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Up Against a Wall

October 19, 2014

I just read an article on the BBC web site about a newly-discovered cave painting in Indonesia.  The cave art at this site is at least as old as the oldest paintings at the famous sites in southern France.  Creative activity of all kinds seems to be normal behavior of our human species.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote about cave art in France and Spain in his essay Up Against a Wall.  This essay documents early attempts to establish a time sequence for the paintings, based on style and quality of the artwork.  They assumed that the sequence followed a progression from primitive to modern that fit well into later development of art in Europe.  Stephen Jay Gould argues that all of the paintings were done by our human species, and that we and our artistic abilities remained the same all the time we were in Europe.  Subsequent radiocarbon dating showed that the highest quality art was also the oldest.  This cave art only shows regional and personal variation, not a general trend at all.

I have a geology book from 1912.  The last chapter of this book has a table of all of the human fossils that were known at that time.  There were only four.  A few years earlier, in Charles Darwin’s time, there were none.  One of the four was the famous Piltdown man, know known to be a fake.  People believed it was real, at least in part, because they were certain that ancient humans existed in England before they migrated to the European continent.  Their hopes were dashed when Piltdown man was shown to be a fake.

Stephen Jay Gould also wrote a book called The Mismeasure of Man, where he described how people attempted to use scientific methods to show that Europeans were superior to all other races of man.  I suppose it seemed natural to them that European civilization, language, and religion were the pinnacle of human development, and that all others were inferior.  All of these attempts failed, but that did not stop people from making finer and finer distinctions to prove what they already knew.  No doubt their descendants in other parts of the world inherited this curious attitude.

If we go back far enough, we are all Africans.  All of the evidence makes it clear now that most, if not all, of human evolution took place in Africa.  There were many radiations of successful human species from Africa to Europe and Asia.  The last one was our species, beginning about 100,000 years ago.  Humans are the same all over the world.  That’s our heritage.


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