Today I came across this article about the discovery of flutes made by Neanderthals from the femur bones of cave bears in Slovenia somewhere between 43,000 and 80,000 years ago: http://voxpopulisphere.com/2015/03/15/video-2/. It is 8 minutes long- you can get the basic idea in less time than that. A musician plays a replica of this ancient flute. The way to play it came to him “in a dream.” This is imagination squared. Read this and you can’t help but wonder–who were we 40, 50, 60, 70, even 80,000 years ago? For how long have our ancestors been something that we’d recognize as humans? What does it mean to be human? Do non-human animals have what we’d describe as imagination? After all, there have been cases of animals making and using tools. Does that count as imagination? Does it have to do with what happens next? After all, apes may strip a twig and use it to extract ants from an anthill. That is clever and counts as a tool, but the ape is not likely to spend lots of time after that refining that tool, embellishing, improving, motorizing, designing or decorating it. Humans start with a twig and end up with eco-friendly ergonomically designed artisanal ant extractors on sale at Williams Sonoma. Is that what marks the difference between human and non-human use of tools? That act of imagination- extrapolating possible uses and possible improvements- drives us forward. That animals may create a tool to solve a problem but humans will then continue to find new problems necessitating an endless series of improvements on the tool- is that what constitutes an act of imagination? So then what about creatures like the bower bird, who creates elaborate interior designs for his nest in order to attract a mate? Check it out: http://www.viralforest.com/bower-bird/
Are these elaborately curated installations works of imagination or, because they are the works of non-human animals, do we relegate the impulse to create them to the realm of “instinct?” Are these distinctions arbitrary? When we hear of the writer, actor, musician, dancer or painter who cannot live without her craft, are these artists creatures of instinct? And then what about play? Like this snowboarding crow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2k1aoLAMRMc. A simple, repetitive activity to be sure, but something led this crow to the conclusion that the combination of a snowy rooftop and a jar lid constituted a worthwhile use of time that is clearly not related to food, shelter or safety.
In trying to define the imagination I think first of Maxine Greene’s quote about “imagining things as if they could be otherwise.” This is the notion of imagination at its most basic: to be able to visualize a future based on extrapolating the results of past and present actions, and to think of ways to change events to produce a different outcome. This can range from the most pragmatic (If I hit this rock with a bigger rock I might be able to break it) to the most fanciful (perhaps there is a way to combine the power of an engine with the physical motions of birds so that one day humans can fly).
So this bear femur flute is, first and foremost, an act of imagination. We cannot know how, when or by whom the flute was used, we cannot know why or under what circumstances it was used. Solemn religious ritual? Calling the tribe home for dinner? Or a diversion to pass long winter nights around the fire? Any of these or none of these is possible. The only thing we know for sure is that some Neanderthal person (if person is indeed the correct term) somehow figure out that a hollowed out bone with perpendicular drilled holes could make sounds when one blew into it, and that these sounds were pleasing or interesting or important enough to want to create these objects with a purpose. Was that purpose somehow directly related to survival? Or was it what we would recognize as art? We will probably never know for sure, but we can at least use our imaginations to speculate.