|Symbolic Language Led to Human Collective Mind?|
|SciMed - Horizons|
|TS-Si News Service|
|Wednesday, 20 April 2011 14:00|
Boulder, CO, USA. An archaeologist believes there is strong evidence that a collective mind of humans developed no later than 75,000 years ago in Africa and fostered language, art and technology, preconditions for modern culture.
For Hoffecker, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, the collective mind is what resulted when anatomically modern humans evolved a parallel capacity to externalize thought as symbolic language, a development that fortified higher-order consciousness and human creativity.
Scientists seeking to understand the origin of the human mind may want to look to beyond ancestral apes to honeybees for at least some of the answers, according Hoffecker. Individual human brains within social groups were integrated into a cooperative enterprise, a kind of neocortical internet, or super- brain, that gave birth to the mind. He notes that archaeological traces of symbolism coincide with evidence for the ability to generate novel technology.
John F. Hoffecker is shown here working at a site in Russia dating back 45,000 years.
He believes there is mounting archaeological evidence for the evolution of a human "super-brain" no later than 75,000 years ago that spurred a modern capacity for novelty and invention.
Hoffecker is a fellow of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at UC-Boulder.
He is the author of Landscape of the Mind: Human Evolution and the Archaeology of Thought. [cf. Citation] Previously, Hoffecker authored A Prehistory of the North and was the coauthor of Human Ecology of Beringia.
Photo courtesy of Vance T. Holliday, University of Arizona.Hoffecker says there is abundant fossil and archaeological evidence for the evolution of the human mind. An internationally known archaeologist who has worked at sites in Europe and the Arctic, Hoffecker said the formation of the super-brain was a consequence of a rare ability to share complex thoughts among individual brains.
The Neurologic Internet
Among other creatures on Earth, the honeybee may be the best example of an organism that has mastered the trick of communicating complex information — including maps of food locations and information on potential nest sites from one brain to another — using their intricate "waggle dance."
"Humans obviously evolved a much wider range of communication tools to express their thoughts, the most important being language," said Hoffecker. "Individual human brains within social groups became integrated into a neurologic Internet of sorts, giving birth to the mind."
While anatomical fossil evidence for the capability of speech is controversial, the archaeological discoveries of symbols coincides with a creative explosion in the making of many kinds of artifacts. Abstract designs scratched on mineral pigment show up in Africa about 75,000 years ago and are widely accepted by archaeologists as evidence for symbolism and language. "From this point onward there is a growing variety of new types of artifacts that indicates a thoroughly modern capacity for novelty and invention."
The roots of the mind and the super-brain lie deep in our past and are likely tied to fundamental aspects of our evolution like bipedalism and making stone tools, he said. It was from the making of tools that early humans first developed their ability to project complex thoughts or mental representations outside the individual brain — our own version of the honeybee waggle dance.
While crude stone tools crafted by human ancestors beginning about 2.5 million years ago likely were an indirect consequence of bipedalism — which freed up the hands for new functions — the first inklings of a developing super-brain likely began about 1.6 million years ago when early humans began crafting stone hand axes, thought by Hoffecker and others to be one of the first external representations of internal thought.
Ancient hand axes achieved "exalted status" as mental representations since they bear little resemblance to the natural objects they were made from — generally cobbles or rock fragments. "They reflect a design or mental template stored in the nerve cells of the brain and imposed on the rock, and they seemed to have emerged from a strong feedback relationship among the hands, eyes, brains and the tools themselves," he said.
The emerging modern mind in Africa was marked by a three-fold increase in brain size over 3-million-year-old human ancestors like Lucy, thought by some to be the matriarch of modern humans. Humans were producing perforated shell ornaments, polished bone awls and simple geometric designs incised into lumps of red ochre by 75,000 years ago.
"With the appearance of symbols and language — and the consequent integration of brains into a super-brain — the human mind seems to have taken off as a potentially unlimited creative force," he said.
The dispersal of modern humans from Africa to Europe some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago provides a "minimum date" for the development of language, Hoffecker speculated. "Since all languages have basically the same structure, it is inconceivable to me that they could have evolved independently at different times and places."
Ancient musical instruments and figurative art discovered in caves in France and Germany date to before 30,000 years ago, he said. "Humans have the ability to imagine something in the brain that doesn't exist and then create it," he said. "Whether it's a hand axe, a flute or a Chevrolet, humans are continually recombining bits of information into novel forms, and the variations are potentially infinite."
The Kostenki Sites
A 2007 study led by Hoffecker and colleagues at the Russian Academy of Sciences pinpointed the earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe dating back 45,000 years ago.
Located on the Don River 250 miles south of Moscow, the multiple sites, collectively known as Kostenki, also yielded ancient bone and ivory needles complete with eyelets, showing the inhabitants tailored furs to survive the harsh winters.
The team also discovered a carved piece of mammoth ivory that appears to be the head of a small figurine dating to more than 40,000 years ago which, if fully confirmed, would be the oldest piece of figurative art ever discovered.
The finds from Kostenki illustrate the impact of the creative mind of modern humans as they spread out of Africa into places that were sometimes cold and lean in resources.
migrants from the tropics, they adapted to ice age environments in the central plain of Russia through creative innovations in technology.
The Modern Prospect
While the concept of a human super-brain is analogous to social insects like bees and ants that collectively behave as a super-organism by gathering, processing and sharing information about their environment, there is one important difference, Hoffecker said. "Human societies are not super-organisms — they are composed of people who are for the most part unrelated, and societies filled with competing individuals and families."
Since the emergence of the modern industrial world beginning roughly 500 years ago, creativity driven by the human super-brain has grown by leaps and bounds, from the invention of mechanical clocks to space shuttles. Powerful artificial intelligence could blur the differences between humans and computers in the coming centuries, he said.
FundingThe research at Kostenki is funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
CitationLandscape of the Mind: Human Evolution and the Archaeology of Thought. John F. Hoffecker. Clumbia University Press (May 2011). ISBN: 978-0-231-14704-0.
John F. Hoffecker explores the origin and growth of the mind, drawing on information from the human fossil record, archaeology, and history. Hoffecker argues that, as an indirect result of bipedal locomotion, early humans developed a feedback relationship among their hands, brains, and tools, evolving the capacity to externalize thoughts in the form of shaped stone objects. When anatomically modern humans evolved a parallel capacity to externalize thought as symbolic language, individual brains within social groups were integrated into a neocortical internet, or super-brain, thus giving birth to the mind. Noting that archaeological traces of symbolism coincide with evidence for the ability to generate novel technology, Hoffecker contends that human creativity, as well as higher-order consciousness, is a product of the collective super-brain.
Hoffecker equates the subsequent growth of the mind with human history, which began in Africa more than 50,000 years ago. As anatomically modern humans spread across the globe, adapting to a variety of climates and habitats, they redesigned themselves technologically and developed alternative realities via toolmaking, tool use, and artistic expression. Hoffecker connects the rise of civilization to a hierarchical reorganization of the super-brain, triggered by explosive population growth. According to him, subsequent history reflects the varying degrees to which rigid hierarchies of states and empires suppressed the creative powers of the mind, constraining the further accumulation of knowledge. The modern world emerged from the fragments of a collapsed empire after 1200 AD. In the final chapter, Hoffecker speculates on the possibility of artificial intelligence and a mind without biology.
Keywords: cognitive psychology, evolution, psychology.
|Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 April 2011 13:34|