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Tribe of Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers Wearing Animal Skins Stand Around Bonfire Outside of Cave at Night. Portrait of Neanderthal / Homo Sapiens Family Doing Pagan Religion Ritual Near Fire
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Our Ancestors Were Cooking Much Earlier Than Thought

The more we learn about early humans, the more sophisticated we find their culture to be

Recent findings suggest that some things we take for granted in human civilizations are much older than thought. Now, these findings are provisional but they are worth looking at:

A 5,000-year-old slate carving and its resemblance to a modern child’s drawing of an owl. (CSIC)

The owl stones from 5,500 and 4,750 years ago may be children’s art:

But new research suggests the palm-sized plaques decorated in geometric patterns and with two engraved circles at the top might be the work of children.

Numbering in the thousands and made from slate, the owl-like objects – previously dated the stone objects to be between 5,500 and 4,750 years old – may be “the archaeological trace of playful and learning activities carried out by youngsters,” according to the team of Spanish researchers behind the new study…

They suggest kids would have been able to easily engrave slate using pointed tools made of flint, quartz, or copper, creating ‘body’ patterns that emulate the streaked plumage of owls, and the circles for eyes are unmistakably owl-like, casting an unwavering stare straight at the observer.

The “owliness” of the designs is comparable to the drawing skills of modern school children who depict owls in much the same way.

Clare Watson, “Thousands of Mysterious ‘Owl’ Stones May Be The Work of Ancient Children” at Science Alert (December 7, 2022) The paper is open access.

The fact that the owl stones might have been made by children does not, the researchers suggest, rule out the possibility that they might have had a ritual significance. Negro and colleagues suggest, “young people might have paid homage to their elders by leaving objects they had made together as tributes to the deceased.” (Science Alert)

So CrayolaTM didn’t invent the idea of children’s creativity.

Now, about cooking … 70,000 years ago

Neanderthals were not just downing raw hunks of meat 70,000 years ago, as many of us have assumed:

Researchers analyzed charred food remains at two locations—the Shanidar Cave in Iraq’s Zagros Mountains and the Franchthi Cave in Greece—to gain insight into how Neanderthals and early modern humans prepared food. They found evidence of cooking involving a variety of ingredients, processes and deliberate decisions…

The researchers’ analysis suggests that early modern humans and Neanderthals weren’t just consuming protein from animals; they had complex diets that consisted of a wide selection of plants and varied depending on location. They also used “a range of tricks to make their food more palatable” such as soaking and pounding, per a statement from the University of Liverpool… For example, wild nuts and grasses were often combined with pulses, like lentils, and wild mustard.”

Jacquelyne Germain, “Neanderthals Cooked Surprisingly Complex Meals” at Smithsonian Magazine (November 30, 2022) The paper is open access.

Let’s just say, the Neanderthals have gotten smarter as we have gotten to know them better.

Homo Naledi used fire, say researchers

Now let’s go waaay back to Homo naledi — first unearthed in 2015 in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The remains of the 15 individuals date to between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago. It turns out that they may have lit fires in their caves:

Researchers have found remnants of small fireplaces and sooty wall and ceiling smudges in passages and chambers throughout South Africa’s Rising Star cave complex, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger announced in a December 1 lecture hosted by the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington, D.C.

“Signs of fire use are everywhere in this cave system,” said Berger, of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg…

Such behavior has not been attributed to H. naledi before, largely because of its small brain. But it’s now clear that a brain roughly one-third the size of human brains today still enabled H. naledi to achieve control of fire, Berger contends…

Meanwhile, expedition codirector and Wits paleoanthropologist Keneiloe Molopyane led excavations of a nearby cave chamber. There, the researchers uncovered two small fireplaces containing charred bits of wood, and burned bones of antelopes and other animals. Remains of a fireplace and nearby burned animal bones were then discovered in a more remote cave chamber where H. naledi fossils have been found, Berger said.

Bruce Bower, “Homo naledi may have lit fires in underground caves at least 236,000 years ago” at Science News (December 2, 2022) Here’s the lecture announcement.

One hitch is that the charred wood, bones, etc. have let to be dates, to see if they come from the same layers as the Homo naledi fossils. But there are currently no other known groups that could have made the fires.

It’s interesting to note that the basics of human culture seem to undergo much less development than we think. The culture may appear at about the same time as the humans.

You may also wish to read: Why is Neanderthal art considered controversial? It makes sense that whenever humans started to wonder about life, we started to create art that helps us think about it. Science writer Michael Marshall reports that some researchers are accused of banning others from taking samples that would prove a Neanderthal was the artist.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Our Ancestors Were Cooking Much Earlier Than Thought