Non Utilitarian Objects collected by Early Humans: The Archaeology of Curiosity

curious

This is a fossilized shark tooth from the Gravettian strata of the Abri Pataud at Les Eyzies in the French Dordogne. Sharks have been living on earth for about 400 million years. When a shark dies and its cartilage dissolves, the teeth fall to the bottom of the ocean and get covered with sandy sediment and fossilizes. 

Non-utilitarian items, collected by early humans comprise:

  • Pigments were in use since the MSA in Africa. The evidence for ocher use even extends back to the beginnings of the MSA, for example in the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya, dated to >240 k.a, at Twin Rivers, Zambia dated roughly to the same time interval. Excavations at Sai 8-B-11 in northern Sudan show yellow and red pigment lumps associated with grinding tools with traces of pigments and vegetal materials. The associated Sangoan core axe lithic ensemble is dated to 200 k.a BP. In addition ca 40 Mousterian sites in Europe, especially Pech de l’Aze I (Dordogne, France), have provided series of coloring materials (hematite, ocher, manganese), whose physical and chemical properties do not appear useful for daily life.
  • Collection of Quartz Crystals by early hominids is first observed during the Lower Paleolithic. For example, in India, the Singi Talav in Rajasthan (dated to 800 k.a.) is located a few kilometers from the occupation site where they were discovered. In the Near East, the site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (dated to 800 k.a.) also contains unmodified quartz crystals. In China, at Zhoukoudian (dated to 400 k.a.), unmodified quartz crystals were discovered in the Lower Paleolithic strata.
  • Fossils are items which frequently suggest some sense of non-utilitarian activity among early prehistoric populations, or at the very least, an interest in strange or unusual objects. Studies indicate that these fossils could not have been brought to the sites by natural processes alone. Some items are already known from the Acheulian (Gesher Benot Ya’aqov) and many more are known from the European Middle and Upper Paleolithic. They are rarely modified like the famous fossil, silicified nummulite, from the late OIS5 Micoquian of Tata, Hungary. This partially translucent disc is dissected by a natural fracture, the second one was engraved on both sides at right angles to the fracture.

What the motivation was for collecting extraordinary non-utilitarian items from the natural world is impossible to assess in early hominids, and even in modern humans. Picking up sich an item and bringing it back to a base camp may be related to various individual or collective concerns like play, aesthetic feeling, emotion, symbolic communication or magical religious practice, among others. Apart from that, an overarching explanation may be that such a behavior is a strong indicator for Curiosity, as a basic characteristic of all primates. Without curiosity, our ancestors would not have been invented culture and would not have succeeded in niche broadening, which finally, on the long term, led to the conquest of the earth by our species. 

Curiosity is the impetus to explore the world beyond the existing knowledge.  Curiosity is the desire to learn about what is unknown.Curiosity is a cornerstone of human cognition that has the potential to lead to innovations and increase the behavioral repertoire of individuals. Curiosity  compensates for the shortomings of the human condition, that men is an „incomplete being“ (that means: a non-specialized, developable and adaptive social being), an idea that has been put forward by the German philosopher Herder (1744-1803). Curiosity in this way is a creative act: The vast majority of innovations come about through curiosity.

Extrinsic motivated curiosity arouses not by an internal state in the individual, but rather by a novel external stimulus. It refers to the fact, that experiences that are novel and complex create a sensation of uncertainty in the brain, a sensation perceived to be unpleasant. Curiosity acts as a means in which to dispel this uncertainty. By exhibiting curious and exploratory behavior, organisms are able to learn more about the novel stimulus and thus reduce the state of uncertainty in the brain. However, this model does not account for the observation that organisms display curiosity even in the absence of exciting and new stimuli.

Intrinsic motivated curiosity refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. Intrinsic motivated curiosity in humans, different from many animals, is the intrinsic desire of humans to know and understand. Such intrinsic motivation mechanisms are observed during the whole life, from infants spontaneous exploration of their body and external objects to adults that are still eager about new information of the world. Experimental work has indeed demonstrated that acquisition of knowledge is emotionally pleasing. The satisfaction of curiosity through acquiring knowledge brings pleasure and reward. This confirms the hypothesis that curiosity or need for knowledge is a fundamental and  on a par with other Basic needs, such as sex or food.

The act of wanting new information involves mesolimbic Dopamine activation, which assigns an intrinsic value to that new information that the brain then interprets as a reward. This is the neurobiology that motivates exploratory behavior. In addition, Opioid activity in the nucleus accumbens evaluates stimuli and attaches an immediate value to the novel object, a sensation known as “liking”. This liking stimulates pleasure. The chemical processes of both wanting and liking play a role in activating the reward system of the brain, and perhaps in curiosity as well.

The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species called Neoteny. This term means the “retention of juvenile characteristics”.  It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals. Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioral characteristic of neoteny. Whereas in most animal species , the curiosity behavior disappears at puberty , it usually persists for a lifetime in humans. Our lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well during the evolution of humans. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment compared to our primate cousins, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to better adapt to new circumstances.

Think on that: 

“I have no special talents , I am only passionately curious ” (Albert Einstein)

 

 

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One Response to Non Utilitarian Objects collected by Early Humans: The Archaeology of Curiosity

  1. Mike Miller says:

    Over the years I have found three finds that contained minute crystals of quartz at
    different Mesolithic sites that I have discovered in Devon, one is a pebble with tiny
    crystals in small holes in the surface, an arrowhead shaped quartz with small internal crystals, but too chunky to be used as a working arrowhead and a quartz pebble roughly quartered which had a void containing tiny quartz crystals.

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