‘Genetic changes’ triggered Man’s artistic abilities

By Mark Henderson, Times Online

A CREATIVITY gene that evolved about 50,000 years ago was the spark that kindled the development of the modern mind, an expert on human origins said yesterday.

An explosion of art, culture and individual expression that took place in Africa between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago may have been triggered by biological changes in the human brain, according to Richard Klein, Professor of Anthropological Sciences at Stanford University in California.

He said that recent breakthroughs in genetics, in particular the discovery of the first gene linked conclusively to language, suggest strongly that Homo sapiens’s cultural revolution began with one or more genetic mutations that transformed the ability to communicate.

If analysis of the human genome confirms the theory, it would overturn standard thinking about how anatomically modern human beings, which had emerged in Africa 100,000 years ago, began to think and behave in a recognisably modern fashion.

Most anthropologists believe that the transformation, in which human beings began to adorn their bodies and create abstract art and symbolic objects, occurred gradually because of “some kind of cultural or demographic change”, such as a build-up in population, Professor Klein said.

Biological explanations had normally been rejected in the past, but actually fitted much better with the known facts. “I think there was a biological change — a genetic mutation of some kind that promoted the fully modern ability to create and innovate.”

Persuasive evidence in support of this theory has emerged recently in the shape of FOXP2, the first gene proved to affect the ability to learn and process language. Scientists from Oxford University identified the gene in 2001 by studying three generations of the “KE” family who have mutated copies and suffer severe speech and language impediments as a result. They have since shown that the human version differs in two tiny respects from a similar gene found in chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and mice.

A study last year indicated that FOXP2 evolved “some time between last Tuesday and 200,000 years ago”, Professor Klein said, but he believes that the most likely moment for its emergence was 50,000 years ago, when human behaviour began to change in remarkable ways.

Human populations that previously had produced similar functional tools suddenly began to make artefacts that looked very different according to local style, and to create symbolic objects with no practical function at all. That idiosyncratic creativity is generally accepted as the defining quality of the modern human mind.

“When you look at the archaeological record before 50,000 years ago, it is remarkably homogeneous,” Professor Klein said. “There are no geographically delineated groups of artefacts. Suddenly, you see geographically and chronologically restricted groups of artefacts with a lot of style involved in the manufacturing, and the geographic distribution is very limited. Suddenly, modern-looking people began to behave in a modern way, in producing art and jewellery and doing a whole variety of other things that they hadn’t done before.”

Among the most dramatic archaeological finds that show the change are those made recently at Blombos Cave in South Africa. Pieces of ochre engraved with geometrical patterns, which have been dated to about 70,000 years ago, are the oldest works of symbolic art ever found, and bone tools, another sign of modern thinking, have also been been found in the cave from the same period.

Professor Klein said that a suite of language and creativity genes, perhaps as few as ten or as many as 10,000, developed as a result of random mutations, giving rise to a new pattern of human culture.

“There may be other genes that we can identify that all changed in some way around 50,000 years ago,” he said. “They would have to be genes involved in cognition or communication. If you can show that, then my idea would be, I think, widely accepted. I’m very excited about this gene work. The technology is just amazing, There’s an enormous amount of work to be done on this.”

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