The Day We Learned To Think
The Ape that Took Over the World



 
The Day We Learned To Think
The Ape that Took Over the World

 
Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record in Africa about 195,000 years ago, and studies of molecular biology give evidence that the approximate time of divergence from the common ancestor of all modern human populations was 200,000 years ago.

Cave paintings are an early indication of when the human being started to think at a higher level. The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, tracings of human hands as well as abstract patterns, called finger flutings.

The oldest known cave art is that of Chauvet in France, the paintings of which may be 35,000 years old according to radiocarbon dating.


Understanding of humans' earliest past often comes from studying fossils. They tell us much of what we know about the people who lived before us.

There is one thing fossils cannot tell us; at what point did we stop living day-to-day and start to think symbolically, to represent ideas about our environment and how we could change it?

At a dig in South Africa the discovery of a small piece of ochre pigment, 70,000 years old, has raised some very interesting questions.


Anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) emerged in Africa roughly 100,000 years ago. We know from fossil evidence that Homo sapiens replaced other hominids around them and moved out of Africa into Asia and the Middle East, reaching Europe 40,000 years ago.

Prof Richard Klein believes art is a landmark in human evolution. Unquestionable art that's widespread and common suggests you're dealing with people just like us.

No other animals, after all, are able to define a painting as anything other than a collection of colours and shapes. This ability is unique to humans.

Other scientists agree. They believe art defines humans as behaviourally modern, and its beginning must coincide with the ability to speak and use language.

If someone has the imagination to devise a shared way to describe their environment using art then it seems inconceivable that they could not possess language and speech.

The search for the moment our ancestors became behaviourally just like us is also the hunt for the first evidence of art.


Nearly 350 caves have now been discovered in France and Spain that contain art from prehistoric times.

Initially, the age of the paintings had been a contentious issue, since methods like radiocarbon dating can be misled by contaminated samples of older or newer material, and caves and rocky overhangs (parietal art) are typically littered with debris from many time periods.

But subsequent advances made it possible to date the paintings by sampling the pigment itself and the torch marks on the walls. The choice of subject matter can also indicate date, as for instance in the reindeer at the Spanish cave of Cueva de las Monedas which place the art in the last Ice Age.

The oldest known cave art is that of Chauvet in France, the paintings of which may be 35,000 years old according to radiocarbon dating, and date back to 33,000 BCE (Upper Paleolithic). Some researchers believe the drawings are too advanced for this era and question this age.

However, over 80 radiocarbon dates had been taken by 2011, with samples taken from torch marks and from the paintings themselves, as well as from animal bones and charcoal found on the cave floor. The radiocarbon dates from these samples show that there were two periods of creation in Chauvet: 35,00 years ago and 30,000 years ago.

Other examples may date as late as the Early Bronze Age, but the well known prolific and sophisticated style from Lascaux and Altamira died out about 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the advent of the Neolithic period. Some caves continued to be painted in for a long time.

The Ape that Took Over the World

Technology has allowed humans to colonize all of the continents and adapt to virtually all climates.

Within the last century, humans have explored Antarctica, the ocean depths, and outer space, although large-scale colonization of these environments is not yet feasible.

With a population of over six billion, humans are among the most numerous of the large mammals.

Most humans (61%) live in Asia. The remainder live in the Americas (14%), Africa (14%), Europe (11%), and Oceania (0.5%).

Human habitation within closed ecological systems in hostile environments, such as Antarctica and outer space, is expensive, typically limited in duration, and restricted to scientific, military, or industrial expeditions. Life in space has been very sporadic, with no more than thirteen humans in space at any given time. Between 1969 and 1972, two humans at a time spent brief intervals on the Moon.

As of October 2011, no other celestial body has been visited by humans, although there has been a continuous human presence in space since the launch of the initial crew to inhabit the International Space Station on October 31, 2000. However, other celestial bodies have been visited by human-made objects.Since 1800, the human population has increased from one billion to over six billion.

In 2004, some 2.5 billion out of 6.3 billion people (39.7%) lived in urban areas, and this percentage is expected to continue to rise throughout the 21st century. In February 2008, the U.N. estimated that half the world's population will live in urban areas by the end of the year.

Problems for humans living in cities include various forms of pollution and crime, especially in inner city and suburban slums.Humans have had a dramatic effect on the environment. As humans are rarely preyed upon, they have been described as superpredators. Currently, through land development, combustion of fossil fuels and pollution, humans are thought to be the main contributor to global climate change.

Human activity is believed to be a major contributor to the ongoing Holocene extinction event, which is a form of mass extinction. If this continues at its current rate it is predicted that it will wipe out half of all species over the next century.