the development of modern human beings are currently being taken at the very southern tip of Africa. While much of the press attention over the past few decades has been on the scholarly debate on whether humans evolved once in Africa, universally known as the "Out of Africa" theory, or several times all over the world, the "multiregional hypothesis", a quiet revolution has occurred centred on what it means to be human (Stringer and Gamble, 1993).

Within twentieth century archaeology and palaeontology, probably since the discovery of the Lascaux Caves in France, archaeologists have continually believed that, while anatomically modern Homo sapiens evolved somewhere between 100,000-150,000 years ago, humans didn't actually develop modern behaviours and thought processes until around 50,000-40,000 years ago (Wood, 1992). This event, known in some scientific circles as the "creative explosion," was announced by what researchers saw as an abrupt blossoming of symbolic thought; the ability to identify and create representations of entities. Thus, according to the creative explosion theory, H. sapiens displayed a recognisable intelligence equivalent to other hominids of the time, identifiable by the cave artwork at Lascaux. Further evidence of the initiation of modern human behaviour is alleged to include fishing, the manufacture of bone tools, and the use of decoration.

Following the initial interest in Africa during the early decades of the twentieth century, the majority of archaeological research moved to Europe. The overwhelming concentration on the visible prehistory of Europe, including both cave and portative artwork, resulted in a deficit of research into human origins in Africa. The research of the past forty years has indeed been remarkable in yielding up a great many fossil and cultural remains from a broad range of African environments. After a period of relative neglect, however, increasing attention was being given to the biological and behavioural changes that led to the evolution of H. sapiens, the last major even in human evolution. The triumph of archaeological research into the earliest prehistory of Africa was trumpeted by the archaeologist Desmond Clark in the Huxley Memorial Lecture of 1974. Titles “Africa in prehistory: peripheral or paramount?” it pointed to the overwhelming evidence from Africa for the origin of hominids, which overthrew the previous view “that the history of Europe is emphatically the prehistory of humanity.” (Clark,1975). Eventually, evidence of an earlier flourishing of the creative mind began to appear, south of the Zambezi River, and dated to the Mesolithic, the earliest date approximating 70,000 years ago. Similar artefact assemblages known as Howiesons Poort and Still Bay had been found at sites such as the Klasies River Caves, Boomplaas, and Die Kelders Cave I in South Africa (Grine et al., 2000). These sites included sophisticated bone tools, backed blades, a careful selection of raw material for stone tools and the use of a punch technique; however, most of these were controversial in one respect or another, until the discovery of Blombos Cave.

Research into the Blombos Cave assemblages have been undertaken since 1991, and artefacts identified have include sophisticated bone and stone tools, fish bones, and an abundance of used ochre (Leakey and Lewin, 1993). Ochre has no known economic function, and it is virtually universally accepted as a source of colour for ceremonial, decorative purposes. The Blombos Cave layers containing used ochre are dated 70,000 to 80,000 years BP, and, in 2004, a cluster of deliberately perforated and red-stained shell beads dating to the Mesolithic was found (Aiello and Dean, 1990). Without any obvious practical purpose these artefacts are currently interpreted as personal ornaments or jewellery,…