About 40,000 years ago the first Homo sapiens--the Cro-Magnons--began to trickle into Europe, displacing the resident Neanderthals in the process. The contrast between the records of their lives that these very different hominids left behind could hardly be more striking. For no extinct human species, not even the large-brained Homo neanderthalensis, has bequeathed us evidence of a complex symbolic existence, based on the extraordinary cognitive capacities that distinguish us from all other living species today. In contrast, the lives of the Cro-Magnons were drenched in symbolism.
Well over 30,000 years ago these early people were creating astonishing art on the walls of caves. They crafted subtle and beautiful carvings and engravings and kept records by incising intricate notations on bone plaques. They made music on bone flutes, and if they did this, they surely sang and danced as well. They ornamented their bodies and buried their dead with elaborate grave goods, presumably to serve them in an afterlife. Technologically, a cascade of innovations included nets, textiles and ropes, even the first ceramics. In short, those Cro-Magnons were us: members of a species whose relationship with the rest of the world was totally unprecedented in the entire history of life.
This article was originally published with the title Drenched in Symbolism.