neanderthal (600 x 393)

Ever wondered about an existential question such as “What makes me conscious of my own thoughts? Can an ape, or a dog think about thinking? Can they plan for a future extending beyond hours or days?” Lots of philosophers, theologians, biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists have pondered the question, but none could offer a satisfactory answer. Specialists in animal behavior find evidence suggesting some rudiments of consciousness, such as purposeful manipulation in toolmaking by apes, monkeys and even a certain species of crows. But is it consciousness?

Consider ornaments used by humans as long as 100 thousand years ago. Colored beads marked the beginnings of social stratification, a symbol of status and personal attractiveness. From here to language the transition is a no brainer, so to speak: isn’t language, and writing, its derivative, a manifestation of symbolic thinking?

From a natural selection perspective, ascribing such a quantum jump in evolution to “mere” art, as much as we value it today, is a bit of a stretch. Evolution is driven by a straightforward value proposition: enhanced survival capacity.  Colored beads or cave art are manifestations of culture, a derivative of consciousness. But how do they directly enhance survivability? Hard to come up with a persuasive theory.


It’s the technology, stupid

Finally, a theory that rings true. Brown and his colleagues at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, described in great detail “An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71,000years ago in South Africa”. This is the title of the article, and it says it all. They found at the site small stone ‘bladelets’. What’s so important about those small blades is what it took to make them. As Sally McBrearty wrote in her commentary in the same issue of Nature, “early humans would have to chip them from stone that had been carefully selected for its textural properties and heat-treated to improve its workability; they would then have retouched the bladelets into small geometric shapes. When such geometric microliths (=small stones) are found in prehistoric sites where wood is preserved, they are part of arrows.

The ability to manufacture bows and arrows would have required the collection and modification of a variety of materials, including wood, fiber and mastic (gluing material) and possibly also feathers, bone, and sinew. These operations would no doubt have taken place over the course of days, weeks or months, and would have been interrupted by attention to unrelated, more urgent tasks.”

One of the essential components of the modern human mind is the executive function, the ability to hold and manipulate images of objects in memory and to execute goal-directed procedures over space and time. And this is what is required for the manufacture of those microblades and their incorporation into bows and arrows. The selective advantage of this technology over people whose hunting and warfare capacity is limited to hand-delivered weapons is obvious. It may explain the extraordinary success of modern humans in their migrations out of Africa, and probably the extinction of other hominin species such as the Neanderthals.

Microliths were found in 200,000-300,000 years old sites, which brings us to the dawn of the human species. The clear implication is consciousness did not develop slowly over the course of human history –we were endowed with it since the birth of the species.

Now that’s what I call Exceptionalism.



Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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