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In the spring of 2013 an exhibition entitled ‘Ice Age art: the arrival of the modern mind’ was mounted at the British Museum in London.1 Numerous objects created from 40 000 years to 20 000 years ago towards the end of the last Ice Age were displayed, and many of them showed intricate carvings including figurative sculptures and engraved drawings, as well as artefacts and ornaments variously decorated with simple or complex patterns and designs. Among these exhibits was a decorated mammoth ivory plaque about 21 000 years old found at Eliseevitchi, midway between today's Moscow and Kiev. On this 19.1 cm long ivory is a remarkable design: a network of hexagons forming honeycomb lattices which are remarkably well preserved and clearly visible (figure 1). From left to right the lattice pattern is ‘formed by slightly elongated hexagons that become broader lozenges and then revert to hexagons’.1
What inspired the carving of such a specific and complex pattern? Anthropologists have sought to explain how such engravings originated and what they represented, and, intriguingly, a number of authors have invoked neurological explanations. As discussed below, however, while some of their explanations are far from compelling, many are pertinent to speculations on the neurological processes subserving the engraving's realisation, and on whether the brains of Ice Age humans—anatomically the same as ours—powered artistic creativity similar to our own.
How did the engravings originate?
Three possibilities suggest themselves for what led the engraver to create the network of hexagons. First, he (or she) may have observed and ‘copied’ structures or patterns consisting of hexagonal objects he had seen. Second, he may have been inspired …