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Neandertals Adorned with Feathers, Thinking Symbolically September 22, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Here is a wonderful example of why I, as a philosopher, have a passion for every bit of new info and speculation coming out about human evolution. To me there is no deeper philosophical question than the one about human identity: Who are we? Who were we? And how do we differ from those who are our close relatives today (the apes), and who were our even closer living relatives in the past (now three separate relatively recent groups of hominins coexisting with early Homo sapiens: the Neandertals, the Denisovans, and the elusive “Hobbits”, Homo floresiensis)? The categories we used to indicate our human extraordinary nature have been steadily challenged in the last decades. We used to be the only tool users. Then, because we found that apes (and birds) use tools, too, we became the only tool makers. But apes and birds make tools, too. So we became the only rational species. Ah, but now it turns out that many other species are quite capable of basic reasoning. Then we were the only species that has self-recognition. But so do apes, dolphins, elephants, ravens, magpies, pigs, and maybe even (if we are to believe the very latest findings) all big-brained, social species. But aren’t we at least the only ones who deliberately create art, and use body decorations? Because a brain that can conceive of art and decorations is capable of thinking symbolically. As late as ten years ago the great anthropologist Ian Tattersall claimed that humans were the only ones with the capacity for symbolic thinking. The Neandertals, with their big brains, still didn’t count as a self-aware species because they didn’t have symbolic thinking. Well, according to Scientific American blogger Kate Wong, they did:

Experts agree that Neandertals hunted large game, controlled fire, wore animal furs and made stone tools. But whether they also engaged in activities deemed to be more advanced has been a matter of heated debate. Some researchers have argued that Neandertals lacked the know-how to effectively exploit small prey, such as birds, and that they did not routinely express themselves through language and other symbolic behaviors. Such shortcomings put the Neandertals at a distinct disadvantage when anatomically modern humans availed of these skills invaded Europe—which was a Neandertal stronghold for hundreds of thousands of years—and presumably began competing with them, so the story goes.

Over the past couple decades hints that Neandertals were savvier than previously thought have surfaced, however. Pigment stains on shells from Spain suggest they painted, pierced animal teeth from France are by all appearances Neandertal pendants. The list goes on. Yet in all of these cases skeptics have cautioned that the evidence is scant and does not establish that such sophistication was an integral part of the Neandertal gestalt.

But now some new results have come in: Neandertals, across the entire western Eurasia, wore feathers they harvested from birds of prey—in particular black feathers.

Exactly what the Neandertals were doing with the feathers is unknown, but because they specifically sought out birds with dark plumage, the researchers suspect that our kissing cousins were festooning themselves with the resplendent flight feathers. Not only are feathers beautiful, they are also lightweight, which makes them ideal for decoration, Finlayson points out. “We don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many modern human cultures across the world have used them.”

Speakers at a conference on human evolution held in Gibraltar last week extolled the study, and agreed with the team’s interpretation of the remains as evidence that Neandertals adorned themselves with the feathers as opposed to using them for some strictly utilitarian purpose. If the cutmarked bones from Gibraltar had been found in association with early modern humans, researchers would assume that the feathers were symbolic, says paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin notes. The same standards should apply to Neandertals. “We’ve got to now say that Neandertals were using birds. Period. They were using them a lot. They were wearing around their feathers,” he comments. “They clearly cared. A purely utilitarian kind of person does not put on a feathered headdress.”

So. The Neandertals had symbolic thinking after all. (And those researchers who pointed out, over ten years ago, that the jewelry found in Neandertal archeological sites would indicate as much, as well as the little fact that they buried their dead, they can now feel vindicated.) And how far back in time did the symbolic, self-aware thinking originate?


“[This] is something many of us thought was unique to Homo sapiens,” [John] Shea adds. “But [it] turns out to be either convergently evolved with Neandertals or more likely something phylogenetically ancient we simply haven’t picked up in the more ancient archaeological record. It’s probably something [our common ancestor] Homo heidelbergensis did, we just haven’t found archaeological evidence for it yet.”

Homo heidelbergensis. At least 500,000 years ago. So we are not unique in our symbolic thinking. Now that doesn’t mean humans are not exceptional. Of course we are. We have managed to extend our influence and interest into space (literally), and time, by our research and imagination, reaching into the dim past as well as affecting and imagining possible futures. We can leave our legacy through our languages, our imagery (provided it doesn’t all go digital and disappears), our artifacts, our music, our buildings (and also the strip mines, the polluted lakes, the mass graves of discarded civilians, and all the other less wonderful stuff that is part of human history). Our reach, for better and for worse, is far greater than the other social animals on this planet. But the point is, it now seems to be fundamentally a matter of degree, not of a radically different kind.  

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis June 11, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Art and Music, Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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Or: “Art is long, life is short.” In mid-May German archaeologists  announced that they had found a piece of three-dimensional art, a little figurine carved out of mammoth ivory depicting a naked woman, in the Hohle Fels Cave, a region that has already yielded interesting human artifacts, including the oldest known musical instrument, a flute. The style resembles the famous Venus of Willendorf and other fertility figurines, but “Venus” is only ca. 24,000 years old, and the newfound little statuette is older than any other three-dimensional depiction of a human, going back ca. 40,000 years.  Here are some dates to put this find into perspective: About 150,000-200,000 years ago Cro-Magnon humans traveled out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world. Cave art have been found dating back 75,000 years, and 40,000 years ago we humans were still sharing Europe and the Middle East with the last of the Neandertals.

Venus of Hohle Fels











Why is this so fascinating? Another headless, big-breasted figurine found in Europe—what is significant about that? Some commentators can’t get over those big breasts, and the exaggerated genitalia, and talk about “pornographic” images. Like many other conversations about art, those comment reveal more about the beholder than about the work of art. We have no idea what these little figurines were for. But we do have so many of them (albeit from a later time period) that we may be able to speculate: Certainly it might be that they were made by men, and for men, to add something tangible to their fantasies during lonely times—and what of it? I would assume that if there is anything that remains stable in the human condition, it is a natural preoccupation with sex. But in the archaeological community it hasn’t been the sexual aspect that has been accentuated, but the fertility symbolism: These figurines are not only “voluptuous,” they are apparently pregnant. For ancient cultures this may have been far more significant as a symbol of the fertility of the tribe, the herds, and nature itself, than being a sex-symbol  (then again, one does not preclude the other. We’re just so used to the Victorian and post-Victorian mindset where sex is dirty…) .

Thanks to scholars such as Marija Gimbutas and Gerda Lerner who have studied ancient cultures centered around female fertility, we may see these little figurines as stylized images of creative power. According to Gimbutas and Lerner, the worship of female fertility is linked to what is probably the oldest religion in the world, the worship of the Mother Goddess. Archaeological evidence seem to indicate that there was indeed a time, dating back some 8,000 years and beyond, where the Goddess worship was widespread all over the ancient world, and (according to Lerner) this would imply that the Goddess’s human representatives, the priestesses, would have had a prominent presence in the social structure.  Scholars don’t like to use the term matriarchy, because we have no evidence that women actually ruled in those ancient times, but there is enough evidence to suggest that women did play a more integrated role in society. So scholars prefer to talk about matrifocal or gynocentric values.  Now, thanks to the new find of the little figurine, added to the other Venus figurines from a later date, we can perhaps move this tradition back an additional 30,000 years, and speculate that a matrifocal system may have been in effect among the Cro-Magnon humans, even as the hunters outwitted or outcompeted the Neandertals. As Lerner would say, patriarchy has only been around for some 3500 years—but for most of our time as humans, we have been matrifocal. (We will talk about all this in my Fall 2009 class, Phil 125, Philosophy of Women, by the way!) Just for the record, in my personal opinion patriarchy is not the source of all evil, as it has often been presented by radical feminism, but it is a thought-provoking idea that a tradition preceding patriarchy can perhaps be anchored that far back in time, thanks to this new piece of evidence.

But we need not take sides about patriarchy and Goddess worship to see an additional significance to the little figurine: As a work of art, which it indisputably is, it speaks to us from across 40,000 years about the human capacity for symbolic thinking: Our language, our gestures, our artifacts, and the very ways we think utilize images and expressions to signify other images and expressions. The little headless figurine is probably intended to symbolize something: maybe Woman as such, maybe Fertility, maybe Mom, or Sweetheart, maybe the Goddess who Gives and Takes Away—we don’t know.  What we do know is that she has meant something—to he or she who carved her, and to the generations who kept her in their tribe. The little statuette has reached out, beyond the lifetime of the artist, to the future—which is what good art does. And that brings me back to the Latin proverb (translated from an even older Greek saying): Art is long, life is short. Life may be a lot longer for most of us than what the artist who carved the figurine could expect—some 30 years at the most. Still, each lifetime is not long enough to accomplish everything we’d like to accomplish, and experience and understand all there is to understand. But art ties generations together, and makes our short lives link up in a common experience transcending the individual lifespan. And thanks to the little figurine, Art just got a whole lot longer.