The Awakening of the Mind – A New View on the Emergence of Humankind


“To gain an impression of the time period we are talking about with this complex topic, let us consider a time scale of around seven million years.” With these words, Dr. Miriam Haidle opened her lecture on the evolution of the human mind. “At the beginning, we have the last ancestors that humans had in common with the great apes, and at the end we have ourselves, Homo sapiens – the modern human.” However, in such representations that extend far back into the past, it is important to point out the limited nature of available data, Haidle cautioned. Even if we were to collate all the insights gained from finds such as hand axes, bones and fossils, along with historical climatic data and genetic studies, this would be like interpreting a jigsaw puzzle with 1,000 pieces, of which at most 50 are known.

If we consider the current paleoanthropological model of human cognition, the development of mental abilities is seen as an integral part of physical evolution, for example of the hand, in combination with linguistic and social skills. Simple use of tools is already evident in chimpanzees, which can crack open kola nuts with a hammerstone. A significant change in this behavior occurred around 3.3 million years ago, when special tools used by humans appeared. For the first time, tools were now used to make other tools such as hand axes or scrapers. “This calls for a modular sequence of actions, as well as a process of procuring materials such as had not previously existed,” Haidle explained. A particularly striking example of the dynamics of this development and of the interaction between human planning and the environment are the Schöningen spears, which date back around 300,000 years. Early humans made these spears from spruce wood to hunt horses. “Making them required detailed knowledge of the growth characteristics of wood, composite materials such as adhesive resins, and much more. The various materials had to be gathered and combined over a period of several weeks. Considerable manual skills were also required in order to make these weapons, which could rival modern competition javelins in terms of their flight characteristics.”

The historically most recent stage in the development of humans, the so-called “ideational” phase, involves the production of art objects, musical instruments, and paintings. This is secured for modern Homo sapiens, Haidle said, but in 2018 new research findings were published that suggest comparable art skills and symbolic actions were also likely among Neanderthals. “This gave rise to controversial discussion in the scientific community, since the abstract artworks from La Pasiega Cave in Spain can be dated back at least 65,000 years – to a time when Homo sapiens had not yet appeared in Europe.” Eagle claws processed into jewelry, aged about 130,000 years, or comparably old perforated and colored shells, likewise suggest that the Neanderthals made jewelry and exercised artistic expression.

Haidle sees the increasingly close and differentiated connection between social interaction and new technologies as being at the heart of cognitive development in today’s humans. “The complexity of our social structure will continue to increase, and it is becoming inextricably intertwined with emerging technological developments – just as it was in the past.”

Priv.-Doz. Dr. Miriam Haidle studied subjects including prehistory, early history, and geology, earned a doctorate in prehistory, and habilitated on tool use and problem-solving approaches among humans and animals. She is coordinator of the research project “The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans” at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. She has received several awards and scholarships for her scientific work, and is currently conducting research at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt and at the University of Tübingen.

Dialog in the Museum
February 28, 2019
Mercedes-Benz Museum
70372 Stuttgart

PD Dr. Miriam Haidle
Senckenberg Natural History Museum, Frankfurt
University of Tübingen