Neuro-imaging and Ancient Engravings Allow Experts to Understand Prehistoric Thinking
Researchers in France have used neuroimaging to monitor the impact of prehistoric engravings on modern human brains. To their astonishment, they found that the minds of modern people treat the ancient representations as meaningful and not just as decorations. The findings could provide a new perspective on the cognitive development of early humans.
Archaic and modern humans have been engraving designs and shapes for tens of thousands of years. Many of these carvings resemble others found elsewhere in the world. For example, some 14,500-year-old rock art found on the island of Jersey (United Kingdom), seems to be similar to others discovered elsewhere in continental Europe.
Ancient prehistoric engraved stone. (Kim Traynor / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ornamentation or Symbols?
These carvings even predate the first cave paintings. According to a EurekAlert press release, “Long before Lascaux paintings, humans engraved abstract motifs on stones, shells, or eggshells. The earliest are 540,000 years old”.
Homo erectus shell with geometric incisions circa 500,000 BP. (पाटलिपुत्र / CC BY-SA 3.0)
There has been an ongoing debate in academic circles as to whether these engravings are only decorative patterns and simply the product of bored early humans, of if they represent something more significant. Some believe that they are symbolic and represented some idea or concept from the Palaeolithic period.
In order to establish if the carvings had any purpose or meaning, a group of French researchers from the CNRS / Université de Bordeaux conducted a study. They decided to study the impact of Palaeolithic carvings on modern brains. To achieve this, they asked for volunteers to participate in the project, who were shown examples of prehistoric engravings.
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Examples of intact and scrambled stimuli used in the 1-back task. (Royal Society / Fair Use)
According to Forbes, “50 different images of abstract patterns from archaeological objects dating from 540,000 to 30,000 years ago,” were used in the study. The French study was the first one of its kind, anywhere in the world and was “an unprecedented collaboration between archaeologists and researchers in cognitive neuroimaging,” reports EurekAlert.
Ancient Engravings and Modern Brains
Neuroimaging allowed the experts to visually capture the responses in the brains of the volunteers to the engravings. The team used the latest SPM12 software in their study.
According to the Royal Society, “The perception of the engravings bilaterally activated regions along the ventral route in a pattern similar to that activated by the perception of objects”. This meant that the brains of the participants in the study recognized the carved designs as objects.
This took the researchers by surprise as it appeared to show that the brain is designed to process such imagery and motifs. The Royal Society reports that “these engravings have the visual properties of meaningful representations in present-day humans”. The findings of the investigation would strongly indicate that present-day people interpret the carvings in a symbolic way.
MRI showing a significant BOLD signal increase in the engravings minus scramble contrast. (Royal Society / Fair Use)
These findings would seem to indicate that early hominids could think in an abstract way at an earlier date than previously thought. If the representations had meaning for modern humans they also likely had significance for archaic hominids. The ability to interpret signs is crucial for language and culture and is essential in human cognitive development.
The Mental Development of Early Humans
Traditionally, symbolic thinking was believed to have emerged because of “a sudden cognitive revolution occurring among modern human populations settling in Europe 42 000 years ago” reports the Royal Society. The conclusions of the study may indicate that early humans could think and communicate symbolically much earlier than thought.
It would indicate that the ability to think symbolically, first developed in Africa. Moreover, it would also suggest that early hominids such as Neanderthals were capable of abstract thinking and were far more sophisticated than previously thought.
However, there have been some doubts expressed about the validity of the findings. Not all the participants were shown the same images and the research does not prove that the older engravings had some symbolic significance.
Nevertheless, the French team’s work could provide invaluable insights into the cognitive abilities and development of early humans. The results of their work are published in the Royal Society Open Science Journal.
By Ed Whelan