When Neanderthals, Denisovans and homo sapiens met one another 50,000 years ago, these archaic and modern humans not only interbred during the thousands of years in which they overlapped, but they exchanged ideas that led to a surge in creativity, according to a leading academic.
Tom Higham, a professor of archaeological science at the University of Oxford, argues that their exchange explains “a proliferation of objects in the archaeological record”, such as perforated teeth and shell pendants, the use of pigments and colourants, decorated and incised bones, carved figurative art and cave painting: “Through the early 50,000s, up to around 38,000 to 40,000 years ago, we see a massive growth in these types of ornaments that we simply didn’t see before.”
Between 40,000 and 150,000 years ago, our cousins included the Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonesis and the Denisovans.
“Now it’s just us; there aren’t any other types of humans on the planet,” Higham says. “We always thought that the origins of art and complex cognitive thought was the hallmark of us – modern humans. This was called the human revolution. The basis of this hypothesis, which came out in the 1970s, was that humans came out of Africa and brought with them a cognitive ability that no other types of humans – particularly Neanderthals – had … Now what we think is happening is that … it’s not restricted to modern humans at all.
“If our groups were interbreeding, then cultural transfer – the exchange of ideas, thoughts and language – may well also have been happening. Humans are good at picking up new ideas.”
The latest research, which draws on recent findings by international scientists and archaeologists, will feature in Higham’s forthcoming book, The World Before Us: How Science is Revealing a New Story of Our Human Origins, to be published by Viking on 25 March. [Continue reading…]