Berkay DinçerIn archaeological record, it is not always possible to find traces of cognitive behaviors of fossil humans. Such cognitive traces are probably the most difficult remains to understand by archaeologists. At the present state of knowledge, there is no certain criteria to define these behaviors. Usually, non-utilitarian artifacts accepted as the signs of this concept. But sometimes, it is not easy to differ non-utilitarian and utilitarian. For example Upper Paleolithic decorated arrow throwers are something like this. Personal adornments, burials and "art" have great value to understand cognitive behaviors of past humans.
Many of the archaeologists think that such cognitive behaviors first appeared as an explosion in the Upper Paleolithic with genus Homo sapiens sapiens. We can name this idea as the "traditional thought". For the traditional sight such cognitive behaviors like art etc. have close relations with anatomically modern humans. Therefore they believe that there is no evidence of this kind of behaviors before Homo sapiens sapiens. They categorize all other fossil humans as they had no such intelligence like modern humans had. We may say that this traditional sight has very close relations with religious ideas.
On the other hand, there are also some archaeologists who suggest a cumulative development of cognitive behaviors through time. If we talk about "art" and its emergence, we can say first "artists" were stone-tool makers who flaked rocks symmetrically in the Lower Paleolithic. We should re-evaluate traditional sight to understand cognitive evolution. Because it is not logic to connect all cognitive behaviors to Homo sapiens sapiens. We accept that before anatomically modern humans evidences of such behaviors are very rare. But there are at least some evidences. In modern archaeology we cannot see rare evidences as the evidence of low intellectual capacity of pre-modern humans.
As we do not know much about ideas of Lower Paleolithic humans, we can say that the oldest evidences of such cognitive behaviors are from the Neanderthals. Burials are the most significant evidences about that subject. Oldest burials are dated to the beginning of the Würm glacial. Burials point to sensational relations between humans. Burying is so common among the Neanderthals that up to date more than 20 individuals found with all bones of their body. Before burials, it was not easy to find full skeletons of humans. Some of the archaeologists suggest that the burying is only a hygienic way of hiding the dead bodies because there were many predators to come just for these. But burial gifts which started in the later phases of this behavior shows that it is more sensational and cognitive than hygienic. Nearly 30 percent of Neanderthal burials have gifts. In the Upper Paleolithic, this percentage is 90. Most famous Neanderthal burials are found at Shanidar (Iraq), La Ferrasie, La Moustier, La Chapelle-aux-Saints (France), Teshik Tash (Uzbekistan) and Dederiyeh (Syria). 183 Neanderthal individuals found in graves which is more than 50% of total Neanderthal remains yet found.
Prehistoric art is very hard to define. Because it is very different from the modern art. Prehistoric art is figurative and symbolic. As commonly accepted, it first appeared in the Upper Paleolithic (40-30 thousand years ago). Up to the discovery of Chauvet Cave (France). it was thought that art developed gradually from primitive to naturalistic. But at Chauvet Cave, which is the oldest prehistoric art site yet known, images are drawn very naturalistically. So, it is now certain that art did not appear as an explosion; it has roots before the Upper Paleolithic. There are not many "artistic" objects in the Middle and Lower Paleolithic but we should see Neanderthals and Homo erectus as the embryo of the artist as André Langaney said.
Oldest "artistic" objects of the Lower Paleolithic, are from Bilzingsleben (Germany) which is nearly 350 thousand years old. Those are engravedbone pieces. Robert Bednarik calls these "concept-mediated marking"s and for him, those are evidences of a more gradual evolution of cognitive faculties beginning in the Lower Paleolithic. In the Middle Paleolithic there are more evidences. Neanderthals occupied Oceania nearly 60 thousand years ago and since 45-40 thousand years there were a kind of "rock art" in that part of the world. as most of the world is not very well researched for the Pleistocene cultures, we can assume that there are more to discover about cognitive behaviors of pre-modern humans.
As we say "prehistoric art", most people think only about cave art or figurines but we must include music too. We cannot hear songs they singed but we can find musical instruments of that times. The oldest flute yet known is from Divje Babe I (Slovenia) and dated back to 43 thousand years.
If we talk about the figurines, most probably the oldest "figurine" is Berekhat Ram from the Golan Highs. It is found in a layer which is dated between 800 and 233 thousand years. It is a tuff piece that has naturally a shape of woman. It is probably carved by humans to give this shape a further meaning. There are also some beads and amulets from Arcy-sur-Cure which is dated to a period between 45-38 thousand years ago. At that time two human species, the Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans were occupying the Europe. For that reason, it is still not clear which of them made this finds. There are also some other finds like these from Tata (Hungary) and La Ferrasie (France) too.
It is commonly accepted that Upper Paleolithic art appeared as an explosion with the anatomically modern humans. Most of the archaeologists working on this subject accept that the prehistoric art has close relations with Homo sapiens sapiens. As R. Bednarik said, this idea has its roots in the euro-centrism because for this theory art first appeared in Europe. But in modern archaeology, it is not possible to make correlations between art and distinct human species. Because cognitive behaviors cannot be related to certain biological nor anatomical features. Or we can say, that the Neanderthals were very close to Homo sapiens sapiens for the cognitive abilities.
From the first discovery, the Neanderthals used to be imagined as "ape-like" primitive cave men. Most of the people still think that they are a dead-end in human evolution and they were not ancestors of modern man. Common ideas about them should be changed because they had a very important culture and they were "human" as much as us. As our scientific knowledge expands we will be able to understand them better. I believe that the Neanderthals were very much like us and they were as "intelligent" as us.