Friday, July 5, 2019

Secret of the First Abstract Engravings from 540,000 BCE

Did worked objects light up the same portions of the brain in our ancient ancestors as they do today?

"From Palaeolithic rock paintings to contemporary art, the production and perception of symbolic artefacts have represented a major aspect of human cognitive activity," according to the authors of a recent study.

Long before Lascaux paintings, humans engraved abstract motifs on stones, shells or egg shells. the earliest are 540,000 years old. For the archaeologists who discovered these objects, the question is whether they are the result of un-purposeful behavior, the simple desire of imitating nature or endowed with meaning. An unprecedented collaboration between archaeologists1 and researchers in cognitive neuroimaging2 from the CNRS, university of Bordeaux and CEA is providing answers to this question for the first time.

Top: Engraving discovered at the Blombos site (South Africa) dating back 75,000 years before the present. Center:Example of visual categories used in the experiment. Bottom: Lateral and inferior views of brain activations caused by the perception of engravings located in the occipital lobe and the ventral part of the temporal lobe (LH: left hemisphere, RH: right hemisphere, Inf: inferior view). These activations are comparable to those caused by the perception of everyday objects.

Credit: CNRS

These prehistoric abstract patterns are processed by the same brain areas that recognize objects. They also activate a region of the left hemisphere that is well known in the processing of written language. 

The results of this interdisciplinary collaboration reinforce the hypothesis that our ancestors attributed meaning to their tracings, perhaps even symbolic. They are published in Royal Society Open Science on 3 July 2019.

The study "aims to characterize the cerebral regions involved in the perception of these early engravings. This work complements recent attempts to apply neuroimaging techniques to test hypotheses on the evolution of cognitive functions." 

According to the research, experimental data supports the hypothesis that archaic humans 540,000 years ago engraved objects as icons or symbols as did early modern and other archaic hominins, also suggested in previous works

Contacts and sources:
Maxime Dos Santos

Citation: Neuroimaging supports the representational nature of the earliest human engravings. Mellet E, Salagnon M, Majkic ́A, Cremona S, Joliot M, Jobard G, Mazoyer B, Tzourio-Mazoyer N, d’Errico F. 2019 Royal Society Open Science.6: 90086.

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