Prehistoric style gurus were a key to evolution

The use of jewellery and cosmetics 30,000 years ago was the first expression of self-awareness by humans and a key stage in evolution, a professor of pre-history said yesterday.

The use of jewellery and cosmetics 30,000 years ago was the first expression of self-awareness by humans and a key stage in evolution, a professor of pre-history said yesterday.

A sense of one's self led to the first attempts at manipulating the minds of others by using body adornments, Steven Mithen, of the University of Reading, told the British Association meeting in London yesterday. He made his remarks while breaking down evolution into five steps that shaped the mind of Man over 10 million years.

First, the ancestors of humans and apes became "extremely clever behaviourists"who developed an ability to understand body language and facial expressions, which they learnt to read and use to predict the behaviour of neighbours.

The second stage came with the ability to understand that the wants and desires of others could be different from one's own. Understanding the mind of another was important for tool- making, said Professor Mithen. "[Tools] require a degree of intelligence and technical skill to manufacture that would be hard to acquire just by imitating somebody else. You actually have to appreciate why the experienced tool-maker you are watching is holding a tool in particular way or moving the tool. It is about understanding the intent of somebody else."

Stage three was 250,000 years ago, when there were at least two "human" species - Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Both were likely to have possessed a full "belief-desire psychology" which co-evolved with the development of language.

The fourth stage was the "most important for understanding the distinctive nature of modern humans", Professor Mithen said. "This is when people began to seek to manipulate another person's awareness of them by the use of material culture, such as body decoration, which occurred at some time after 150,000 years ago.

"The use of material culture in this manner appears to be partly related to an increase in the contacts between people who rarely see each other...and consequently who need to rapidly convey social information to each other...

"They are not decorating themselves to look pretty as such; they are trying to convey an impression of themselves to somebody else. They may want to demonstrate that they are a big brave hunter by wearing lions' teeth, which they might not be. The teeth might have been stolen from somebody.

"We do in fact start finding the first fakes about 30,000 years ago. There is a nice example in seashells... Some have been found that have been carved in ivory to look like seashells. It is a bit like cheap imitations of designer clothing.

"Wearing body ornaments might be explained by people being suddenly aware that others are making evaluations of them, so it becomes possible to manipulate those evaluations," the professor said.

The fifth and final stage in the evolution of human awareness probably occurred simultaneously and resulted in the belief in gods and religion. "It's the most extreme form, where you claim to have an awareness of others who have no physical presence in the world. You can't see them or speak to them."

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