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When Did Humans Begin to Think?

Understanding the origins of humankind has fascinated scientists for centuries. We know that our ancestors split from those of the chimpanzee (our closest biological relative) between 4 million and 8 million years ago. Evidence from fossil bones indicates that these early ancestors spread out from Africa to other parts of the world in multiple waves beginning at least 1 million years ago. By about 100,000 years ago, modem humans(Homo sapiens) had developed in Africa, and by about 40,000 years ago, they had reached Europe. They also began to have a growing presence on other continents.

An interesting question in humankind's development is, when did we begin to think critically? In other words, when did we tum from animals focused only on the daily struggle to avoid starvation to humans who could think symbolically about the world around us? However, answering this question is not easy, as thinking leaves no fossils to discover.

A commonsense assumption is that higher levels of thought go hand-in-hand with verbal language, because higher thinking, such as creative thought, would naturally seek a means of expression. So tracing the development of language could give an approximate idea of when humans began to think critically.

Interestingly, we do have some fossil evidence related to speech. Animals whose larynx (voice box) is placed high in their throats are unable to produce the variety of sounds necessary for speech. Fossil bones tell us that in early humans, the larynx was originally high in the throat. However, by about 200,000 years ago, it had moved lower in the throat. This lowering provided a larger sound chamber (the space in the throat and the mouth) in which passing air could be controlled by the tongue, making the articulation of a wide range of sounds and rhythms possible. (Most languages use between twenty-five and thirty sounds; English uses more than forty.)

So humans were physically able to speak around 200,000 years ago, but when did they actually start doing so? Estimates range from 35,000 to 100,000 years ago. But with no physical evidence of ancient language use, we need another approach to determine more precisely when humans began to speak and to think critically.

Professor Richard Klein of Stanford University suggests that art may be the key. After all, no other animal is able to create or appreciate art; it is a uniquely human trait. (Although monkeys can put paint on a piece of paper, there is no indication that the result represents any real-world objects or any abstract thinking.) If ancient humans had the imagination to create a work of art (which in itself is a means of communication), then it seems highly likely that they would possess the primary means of communication: language. This suggests that the first works of art can be considered indicators of when language and critical thought began.

Until recently, the earliest art was believed to be cave paintings, cared figures, and jewellery found in southwestern Europe and thought to date from about 40,000 years ago. This suggested that humans first became capable of critical thought about 40,000 years ago. However, this time fame was recently overturned by an exciting discovery in South Africa. Anthropologist Chris Henshilwood spent more than ten years exploring a cave there. He found many well-made tools, but more intriguing were the 8,000 pieces of ochre, a soft stone that can be turned into paint. Henshilwood's breakthrough came in 1999 when he found an ochre piece with unmistakable etchings on it. These were not indiscriminate knife marks, but lines cut in a careful pattern. In other words, it was a deliberate artistic design. Henshilwood had found the oldest piece of art yet, its date of origin set at 70,000 years-nearly 30,000 years before the art in Europe.

Based on Henshilwood's discovery, it seems that humans began to speak and think critically at least 70,000 years ago. It will be interesting to see if any future archaeological finds push this date back even further into the past.


KeyWords
origin
(ALSO origins) the beginning or cause of something:
It's a book about the origin of the universe.
Her unhappy childhood was the origin of her problems later in life.

fascinate
to interest someone a lot:
Science has always fascinated me.
Anything to do with aeroplanes and flying fascinates him.

ancestor
a person, plant, animal or object that is related to one existing at a later point in time:
There were portraits of his ancestors on the walls of the room.
This wooden instrument is the ancestor of the modern metal flute.

descendant
a person who is related to someone and who lives after them, such as their child or grandchild:
He has no descendants.
They claim to be descendants of a French duke.
We owe it to our descendants to leave them a clean world to live in.

biological
connected with the natural processes of living things:
the biological sciences
Eating is a biological necessity!

multiple
very many of the same type, or of different types:
The youth died of multiple burns.
We made multiple copies of the report.
These children have multiple (= many different) handicaps.

presence
when someone or something is in a place:
The document was signed in the presence of two witnesses.

critical
giving opinions or judgements on books, plays, films, etc:
She has written a major critical study of Saul Bellow's novels.

starvation
a lack of food during a long period, often causing death:
The animals had died of starvation.

symbol
a sign, shape or object which is used to represent something else:
A heart shape is the symbol of love.
The wheel in the Indian flag is a symbol of peace.

common sense
the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way:
Windsurfing is perfectly safe as long as you have/use some common sense.
a matter of common sense

assumption
something that you accept as true without question or proof:
These calculations are based on the assumption that prices will continue to rise.

verbal
spoken rather than written:
a verbal agreement/description/explanation
Airport officials received a stream of verbal abuse from angry passengers whose flights had been delayed.

larynx (INFORMAL voice box)
a muscular hollow organ between the nose and the lungs which contains the tissue that moves very quickly to create the human voice and many animal sounds

throat
the front of the neck, or the space inside the neck down which food and air can go:
a sore throat
He cleared his throat

articulate
to express in words:
found myself unable to articulate my feelings.
Many people are opposed to the new law, but have had no opportunity to articulate their opposition.

opposition
strong disagreement:
There is a lot of opposition to the proposed changes.

The Opposition
in some countries such as Britain, the main political party in Parliament that is not part of the government:
the leader of the Opposition
the three main opposition parties

tongue (MOUTH PART)
the large soft piece of flesh in the mouth which you can move and which you use for tasting, speaking, etc:
I burnt my tongue on some soup last night.

rhythm
a strong pattern of sounds, words or musical notes which is used in music, poetry and dancing:
He beat out a jazz rhythm on the drums.
I've got no sense of rhythm, so I'm a terrible dancer.

ancient
of or from a long time ago, having lasted for a very long time:
ancient civilizations/rights/laws
People have lived in this valley since ancient times.
History, ancient and modern, has taught these people an intense distrust of their neighbours.

unique
being the only existing one of its type or, more generally, unusual or special in some way:
Each person's genetic code is unique except in the case of identical twins.

trait
a particular characteristic that can produce a particular type of behaviour:
His sense of humour is one of his better traits.

possess 
to have or own something, or to have a particular quality:
In the past, the root of this plant was thought to possess magical powers which could cure baldness.

primary (MOST IMPORTANT)
more important than anything else; main:
The Red Cross's primary concern is to preserve and protect human life.
The primary responsibility lies with those who break the law.

cave
a large hole in the side of a hill, cliff or mountain, or one that is underground

carve 
to make something by cutting into especially wood or stone, or to cut into the surface of stone, wood, etc:
He carved her name on a tree.

curve
a line which bends continuously and has no straight parts:
the curve of a graph

kurb (US curb)
the edge of a raised path nearest the road

She carved her name on the curved curbs of the cave :)

curb
to control or limit something that is not desirable:
The Government should act to curb tax evasion.

jewellery
decorative objects worn on your clothes or body which are usually made from valuable metals, such as gold and silver, and precious stones:
a jewellery box
a piece of gold/silver jewellery

jeweller
a person who sells and sometimes repairs jewellery and watches

overturn
(cause) to turn over:
The car skidded off the road, hit a tree and overturned.
The burglars had overturned all the furniture in the house.

explore
to search and discover (about something):
to explore space
The best way to explore the countryside is on foot.

intrigue
to interest someone a lot, especially by being strange, unusual or mysterious:
Throughout history, people have been intrigued by the question of whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

indiscriminate
not showing careful thought or planning, especially so that harm results:
an indiscriminate terrorist attack on civilians
The indiscriminate use of fertilizers can cause long-term problems.

deliberate
describes a movement, action or thought which is done carefully without hurrying:
From her slow, deliberate speech I guessed she must be drunk.
VOCABULARY

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Reference: Focus on Vocabulary, BBC Horizon
FoV 01 - U02C05

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