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The roots of religion | Genvieve Von Petzinger | TEDxVictoria

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    We live in a world
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    that is absolutely infused
    with religion and spirituality,
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    sometimes even to the point
    where maybe we don't recognize it.
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    It affects everything from something
    as simple as the holidays we celebrate,
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    to the names that we give our children,
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    to something much more really
    saddening and sort of disheartening,
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    which is finding a conflict
    on the other side of the world somewhere.
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    I mean, any given day,
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    somewhere somebody is fighting
    about spirituality and religion.
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    So, let's take a look at how this all
    plays out then on a global scale.
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    Depending on whom you talk to,
    there's about 20 major world religions -
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    so, these are ones that are in more
    than one country, more than one continent.
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    Add to that hundreds of belief systems,
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    and out of the 7 billion people who live
    on this planet at this point in time,
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    just under 6 billion profess
    to follow some sort of faith.
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    Now, I want you to try and imagine
    a world with no religion.
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    What would it look like?
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    Because that is the reality,
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    is if we go far enough back
    into our own deep history,
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    there was a time, maybe not
    with Homo sapiens, maybe further back,
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    where we didn't have any religion.
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    So, as you can see in the slide behind me,
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    that's a very simplified
    evolutionary chart,
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    but it's a question that people
    in my field, palaeoanthropology,
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    have asked: How far back
    does the religious impulse go?
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    And how would you get at that?
    It's incredibly subjective, right?
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    So, obviously Homo sapiens at the top.
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    We know that Homo sapiens
    have religion, that's us.
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    But, what about heidelbergensis
    before us, and erectus,
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    and all the way back to Homo hails.
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    You know, Homo habilis
    2.5 million years ago,
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    they're considered to be a good candidate
    for the original toolmakers.
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    And you might wonder - tools, religion,
    what do these potentially have in common?
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    But, if you actually think about
    what a cognitive leap making tools is,
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    there are some things in common.
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    For instance, when you're
    actually making a tool -
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    so you've got one piece of stone
    and you've got another to shape it -
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    you have to hold a mental template
    in your head
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    of what that finished product
    is going to look like.
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    And also what we find
    with these early toolmakers,
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    is that they actually were exhibiting
    forethought and pre-planning.
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    They were potentially taking
    a nice piece of flint with them,
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    along the landscape,
    so that when their current tool ran out,
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    or got down to kind of a nub,
    they could make themselves a new one.
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    So, there are some
    researchers in my field,
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    especially a fellow
    by the name of Thomas Wynn,
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    has teamed up with a neuropsychologist,
    by the name of Frederick Coolidge,
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    and the two of them have talked
    about something called working memory.
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    And so, it's not one spot in the brain
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    so much as sort of several functions
    that kind of work together,
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    that allow things like mental templates
    and allow things like pre-planning.
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    Now, they've made the argument
    that even on a very basic level
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    chimps probably do have
    some working memory as well.
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    Of course, they can also use tools,
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    they're just not very good at -
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    Basically, they'll take their stick,
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    they'll rip off the leaves,
    they'll use it to dip some termites out,
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    but then they tend to dump it.
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    That's pretty much it,
    they're done with that tool.
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    So, there's not a lot of examples
    of chimps reusing tools
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    or sort of behaving
    in exactly the same way
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    as what we see with Homo habilis.
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    But with that as sort of the base
    and that idea of working memory,
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    they've then sort of extrapolated that
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    and said, let's talk about something
    that they call enhanced working memory.
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    And so enhanced working memory -
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    basically there's
    several components to it.
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    This is sort of taking that,
    and then basically putting it on steroids.
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    So, not just that basic mental template
    and pre-planning,
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    but now let's add to that
    the ability to envision
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    and work with abstract concepts.
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    Let's talk about mental time travel.
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    Now, what I mean when I say
    mental time travel,
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    is the ability to think about
    past and future.
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    These are actually very unusual things.
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    We take them for granted,
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    but they're not something that necessarily
    other species can conceive of.
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    I mean obviously your dog seems
    to remember about going to the vet,
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    which is sort of an interesting thing,
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    but you know he doesn't have
    a strong sense of clear episodic memories
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    of having been to the vet
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    so much as this is a bad thing
    when I go into this building,
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    it smells a certain way - and, you know,
    this is danger basically flashing.
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    So, the clear ability to also say,
    with mental time travel,
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    "When I tried making a tool
    using this material before,
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    this didn't work very well,
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    so, I'm going to do it
    differently this time."
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    Or, "I saw this person in the next
    hunter-gatherer group over do something.
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    That worked really nicely,
    I want to do that."
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    All those kinds of things,
    as well as being able to think forwards:
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    so, pre-planning,
    but even at a greater degree.
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    Imagination, because again the ability
    to sort of conceive of something,
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    like a mental template
    when you're making a tool,
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    relies on us being able
    to visualize something
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    that doesn't actually exist
    at that moment in time -
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    it's more, again,
    that we're looking forward.
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    And then, of course, the capacity
    to understand and manipulate symbols.
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    And, so, this is where we get to things
    like language and to art.
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    So, you probably saw
    I said the "God spot,"
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    what we're talking about there is that,
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    certainly starting in probably about,
    I think, in the 1990's,
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    once we, especially neuropsychologists,
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    once they had their fancy MRI's
    and other brain scans,
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    they really started looking to see
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    if there was one spot in the brain
    that could be associated with God.
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    And they even actually did some study
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    where they actually had
    the people in the MRI,
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    and they were like, okay,
    we want you to think about
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    your vision of God or faith
    or spirituality while you're in here,
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    while we see if we can map
    the areas of the brain
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    that light up while we're doing that.
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    And they kept getting one spot
    that was lighting up,
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    and so it was this huge, like, we did it,
    aha, we found the God spot.
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    Turns out it's the spot that lights up
    when people are concentrating.
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    (Laughter)
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    So, we definitely know
    where they concentrate,
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    but, of course, everybody concentrated
    on thinking about God,
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    so, that was the problem.
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    But I think really what neuropsychologists
    and what people working on evolution
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    are working towards, is the idea
    there's probably not one spot.
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    Similar to enhanced working memory,
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    there's actually
    several parts of the brain
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    that are all kind of working together
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    to create that space
    and those types of abilities.
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    So, is it all in the lobes?
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    Behind me on the slide what you'll see
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    is that on the left-hand side
    we have a Homo erectus,
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    so that's 1.65 million years ago.
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    And then on the right-hand side
    we have a Homo sapiens skull
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    from about 20,000 years ago in Germany.
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    20,000 years ago in Germany,
    their skulls were identical to ours -
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    I just thought it might be cooler
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    to use a sort of fossil skull
    for Homo sapiens.
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    Now, what I want you to look at though,
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    is that when you see the profile,
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    erectus has that nice
    big brow ridge we think of,
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    but you'll notice behind that,
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    it actually slopes at quite
    a sharp angle backwards.
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    Now look at that beautiful,
    big, old forehead
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    on the Homo sapiens skull.
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    Those are the frontal lobes.
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    This is pretty much where all
    of our higher reasoning comes from,
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    from those spots right there.
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    You know, thinking about it,
    what's so interesting
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    is that while we sit here, in this room,
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    having this conversation,
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    you're using those frontal parts
    of your lobes, aren't you?
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    But the question that's come up is:
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    It can physically be there,
    but is it maybe more about wiring?
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    Not just about size,
    but then also about how is it wired,
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    how are the neural pathways moving.
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    So, this is where
    the scholars I mentioned,
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    Wynn and Coolidge working together,
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    have made the argument that they believe
    that the truly modern thought,
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    that ability [which includes]
    imagination, mental time travel,
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    they believe it started
    with modern humans.
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    So, what do I mean
    when I say modern humans?
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    About 200,000 years ago,
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    we've been able to find
    the earliest skeletons,
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    that we currently have of what
    we would call fully modern humans.
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    That means that their skeletons
    were identical to ours,
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    and their brain size was exactly the same.
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    Now, that doesn't mean though,
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    that they were actually using
    all of the abilities we had,
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    and this is something
    that is a particular area of mine
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    that I find really fascinating,
    as well, trying to figure out:
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    When did they become us?
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    Because we're more
    than just the brain size and the body,
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    it's also about how we use that brain.
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    And what's so fascinating
    about the early humans in Africa,
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    is that, for probably about the first
    80,000 years or so,
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    they're not really doing much different
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    than the ancestor species
    that came before them.
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    They're making really nice tools,
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    surviving quite well,
    making good use of their landscape,
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    all of those types of things are in place.
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    But what we're not seeing is those kinds
    of behaviours that make us go: They're us.
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    And then, suddenly,
    around 120,000 years ago,
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    what starts happening
    is we suddenly start finding
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    what we call symbolic behaviour.
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    And what we mean when we say that
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    are things that we would consider
    to be non-utilitarian.
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    So, not something that's useful
    at a very 1:1 ratio level of survival,
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    something to keep you warm at night,
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    something to eat,
    something to shelter you.
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    We start finding burials.
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    120,000 years ago is the oldest burials
    we know of in the world,
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    and not just burials but burials
    with grave goods in them.
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    So, in this case, what we're talking
    about at the 120,000 mark -
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    they were finding a few marine shells
    that have perforations,
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    and some of the perforations look
    like they probably occurred naturally,
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    some may have been made by tools,
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    but the kicker is that those little holes
    in the shells have wear marks on them,
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    which means that they were
    being worn in some fashion.
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    Now, there's nothing about doing that
    that is remotely useful
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    for again heat, shelter, food.
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    So, what's going on?
    What's happened? What's changed?
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    And this is kind of
    the story going forward,
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    and this is again where Wynn and Coolidge
    have made this argument,
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    and other scholars have as well,
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    that modern humans is where
    that big change takes place.
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    They've made the argument potentially even
    that the change started here,
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    but that some sort of genetic mutation
    or something else
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    happened around 40-50,000 years ago,
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    and that that was
    when truly modern behaviour,
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    the full suite of behaviours
    that we associate with being modern,
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    music and mathematics and the ability
    to envision things that aren't there,
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    and all of these things
    which are very much about us,
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    and, of course, full language,
    communication, all that kind of thing.
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    They see it as happening
    around 40-50,00 years ago,
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    which coincides with
    when modern humans left Africa.
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    Maybe it might have been
    as early as 60,000,
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    so somewhere in that 40-60,000 range,
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    is when modern humans left Africa
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    and basically went out
    and populated the Old World.
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    Now, I'm personally going to talk to you
    tonight about the Ice Age in Europe,
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    and it's not that there weren't
    interesting things being done
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    by modern humans who went
    to other parts of the Old World.
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    In Asia and Australia,
    there's lots of fascinating stuff,
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    but I study the Ice Age,
    so it's what I know best.
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    So, that's where we're going to stick
    with, looking at the Ice Age, today.
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    When it comes to Europe,
    let's set the scene a little bit.
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    Obviously, we've got an Ice Age going on,
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    and an Ice Age is not static by any means.
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    We certainly have movement
    of the glacier sheets,
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    but overall definitely colder,
    an icy environment,
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    but very rich in animals as well.
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    Huge herds of bison and mammoth
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    and all these other things
    on the landscape.
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    So, lots of things to eat,
    which was kind of a pull factor
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    that probably kept modern humans there.
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    They show up in Europe somewhere around
    40,000, even 45,000, in some spots,
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    and they spread out around there,
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    and this again coincides with what
    we call the creative explosion, sometimes.
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    It's not that they weren't doing
    interesting things before,
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    but this is when it starts
    getting really interesting.
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    This is when we start finding
    a lot of symbolic materials,
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    like portable art pieces and lots
    of jewellery and other interesting things,
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    in the archaeological record
    alongside the stone tools.
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    So, what would we look for?
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    Let's go back to this idea
    of religion and spirituality,
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    and how you get that
    in the archaeological record.
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    Because, if you think about that far back,
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    basically, we're working with stone tools.
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    So, there's not really much to go at,
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    and so how do we start trying
    to move beyond that,
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    and actually look for
    these indirect clues?
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    Well, there's three main things
    that people in my field tend to use
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    looking at that.
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    The first is burials
    with elaborate grave goods.
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    So, the necklace itself
    at the 120,000 mark,
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    very interesting, very cool,
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    but we can take that a bit farther,
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    and say: What about if they're putting
    lots of elaborate items into that burial?
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    Impossible entities being depicted.
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    So, when I use the term
    impossible entities,
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    we're referring to things
    that do not appear anywhere in nature.
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    So, we're not referring
    to anything in the real world.
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    Something that's, say,
    half-animal, half-human,
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    would be an impossible entity.
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    And then, of course, trying to identify
    magic and spiritual themes
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    in the art itself.
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    And this is on portable pieces
    and, of course,
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    my particular area of study,
    the cave walls.
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    So, to quickly go over a couple of these
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    and I'll give you some ideas
    of what we're seeing.
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    For an elaborate burial,
    this one is a very famous burial
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    and it's an absolutely fascinating one.
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    This is actually one
    of three burials from this site.
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    This particular one is the adult male,
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    and it's about 28,000 years old,
    it's from Russia,
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    and you notice there's little white things
    all over his skeleton there.
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    Those are ivory beads.
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    There are approximately
    3,500 ivory beads in this burial.
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    An archaeologist in our field,
    his name's Randy White,
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    actually went to the effort
    of trying to do
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    what we call experimental archaeology.
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    And he actually took
    the mammoth ivory and practiced
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    until he could get quite good
    at making the beads,
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    and even when he was good at it,
    it took an hour per bead.
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    Do the math on that.
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    Then on top of that,
    we actually have the fact
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    that the two other burials
    at that particular site
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    are actually of two children.
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    A little boy and a little girl,
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    and they're buried in a double burial.
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    The little boy has 4,500 beads,
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    so 1,000 more than the adult male,
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    and the little girl has over 5,000.
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    So, what we're seeing here then
    is potentially the fact
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    that they're seeing death as being a state
    that's different than life,
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    and yet worth recognizing
    and worth paying attention to,
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    and worth acknowledging, and, frankly,
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    worth the sheer amount of effort
    of making all those beads
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    only to bury them in the ground
    and cover them up.
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    So, something is definitely
    going on in that sense.
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    Then, of course, we come
    to impossible entities.
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    And this one is a wonderful,
    classic example.
  • 14:24 - 14:27
    This is an ivory carved figurine,
    it's probably about this tall.
  • 14:27 - 14:29
    Head of a lion, body of a human.
  • 14:29 - 14:32
    Again coming back to that,
    that doesn't exist anywhere in nature.
  • 14:32 - 14:35
    So, what's going on?
    Why are they depicting this?
  • 14:35 - 14:36
    This is not a self-representation.
  • 14:36 - 14:39
    And there's people in my field
    who have made the proposal
  • 14:39 - 14:42
    that, maybe, this could be
    some sort of mythology,
  • 14:42 - 14:45
    something to do with origin stories
    and things like that.
  • 14:45 - 14:47
    So, there's these interesting examples
  • 14:47 - 14:49
    that exist throughout
    the archaeological record.
  • 14:49 - 14:52
    That particular one
    is about 32,000 years old.
  • 14:54 - 14:55
    What about hunting magic?
  • 14:55 - 14:57
    When I say hunting magic, I mean this,
  • 14:57 - 14:59
    this is from the cave
    called Niaux, in France,
  • 14:59 - 15:03
    and you've got a bison
    that's painted on a cave wall,
  • 15:03 - 15:06
    and if you notice it looks like
    there's almost some sort of spear
  • 15:06 - 15:07
    sticking out of its side.
  • 15:07 - 15:10
    So, in this case what people have proposed
  • 15:10 - 15:14
    is that what we could be seeing is them
    almost trying to kill the animal
  • 15:14 - 15:16
    ritually in the cave first,
  • 15:16 - 15:19
    in order to ensure success
    when they go out on the real hunt.
  • 15:19 - 15:23
    And we do have some examples
    where there's not just the spears,
  • 15:23 - 15:26
    but there's also punctuation marks,
  • 15:26 - 15:30
    which almost looks like maybe somebody
    was banging a real spear or something
  • 15:30 - 15:32
    at the image on the wall.
  • 15:32 - 15:35
    So, again, that suggests
    some sort of harnessing
  • 15:35 - 15:38
    of some unseen world -
    there's something going on.
  • 15:38 - 15:42
    And then this is another great example
    here of an impossible entity
  • 15:42 - 15:45
    which has also been potentially
    identified as being a shaman.
  • 15:45 - 15:48
    Now, the reason why they say that
    is the idea that:
  • 15:48 - 15:50
    What if they were wearing a mask?
  • 15:50 - 15:52
    What if this, rather than being
    an impossible entity,
  • 15:52 - 15:56
    is an actual depiction of a human
    partially dressed up like an animal?
  • 15:56 - 15:58
    You see the legs have
    a much more human look,
  • 15:58 - 16:02
    they're not very bison-like,
    yet the head has that very bison look,
  • 16:02 - 16:03
    and the arms are also very human.
  • 16:03 - 16:08
    So, this is where they started to talk
    about the idea of shamanistic practices,
  • 16:08 - 16:10
    because shamans, of course -
  • 16:10 - 16:13
    the term itself comes from Russia,
  • 16:13 - 16:16
    but it's applied a lot
    to basically spiritual practices
  • 16:16 - 16:19
    where there are
    specific members of your tribe
  • 16:19 - 16:22
    who intercede on your behalf
    with an unseen world.
  • 16:22 - 16:25
    Whether it's to influence weather,
    to influence the hunt,
  • 16:25 - 16:26
    or to do with health,
  • 16:26 - 16:30
    and with people being sick
    and trying to make them better again,
  • 16:30 - 16:31
    there's these people that do that.
  • 16:31 - 16:35
    And what's so interesting about
    some modern examples, for instance,
  • 16:35 - 16:39
    is that there is a fellow
    by the name of David Lewis-Williams,
  • 16:39 - 16:43
    who is a researcher in rock art
    who works in South Africa,
  • 16:43 - 16:47
    and he had the wonderful opportunity
    to actually speak with the San people,
  • 16:47 - 16:50
    who are a hunter-gatherer group
    living in northern Southern Africa.
  • 16:50 - 16:52
    They live out in the desert,
  • 16:52 - 16:55
    and still practice
    the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
  • 16:55 - 16:57
    And guess what? They still do rock art.
  • 16:57 - 17:00
    So, here had the opportunity to ask them,
    "So, why do you guys do the art?"
  • 17:00 - 17:02
    Now, it doesn't explain all the art,
  • 17:02 - 17:06
    but certainly shamanistic practices
    played a large role in it.
  • 17:06 - 17:07
    Things like handprints.
  • 17:07 - 17:09
    They talked about the idea that caves
  • 17:09 - 17:14
    were almost like a transitional place
    between worlds.
  • 17:14 - 17:15
    That once you go into a cave -
  • 17:15 - 17:17
    we go in with headlamps and lots of light,
  • 17:17 - 17:19
    and we know what a cave is, geologically.
  • 17:19 - 17:21
    But imagine if you didn't know.
  • 17:21 - 17:24
    It almost has a feel of maybe being
    a portal to another reality.
  • 17:24 - 17:27
    And they've talked about
    the idea of those cave walls
  • 17:27 - 17:30
    as almost being maybe membranes
    that they could touch,
  • 17:30 - 17:33
    and through those membranes
    touch the unseen.
  • 17:33 - 17:35
    So, now, we get specifically
  • 17:35 - 17:37
    to a research project
    that I've been working on,
  • 17:37 - 17:40
    where I said, okay,
    well, let's try with this,
  • 17:40 - 17:43
    because, of course, modern people
    in Africa doing this -
  • 17:43 - 17:47
    minimum of 10,000 years' difference
    between what's happening in Europe,
  • 17:47 - 17:49
    could we get at that? Is it possible?
  • 17:49 - 17:54
    Are we seeing on the walls, potentially,
    some of the trance-like imagery
  • 17:54 - 17:56
    which they have said
    that that's why they're doing it.
  • 17:56 - 18:01
    Because you see, the actual human mind -
  • 18:01 - 18:04
    Obviously, trance is when we go
    into an altered state of consciousness.
  • 18:04 - 18:08
    There's many things that will be
    culturally specific to where you live,
  • 18:08 - 18:10
    like the animals you see in the imagery,
  • 18:10 - 18:13
    but geometric imagery
    actually happens to be almost universal.
  • 18:13 - 18:15
    And the reason for that
  • 18:15 - 18:19
    is our eyes are only hard-wired
    to be able to produce certain shapes
  • 18:19 - 18:21
    when we're in a state of trance.
  • 18:21 - 18:24
    And so this is where,
    what I've looked at is,
  • 18:24 - 18:26
    can we find those in the caves in Europe.
  • 18:26 - 18:28
    And the study is still ongoing,
  • 18:28 - 18:30
    but I thought I'd share a little
    with you today,
  • 18:30 - 18:33
    which was that with dots,
    with lines, with grids,
  • 18:33 - 18:35
    yes, absolutely, we're finding those.
  • 18:35 - 18:38
    But, some of the other ones, not so much.
  • 18:38 - 18:42
    Zigzags, there's only
    about 15 examples over 300 sites
  • 18:42 - 18:44
    that have zigzags in them.
  • 18:44 - 18:48
    So, they're not totally behaving the way
    that the people in, say, South Africa are.
  • 18:48 - 18:51
    When it comes to spirals,
    there's only two.
  • 18:51 - 18:54
    So, in that sense spirals
    are even more uncommon,
  • 18:54 - 18:57
    and not something that we're seeing
    throughout the archaeological record.
  • 18:57 - 18:59
    So, what does that mean?
  • 18:59 - 19:01
    Basically, what it suggests to me -
  • 19:01 - 19:03
    I can't give you a definitive answer,
  • 19:03 - 19:08
    and say, "Yes, absolutely, there were
    spiritual people living back then."
  • 19:08 - 19:10
    But, the signs are
    definitely there to suggest
  • 19:10 - 19:12
    this was something that was developing,
  • 19:12 - 19:14
    something that existed.
  • 19:14 - 19:16
    And I'll leave you
    with the thought that they're us.
  • 19:16 - 19:18
    In every sense of the word,
  • 19:18 - 19:21
    those people who lived between 10,000
    and 40,000 years ago were modern humans.
  • 19:21 - 19:24
    So, if we're capable of it,
    why wouldn't they have been?
  • 19:24 - 19:25
    Thank you.
  • 19:25 - 19:30
    (Applause)
Title:
The roots of religion | Genvieve Von Petzinger | TEDxVictoria
Description:

Genevieve von Petzinger talks about the development of the conceptual ability of the human mind – the ability to make tools and to develop religion being thought to be somewhat concomitant.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDxTalks
Duration:
19:33
  • Please note: This speaker is Canadian. Canadian grammar and spelling differs slightly from both US English and British English.

  • Corrections/ Suggestions

    1:51
    But, if you actually think about
    what kind of leap making tools is,

    what kind of leap -> what a cognitive leap

    2:19
    They were taking
    a piece of flint with them,
    ->
    They were potentially taking

    5:26
    your vision of God or faith
    or spiritually while you're in here,

    spiritually -> spirituality

    Thanks!

  • Corrections made.

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