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Symbols from the Stone Age

Rocks found in a cave suggest the people used objects and colors to stand for other things more than 90,000 years ago.

As modern-day people, we like to think we're pretty smart, especially compared with our ancestors who lived many thousands of years ago.

Now, some anthropologists say that our ancestors may have been smarter than we usually give them credit for. Rocks recently found in a cave in Israel suggest that people were using objects and colors to represent other things more than 90,000 years ago. This kind of symbolic thinking—where, for example, the color red might stand for danger or a shape for a certain animal—was long thought to be a more recent development.

An ancient lump of red ocher dug up at a cave in Israel shows evidence of scraping by stone tools.

An ancient lump of red ocher dug up at a cave in Israel shows evidence of scraping by stone tools.

G. Laron, Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University

In the Qafzeh Cave in Israel, Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem looked at human remains dating back more than 90,000 years. Among some of the oldest skeletons, the researchers found 71 pieces of a type of pigment called red ocheralong with ocher-stained stone tools. Chemical analyses suggest that the ocher had been heated.

Hovers and her coworkers suspect that people brought lumps of ocher to the cave, heated them up, and used them with mollusk shells for symbolic reasons when they buried their dead. Even today, some cultures use red to symbolize fertility or life.

Other researchers argue that using ocher was only a preliminary step. They think that real symbolic culture developed only about 50,000 years ago. More advanced kinds of symbolism, such as books and magazines, didn't come along until much later than that.—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Bower, Bruce. 2003. Stone Age code red: Scarlet symbols emerge in Israeli cave. Science News 164(Nov. 1):277-278. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/20031101/fob6.asp .

You can learn more about excavations at Qafzeh cave in Israel at www.mankato.msus.edu/emuseum/archaeology/
sites/middle_east/jabel_qafzeh.htm
(Minnesota State University, Mankato) and ancientneareast.tripod.com/Jebel_Qafzeh.html (Mark Alan McDonald).

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