Free Documentary Online | The Day We Learned To Think (Documentary)

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Genre(s): Science

Understanding of humans’ earliest past often comes from studying fossils. They tell us much of what we know about the people who lived before us. There is one thing fossils cannot tell us; at what point did we stop living day-to-day and start to think symbolically, to represent ideas about our environment and how we could change it? At a dig in South Africa the discovery of a small piece of ochre pigment, 70,000 years old, has raised some very interesting questions.

Anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) emerged in Africa roughly 100,000 years ago. We know from fossil evidence that Homo sapiens replaced other hominids around them and moved out of Africa into Asia and the Middle East, reaching Europe 40,000 years ago.

Prof Richard Klein believes art is a landmark in human evolution. Unquestionable art that’s widespread and common suggests you’re dealing with people just like us. No other animals, after all, are able to define a painting as anything other than a collection of colours and shapes. This ability is unique to humans.

Other scientists agree. They believe art defines humans as behaviourally modern, and its beginning must coincide with the ability to speak and use language. If someone has the imagination to devise a shared way to describe their environment using art then it seems inconceivable that they could not possess language and speech. The search for the moment our ancestors became behaviourally just like us is also the hunt for the first evidence of art.

The earliest evidence of human art was always thought to appear in south western Europe around 40,000 years ago. Spectacular cave paintings, jewellery, carved figurines, ornaments and new styles of stone and bone tools all appear. There is evidence that ceremonial human burials were taking place. It really did seem like a light bulb had been turned on in the human brain; a big bang of thought.

Had something happened in a very small timeframe during the course of human evolution to forever change our future? A theory called ‘The Human Revolution’ emerged. It suggests there was some sudden, dramatic, genetic change around 50,000 years ago, that meant human beings, became able to think and communicate. For years this was the most plausible theory of why we evolved language and symbolic thinking, whilst our cousins the Neanderthals got wiped out.

Neanderthals were known to have been living in Europe for nearly 200,000 years before Homo sapiens arrived. But within 10,000 years of the modern human arrival, Neanderthals had disappeared. This seemed to back up the idea of the human revolution. A new, more intelligent species arrived to compete with the stronger, less advanced natives. Intelligence won and the Neanderthals were eventually made extinct, unable to compete with the incomers for scarce food and resources.

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