Human pre-history keeps changing. Buried down on the list of year-end science stories that grabbed headlines in 2018 — somewhere between the growing impact of livestock on planet Earth’s increasingly fragile ecosystems and speculation about how Bajau ‘sea nomads’ deep-diving the waters off southern Philippines have changed the way we think about natural selection — was newly discovered evidence that Europe’s hegemony on humankind’s story may be misplaced.
In November, a newly uncovered cave painting of a wild banteng, a kind of wild cattle, on Borneo was found to be 40,000 years old, older than the prehistoric Lion-man ivory sculpture discovered in a limestone cave in southern Germany’s Hohlenstein cliffs region, in 1939.
The Lion-man, dubbed Löwenmensch, was important to science because, until this past year, it was believed to be oldest-known animal-shaped sculpture in the world and, more importantly, the oldest-known uncontested example of figurative art — proving that, while humankind’s early ancestors might have walked out of Africa, it was in Europe where those same ancestors first learned to appreciate art.
That was the theory, anyway.
It was always bound to be controversial, and not just because it caters to a specifically Eurocentric view of civilization but because of nitpicking over artistic interpretation. Carbon dating determined a flaked stone found in Blombos Cave in South Africa — a stone with hashed patterns made by an ochre crayon — was at least 70,000 years old, but the experts decided the markings “fell short” of being identifiable art.
Evidence of identifiable art is important to palaeontologists and art historians alike because it supposedly shows the emergence of minds like our own — civilized, if you will, and reflective of behavioural modernity. Modern-day Homo sapiens are smarter than Homo neanderthalensis — Neanderthals — the thinking goes, because we can tell Michelangelo from Andy Warhol. (Even by this reckoning, early Neanderthals may not have been not as dumb as they looked: a cave wall discovered on Spain’s Cantabrian coast in February of this past year revealed abstract paintings of mysterious figures dating back some 65,000 years; the only people known to be living in northern Spain at the time were Homo neaderthalensis.) As Dr. Adam Rutherford, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science, remarked in a year-end essay for a UK news site, “Neanderthals were simply people, too.”
As human population expands and northern glaciers recede, more and more previously unexplored quarries and caves are being examined and scrutinized. Who knows what hidden tales the coming year will uncover?
Humankind’s history has not been written just yet. Only the early chapters.