probing the mind of the cavewoman

what went through the mind of the cavewoman? that’s hard to answer because fossil records won’t tell us anything about it. the good people at the max planck institute had a stab at that question anyway.

pix kessler neanderthal cavewoman caveman neolithicthey felt that one of the things that our ancestors would have to know would be how to find food. they used comparative psychological research to uncover some of the thinking strategies used by early humans.

how did they remember and relocate particular places where there was food? all animals use two basic strategies to remember the location of something: remembering the features of the item (it was round, green, soft, etc.), or knowing the spatial placement (right, middle, left, etc.). however, some species prefer one strategy over another.

armed with this knowledge, daniel haun and his colleagues compared the five species of great apes – orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and humans – to find out their preferred locational strategies. they figured that if all five species share particular preferences, these might be a part of the evolutionary legacy of our most recent common ancestors

the researchers hid coveted food items and had four great ape species and a one-year-old child try and find them. all of them used the location (not the particular feature) as a way of finding something hidden, even if it was hidden under a completely different object.

however, when the human animal in the study was older – a three-year-old child, in this case – they noticed a difference: unlike younger children, they judged the object under which the item was hidden to be the most reliable indication of its location. unlike apes, humans apparently reassess their strategies for looking for food as their cognitive development continues.

in further studies, the researchers are hoping to find out what it is that makes humans diverge in their cognitive development from the great apes. is it language acquisition?

this ingenious new research method may very well stand at the beginning of a fascinating series of research that will illuminate our understanding of the origins of human thinking.

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