[Ed. – Just stop that. I see you sitting there thinking you’re more abstract than a Neanderthal and more socially subtle than a chimpanzee.]
Whether the prehistoric artist was more of a Mercator than a Matisse matters not a jot. It is the deliberate intention to create a lasting symbolic expression, designed to be seen and interpreted by others, that so fascinates. As the scientists write: “The production of purposely made painted or engraved designs on cave walls is recognised as a major cognitive step in human evolution, considered exclusive to modern humans.”
So humans can no longer claim that our privileged position as the world’s dominant species is earned through a unique cultural sensibility, expressed in art, science and philosophy. We forfeited the monopoly on other capacities long ago – dolphins have rudimentary language, crows can count and last week it was also revealed that cockatoos can teach others how to make and use tools.
If technical mastery is not ours alone, then surely it is as a social species that we reign supreme? Observations of chimpanzee groups suggest otherwise; complex behaviour such as altruism, reciprocity and Machiavellian manoeuvring are routinely observed in our closest relatives.
Their emotional spectrum – happiness, sadness, pride, anger, revenge – mirrors ours. Some of them plan for the future, as was discovered when a zoo-dwelling chimp in Sweden was found hoarding stones in the morning to hurl at visitors in the afternoon.
The more closely scientists look at other species, both extant and extinct, the less remarkable our own becomes. Nearly everything we once thought made us human, does not. …
Homo sapiens might indeed be something special. Or, to use the phrase of writer and comedian Chris Addison, maybe we are simply the ape that got lucky.