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Early Dates for Artistic Europeans

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Science  01 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6085, pp. 1086-1087
DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6085.1086

For 150 years, Geissenklösterle and other prehistoric caves in southwest Germany have yielded evidence of ancient human culture. The earliest known musical instruments—flutes of bird bone and mammoth ivory—were found in these caves, as were the earliest mythical figurines, both testaments to the creative powers of ancient people. Now new radiocarbon dates put modern humans in Geissenklösterle several thousand years earlier than previously thought. As far back as 42,000 years ago, while the last Neandertals were hanging on in western and southern Europe, modern humans were carving sculptures and making music in central Europe.

The early dates, published online last month in the Journal of Human Evolution, also suggest to some researchers that certain artistic behaviors emerged first in Europe rather than Africa. “Very special things were clearly happening in this small area” of Germany, says archaeologist Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Artistic explosion?

Musical instruments, figurines, and mythical creatures such as the lion-man (right) are first known from Germany, suggesting that some cultural innovations may have taken place after modern humans left Africa.

CREDITS (COUNTER CLOCKWISE LEFT TO RIGHT): H. JENSEN., © EBERHARD KARLS UNIVERSITY TÜBINGEN; PETER FRANKENSTEIN, HENDRIK ZWIETASCH; LANDESMUSEUM WÜRTTEMBERG, STUTTGART; PHOTO BY THOMAS STEPHAN © ULMER MUSEUM

Thus the dates bear on three of the most hotly debated questions in human evolution: When and where did Homo sapiens first enter Europe; why did the Neandertals go extinct soon afterward; and where did modern human creativity first sprout?

Archaeologists have been working at Geissenklösterle and other caves in the Swabian Jura since the 1860s; archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany has led the dig for the past 16 years. These long excavations have revealed a rich trove of artifacts, including eight flutes previously dated to about 35,000 years ago and sophisticated stone tools. The artworks include beads made of ivory and animal teeth; figurines of horses and bison; a half-lion, half-man statuette; and a bizarre figurine of a human female (Science, 6 November 2009, p. 784).

Artifacts of this type are typical of the Aurignacian culture, long thought to have been made by the first modern humans who entered Europe. (Some recent research, such as that based on discoveries at the 45,000-year-old site of Grotta del Cavallo near Apulia, Italy, suggests that modern humans could have been in Europe before the Aurignacian, but there's no consensus on this suggestion.)

In the new study, Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and colleagues used a new technique called ultrafiltration to remove contaminants from radiocarbon samples, and also used statistical approaches that improve dating accuracy. Using samples from animal bones, the researchers dated the earliest layers at Geissenklösterle to between 42,000 and 43,000 years ago, and the site's artwork and musical instruments to at least 40,000 years ago. “The results show clearly that artistic expression and complex behavior came to Europe by 42,000 years ago,” Higham says. John Hoffecker, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says the new dates “are entirely credible, and I think they'll be widely accepted.”

That means that the Aurignacians were making art while Neandertals were still in Europe. Neandertals themselves began making personal ornaments and other symbolic objects in France and Spain about 40,000 years ago, shortly before they went extinct. Many researchers had argued that Neandertals learned these talents from incoming moderns. But some, notably archaeologists João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and Francesco D'Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France, have contended fiercely that moderns didn't arrive until about 38,500 years ago, and that the Neandertals invented these art forms independently. The dating was ambiguous enough to prolong the debate. Now Higham's results knock that contention “out of the water,” Mellars says.

But Zilhão doesn't see it that way, citing what he says are inconsistencies in the dating at Geissenklösterle, and saying that layers in the cave may have been mixed. “There is a group of colleagues on a mission from God to put modern humans in Europe early enough to be the authors” of early symbolism, “thereby putting Neandertals back where they ‘deserve’ to be,” Zilhão complains.

The earlier dates may also add weight to Conard's longstanding assertion that the Aurignacian represented a new stage in the cultural evolution of modern humans. Many researchers think that symbolic behaviors such as the use of beads originated in Africa as early as 100,000 years ago (Science, 30 January 2009, p. 569).

But when modern humans entered Europe via what Conard calls the “Danube Corridor,” they faced new challenges, including, possibly, competition with Neandertals as well as the colder climate. Conard argues that this new situation sparked cultural innovation, including four new forms of art found first in Europe: mythical images such as the lion-man; beads carved in three dimensions rather than made of pierced natural shells and teeth; figurines; and musical instruments. “You wouldn't expect everything to evolve 100% in Africa,” Conard says, adding that the cultural innovations may have reflected new systems of belief.

Some others agree. “The Aurignacian record for symbolic representation is quantitatively and qualitatively light-years beyond the African record,” says archaeologist Randall White of New York University in New York City. Mellars has argued that the apparent explosion of symbolic activity in Europe reflects social networking among denser populations (Science, 29 July 2011, p. 623). And some researchers suggest that the lack of independent art in Neandertals was part of a package of small population sizes or other disadvantages that sped their extinction.

But others aren't ready to concede that something special happened when moderns reached Europe. Anthropologist Alison Brooks of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has long argued that the supposed cultural explosion in Europe was a “revolution that wasn't” (Science, 4 May, p. 530). She notes that recent dating of paintings at the Apollo 11 rock shelter in Namibia—which include a half-human, half-animal depiction—puts them at 30,000 years ago, in the ballpark of some of the oldest cave paintings in Europe. “The people who left Africa already had these capabilities but either didn't express them or, more likely, the poor organic preservation and lack of deep caves in Africa” has made it difficult to find such evidence, Brooks says. Hoffecker agrees: “It doesn't make sense to me that the capacity for visual art and music in modern humans would evolve or develop independently in different places and times.”

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