Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Ancient humans and the dawn of consciousness

by Rob - June 27th, 2006.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

A number of people have drawn this BBC science story to my attention, which reports on the discovery of what might be a human necklace, and might be 90,000 or 100,000 years old. In my “Neanderthal Parallax” trilogy (beginning with Hominids), I make much of the so-called “Great Leap Forward” — the notion that modern human consciousness emerged spontaneously some 40,000 years ago. Artifacts of personal adornment dating back to 90,000 or 100,000 years ago might — as one email correspondent put it — “debunk” this.

Maybe. But we’ve been down this road before. In the 1970s, it was the “Clan of the Cave Bear” — the belief, now completely discredited, that Neanderthals worshipped cave bears. In the 1990s, we had the Neanderthal bone flute — except it wasn’t a flute at all; it was just a bone gnawed by a predator. There was also the so-called Neanderthal/modern hybrid child, a pretty wild assertion to make without a skull.

All of these have been discredited, and I wouldn’t be the least surprised if this necklace is discredited, too. First, of course, because the aging is suspect: the 100,000-year figure doesn’t come from carbon-dating the shells (which could have been ancient, anyway, by the time they acquired holes), but rather from the sediment in the shell. Yeah, well, these are small shells found inside a cave; they’re going to be pounded down into the dirt by generations of human and nonhuman cave inhabitants; where they happened to end up doesn’t tell us much about where they started.

And, second, because, like the supposedly clearly-caused-by-humans holes in the so-called bone flute, these hole might turn out to have another cause (such as birds pecking into the shells to eat the mollusk within, or even autistic-style perseverative behavior; the relationship between the dawn of consciousness and autism, with its compulsive, repetitious actions such as, oh, say, pounding holes in shells, is something I might touch on in my next book).

And, third, of course, two shells does not a necklace make — and that’s all that have been found together.

Of course, I’ll watch this story with interest, but whenever someone wants to push a date back this far, I’m a hard sell. Like the now discredited Martian meteorite with supposed fossils in it (yes, it’s really from Mars; no, it doesn’t contain any fossils), this sort of announcement always gets major news coverage, and if/when it’s eventually disproven, that’s almost never reported with the same fanfare.

Geeky sidenote: don’t the shells (top) really look like Sleestak skulls from Land of the Lost (bottom)?

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