Planet Earth

The Dawn of Abstract Art

By Zach ZorichJul 29, 2004 5:00 AM


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A trove of 75 beads from the Blombos Cave near Cape Town, South Africa, shows that the modern human mind may have taken shape at least 30,000 years earlier than generally believed. The perforated and worn mollusk shells date to 75,000 years ago, making them the earliest direct evidence of personal ornaments that can be interpreted as symbolic. 

Courtesy of C. Henshilwood and F. d’Errico

The perforations of these Nassarius shells show wear marks, indicating that they were used as beads.

“A human culture that is symbolic is able to create a double reality—the daily reality of hunting and gathering and the reality where humans are linked to things they cannot touch,” says Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France. Creation of abstract, artistic items represents a leap in the cognitive abilities and social complexity of humans. For instance, beads might have conveyed information that helped the people at Blombos interact with their neighbors and with each other. Based on her cross-cultural analysis of the role played by beads in traditional societies, Marian Vanhaeren, also a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, believes that the Blombos beads could have been used as a medium of exchange or as signs of the wearer’s tribal affiliation, marital status, or social role within the group.

Many other modern symbolic behaviors—such as language, tattooing, or body painting—do not survive in the archaeological record. Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway, who led the Blombos excavation, refers to the two engraved pieces of ocher (a type of red pigment) found in the same layers as the beads that are undoubtedly symbolic and suggests that the many pieces found in earlier layers might represent indirect evidence that symbolic behaviors existed even earlier. “I think humans had the capacity for symbolic thought probably 170,000 or 180,000 years ago,” he says. “The question is, at what stage did it become advantageous to use it?”

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