An interesting article on the BBC today about colourful pigments found in an archaelogical dig in the south of Zambia, which would indicate (although not conclusively prove) that ancient people used colours in a symbolic manner some 200, 000 years ago. So what, some may be asking. Well the use of colours for such decoration illustrates that human ability we have which is so astonishing and yet most of the time we don’t even think about it: the ability for abstract thought. When you can use symbols, colours, sounds, images and shapes to represent real object you open a door to an intellectual revolution, one of the foundations of that amazing ability, language. And with language comes complex communication, the articulation of imagination and the ability to share ideas.
This dig, if confirmed, pushes back the date for early examples of abstract thought by 100, 000 years. Those ancient pigments could be one of the early steps on the road which lead to the verse of Homer, the Library of Alexandria, Tale of the Genji, art, history, science, myth; the collective culture of millenia of humanity. Now does it sounds like a more important deal? Should we be so surprised that dabbling with coloured paints could lead to such an intellectual blossoming? After all, don’t we give young children bright crayons and paints to play with? Don’t many children draw and paint images before they have an advanced grasp of the written language? Little steps, big results, some over countless millennia, some within a lifetime. When you step back from the routine of the everyday life for just a moment and think about it (using that power of abstract thought to do so) it is simply amazing. And it links us all right back to those dwellers in a cave in long-ago Africa at the dawn of humanity.