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Ape-man series producer Philip Martin
Modern science has transformed our understanding of human evolution
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Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 08:34 GMT
Ape-man: Origin of sophistication
Thomas Dowson traces the South African paintings
By BBC Science's Claire Imber

Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira. These are just a few of the fabulous and enigmatic European cave paintings discovered so far.

Dated at over 25,000 years old, we have always marvelled at them, but thought that they were made by primitive people.

These are not mere scribblings
Although the paintings are stunningly beautiful, they look like simple depictions of animals. Perhaps they are a naive hunting magic, nothing more.

But according to two scientists working in South Africa, this view of the ancient painters is totally wrong. They believe the paintings are evidence of a complex and modern society.

The researchers think they can prove that the cave painters were just like us.

In a new, landmark series on BBC Two - Ape-man: Adventures in Human Evolution - David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson make the link between ancient rock paintings in Europe and more recent ones in the South African Cape.

Animal spirits

They asked modern Namibian Ju'hoansi tribespeople to explain the 2,000-year-old Cape paintings, and were amazed to hear how they represented complex cosmological and shamanic beliefs.

The Ju'hoansi believe that during a night-long dance associated with rhythmic clapping and chanting, special people in the tribe take on the power of animal spirits and use it to heal the others in their group.

A continent away, a US psychologist studying shamanism and hypnosis has added his piece to the puzzle. Etzel Cardena works with Americans especially susceptible to hypnosis.

He has found that all these people report the same kinds of feeling and visual hallucinations, which mirror the experiences of those involved in shamanic and other religions.

He believes that this means our minds are all the same, and we share the same experiences in altered states of consciousness.
The artists were not eating the animals they painted

Inside our heads

A neurologist in the UK, Dominic Ffytche, believes he has the final evidence to tie all of this together. His team work with stroke and migraine sufferers, mapping the areas of the brain responsible for visual hallucination.

His patients also see the same shapes and patterns reported by the Ju'hoansi, and indeed they are strikingly similar to the patterns painted in Prehistoric Europe. We have discovered a neurological link to the past, inside our own heads.

Each scientist alone makes a significant contribution to our knowledge, yet together their work is stronger. The South African archaeologists had little idea that there were psychologists and neurologists out there whose work could back up their own hypotheses.

Experts in prehistoric diet and lifestyle can also recognise what the other researchers have found. Their own work has shown conclusively that the cave artists were not eating the animal species that they were painting. In other words, the cave art is not an illustrated menu or a hunting wish-list.

It is clear that modern minds have been around for over 25,000 years, and with them humans have been able to think about all kinds of things. Our modern minds are what allow us to imagine other worlds and to communicate about abstract concepts.

Lonely position

Our modern minds let us wonder about who we are and where we came from, and indeed allow us to be scientists, priests and shamen.

David Lewis-Williams: Needed the input of others
The new BBC series focuses on key moments in human prehistory, from our origins as upright African apes, to our lonely position today as the last human species left.

The scientists and archaeologists tell their own stories of discovery and revelation, and lead us to places we might otherwise never see.

We visit their private excavations, laboratories and caverns, to track down the answers to those elusive and universal questions: who are we, and where did we come from?

Ape-man: Adventures in Human Evolution is broadcast on BBC Two on Tuesdays at 21:00 GMT. Claire Imber was the series researcher.

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15 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
African ape-man's hand unearthed
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A taste for meat
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