itish Archaeology, no 15, June 1996: Features


Explaining the early human mind

It was advanced in some ways, primitive in others, says Steve Mithen

One of the most intriguing problems about early humans is the paradoxical nature of their minds. Early humans - such as Homo erectus, archaic Homo sapiens, and Neanderthal Man, living between 1.8 million and 30,000 years ago - appear to have had sophisticated abilities in some areas of behaviour, and `primitive' abilities in others. How can this be?

Early human stone tools, for instance, including handaxes and `levallois' stone points, required as much intelligence to make as the stone tools of anatomically modern humans. However, their tools made from bone, antler or ivory appear to be no more than unmodified pieces - in dramatic contrast to the elaborate carved items used by `modern' hunter-gatherer societies.

A similar paradox concerns the interaction of early humans with the natural world. Many, if not all, early humans would have required detailed knowledge of animal behaviour to have survived in their Pleistocene environments. All modern hunter-gatherers are expert natural historians and it is difficult to believe that early humans could have successfully hunted or even scavenged animal carcasses without a similar knowledge of the natural world.

Yet when hunting animals, early humans used the simplest of technologies - short thrusting spears. Modern humans, by contrast, deploy a wide range of specialised tools, designed for hunting specific types of animals in specific circumstances. They draw on their natural history knowledge when designing their tools, and this considerably improves their hunting efficiency and safety. Neanderthals surely could have benefited from such tools, as practically all Neanderthal skeletons show injuries probably from hunting, and few survived over the age of about 40.

So if Neanderthals had great technical skills, as evident from their stone tools, and knowledge of animal behaviour evident from their subsistence activities, why did they not combine these to invent some respectable hunting weapons?

Yet another paradox relates to language. Neanderthal brain size and shape, for example, imply a linguistic capacity - the use of sounds as symbols - but there is no trace of symbolic artefacts in their material culture. How can this be explained?

In my view, the early human mind may have been similar to a Romanesque cathedral. These are characterised by having several chapels separated from each other by thick walls and low vaults, so that the sounds of services in one chapel are almost inaudible elsewhere in the cathedral. The intelligence that early humans used to make stone tools, or to understand animal behaviour or the social world, may have been `trapped' in parts of the mind like these chapels, unable to be heard in the rest of the mind.

One consequence of having this `Romanesque' mental architecture, where thought is conducted in isolated chapels devoted to specific domains of behaviour, is that early humans would have had difficulty conceiving of just those things that are missing from the archaeological record - things such as tools specifically designed for particular animals, or artefacts made from parts of animals themselves. All of these require an integration of knowledge from different `cognitive domains'.

The metaphor of the cathedral can, in my view, be extended to explain the development of more modern minds. In later Gothic cathedrals, sound and light emanating from different parts of the building are allowed to flow freely, unimpeded by walls and vaults, to produce a sense of almost unlimited space. Compare the modern mind, in which ideas and knowledge combine to produce the possibility of almost unlimited imagination and inventiveness. The modern mind is one in which the thick walls that had previously separated thought into isolated chapels are knocked down.

The critical period of our past, when this mental development occurred, seems to have been between 100,000 and 30,000 years ago. This is the time when the first modern humans appear, together with art, complex tools, and personal decoration.

Striking evidence that this type of `architectural redesign' took place in the human mind lies in the way that, as soon as we see modern humans, the divide between the human and animal world begins to collapse. In the caves of Qafzeh and Skhull in the Near East, for instance, the earliest modern humans not only buried their dead but also placed parts of animals in the graves, implying some connection between certain people and specific types of animals. And in the first representational art of Europe 30,000 years ago, we find anthropomorphic images, such as the lion/man figure from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany. Totemism and anthropomorphic thinking, both of which are universal to modern hunter-gatherers, had arisen.

Dr Steve Mithen is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Reading. His book, The Prehistory of the Mind, will be published by Thames & Hudson in September.


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A clear picture of Scotland's loch-dwellers is emerging, write Nicholas Dixon and Barrie Andrian

Social prehistory on Scottish lochs

Crannogs are an overlooked part of Scotland's heritage, perhaps because these ancient loch-dwellings survive today primarily as little more than submerged boulder-mounds and islands topped by stands of trees.

However, these defensive homesteads figured prominently throughout Scotland's past as flourishing waterborne communities that lasted for centuries and came to play an important part in clan refuge and warfare. They were occupied as early as the Neolithic period, some 5,000 years ago, until the 17th century AD, a testimony to the skills and ingenuity of early craftsmen and to the security provided by island living.

Crannog research in Scotland began in the 19th century, although records were kept before then by members of the clergy. The discovery of numerous lake-dwellings in Switzerland in 1853 as a result of unusually low water levels sparked a resurgence of interest in Scotland. Since then several crannogs have been investigated in part, but in most cases, the research faced problems because of waterlogging. The results from this early work and from more modern research indicate that Scottish prehistoric crannogs were very different from most of the lake-dwellings of Europe, many of which were grouped in villages of rectangular dwellings on the edges of lakes.

Most Scottish crannogs, by contrast, appear to have consisted of a single thatched roundhouse, deliberately built out in the water for protection from wild animals and invaders. Based on the results of our underwater surveys and excavations, we now know that the crannogs were built as free-standing timber pile-dwellings in the lochs of woodland environments, and as circular or sub-circular stone buildings on man-made or modified natural rocky islands in more barren environments.

There are many crannogs in Ireland, one known example in Wales, but none in England. More than 400 are known in Scotland but, as there are more than 30,000 lochs in the country, the total number is likely to run into thousands. In Loch Tay, Perthshire, where we have been excavating periodically since 1980, there are 18. At one of these, the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age site of Oakbank Crannog, waterlogging has made the preservation of organic materials spectacular. Surviving structural remains include the original pointed alder posts of the supporting platform, floor timbers and hazel hurdles forming walls and partitions, as well as the posts that once provided a walkway to the shore.

The finds from the site paint an amazingly clear picture of the lifestyle of the crannog-dwellers in the area, and increase our knowledge of this period in prehistory. Wooden domestic utensils, finely woven cloth, beads, and even food and plant remains have all been well preserved. We know that the crannog-dwellers kept cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, and produced dairy products including butter, which in one instance was found still adhering to a wooden dish probably only discarded because it had split apart.

Most crannogs are situated opposite good agricultural land, and the discovery of a wooden cultivation implement at Oakbank Crannog, together with grain and pollen evidence, indicates a local population of peaceful farmers. They grew a range of cereal crops including spelt, an early form of wheat previously thought imported by the Romans. These loch-dwellers also cultivated a taste for parsley which is not indigenous to Scotland, and therefore perhaps indicative of trade with people further south or on the Continent.

The crannog-dwellers went to some trouble in search of the finer things in life.They supplemented their diet with a range of nuts and berries including hazelnuts, wild cherries and sloes, but they had to make an extra effort to pick cloudberries, which only grow up on the mountains. They also made special trips to higher ground to collect branches of pine to make tapers or `fir candles'.

Every discovery raises more questions; and in an effort to address at least one unknown area, we have embarked on a project to learn how our ancestors built their timber houses in several metres of water. Working under the auspices of the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology and Edinburgh University, we are now constructing as authentically as possible a full-size crannog in the shallows of Loch Tay. Partly an experiment to answer constructional questions, the project also hopes to raise awareness of these enigmatic dwellings. The new crannog will formally open to the public next Easter.

Dr Nicholas Dixon is a Research Fellow in Archaeology at Edinburgh University. Barrie Andrian is the Projects Director for the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology.


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The evidence for sexual activity in prehistory has been overlooked, writes Timothy Taylor

Uncovering the prehistory of sex

The division of the sexes underpins many of the social structures of the moden world, while sex as an activity is an endless source of pleasure, pain, and controversy (as well as offspring). Leading anthropologists have claimed that sex in its two senses - social and physical - has played a central role in all known human societies.

But what of prehistory? Gender - broadly the social aspects of sex - is now recognised as an important field of study; but with a few rare exceptions, sexual activity in the prehistoric period remains unexamined.

The reasons are complicated. Prudery has kept some artefacts of a sexual nature out of museum displays, while many others have been considered as primarily to do with ritual and the gods (and therefore somehow atypical of actual practice). I believe this unease stems from a modern belief that premodern sex was essentially a reproductive activity (and that if it wasn't, it ought to have been).

The reality is that the conscious separation of sex from reproduction is as characteristic of premodern societies as of our own. As soon as there are written records, some 5,000 years ago in the Near East, we find references to many of the sexual practices - homosexuality, male and female transexualism and transvestism, masturbation - familiar to us today.

Moreover, the knowledge of contraception necessary for heterosexual activity to become recreational is deep-rooted. For instance silphium, a type of giant fennel, had become extinct by the late Roman period because of high demand in the Roman world for effective family planning. Its active ingredient was probably ferujol which, in clinical trials with rats, acts as an early-term abortifacient (like the morning-after pill). Ferujol is found in other species today, but it is just one of a vast range of powerful naturally-occurring contraceptive or abortifacient drugs employed in traditional societies worldwide today and extensively used in Europe until the 16th century.

Furthermore, the 40,000-year-old remains of borage processing from Doura Cave, Syria, suggests that the medicinal qualities of plants were valued by early hunter-gatherers (although in this case not for contraception: borage contains substances that alleviate Alzheimer's and premenstrual syndrome, and are aphrodisiac), while the practice of plant-based self-medication among wild primates suggests that such knowledge may go back millions of years.

The earliest substantial body of surviving material relating to human sexual culture is the art of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic, including paintings of half-bestial males with erections, rock-cut vulvas, carved phallic batons, and nude female `Venus' figurines.

Many of the most obvious aspects of the Ice Age material have passed without mention. The human images, dating at the earliest to just before 30,000BP, provide the earliest unequivocal evidence of human nakedness (although the loss of body hair almost certainly emerged far earlier). The art neither correlates with the evolutionary emergence of modern humans (which took place 100,000 years earlier), nor is it the earliest art. What is truly significant about Upper Palaeolithic art is not that it is art, but that it has survived en masse. It is the wide distribution, large numbers, and durability of the Venus figurines that requires explanation.

Out of 200 known figurines from the Russian steppelands to the Atlantic seaboard, unequivocal male figurines are absent. Carved phalluses (`batons') are quite common, while the presence of male images in cave art (some of them probably contemporary with the figurines) suggests no taboo on representing male forms per se. But male forms were not made in miniature, exchangeable form.

The female figurines are portable and transferable images; they are naked except for occasional cord- work that emphasizes the breasts, and which restricts more than it covers the body (the earliest direct evidence for sexual dressing), and they are typically faceless. Whatever their precise meaning and use (which is probably forever lost), the figurines objectify women as a category. Their simple nakedness is also likely to have carried an erotic charge in a cold, Ice Age society where physical nudity must have been an uncommon sight (as in Victorian Britain).

Symbolically, they could reflect the movement of women between Ice Age communities, which I believe practised polygyny. Evidence for polygyny includes the fact that males in cave art are often identified with stags and bison, animals that control harems - there is, for instance, a carved piece of reindeer bone from the Dordogne which shows a stag with erect penis standing over a supine doe/woman. And we know that the stag was venerated by the polygynous Iron Age Scythians of the Caucasus.

This idea contrasts sharply with the view, popularised by the late Marija Gimbutas, that Upper Palaeolithic society was a goddess-worshipping matriarchy. Gimbutas thought that the reign of the `Great Mother Goddess' persisted throughout the transition to farming, the peace being finally shattered by the arrival of violently patriarchal steppe nomads at the end of the Neolithic period. Vanishingly few of Gimbutas's Mother Goddesses actually mother in a standard Madonna-and-Child manner, but Gimbutas claimed that many were pregnant.

One of her key examples was a Neolithic recumbent clay figurine from Hagar Qim, Malta: `With upraised legs and hand at swollen vulva, this figurine seems ready to give birth. Do the nine lines across her back represent the nine months of gestation? ' But her interpretation embodies too many modern Western assumptions. Traditional societies generally calculate the duration of pregnancy by the moon, by which it lasts about ten, not nine months. The figure's belly is only slightly swollen, and the posture can only be seen as birth-giving by a society accustomed to hospital delivery. The Hagar Qim woman is not giving birth at all. She is masturbating, with one hand languidly supporting her head.

The idea that this figurine represents female masturbation might seem surprising, but there are clear representations of male masturbation in the period. There is, for instance, a masturbating figurine of the Greek Neolithic (Dimini culture) from Larisa, and masturbation is a central theme in the creation myths of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The art of classical Greece contains images of women using dildoes; and material evidence for dildoes seems to stretch back to the Ice Age. Many phallic batons carved in the round are found in Upper Palaeolithic art, including one double baton from the Gorge d'Enfer with two explicitly rendered penises set at an angle to one another (just like a modern `double' dildo). These batons fall within the size range of dildoes; and although they are usually interpreted as ritual objects or arrow or spear-straighteners, it seems disingenuous to avoid the most obvious explanation.

One curious artefact is an end-perforated gold penis decoration found with a skeleton in an early Copper Age grave from Varna, Bulgaria (see front cover). The value of the material suggests the object was meant to be seen, and the hole in the end would have been a let-down to viewers if nothing had come out of it. The Varna skeleton seems to have been buried face-down in the earth, with penis erect, as if fertilizing the soil; and I wonder whether this object could have been used in a fertility ritual similar to one known from the ethnographic record of North America, in which a transexual of the Zu¤i people was publicly masturbated in the spring to ensure the return of wildlife.

For early farmers, fertility must have been of crucial importance - not only of fields, but also of women. European population levels increased fivefold by the end of the Neolithic. The development of gruels and an animal milk economy paved the way for early weaning and with it the erosion of natural lactational fertility control. At the same time the promotion of farmed crops and the push into less familiar environments may have undermined the contraceptive use of wild plants. Birth spacing went down and the number of pregnancies per woman rose.

I see this obsession with fertility reflected in Neolithic monuments. Tall stones were erected, over which the `life-giving' sun could be seen to rise. At midwinter, in some places, the rays of the sun then penetrated artificial mounds via long passages - as at Newgrange in Ireland. Interpretations of the megaliths have often downplayed their anthropomorphic and sexual aspects. For me, they are clear evidence of the invention of `Mother Earth', the gendering of earth as female.

Far from being a belief-system that allowed women to be revered in society, it did the opposite; casting women into a passive role, in which (like the earth) they became useful only through the actions of men.

Dr Timothy Taylor is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Bradford. His book, The Prehistory of Sex, will be published in September by Fourth Estate in London and by Bantam in New York.


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