Friday, 4 May 2018

Neanderthal Were Skilled Engravers

The engraved flint flake from Kiik-Koba layer IV.
The arrow indicates the point of impact. Scale = 1 cm.
Assessing the significance of Palaeolithic engraved cortexes. A case study from the Mousterian site of Kiik-Koba, Crimea

By examining the markings on a flake of flint from a Mousterian (Neanderthal) site in Crimea, researchers have concluded that they were made deliberately by a skilled Neanderthal engraver.

Twenty-Seven Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites from Europe and the Middle East are reported in the literature to have yielded incised stones. At eleven of these sites incisions are present on flint cortexes. Even when it is possible to demonstrate that the engravings are ancient and human made, it is often difficult to distinguish incisions resulting from functional activities such as butchery or use as a cutting board, from those produced deliberately, and even more difficult to identify the scope of the latter. In this paper we present results of the analysis of an engraved cortical flint flake found at Kiik-Koba, a key Mousterian site from Crimea, and create an interpretative framework to guide the interpretation of incised cortexes. The frame of inference that we propose allows for a reasoned evaluation of the actions playing a role in the marking process and aims at narrowing down the interpretation of the evidence. The object comes from layer IV, the same layer in which a Neanderthal child burial was unearthed, which contains a para-Micoquian industry of Kiik-Koba type dated to between c.35 and 37 cal kyr BP. The microscopic analysis and 3D reconstruction of the grooves on the cortex of this small flint flake, demonstrate that the incisions represent a deliberate engraving made by a skilled craftsman, probably with two different points. The lines are nearly perfectly framed into the cortex, testifying of well controlled motions. This is especially the case considering the small size of the object, which makes this a difficult task. The production of the engraving required excellent neuromotor and volitional control, which implies focused attention. Evaluation of the Kiik-Koba evidence in the light of the proposed interpretative framework supports the view that the engraving was made with a representational intent.

This adds to the growing evidence that Neanderthals were culturally sophisticated and highly intelligent, not the primitive, brutish creatures they are often portrayed as. Anatomically modern humans were at a similar stage in their cultural development when they came out of Africa and made contact with Eurasian Neanderthals, interbreeding with them to a limited extent, probably in the Middle East and elsewhere. Neanderthals are now known to have been able to speak, to think in abstract ways, to draw stylised representations of animals and humans probably associated with rituals, to have burial rituals suggesting belief in an afterlife and maybe an early form of writing or representation of abstract ideas symbolically. The carefully incised markings on this flint flake could be an example of the latter.

This is not really surprising if, as the evidence suggests, both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals shared a common ancestor in H. erectus. It also suggests the potential for cultural development, if not actual sophisticated cultures, was also present in this common ancestor. Whatever it was that gave H. sapiens the edge over H. neanderthalensis, it doesn't appear to have been superior intelligence or greater cultural sophistication.

Along with an almost complete rhinoceros skeleton, showing clear signs of having been butchered, the team unearthed 57 stone tools at the Kalinga site.
Photograph: University of Wollongong
Meanwhile, the butchered remains of a rhinoceros, found on the island of Luzon in the Philippines by a team from the University of Wollongong, dated to about 700,000 years ago, suggests a hominin was present there much earlier than originally thought. It is believed that this was H. erectus, which is known to have reached South East Asia and China up to a million years ago, but the ancestor of H. floresiensis (the 'Hobbit') found on Flores Island, if indeed that was different to H. erectus as some think, can't be ruled out. The previous earliest evidence of hominin presence on Luzon was a foot bone found in a cave and dated to a mere 67,000 years ago.

This then raises the question of how this species was able to island hop to Luzon if, as was thought, they didn't have boats. The area is prone to regular seismic activity giving rise to tsunami, so, as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed, it is possible that people could have been washed to islands accidentally fairly frequently.

The picture is emerging of an early migration out of Africa by H. erectus who spread widely throughout Eurasia and into the East Indies and subsequent diversification to give H. sapiens in Africa, H. neaderthalensis and Denisovans in Eurasia as well as other local variant, and their subsequent replacement by a second wave of migration by H. sapiens. For most of human history it seems there were multiple hominin species, subspecies and regional variants, co-existing and, on occasion interbreeding, so our ancestors behaved very much like a species in which diversification had not progressed to the point where interbreeding was impossible. In other words, we behaved like a widespread species in the process of evolution.

This of course poses insurmountable problems for creationists pushing the mythical notion of a special creation of modern humans and our descent from a single founder couple. Not only do we not have a single pair of ancestors, we don't even have a single ancestral species, and probably never did, even in our African Australopithecine ancestors.

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