Saturday, July 21, 2012

The oldest skill

On the golf course, it is easy to spot a skilled player: they not only hit the ball so that it lands in the fairway along the path to the green, but they do so consistently.  That consistency is also at display when you watch a lumber jack use an ax to drop a tree, or a sculptor use a chisel and hammer to turn a rough piece of marble into a life-like statue.   

The degree of precision with which we can use a tool is roughly a measure of our skill, and our brain acquires skills through years of practice.  You need devotion and persistence to become skillful with a tool, whether that tool is a golf club, chisel, or a violin.  When did humans first exhibit this ability and desire to acquire a skill?

About 40,000 years ago, humans that were anatomically similar to us entered Europe and settled in the continent that was once populated by Neanderthals.  They arrived at a place in which mammoths, lions, and wild horses were plentiful.  In Swabia, in southwestern Germany, a few of these early explorers left behind pieces of work that for me represent the earliest examples of skillful tool use.

One particularly beautiful piece is a horse carved from mammoth ivory that dates to about 30-35K years ago.  It is about 5cm in length, and was found by Gustav Riek, a professor at University of Tubingen, in a 1931 excavation of the Vogelherd cave in Wolfstal valley.  Horses were not domesticated until about 6000 years ago, so the sculptor who created this piece was carving based on the memory of observing these animals in the wild.  The piece is made from ivory, which on its outer layer has a hard enamel, requiring sharp cutting tools to work through.  Its hallmark is a remarkably expressive curved neck.  Looking closely at it at Hohentubingen museum, I could see small engraved symbols, including cross marks and angular signs, on the back of the neck, as well as on the back and the left chest.  I thought it was astonishing that people in the Stone Age, facing hardships unimaginable to me, could find time to learn and perfect a motor skill that could produce something so beautiful. 

Another piece that exhibits exceptional craftsmanship is a female figurine also made of mammoth ivory.  This piece dates to about 35K years ago and was found by Nicholas Conrad in a nearby region in 2008.  It is 6cm in length.  Instead of a head, it has a carefully carved ring above the shoulders.  In the original paper that described the find, Conrad writes: “This ring, despite being weathered, preserves polish, suggesting that the figurine at times was suspended as a pendant.”   The arms end with two carefully carved hands, with the fingers resting on the stomach.  There are lines carved on the back and front, suggesting of clothing.  Conrad writes: “Microscopic images show that these incisions were created by repeatedly cutting along the same lines with sharp stone tools.  Such deep cuts into ivory are only possible with the application of significant force.”

The precision with which these pieces were made is among the earliest evidence of skillful use of tools.  This evidence suggests that despite the struggles of existence, humans of the Stone Age had the motivation to invest the years needed to acquire a motor skill, so that they could create things that today we call art.

NJ Conrad (2009) A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany.  Nature 459:248-252.
NJ Conrad and M Bolus (2006) The Swabian Aurignacian and its place in European prehistory.  In: Bar-Yosef, O., Zilhao, J. (Eds.), Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian. Trabalhos de Arqueologia, 45. Instituto Portugueˆs de Arquologia, American School of Prehistoric Research, Lisboa, pp. 211–239. 
R. White (1992) Beyond Art: Toward an Understanding of the Origins of Material Representation in Europe.  Annual Review of Anthropology 21:537-564.

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