Qesem Cave (Israel) : 400,000-year-old 'School of Rock' Found
Not just hominin see, hominin do
There have been other studies that indicate knowledge transmission amongst prehistoric humans. These mostly involve remains dated to the Upper Paleolithic, however, hundreds of thousands of years after Qesem’s time.
The discovery of what seems to be a school for advanced flint tool-making raises the key question of how this prehistoric show-and-tell took place. Did the hominins who lived so long ago already have a language with which to teach their children? Can such complex behavior be learned just through imitation?
When our ancestors began to talk is controvesial. Some researchers suggest that, at least physiologically, they may have already been speaking as early as 1.75 million years ago, as they began to create more complex and standardized tools, which required some kind of knowledge sharing.
Flint core reflecting two generations of item removals ("shared core") Sasha Flit
By the time hominins lived in Qesem, they had reached a key juncture in their evolution. They had developed ever more elaborate tool-making and hunting techniques; and it seems they had learned to control fire – an ability of which the earliest evidence was also found at this cave.
It seems, says Assaf, that hominins would require language to spread all these newfangled abilities.
This conclusion is supported by a recent experimental study, published in Nature, which showed how even the more basic knapping techniques would be nearly impossible to learn through simple imitation.
Many animals use different forms of communication. Some, like chimpanzees, can learn complex behavior through imitation, but humans are the only species known to use communication to transmit knowledge.
The fact that this may already have been happening at Qesem more than 200,000 years ago, could help rewrite the history of where and when anatomically modern humans first emerged.
When did we become human?
Until recently, scholars were convinced that our species first evolved in East Africa, as the oldest Homo sapiens remains were found in Ethiopia and dated to just under 200,000 years ago.
But a slew of recent discoveries is now contradicting that narrative.
Earlier this year, researchers revealed they had dated a primitive Homo sapiens skull found at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco to 300,000 years ago.
In another headscratcher for paleontologists, a study published this month showed remarkable similarities between the Moroccan skull and one found in China and dated to some 260,000 years ago – all before modern humans were supposed have first appeared in East Africa.
We don't know who lived at Qesem itself. Only a handful of teeth have been recovered, not enough to conclusively determine what kind of hominin inhabited the cave. Even so, experts have pronounced the teeth to be much more similar to those of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens than to those of Homo erectus, the first hominin known to have left Africa and spread across Eurasia some 1.8 million years ago.
What does all this mean? Did humans first evolve in North Africa? In the Middle East? In China? Or perhaps there are even older remains of Homo sapiens just waiting to be discovered in the African heartlands?
Assaf says that at this stage it’s impossible to answer such questions, but it seems that many of the things that make us human – the ability to plan ahead, to shape our environment, to create complex and enduring societies – appeared much earlier than we previously thought.
“In the past, modern behavior was linked to later periods, to the upper Paleolithic, [which began some 50,000 years ago]” she says. “But because of such finds we must go further backwards: the more we find, the more we see markers of modern behavior in older sites.”