There they go again.
This week in Nature we learn of the discovery of a 35,000 year old erotic figurine in Germany, 5000 years older than previously known such work by early humans.
We are to take from this that evidence for an artistic mindset - i.e. modern, abstract thought - mysteriously "exploded" into the human endowment at this time. "The Big Bang," some call it, an apparent Great Leap Forward in toolmaking, burial rituals and art among European peoples at this time. Scholars of human evolution have taken a cue from this and supposed that the Big Bang was the result of some genetic mutation that led to humanity of a modern cognitive level.
John Noble Wilford at the Times notes the fascination over the "inspiration and symbolism behind the rather sudden flowering" that figurines of this period, plus the cave drawings so well known, supposedly suggest. Cool idea indeed, especially since we don't know what caused the mutation in question. There have even been linguists arguing that this mentality was the one that allowed language to emerge.
However, the fetishization of artistic tokens dug up in Europe from a few tens of thousands of years ago has always struck me as socially unsavory, for a very simple reason - so simple that this sort of thing perplexed me long before I was even a scholar of any kind.
To wit: Homo sapiens is known to be about 150,000 years old. According to the latest evidence, humans started their spread out of Africa as long as 80,000 years ago: the source to consult is Stephen Oppenheimer's magnificent The Real Eve. Uncontroversial is that by 30,000 (or even 50,000) years ago, humans were not only in Europe, but already coating Asia and Oceania, as well as still thriving down in Africa.
Okay: but if this "Big Bang" happened in Europe, then presumably this dramatic mutation did not happen to people beyond Europe. And yet, it is assumed that all human beings are equal in basic mental endowment - and among linguists, that no languages are "primitive."
The Big Bang idea has always seemed peculiar to me, then, in an implication surely none of the scientists intended but which stood there anyway: a Victorian idea that only Europeans became truly civilized while everyone else in the world remained "natives" chanting around cooking pots in forest clearings.
Is the idea supposed to be that other groups of humans had their own "Big Bangs" independently? Researchers seem to have little interest in charting such: you never read about a "Big Bang" over in New Guinea in the Times or Nature.
Or is it that somehow, once Europeans started banging, somehow their ideas spread worldwide - with almost bizarre uniformity, coating every nook and cranny - such as all the way across Asia, back down into Africa whence their apparently artless ancestors had come ... after all, no human beings on earth lack artistic sensibility (here note anthropologist Donald Brown's listing of music, poetry, symbolism, hairstyles as universal to our species).
Clearly none of this makes sense, but otherwise, doesn't this romantic Euro-Bang notion imply that humans only became truly mentally advanced in Europe? One thinks of Hegel's designation of the Chinese as less advanced in terms of sophisticated, self-conscious, intellectually questing Geist than Germanics. Isn't all of this a kind of academicized version of the sort of thing I took a few stabs at re Steve Sailer last week here and here?
It has actually been long established that the earliest evidence of artistically conscious humans has been found in, as we might expect, Africa, given that it's where our species emerged. Specifically, South Africa, in Blombos Cave. There were beads made from shells, and geometric engravings on ochre - i.e. slam-dunk "modern" tokens, unimaginable of even the smartest dog, parrot, chimp, or even Australopithecine "Lucy." And this stuff dates back to 75,000 to 80,000 years ago. No bosomy figurines, sure - but if what got dug up in Germany was jewelry and etchings instead, we can sure there would be the same claims that here was the birth of advanced thought.
Humans "banged" long before the European Cro-Magnon era. The cave painters blowing hand prints onto the walls and limning gorgeous renditions of elk and bison were heirs to a sensibility that was old news, having emerged far, far south tens of thousands of years before. This is common coin among people who study such things. That Proto-German sex toy is fun enough, but it's time the media stopped elevating things like it as evidence that our species only learned to think abstractly among its subset who, if the lifespan of our species were 24 hours, happened to wander into Europe around 7 PM.