11-29-2003
Was Humanity's Rise to Preeminence Fueled By Fish Oils?

    In his new book, The Omega Rx Zone - The Miracle of the New High-Dose Fish Oil, Dr. Barry Sears advances an interesting thesis. In a brief cut at an outline of pre-history that Rostam Seddiq and I cobbled together in early 2000, we quoted from Dr. Ian Tattersall's article, "Once We Were Not Alone", in the December, 1999, issue of Scientific American. To reprise that quotation:

    In 40,000 B. C., something changed abruptly. This warrants some discussion. To quote Ian Tattersall, "The stoneworking skills of the Neanderthals were impressive, if somewhat stereotyped, but they rarely, if ever, made tools from other preservable materials. And many archeologists question the sophistication of their hunting skills.
    "Further, despite misleading early accounts of bizarre Neanderthal "bear cults" and other rituals, no substantial evidence has been found for symbolic behaviors among these hominids, or for the production of symbolic objects—certainly not before contact had been made with modern humans. Even the occasional Neanderthal practice of burying the dead may have been simply a way of discouraging hyena incursions into their living spaces, or have a similar mundane explanation, for Neanderthal burials lack the "grave goods" that would attest to ritual and to a belief in an afterlife. The Neanderthals, in other words, although admirable in many ways and for a long time, successful in the difficult circumstances of the late Ice Ages, lacked the spark of creativity that, in the end, distinguished Homo sapiens."
    "Significantly, the Homo sapiens who invaded Europe brought with them abundant evidence of a fully formed and unprecedented modern sensibility. Not only did they possess a new "Upper Paleolithic" stoneworking technology based upon the production of long, thin blades from cylindrical cores, but they made tools from bone and antler, with an exquisite sensitivity to the properties of those materials.
    "Even more significant, they brought with them art, in the form of carvings, engravings and spectacular cave paintings; they kept records on bone and stone plaques; they made music on wind instruments; they crafted elaborate personal adornments; they afforded some of the dead elaborate burials with grave goods (hinting at social stratification in addition to belief in an afterlife; for not all their burials were equally fancy); and their living sites were highly organized, with evidence of sophisticated hunting and fishing. The pattern of intermittent technological innovation was gone, replaced by constant refinement. Clearly, these people were us."
    (About 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals disappeared from the Levant, and about 30,000 years ago, 10,000 years after Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe, Neanderthal Man disappeared from Europe as well.) Ian Tattersall continues:
    "The key to the difference between the European and the Levantine experience lies, most probably, in the emergence of modern cognition which, it is reasonable to suppose, is equivalent to the advent of symbolic thought."
    "It is impossible to be sure what this innovation might have been, but the best current bet is that it was the invention of language. For language is not simply the medium by which we express our ideas and experiences to each other. Rather, it is fundamental to the thought process itself. It involves categorizing and naming objects and sensations in the outer and inner worlds and making associations between resulting mental symbols. It is, in effect, impossible for us to conceive of thought (as we are familiar with it) in the absence of language, and it is the ability to form mental symbols that is the fount of our creativity, for only once we create such symbols can we recombine them and ask such questions as "What if...?"

        —from "We Are Not Alone", by Ian Tattersall, with Paintings
            by Jay H. Matternes, Scientific American, Dec., 1999, pg. 56.

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