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Neuroimaging and ancient engravings are giving scientists insight into how prehistoric humans thought

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Using advanced neuroimaging techniques to monitor the effect of prehistoric engravings on the brains of modern humans, researchers in France are gaining new insights into how the minds of our ancient ancestors operated and the thoughts that went through their brains.

According to Ancient Origins:

“To their astonishment, they found that the minds of modern people treat the ancient representations as meaningful and not just as decorations. The findings could provide a new perspective on the cognitive development of early humans.”

Prehistoric engraved stone from Letham Grange, Scotland (Via Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons)

For decades, a debate has raged in academic circles seeking to answer a question: Were the engravings and decorative patterns found on objects made by ancient humans merely something they did when bored, or do the patterns represent something much more significant?

In order to find insights into the mind of prehistoric man, the French researchers conducted a study:

“They decided to study the impact of Palaeolithic carvings on modern brains. To achieve this, they asked for volunteers to participate in the project, who were shown examples of prehistoric engravings.

“According to the Royal Society, ‘The perception of the engravings bilaterally activated regions along the ventral route in a pattern similar to that activated by the perception of objects.’ This meant that the brains of the participants in the study recognized the carved designs as objects.”

Homo Erectus shell with geometric incisions. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The importance of the results from the French study are nothing short of monumental:

“This took the researchers by surprise as it appeared to show that the brain is designed to process such imagery and motifs. The Royal Society reports that ‘these engravings have the visual properties of meaningful representations in present-day humans.’ The findings of the investigation would strongly indicate that present-day people interpret the carvings in a symbolic way.”

All of this suggests that early hominids were able to think abstractly at a much earlier date than was previously understood. If the markings have meaning for modern humans, it can then be extrapolated that they also had significance for our early ancestors. One of the most essential elements to cognitive development in humans is interpreting signs. Doing so is also crucial to the creation of language and culture.

Prior to the French study, the origins of symbolic thinking were thought to have begun about 42 centuries ago:

“Traditionally, symbolic thinking was believed to have emerged because of ‘a sudden cognitive revolution occurring among modern human populations settling in Europe 42 000 years ago”’reports the Royal Society. The conclusions of the study may indicate that early humans could think and communicate symbolically much earlier than thought.”

So when did symbolic thinking actually begin? The study from France points to the first development of it took place in Africa:

“It would also suggest that early hominids such as Neanderthals were capable of abstract thinking and were far more sophisticated than previously thought.”

Perhaps the mind of man advanced faster than we ever imagined, and that could have profound implications for human development in the future.

Related: Paleoanthropologist discovers set of geometric signs used around the world 40,000 years ago

Were Neanderthals smarter than we thought? Watch this video and decide for yourself.

Featured Image Via YouTube Screenshot

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