Now that “human ancestors” from 300,000 years ago show comparable mental acuity to ours, the gradual upward slope to man looks more like a cliff.
Neanderthal chieftan: The big news from Clive Finlayson’s team this week is that Neanderthal cave sites have feathers – not just by chance, but by design. The BBC News said that the cave’s inhabitants used feathers as “personal ornaments,” indicating that “Neanderthal thinking ability was similar to our own” (see original open-access paper by Finlayson et al., “Birds of a Feather: Neanderthal Exploitation of Raptors and Corvids,” PLoS ONE 7(9): e45927. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045927). “The earliest observation of this behaviour in Gibraltar preceded the arrival of Modern Humans in Europe by several thousand years,” they said; “There is therefore no possibility that the practice was acquired from Modern Humans.”
Many modern human groups, such as American Indians, have used feathers for decoration, rank, or status. It’s an “exclusively human trait.” The practice presupposes a mental appreciation for the beauty of feathers as well as the ability to obtain them in the first place. Paleoanthropologists have assumed, based on the lack of cave paintings, beads and figurines at Neanderthal sites, that they had no appreciation for art. Finlayson’s team inspected nearly 1700 sites for evidence, and found numerous bird bones from which the Neanderthals apparently extracted feathers for decoration. These findings fly in the face of “The prevailing paradigm among Palaeolithic archaeologists today,” they said – the notion that birds were too hard for dumb Neanderthals to catch:
The large number of bones, the variety of species processed and the different temporal periods when the behaviour is observed, indicate that this was a systematic, geographically and temporally broad, activity that the Neanderthals undertook. Our results, providing clear evidence that Neanderthal cognitive capacities were comparable to those of Modern Humans, constitute a major advance in the study of human evolution.
Retreat might be a better word. The BBC News article shows an early 20th century drawing of a stooped over, hairy, ape-like Neanderthal with the caption, “Our views of Neanderthals have come a long way since this representation was painted in 1909.” But again, this is a retreat “a long way” back to the prior paradigm: namely, that humans have always been uniquely endowed with reason and aesthetics, unlike the apes from which Darwinians believe humans evolved.
Finlayson thinks this find is just the tip of the iceberg. “It is showing that Neanderthals simply expressed themselves in media other than cave walls. The last bastion of defence in favour of our superiority was cognition,” he said; now, despite their differences, it must be acknowledged that “their processes of thinking were obviously very similar” to ours.
We have shown that Neanderthals were associated with raptors and corvids of particular characteristics (dark remiges, scavenging or colonial cliff nesters) across the entire geographical space of the Palearctic and they directly processed their bones for their feathers. In this respect they were distinctly human. The absence of parietal art in caves occupied by Neanderthals, and also of bone and shell ornaments, is a key argument cited in support of the superior cognitive capacities of Modern Humans. Our results put this long-standing contention in doubt, by providing strong evidence that Neanderthals simply used media, other than cave walls, to express themselves.
The point of the spear: Another indication of mental acuity is the ability to fashion materials for organized hunting. Who would have expected to find modern-looking spear points in coal dated 300,000 years old? That’s what has been described in a press release from the University of Tübingen – the “oldest known weapons anywhere” – indicating that the designers were skilled hunters. These were not flaked rocks for cutting up dead animals, but rather designed instruments for hunting live prey. “Tools preserved in lignite show capacity for abstract thought, Tübingen researchers say.”
What’s also interesting about the discovery is the site: a coal mine that till recently was soaked in water:
The bones of large mammals – elephants, rhinoceroses, horses and lions – as well as the remains of amphibians, reptiles, shells and even beetles have been preserved in the brown coal. Pines, firs, and black alder trees are preserved complete with pine cones, as have the leaves, pollen and seeds of surrounding flora. Until the mining started 30 years ago, these finds were below the water table. The archeologists say they are now carrying out “underwater archaeology without the water.”
More finds are expected from this extraordinary site in north-central Germany. Already, they have found “a water buffalo in the context of human habitation, an almost completely preserved aurochs (one of the oldest in central Europe), and several concentrations of stone artifacts, bones and wood.” The press release did not explain how any of these artifacts could be so well preserved in the presence of water for 300,000 years.
Now, the evolutionary tale: How are evolutionists going to explain the abrupt appearance of human traits farther back than they previously thought possible? One theory appeared on the BBC News: a highly speculative idea by veteran paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall that harks back to old social-Darwinian notions of advance through conflict. “Conflict and ‘boom-bust’ explain humans’ rapid evolution,” the headline blared. Tattersall knows that recent findings are problematic. Speaking at a conference at Gibraltar, he said,
“However you slice it, evolution within this [human family] has been very rapid indeed,” Prof Tatersall, from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, told the conference. “I think it’s fair to say that our species Homo sapiens and its antecedents have come much farther, much faster than any other mammalian group that has been documented in this very tight time-frame.” This phenomenon of accelerated evolution is known as “tachytely”.
Giving something a name, though, is not the same as explaining it. It’s hard to convince doubters that mere inter-group conflict, and coming down out of the trees, could “drive” human evolution at such a rapid pace. If that were a law of nature, it would seem many other animals would have evolved bigger brains, art and cognition by now. It also begs the question of who was the driver: was changing habitat and starting conflicts a cause or effect of cognitive ability? Apparently someone at the conference thought about that. “At the conference, Richard Wrangham from Harvard University offered an alternative view, questioning the role of conflict as a driver. He pointed out that human hunter-gatherers had similar rates of inter-group aggression to chimpanzees.”
In PLoS ONE, “The Pace of Cultural Evolution,” (7(9): e45150. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045150), Charles Perreault of the Santa Fe Institute argued that cultural evolution is faster than biological evolution “because of its Lamarckian nature and because cultural information is transmitted through different routes than genetic information.” He compared rates of biological evolution with archaeological data. His hypothesis, however, reasons in a circle: it assumes evolution to establish evolution. It also begs the question of when the light of cognition turned on. What, furthermore, was the source of genetic information and cultural information? His ideas, thereby, would never convince a Darwin skeptic, who might point to the very evidence by Finlayson and the University of Tübingen cited above to argue that the evidence shows – in contrast to what evolutionists believed and taught for decades – that humans have always been humans, and apes apes.
We need evolutionary paleoanthropologists like ambassadors need terrorists. Don’t let them near the dynamite of scientific explanation. They keep setting it off in the wrong place at the wrong time. Explanation is powerful but dangerous. It needs intelligent design for proper application. It needs a real mind – not an evolved ape brain hit by cosmic rays – to understand the risks. And it needs real morality – not game theory – to use the power for good and not harm. Evolutionary anthropologists never catch on that their Darwinian explanation is like a suicide vest. It destroys their own mind while flinging mental shrapnel around the classroom, the civilization, and the world.