The Day We Learned To Think

The Day We Learned To ThinkUnderstanding of humans' earliest past often comes from studying fossils. They tell us much of what we know about the people who lived before us.

There is one thing fossils cannot tell us; at what point did we stop living day-to-day and start to think symbolically, to represent ideas about our environment and how we could change it?

At a dig in South Africa the discovery of a small piece of ochre pigment, 70,000 years old, has raised some very interesting questions. Anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) emerged in Africa roughly 100,000 years ago.

We know from fossil evidence that Homo sapiens replaced other hominids around them and moved out of Africa into Asia and the Middle East, reaching Europe 40,000 years ago.

Prof Richard Klein believes art is a landmark in human evolution. Unquestionable art that's widespread and common suggests you're dealing with people just like us.

No other animals, after all, are able to define a painting as anything other than a collection of colours and shapes. This ability is unique to humans. Other scientists agree. They believe art defines humans as behaviourally modern, and its beginning must coincide with the ability to speak and use language.

If someone has the imagination to devise a shared way to describe their environment using art then it seems inconceivable that they could not possess language and speech.

Watch the full documentary now (playlist - 46 minutes)

Ratings: 7.78/10from 23 users.

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55 Comments / User Reviews

  1. dineaudio

    I will say only this: we did?! Really?! Rationally and logically?! Get out...

  2. Jens Forslund

    Art is not unique to the human, elephants for ex are painting very good pictures! I have been locking for years to find something that only humans can do, but i have realized that it may not exist. We are not that special as we think, only different from other living beings. The day when the first cell started to evolve on earth was the time when we began to "represent ideas about our environment and how we could change it" and that is what we, and every living thing still does today!

    1. Boris Bozic

      those elephants are not painting,it's like a circus act,it has nothing to do with thinking..

  3. awful_truth

    A good documentary that is asking some important questions regarding human history. As usual, we are probably not giving our ancestors enough credit for their time. To ask when we actually started to think is to imply that no other mammals actually do. Interestingly, a 5 year old chimpanzee was tested as having short term photographic memory far beyond anything humans are capable of. Although they do not have our skillset, does not mean under the right circumstances, their 'thinking' could not outperform us. Since all things are relative, (puns aside) perhaps we need to remind ourselves that we owe a lot to that which came before us.

    1. dewflirt

      Morning Truth, not sure where you live but if you can get yourself on BBC iplayer there is a wonderful programme hosted by Chris Packham called Inside The Animal Mind. The most recent episode (only 3, I think) focused of Corvids, problem solving, imagination, tool use and making. I love crows, very smart little beasties. lovely way to spend an hour if you can find it :)

    2. awful_truth

      @dewflirt: It sounds interesting, I will see if I can hunt it down dewflirt, and I will let you know. I agree with you regarding the crows, they are very intelligent. (I seen a documentary with them using a twig as a tool)
      P.S: I am Canadian.

    3. awful_truth

      @dewflirt: I watched more than half of the 1st episode on 'inside the animal mind' (on youtube) but when I went back to finish it, sadly, they had taken it off the play list. I have not been able to locate a full episode since. (just previews) what I watched regarding a dogs sense of smell was beyond anything I thought they could do. (cool stuff) Thanks for the heads up, I will continue to look for it. I am sure once it has been out there for a while, it will get easier! Take care, and best wishes.

    4. dewflirt

      What a shame, if i see it anywhere I'll let you know ;)

    5. dewflirt

      Evening Truth, trip-dub daily motion has the bird episode :)

    6. awful_truth

      @dewflirt: Thanks for the link dewflirt, it is most appreciated. I scanned the site, and found the complete 2nd installment. (and others) I will check it out tonight. Thanks again!

  4. Sébastien Talbot-Vachon

    People should realize that the more we go back in history, the less evidence we have, so the less reliable and the more hypothetical history is. There is certainly much more evidence that are not found yet or will never be found that could change everything we think about ancient history.

  5. InsanePorcupine

    Very interesting documentary. I often think of such things. I would think to myself sometimes what does a baby think? Because in my head I think in english. Another thought I have is if a human grew up in total isolation from the world and was given no language could you say they dont think? Or is thought something else entirely. Does thought have to involve language? Whats the difference between thinking and knowing? If I know if I strike rocks together to make fire but have no language what does that mean? All these thoughts are confusing me now. I think I'm going to get something to eat.

    1. kiwjer132

      human thinking doesn't have to do with languange, it's a matter of meanings, also you may try to learn other languages and you'll know.

    2. InsanePorcupine

      Fair enough but still what does a baby think? What meaning do you think they would think. How would you describe thought without language I guess is my question. What would pop into your head? Pictures? I just don't know.

    3. Sand

      we all think in eiather pictures or words so i would imagine babys think only in pictures as u mentioned :)

    4. sknb

      Great Questions.

      But always the more important question : How am I going to get something to eat?


  6. Stephen W.

    That's a really recent genetic discovery which came after this documentary was made. It was sometime last year I believe.

  7. BathingApe


    The word "art" is a shorthand for something more fundamental than scribbling. To create art you need to have a symbolic understanding of the world -- it's a huge leap from chimps to a creature that can express its understanding of the world in a representative way.

    Yes, of course art might not be the first or only expression of this type of mind, but it's the only one that survives and probably started very soon after we developed into modern man.

    1. susan

      we were never chimps ! we developed from cave men to modern men

    2. Terry

      Wait Susan.. What was before "cave men"? Not chimps of course, but we DO have a common ancesotor swining from the branches of our family trees..

  8. mouthing off

    @ someguy
    @ john
    @ ez2b12

    Allusions to 'faith' are not that hard to find -- opening statement by anthropologist 'this is the new Garden of Eden'. Backing track throughout the documentary features choirs singing 'Agnus Dei Qui Tollis Pecata Mundi' and other settings from the Roman Catholic Mass. The connection between science and religion is made by the programme makers. Not surprising that someguy may have picked up on what was so obvious. Question is, how did John and ez2b12 miss it unless they are so narow minded and bigoted they filter out programme content that offends their little minds. Science is not a closed book and there is no reason to assume that science determines anything in one's attitude to religion and vice versa there is no reason (emphasis REASON) to assume that religious faith implies anything about attitudes to science. The two are no opposed except by the extremists who want to make this into a warzone so they can feel good about themselves.

    @ ez2b12

    You may have a degree in theology but I doubt it was awarded by a respected academic institution if this is the level at which you make your arguments. What happened? Did you just jump ship from the tiny world of red-necked religon into the even tinier world of red necked sciencism, the religion that people who cannot believe in anything else find themselves mindlessly commited to? Wake up and smell it because you are full of it.

  9. Bokajsen

    I was wondering about that too? The ochre may have been around for tens of thausands of years before somebody picked it up and carried it into the cave and cut it, right?

  10. Dan

    I'm a little skeptical of some of the premises used in this documentary to draw conclusions, not that I necessarily disagree though, more unclear than anything.

    e.g. "The day man produced art is the day man started to think" - art as a concept may have been thought up AFTER many other things were thought, perhaps we started by using our thought for something more useful than drawing. Does it even NEED conscious thought to produce a piece of basic scribblings?

    e.g. "The ochre is 77,000 years old, therefore that is when the art was produced" - the canvas may have existed for a long time before an artist came along.

    These seem to be some pretty fundamental fallacies to me, or am I wrong? It doesn't seem right that the scientists would be using these as bases.

    1. Stephen W.

      @dan You're right in the first problem you mentioned, and though not fully covered it is somewhat addressed. The ocher in South Africa and the manganese with the Neandertal alluded to this. They were probably painting themselves and their clothes long before they started carving on the stones themselves. The true earliest works of art are long gone - the ocher is the earliest known (as all archeological finds of this nature are silently qualified) example of art.
      As for your second problem, you misunderstand they don't date ocher but the sediment layer its found it in. That mean the ocher was discarded 77,000 years ago. Though it certainly be older its probably not that much older.
      This is a hypothesis so its still being discussed but those are not fallacies and the evidence these anthropologist are basing their theories off of is solid and reproducible.

  11. daniel

    the guy in this doc said that to a dog art is colour on a wall but he's wrong because dogs cant see colour.

    1. Xercès Des Stèles

      thats why he said, in the same sentence, "...or perhaps even less".

  12. Rive

    Awesome Doc! BBC = what mainstream news networks should model themselves by. Also, they sample Drum and Bass in their docs! =)

  13. smugg

    c'mon bbc, a yuppy nehandertal ?!?! apart from that, this doc have loads of weak points, the whole issue could have been dealt with in a more complete way.

  14. smugg

    @ ez2b12
    of course, the earth has a frequency, around 7 hz, very low, and brainwaves, depending on the state ( alert, sleep, deep sleep) have a frequency between 0.25 and 4hz. resonation happens on the same freq but also on the multiples : 49hz (7x7) resonates with 7.
    research cymatics, hans jenny, i think you ll find it interesting.

  15. smugg

    7.14 is the answer

  16. Joe

    What's with the constant references to 'early humans' and 'modern humans'? It's early man, modern man. It is also 'the cradle of mankind'. The collective definition of the word 'man' is 'all people', regardless of gender. This has always been the definition of the word. The BBC, in trying to be politically correct, are instead, conspicuously demonstrating their intentional misunderstanding of the word 'man'. Avoidance of the use of the word 'man' has to be the single stupidest piece of PC'ness.

  17. 420 Vision

    God Bless the New World Order !

  18. Lori George Alexander

    I thought the BBC put together a very interest documentary. The only thing that may have been left out is the recent discovery that we share some of the DNA of the Neanderthal people so that explains some part of the mystery surrounding their disappearance. Cro magnon people interbreeded with them or at least some of them. Still, it is a wonderful documentary and well worth spending some time watching.

  19. hedwerx

    Ah the usual BBC documentary method of sowing disinformation at the start, so the end of the program seems more exciting.

  20. ez2b12

    @ JustSayGrow

    I would definetly agree with that. I play Jazz and love music of all types. Even kids that are barely able to hold their own heads up seem to respond to rythm and frequency. Rythm is inherit in everything, the sun and moon and all other astrological bodies, the seasons, wild life routines, our very lives assume a rythm- all we know and see and hear is rythm. It is a universal language that all humans understand and respond similarly to.

    Even tones are expressed by the number of vibrations a string undergoes in one second. For instance middle "C" operates at 262 Hz. Well actually, there are different types of scales. For example just intonation, equal temperament, mean tempered, American standard, and international standard. Scales are built on ratios and fixed notes. A different set of ratios and a different fixed pitch will result in a different value for middle C. But the middle C on any standard piano will operate at 264 hz. I think that is the equal temperament scale value, where A above middle C is at 440 Hz.

    For some reason people seem to respond to the key of D very well. It comforts them, the song Good Bye Blue Sky is an excellent example. But even the heavier stuff in D seems to be smoother and more relaxing, just listen to Tool if you don't believe me. Everything they play is out of an open D tuning and it has this hypnotic trance like effect that gives their music a very tribal feel. Often they play a subharmonic based off of the note of D in the background mix as well, it thickens the sound and really gives it a trance like feel. I have always wondered if it had something to do with the natural frequency of our body or its constituent parts. The frequency of the note of D is 293.665 Hz using the equal temperament scale. Does anyone know if this is in some way a significant frequency to the human body? Does it correspond to any circadian rythms or brain wave states, you know Alpha, beta, so on?

    1. InsanePorcupine

      ever heard of the schumann resonance? I strongly suggest you check it out if your interested. It is the frequency of the earth and the military used to use it keep time in the 50s but cant know because its been speeding up and I think our music has too. Anyways something related I thought would possibly interest you.

    2. Billy Bradford

      "It's part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I'm working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don't know why."

  21. ez2b12

    @ Naz

    Well, since I have a degree in theology, used to be a christian, and have a grandfather that i lived with that was a minister, I think i do have a pretty good understanding of the subject in question. That said I wasn't being rude to "someguy" at all. I simply told the truth. This program talks about seperate hominid species, evolution, Africa being the cradle of life- does this sound like something that would strengthen someones religious faith to you? Besides I said I was sorry at the end of my statement precisely to keep him from feeling like i was being arguementative. Don't be so quick to get offended for someone else Naz, especially when you are being pretty presumptiouse your self, "you need to have previous understanding of another subject" Well how did you presume to know what i had an understanding of Naz?

  22. Naz

    @ ez2b13
    Sometimes to see something or realise something, you need to have previous understanding of another subject. I haven't even seen this documentary but thought to comment about what you said. It doesn't make what "someguy" said true but it doesn't make it false either, just because you can not see what he saw.

  23. JustSayGrow

    I would wager that before art or speech, we realized rhythm

  24. ez2b12

    @ someguy

    If you saw something here that strengthen your faith in God, you were looking awfully hard. I saw nothing remotely related to religion or God, sorry.

  25. john

    @ someguy, faith in what?..the flying spaghetti monster?

  26. someguy

    i love it when science strengthen my faith

  27. Martin

    Annoying ! The subject is interesting enough, they dont have to spice it up with funny cameraangles, jingles and clips. Had to turn it of after a few minutes.

  28. Ez

    @ KristophKP

    Actually evolution is only disputed amongst the religious. The methods by which mutation takes place are still debated, but natural selection and evolution as a whole are considered hard fact in science, though the religious would have you think otherwise. We have tons of proof for evolutions existance, it can hardly be doubted amongst those willing to accept facts.

    @ Timdogs

    I have never heard the theory that mutations are spurred on by the brain. That seems way off the mark my friend. Mutations are completely random, natural selection only selects those that work for continuation and those that do not for extinction. Animals do not know what a wing is, nor could their brain make them or their young grow a pair. The randomness of mutation is why evolution takes so long. First the mutation has to occurr, which only happens in a very few generations seperated by vast amounts of time. Then it has to be the right mutation to better the chances of suvival and thus reproduction. Now this mutation is passed on to the next set of off spring for only that particular animal, this means no more than a few animals that have this new mutation. Over a long period of time all the animals in that species lacking said mutation will die off without reproducing and now the mutation has become a permanent trait for that species. This process takes long long periods of time by its very nature. Most mutations are not that severe,though every once and a while we get a huge leap in evolution. It is a stagger and strut process, sometimes working for the benefit and sometimes the detriment.

    1. InsanePorcupine

      just 2 things I would like to say to you. #1 everyone knows darwins theory of evolution through natural selection and nobody came here for a science lesson from you
      #2 You obviously have heard nothing of epigenics or you would not be saying such ignorant things seriously look into it I think you would find it enlightening.
      Also I am not religious and am not trying to defend other people but find it a little annoying when people just start explaining darwin to win some silly point when really your the one that is not looking at the big picture. Epigenics has scientifically proven that experiences in life can change your dna and moreover can be passed down through generations. Please check it out one of the most astonishing discoveries of the modern world.
      Ps I dont mean any offence to you but I was hoping for a good comment and you just explained darwin.

  29. KristophKP


    In a sense you could argue that evolution isn't actually slow at all. Over the course of history evolution certainly takes its time, but Darwin had a different (and still disputed) theory of rapid evolution. He believed that evolution consisted of short, rapid burts of evolution separated by long periods of little adaptation.

    This in itself requires that bottleneck effects occur, otherwise Darwin's own theories would contradict themselves. If evolution is as aforementioned, then it would mean that an environmental push occured to induce a rapid change.

    The problem with evolution is that it is still very inconclusive. Darwin's work is hotly debated even to this day.

    1. InsanePorcupine

      Yes thats completely true anyone whos read Velekovsky's work knows this. Darwins theory of evolution was largely influenced by Lyell who came up with the theory of uniformitarianism which was all geographical changes were cause by slow gradual changes. Which we now know isnt true in all cases such as massive craters and other catastrophe based geographical features.

  30. Ez

    @ Atrophy and Eli

    Science has considered teaching methods and learning methods. They watched how chimps learn by example but the parent doesn't seem to be teaching, the parent never intentionally slows down or calls the childs atention to the process at hand. But somehow the baby chimp knows it is important to watch mom and what she is doing and then copy this behavior. They have even proved that the baby chimp doesn't just copy but sees the intended out come and experiments with different ways to achieve this outcome based on the behavior mom used to reach it.

    Still this is not the type of intelligence they are looking for when they try to find out when we as humans started thinking in a way that seperated us form our cousins and all other species. Chimps do not think like us, they do think in a rudementary way but not like us.

    So, they decided that learning and teaching is not a good indicator of the type of intelligence that seperates us from other species. In stead they went with art, which calls for abstract thinking not just problem solving skills. Remember we are not looking for just when we started thinking, but when we started thinking in a way that seperated us from all other species.

  31. Eli

    I agree, atrophy, teaching is one thing science has not yet traced and probably never will.

  32. Atrophy

    I find it difficult not to think the very tools they used as expressions of thought and art.
    They could use sharp sticks to kill, but they used chipped stones on the ends of those sticks. why ? because it worked better and they shared this knowledge by example at the very least.
    I would think that the line to draw between symbolic thought and mindless beast would be in transferring of knowledge, teaching.

  33. capricious

    vlatco is there any way that through your script you can fix youtube's problem with changing it to HD every video change? In order to watch videos in 360p or 480p you have to change it every single part change... it angers me :( I know it's not your problem either but just throwing it out there...

  34. timdogs

    Evolution is indeed constant an happens so slowly that it is hard to research it must also be done subconsciously as theres no proof of a species thinking hey i need wings so i will grow them i think that a brain sees and feels an makes changes as it thinks it should in my opinion. To survive this is what must happen is an input a decision then an output, hence we invented the computer an thats based on the human brain an could never compete with it. I thouroughly enjoyed this doc cheers vlatco you the man!

  35. Ez

    Outstanding, a wonderfully insightful documentary. It's odd to think of ancient hominids actually speaking to one another. If they did I wonder if the language they used has an existing cousin still in use, possibly one of the click languages still used by certain tribes in Africa. I don't know why it seems so odd to me, chimps have a language and talk with one another. Not in the same way we think of language but still. I really enjoyed this and learned alot, I definetly recommend this one.

  36. doc-fan

    Very educational :)