Paleolithic Period: When Did the Early Humans Acquire a Mind?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

We have learned a lot about the daily lives of early humans in the Paleolithic period from the various fossils we have excavated over the years. What about the human mind? When, in fact, did we acquire a mind?

Cave paintings of rhinos from the Chauvet Cave in southern France.
The subjects of cave paintings by early humans were predominantly wild animals such as rhinos, horses, bison, and bulls. (Image: Screenshot from the film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”/Public domain)

A mind isn’t just a brain. A mind is something that is capable of symbolic thought, of art, of language, of reasoning, of complex emotion, of social organization, and of manipulation, specifically of the manipulation of other humans.

Well, there’s a general consensus among paleoanthropologists that early humans acquired minds somewhere between 60,000 and 20,000 years ago. Somewhere in that period, in other words, our ancestors became capable of creating objects of aesthetic appeal, having more extensive social connections, and being able to live imaginatively in the past as well as the future.

They did so because they were now sufficiently freed from the exigencies of life. Life was no longer just a fight for survival. There was a little bit of giving in the system, and that enabled us to become human in a cultural and social sense.

Learn more about being Paleolithic.

The Development of Language

All of the above is connected with the development of language. We don’t know when humans first began using language. Language may have begun with the Neanderthals—or even earlier. But it was probably sometime around 40,000 B.C. that a structured language began to take shape, as opposed to single words—around the same time that our brains became minds, in other words.

It was a very limited language of course—rather like that of a seven-year-old. But it was a lot more refined than the grunting and gesticulation that had preceded it. It meant that we could exchange thoughts, acquire a shared memory, express tender emotions, and crucially engage in cooperative enterprises like hunting.

In fact, some paleoanthropologists believe that hunting only became possible with the development of language. It enabled humans to say things like, ‘Don’t move, there’s a bison over there. Let’s throw our rocks all at once’.

Learn more about ancient hominids.

Early Human Artistic Endeavors

This period also produced the first evidence of artistic accomplishment, most spectacularly in the form of cave art. The earliest cave paintings come from the Chauvet Cave in southern France and maybe as old as 30,000 B.C. Other examples of cave art have been found in Lascaux, also in southern France, dated about 15,000 B.C., and in Altamira in northern Spain dated 2,000 years later.

Wild animals predominate—aurochs, bison, bulls, deer, and horses. Humans are rare, although we do find tracings of the human hand.

Art is unquestionably a product of human culture. But if you’d been a cave artist would you have thought of yourself as creating art? Did you intend to give aesthetic pleasure? Or were you ‘merely’ dabbling in sympathetic magic, to demonstrate mastery over the animals depicted on the walls? To make them appear when you next went hunting, for instance.

Replica of the bison painting discovered in the Cave of Altamira in Spain.
Cave paintings are proof that early humans had a high level of technical skill, and an ability to visualize imaginatively through the symbolic language of art. (Image: National Museum and Research Center of Altamira/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Picasso certainly thought cave paintings are art. After visiting Altamira, he famously declared, ‘After Altamira, all is decadence’.

Whatever the interpretation, cave art offers proof of a high level of technical skill and an ability to visualize imaginatively through the symbolic language of art—irrespective of whether the artist was self-consciously creating art in the way that we understand the concept of art today.

However, cave art does not provide the earliest evidence of painting. Pieces of ochre rock inscribed with geometric patterns dated about 80,000 B.C. have been found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What’s fascinating here is that the art is non-representational, which suggests that early man could already think abstractly and perhaps symbolically.

Learn more about daily life in the ancient world.

When Humans Acquired a Mind

Paleolithic early humans survived the last ice age, which began about 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. They did so by hunting animals that adapted to the cold—reindeer, woolly mammoth, steppe bison, and wild horse, whose migratory paths they learned to predict.

They preserved the animals they’d killed in permafrost, which acted as a deep freezer. They made clothes from animal hides. They built shelters from mammoth bones. They engaged in trade—particularly in obsidian, which was a highly-prized black volcanic glass, which was used for making weapons before the invention of metals.

Then, around 10,000 B.C., the climate suddenly heated up, the ice retreated, and the forests expanded. In fact, the temperature went up by about 7 degrees Celsius within 50 years.

They became a hunter-gatherer—or perhaps if they lived beside the sea, they became what the archeologist Albert Ammerman calls a voyager-forager—like the people who sailed from Turkey to Cyprus to obtain salt.

Learn more about the lives of our ancestors.

What Differentiates Humans from Other Species?

What is it that makes us different from every other species on the face of the earth? Not a lot. Our brains are three times bigger than that of chimpanzees, but our psychological makeup is no different. Our basic needs and wants are the same as well. That’s perhaps hardly surprising in light of the fact that we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimps.

What does differentiate us is the fact that we’ve inherited a culture, we’ve built complex social institutions, we communicate in a complex language system, and we have minds that aren’t limited by the desire for food.

Studying prehistory is not just grappling with chimeras, and it’s not just dealing with the fact that theories are constantly being revised. It’s also about the origins of what is undeniably human: the manufacture of objects, social organization, the ability to express oneself through language, delight in representing the world pictorially, the hope or belief that death does not signal extinction, and, as well, caring for those weaker than ourselves.

Our Paleolithic ancestors deserve a lot of praise, not only for their sheer gutsiness but also for their intelligence and resourcefulness. Because they lived in small groups, they didn’t just invent things once, they had to keep on inventing the same thing over and over. Because they had no writing, they had to pass on all their wisdom and all their knowledge orally. And because there were things like meat, which they needed but which was attached to an animal many times larger, stronger, and faster than themselves, they had to learn to cooperate with other humans to obtain it.

Common Questions About How Early Humans Acquired a Mind

Q: When did humans first speak?

Early humans had been communicating with each other through grunting and gesticulation, as far back as 2 million years ago. However, the use of a structured language – albeit a very limited language, like that of a seven-year-old – began around 40,000 years ago.

Q: What was the purpose of cave paintings?

The cave painting that we have found are predominantly of wild animals. Humans are rare, although we do find tracings of the human hand. We do not know if early humans created these cave paintings to provide aesthetic pleasure or, more likely, to demonstrate mastery over the animals depicted on the walls, and to influence the outcome of the next hunt.

Q: What can we learn from cave paintings?

Cave paintings offer proof of a high level of technical skill and an ability to visualize imaginatively through the symbolic language of art. Even if early humans weren’t self-consciously creating art in the way that we understand the concept of art today, this holds true.

Q: What is the oldest rock art in the world?

The cave paintings found at Chauvet Cave and Lascaux in southern France and those found in Altamira in northern Spain aren’t the earliest evidence of painting. Pieces of ochre rock inscribed with geometric patterns dated about 80,000 B.C. have been found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.

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