Category Archives: art

Is it music what makes us humans?

Alright, the title is a blunt cliché admittedly. But that is what a new study on rhesus monkeys has found: that our intelligent cousins from India cannot discern the beat, the regularity that makes up a rhythm. Human babies can instead and so is the case of some birds.

Henkjang Honing et al., Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) Detect Rhythmic Groups in Music, but Not the Beat. PLoS ONE 2012. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051369]


It was recently shown that rhythmic entrainment, long considered a
human-specific mechanism, can be demonstrated in a selected group of
bird species, and, somewhat surprisingly, not in more closely related
species such as nonhuman primates. This observation supports the vocal learning hypothesis
that suggests rhythmic entrainment to be a by-product of the vocal
learning mechanisms that are shared by several bird and mammal species,
including humans, but that are only weakly developed, or missing
entirely, in nonhuman primates.
To test this hypothesis we measured
auditory event-related potentials (ERPs) in two rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta),
probing a well-documented component in humans, the mismatch negativity
(MMN) to study rhythmic expectation. We demonstrate for the first time
in rhesus monkeys that, in response to infrequent deviants in pitch that
were presented in a continuous sound stream using an oddball paradigm, a
comparable ERP component can be detected with negative deflections in
early latencies (Experiment 1). Subsequently we tested whether rhesus
monkeys can detect gaps (omissions at random positions in the sound
stream; Experiment 2) and, using more complex stimuli, also the beat
(omissions at the first position of a musical unit, i.e. the ‘downbeat’;
Experiment 3). In contrast to what has been shown in human adults and
newborns (using identical stimuli and experimental paradigm), the
results suggest that rhesus monkeys are not able to detect the beat in
music. These findings are in support of the hypothesis that beat induction
(the cognitive mechanism that supports the perception of a regular
pulse from a varying rhythm) is species-specific and absent in nonhuman
primates. In addition, the findings support the auditory timing dissociation hypothesis,
with rhesus monkeys being sensitive to rhythmic grouping (detecting the
start of a rhythmic group), but not to the induced beat (detecting a
regularity from a varying rhythm).

Sadly for the enthusiasts of “complex modern behavior”, who’d love to draw an absolutist line between before and after of being humans, music leaves no or almost no remains, so their line, even if it might exist in blurry or whatever other state, cannot be identified in the archaeological record.

Beautiful amber elk from Epipaleolithic Low Germany

Pileta de Prehistoria calls my attention to this beautiful figurine of an elk carved in amber found in a farm from Northern Germany (exact spot not specified anyhwere).
The artwork seems to belong to Federmesser culture, sometimes described as part of the Azilian culture (Epi-Magdalenian in any case), that overlapped in extension the more locally rooted and technologically distinct Ahrensburgian culture.
S. Veil et al.,  A 14 000-year-old amber elk and the origins of northern European art. Antiquity 2012. Pay per view ··> LINK.


A Late Palaeolithic amber figurine has been skilfully recovered and
reassembled from a ploughed open site in northern Germany. Dated between
11 800 and 11 680 cal BC it occupies a key point between the
Magdalenian and the Mesolithic. The authors show that the figurine
represents a female elk which was probably carried on the top of a
wooden staff. They argue for continuity of art but change of belief in
this crucial transition period. 

The elk head was part of a larger piece, now broken:

Main source: – Archaeology: Art of the Azilian: 14,000 year old Amber Elk Figurine.


Posted by on September 8, 2012 in art, Epipaleolithic, European prehistory, Germany, portable art


Thousands of engraved plates found in Northern Portugal

The engraved schist plates have been found concentrated at a dig site at Meirinhos[pt] (Mogadouro, Alto Trás-os-Montes), where they seem to have accumulated by the action of natural forces back in the day. Their motifs are mostly figurative, although some are zoomorphic (horses, aurochsen). They are believed to be from the Upper Paleolithic and are among the most important artistic sets of NW Iberia (also Côa open air sanctuary and Asturian cave art).
Sources[pt]: Correio del Manha, Pileta,

Oldest known East Asian sculpture

A pottery or terracotta figure (right) from the Hongshan culture has been unearthed in what is now Inner Mongolia. The figure measures 55 cm height and is speculated to represent a sage or prince from the period. 
The Hongshan culture is (rather advanced, 3rd phase) Neolithic and believed to be proto-Koreanic or proto-Altaic by language. The figure is estimated to have an age of c. 5300 years ago.
Sources: People’s Daily, Pileta

Drawing the ancestors

Skhul (Palestine 120 Ka ago)
Just found at NeanderFollia[cat] these wonderful artist’s recreations. Hartmut Zänder’s MySpace page[de] is full of fascinating portraits, just that many of them are from people who are not anymore among us but have been gone for many many thousand years.
Zänder’s art is specially dedicated to mtDNA haplogroup K and of course that implies drawing Ötzi, who has ended up being quite more handsome than in other reconstructions I have seen. Now, thanks to Zänder, we can recognize the iceman as a typical North Italian.
But what really caught my attention are the portraits of early H. sapiens, which are quite in the line of what I could imagine. A nice detail is that Zänder draws them with thin lines within a rectangle; I can’t be sure if he does that for the reason I imagine but as soon as I saw these images, they reminded me stylistically of the engraved Magdalenian portraits of La Marche.

Update: An older site by the same author with dozens of reconstructed or rather imagined haplogroup matriarchs by Zänder. Quite impressive.

Update (Mar 17 2012): Zaender has a blog: Regional Ancestry Bands, you may want to visit.


Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Anthropometry, art, human evolution, reconstruction