Does Humanity = Creativity?

6 Feb

Pech Merle cave art

Today, I am pleased to share the guest post below in place of my own. It is written by my mother, who was inspired by an article she read that  tries to shed light on the question of when human creativity began.  I believe the two are inextricably entertwined – that we humans are, and always have been, creative, even in our earliest forms.  What do you think?

The Origin of Human Creativity

By Caroline Lanker

Recently, I spent some time catching up on the 4 Chicks and a Muse blog – reading the latest blog posts and watching the latest video clips.  Coincidently, the same day, I was going through some old magazines and happened to re-read an article in the August 2010 issue of Scientific American, “When the Sea Saved Humanity,” by Curtis W. Marean.

The article centers on a time in human history – over 100,000 years ago – when the earth was in the grips of an ice age.  The climate of Africa was exceedingly dry and harsh then.   Genetic studies indicate that the population of Homo sapiens plummeted during that time, as shown by an unusual lack of diversity in the human genome compared to other species.

Our species, which had arisen during much more hospitable conditions, somehow hung on in small groups somewhere in Africa.  Marean and his colleagues went looking for a place where humans lived during that ice age. They found one such place in a series of caves near the seashore on the southern tip of South Africa.

What they found in those caves was more than just survival of our species. They found evidence of sophisticated behavior at an early stage in our history.  One such type of evidence is the “…evidence of art or other symbolic activities…”

This may have been a surprise to some, as the article explains, “For years the earliest examples of these behaviors were all found in Europe and dated to after 40,000 years ago.  …researchers concluded that there was a long lag between the origin of our species and the emergence of our peerless creativity.”

Wow! I have read about scientific debates over the beginnings of modern human thought many times.  But I don’t recall the term “creativity” being used in that context before.

In the article, Marean describes three lines of evidence of modern human thought/creativity going back to the earliest level (164,000 years ago) of the cave he and his colleagues excavated.  First, there was evidence of complex technology in the heat treatment of stone to make it suitable for making stone tools.  As he describes it,

“The making of silcrete blades [the particular tools that showed evidence of heat treating] requires a complex series of carefully designed steps…”

cc-by-sa-3.0 Guerin Nicolas

Second, there was evidence of art.

“In the oldest layers of [the cave], my team has unearthed dozens of pieces of red ochre (iron oxide) that were variously carved and ground to create a fine powder that was probably mixed with a binder such as animal fat to make paint that could be applied to the body or other surfaces.”

Third, he explains that the shellfish that provided a substantial part of the cave dwellers food could only be gathered safely during particularly low tides.  The people must have timed their forays to collect shellfish by the phases of the moon.  The latter connection is a bit more tenuous than the other evidence, but quite reasonable.

Altogether, the artifacts found in the cave and the investigations of them provide persuasive evidence of creative thought as long ago as 164,000 years.

I do not find that to be remarkable, actually.  In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, scientists prefer the “simplest” explanation for everything.   In the former absence of evidence of modern human thought before about 40,000 years ago, some scientists developed the hypothesis that humans somehow developed modern thought long after the origin of our species.   However, the small amount of genetic diversity in our species seems inconsistent with that hypothesis.

In my opinion, the simplest explanation would be that human creativity developed with the origin of our species.  To believe otherwise is to posit that the complex development of modern human cognition arose with little or no genetic modification.

I, of course, have no credentials that would qualify me to enter the scientific debate, nor any new evidence to provide.  But I read with interest about the possible origins of human creativity and tied it together with the 4 Chicks’ thoughts on the universality of human creativity.

A number of years ago, Peggy (Pursuing the Muse) and I were fortunate to see for ourselves some cave art dating back tens of thousands of years when we saw some of the famous Paleolithic art in a cave called Pech Merle, near Cahors in the Lot river valley of France.  You can see images of the paintings or take a virtual tour of the cave at www.quercy.net/pechmerle/english/introduction.html.

To read the full text of the Scientific American article (or a free excerpt) go to www.scientificamerican.com and search in the Archives section.

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