Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cavemen Rule, Part V: Grandpa George and Turkana Boy

Hi everybody, and welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: the Show Where I Say Things!  It’s been few months since my last video, I hope everyone’s been doing well.  It’s been a busy winter for me—I’ve just been accepted to the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ graduate program in Applied Linguistics.  I’m so happy, I have to tell everyone.  I’ve been dreaming of this for probably a decade now.  Some people have asked me why in the world I want to go to Alaska, of all places.  After all, there are plenty of perfectly serviceable grad schools in places where hot coffee doesn’t vaporize in midair:

Well, first of all, I love cold weather.  Second of all, UAF is probably the single best place in the world to get a background in the Na-Dene language family.  If you’re a fan of my show, you might already know how important this is to me!  Now that I have a little background with Ket, I’d really like to look at the other side of the proposed Dene-Yeniseian family.  The most important thing now, I think, is to work on a solid reconstruction of Proto-Na-Dene, and start to reconstruct the folklore passed down from such a culture.  I believe this is going to be the ultimate key to solving the Dene-Yeniseian question once and for all.  Given the amazing work UAF’s Alaska Native Language Center has done with the Na-Dene languages, there’s probably no better place in the world for me to go to do grad school.  Eventually, I’d like to move onto my Ph.D., of course, but that’s still a few years off!

So anyway, back to cavemen!  Yes, in the footsteps of the brilliant Wu-Tang Clan, today we’re going back to 2 million years ago!  A new Homo species has emerged, the first to spread outside of Africa—although recent evidence may dispute that.  It is known in Eurasia as Homo erectus—Upright Man—and in Africa as Homo ergaster, or Working Man.  There are a lot of cool facial reconstructions that you can google.  Our ancestors, apparently, looked a lot like Charlie Day:

Apparently DAYMAN is also a time-traveling H. erectus.  Cool!

It’s been a couple months since I’ve put anything up, so let’s review.  Sometime around 2.8 mya, the genus Homo emerged with these weird little dudes that we call Homo habilis.  Since I’m focusing on behavior, we talked about how they probably didn’t act very differently from their Australopithecine brethren—although a careful observer might have noticed certain traits arising from their much larger brains; for example, in greater quality discrimination when using stone tools, or a greater tendency toward teamwork.  Around two million years ago they had acquired a number of traits that began to set them apart as a new species, arguably the first creatures that may have been recognizably human.  In the words of my Paleoanthropology hero, John Shea, “If you saw one from a distance, you’d say, well, there’s a large naked man over there…but it’s a man.”

Somewhere around this time, an evolutionary split happened.  For now, we’re going to follow the adventures of the H. ergaster lineage, but I want you to keep this in the back of your mind: somewhere between H. habilis and H. ergaster, a line split off that would fall off the map for an astonishingly long time, only to pop up again in some very unexpected places.

At any rate, these ergaster creatures spread across Africa, and thence to the warmer regions of Eurasia.  Due to the eternal conflict in the academic community between “lumpers” and “splitters”, there is some debate over whether the African and Eurasian finds represent the same species.  Typically, as I say, African finds with these traits are referred to as Homo ergaster, and Eurasian finds as Homo erectus.  And when we look at the clues they left us, there’s something extremely humanlike in the way they lived.  In my layman’s opinion, this must really have been the time when humanity’s ancestors struggled and clawed their way out of the animal world, and really developed that consciousness and awareness that, more than anything, makes us who we are.

One of the wonderful things about ergaster/erectus finds is that here we can actually start working out the details of individual lives is much sharper detail than before.  In particular, let’s take a look at two cases: one from Africa, and one from Eurasia.  Let’s start with the older of the two: the remarkable find at Dmanisi, in Georgia.

Grandpa George

These remains appear to reflect one of the earliest migrations of Homo outside of Africa.  They represent a very early form of H. erectus dating back to about 1.8 MYA, such that when these bones were first found there was some argument whether they in fact represented a previously unknown species.  The find included five skulls, which gave us a look at the variation that existed between early erectus crania.  The findings therefrom have proven controversial, but that’s not really my area.  Instead, what hit me like a freight train was the more human side of the find, and this is really staggering: here we see the first evidence of care for the elderly.

Let’s take a look at Dmanisi Skull 4, or as I like to call him, “Grandpa George”.  The skull appears to be that of an elderly male:

Here’s what he looked like while alive:

That’s one smug caveman.

Astonishingly, by the time of his death this dude had lost all but one of his teeth.  Well, that explains his dying, you might say.  Back then, without teeth you were pretty much done for.  Not so fast!  Examining the jaws, we see evidence of bone resorption—basically, the bone tissue around the empty tooth sockets was broken down and released into the bloodstream.  That implies that he survived for a while, maybe even years, without teeth.  During this time, someone else must have supported him.  Generally, toothless geriatrics are not the spryest of people, so it seems unlikely that he could have survived so long on his own.  His family must have cared for him in his old age, perhaps even to the point of chewing his food for him before he swallowed it—since, after all, dentures had yet to be invented.  Another possibility is that he or his family processed it in some way—perhaps even by cooking—to make it softer.

It’s really impossible to overstate how huge of a leap forward this is.  Elder care is a uniquely human trait.  Great apes don’t do this.  Older members of chimpanzee communities fall behind the groups, and consequently don’t last long(1).  Grandpa George, on the other hand, had a prehistoric social security scheme to fall back on: he spent his youth “paying in”—that is, contributing to the tribe’s welfare, protecting it from enemies, and of course reproducing.  Now that he’s old, he has someone to fall back on who, apparently, felt some kind of familial obligation toward him.  Really amazing. 
For the first time in the human ancestral record, we’re seeing evidence of a family structure vaguely echoing our own.  Whoever took care of Grandpa George in his old age loved him in the same way we love our grandparents.  They understood that they had some special duty to Grandpa George that went beyond simply what he could provide for them—which, by the time he died, probably wasn’t much in terms of tangible food or labor contribution.  Regardless, they saw something of value in his very being, a distant precursor to the same respect in which our societies, properly ordered, hold the aged.

When we look at this skull, we are looking at nothing short of the birth of human dignity.

I often wonder what the relationship was like between Grandpa George and his larger community.  Was he a patriarch, held in loving reverence by his family, a walking link to the tribe’s past?  Did he smile as he clung to the back of the young man carrying him, remembering when he carried that same young man piggyback as a child?  When the tribe stopped for the night, was he fussed over by his children and grandchildren, given the best morsels of each kill, and tenderly embraced for warmth against the chill of night?  Or was he a cringing scavenger derided and resented by the tribe, fed on the tribe’s leavings and only grudgingly brought along from one place to another?  My leaning is toward the former, since in the latter case, resentment toward him as a freeloader would have gotten the best of the community as soon as his productivity ceased.  Just like with modern great apes, he would have simply been left behind by the group, if not outright killed.  Besides, if we have evolved in the present to respect the elderly, it only follows that our ancestors did not act differently.
The follow-up question, then, would be this: how would the younger members of the community have looked at him?  Would the abstract concept of a parental figure have taken root in their minds by this time?  Would they have recognized him as their father or grandfather?  Had the concept of the family been invented?

My guess is that no, they would not have looked at him and had a thought equivalent to “This is my father.” However, perhaps it was something more like “This is the old one, who I remember carrying me as a child, who fed me with food he had killed, who protected me.  He loved the one whose milk I drank.  We belong to one another, and I must protect him in his infirmity.”  I was about to write “so I must protect him”, but I wouldn’t go that far.  Causative reasoning is a huge mental step forward, one that I doubt our ancestors had made by this time.  Of course, they probably did not speak either, but if they could have, I imagine they would have said something along those lines.

Whatever their relationship, Grandpa George was cared for and loved, and when he did pass away, whether from disease, a bad fall, or a lion finally getting the jump on him, I believe that he was mourned and missed.  Rest in Peace, Grandpa George:
Pour one out, we must.

Turkana Boy

We’re now going to move two hundred thousand years forward in time, but to a part of the world we’re already quite familiar with: East Africa.  In 1984, near Lake Turkana in Kenya, a wonderfully complete skeleton of a young h. ergaster child was unearthed, leading to a plethora of interesting discoveries.  Let’s take a look at who we’re dealing with:

And here’s a reconstruction of him looking miffed at having suddenly been teleported into the
modern world:

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking: this kid must be pretty badass to grow a beard at his age.  Well, I’m no paleo-forensic reconstructionist, but I think this is probably the best reconstruction that a Google image search can offer at the moment—facial stubbery and all.  My reasoning is that by 1.6 MYA, our ancestors had lost most, but not all, of their body hair—hence the beard.  We started losing our body hair around 2 MYA(2).  However, this process probably didn’t complete until we developed the dark pigmentation that would protect our hairless bodies from the sun.  This development, as far as we know, didn’t emerge until about 1.2 MYA(3).

Let’s look at what the Turkana Boy can teach us.  For one thing, we see that he probably did not live a very comfortable life, even by Lower Paleolithic standards.  For one thing, arrangement of his spinal column shows us that he had a slipped disc in his lower back.  If you’ve ever had one of these, you know that they can be excruciatingly painful.  These days we can go to the chiropractor or even get spinal surgery, but poor Turkana Boy had no way of relieving his suffering, or even knowing why he was in such pain.  And as if that weren’t enough, the little dude also had an abscessed jaw(5).  When one of his baby teeth came out, apparently something went wrong, and a terrible infection set in.  In the end, he probably died of the resultant blood poisoning.  How awful.  How full of suffering his life must have been.  His poor family, too, did their best to take care of him, but in the end just couldn’t help him.

Similarly to Grandpa George, I often wonder about how Turkana Boy interacted with his tribe.  Was he taken care of willingly or grudgingly?  Maybe he was taken care of along with the younger children by the moms of the tribe, but was subject to some degree of impatience from the males.  After all, by his age he would have been expected to begin contributing to group hunts.

Speaking of age, how old was he when he died?  This is a cool question, because a different story is told by his bones and his teeth.  According to microscopic analysis of his teeth, he died around eight years old(6).  However, if we look at the rate at which his bones were growing, he seems to have entered early adolescence, perhaps comparable to a twelve-year-old kid today(7).  That’s interesting, because it shows that H. ergaster reached maturity much faster than modern kids.  Compare this to the life cycle of a chimpanzee, which reaches adulthood around ten years old(8).  I’m not sure what the implications here are for behavior—perhaps H. ergaster would have been acting essentially as an adult by twelve or so.  Now that I think about it, however, that’s not that different from some traditional communities today.  Lots of adulthood rituals and initiations happen around that age—consider, for instance, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of Judaism.

Another important discovery from Turkana Boy is that his vocal capabilities had not yet developed to the point where he would have been able to speak, at least in the way we think of speech.  Any form of vocal communication between these creatures would be quite crude, and of a strictly utilitarian nature.  It may be, however, that things like specialized mouth movements and vocalization were just beginning to lead H. ergaster down the road that would eventually lead not just to speech, but also to dance, music, and ritual.

Ergaster/Erectus Sociality

Grandpa George and Turkana Boy, most importantly, show that the goodness of humanity—compassion, familial love, and altruism—outdate “humanity” itself.  We certainly would not have considered these creatures “human” in the sense that you and I are human, but there certainly humanlike qualities to their social behavior.  In addition to their willingness to take care of one another, we can also infer that H. ergaster/erectus lived in something approximating what we would call a hunter-gatherer society.  H. habilis and australopithecines, on the other hand, probably lived in something closer to the communities of modern chimpanzees.  Rather than being formed around a dominant male and his mates, H. ergaster/erectus communities were probably more egalitarian and held together by social and familial bonds(9).

So humanlike was this social behavior, in fact, that we are reasonably confident that H. ergaster/erectus lived, for the first time, what would be recognizable as a true hunter/gatherer band society.  Excavations of encampments from this period show different areas used for specialized tasks, as well as the remains of hunted, butchered and cooked game(10).  Some of them, probably the elders, moms, and kids, would have hung around the camp and taken care of things like food processing, while the able-bodied adults were out hunting. 

How do you hunt, you might ask, if all you have is a rock?  Easy, if a bit inconvenient.  You find an animal, chase it until it’s exhausted, and then kill it up close.  H. ergaster/erectus was an accomplished distance runner, on par with modern Olympians, as their skeletal remains show(11).  Most big game mammals can run away in the short term, but if chased over a long period of time—hours or days—they will eventually overheat and get exhausted.   As we lost our body hair, we became able to better regulate our body temperature, and hence gained the ability to outlast our prey.  It’s just like the Tortoise and the Hare, except in the end the Hare gets his head bashed in.

This kind of “endurance hunting” in small bands proved quite successful, and in fact is a living tradition in some parts of the world(12).  How awesome is that?  There are modern people, right now, practicing a traditional way of life that goes back at least a million years.  A way of life older than modern humanity itself.  It’s really quite humbling.  Here in the West, we think a tradition goes back a long way if your grandparents were doing it.  In the Kalahari, the family business was started by Homo ergaster.


  Ever wonder where I get my awesome catchphrase?  Check out Lutheran Satire for dank theological comedy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cavemen Rule, Part IV: Homo habilis

Cavemen Rule, Part IV: Homo habilis

So, last week (ed.: month!) we talked about Australopithecus, and how over time this genus became more and more gracile, relying on tools and problem-solving to get access to a variety of food sources.  We even have an assemblage of stone tools that appear to have been manufactured by Australopithecus, and the astonishing Makapansgat pebble demonstrates even a flicker of abstract thought.  As time passed, some of these creatures became distinct enough that we begin to refer to them as members of the genus Homo, or “man”, under the premise that by this point, they had become more like us than like Australopithecus.  The very oldest find that could be reasonably argued to have Homo traits is the unassumingly named “LD-350-1” mandible, found in Ethiopia and dating from around 2.7 to 2.8 MYA:

So, what were these first Homo creatures like?  Well, at the beginning, they probably weren’t that different from their australopithecine brethren.  They have been traditionally referred to as Homo habilis by science, traditionally translated “handy man”.  Here’s what they looked like:

                There are a lot of reconstructions out there, of course, but I’m inclined in my layman’s opinion to favor the ones that look more ape-like, since these guys were very much a transitional species.  It’s also important to note that by this time, human ancestors probably hadn’t lost their body hair yet, although the process may have been underway(1).

                In fact, habilis displays so many archaic, australopithecine features that some scientists are arguing for a new classification to what they would call Australopithecus habilis(2).  But I don’t really know enough about this debate to have an opinion on it.

                Let’s talk about what the behavior of these creatures may have been like.  A good place to start may be the toolkit they left behind for us.  Nowadays, we refer to the tools made by Homo habilis as the Oldowan industry, named after Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge.  I remember it like this: the OLDowan industry is really OLD!  Dohohoho!  


These are the oldest manufactured items that we have ever found; it cannot be repeated enough that, an unimaginably long time ago, our ancestors held these very stones in their hands and fashioned them into crude choppers and scrapers:

                Here we see a typical Oldowan chopper tool.  As we can see, there’s not a lot of complexity to it—it’s really just a rock that they hit with another rock until they had a sharp edge to work with.  Some background knowledge was necessary—the toolmakers needed to know where, and at what angle, to strike in order to produce a sharp edge.  Regardless, as we can see, there is a haphazard quality to these tools, and they were made with a kind of strict practicality in mind.  These objects are functional, not aesthetic, and from this I infer that their makers probably didn’t give a whole lot of thought to things beyond simple survival.  When I look at these simple tools, I cannot imagine that, finding myself among a band of H. habilis, I would find myself feeling much more at home than among a band of australopithicines.

                But even at this stage, there may have been some behavioral quality to these guys that set them apart from Australopithecus.  Their brains were about 50% larger(2), and while that doesn’t necessarily mean they were smarter—however “smart” may be defined—they certainly could have been.  This difference in cognitive ability could have manifested itself as more “pickiness” in selecting rocks for use as tools, or as more of a tendency toward teamwork in accomplishing tasks, as opposed to intra-group competition.  Food could have been obtained in more innovative ways, such as by waiting for predators to bring down an animal, scaring the predators away, and taking the meat for themselves.  On the other hand, this competition with predators over carcasses may also explain why habilis, in contrast to later humans, was a “staple in the diet of larger predatory animals”(3).  To me this suggests that they still had a way to go in terms of outsmarting their predators. 

If I were given the opportunity to observe a living habilis community, I would do so more as a primatologist than as an anthropologist.  Their behavior certainly would have been more humanlike than that of chimpanzees, but probably not by much.  It’s doubtful that one of us could sit down with a habilis and interact with it in the same way we interact with one another, even by a long shot.

Safety would be a concern, too.  Primatologists are very rigorously trained in interpreting great ape behavior before going into the field, because great apes can be unpredictable and dangerous.  Behaviorally modern humans are the product of millions of years of social evolution that allows us to be around people we don’t know without killing each other.  Habilis was only beginning this process.

                One very important issue regarding habilis is where exactly they fit in the story of human evolution.  Were they our direct ancestors, or were they part of an evolutionary line that branched off from ours earlier on?  If they are not our ancestors, did they have descendants who were distinct from us?  The first question cannot be answered now, but in recent years, incredible discoveries have been made that seem to imply that habilis founded a separate Homo lineage, developing entirely independently of our own, that persisted to an astonishingly recent date.  I don’t want to go any further, because that would ruin the awesome twist ending, but stay tuned, because it’s gonna blow your mind.

                So that’s it for Homo habilis.  Next time we’re going to talk about Homo ergaster and Homo erectus, two species that would ultimately give rise to our lineage.  We’re even going to look at a couple specimens of these guys and, amazingly, reconstruct what these individuals’ lives must have been like.  See you next time!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Cavemen Rule, Part III: Lucy, et al.

Today: Cavemen Rule, Part III: Australopithecus.

But first, a disclaimer: today we’re going to be covering a huge period, on the scale of millions of years, in just a few minutes.  That’s not because this period is any less interesting or worthy of study than others, but because I want to focus more on the emergence of “people” as we think of them—that is, in the words of paleoanthropologist John Shea, behavioral variability.  But to really enjoy the wonder of “personhood’s” emergence, we need a little background information, which will be covered in this video, and the next.  Let’s start by jumping into our Wu-Tang Elevator and going back to the Africa of around three MYA…

So as we begin to explore our surroundings, we become familiar with a few different creatures that belong to what we know as the genus Australopithecus, or “Southern Ape” in Latin.  We would have seen these guys as decidedly more chimpanzee-like than human-like, with one important difference: Australopithecus walked upright (1). 

There were a few different species of Australopithecus, and they seem to have been around generally between four and two MYA.  The different species show variation according to a theme that is very, very important in the study of human origins: robustness vs. gracility.  That is, a heavier-set build as opposed to a lighter, less brawny physical morphology.  Consider, for instance, the robust gorilla, as opposed to the gracile bonobo.  Gorillas live in dense jungle, where you don’t really need to run from anything, and rely on tough, hard-to-chew stems and shoots (2).  The forests inhabited by the bonobo, on the other hand, are less dense, and they rely on softer, easier-to-chew fruits (3).

Australopithecus lived on the savanna, rather than in the forest (4), which made it necessary for them to stand up to look out over the tall grass.  Australopithecus was therefore evolutionarily pressured by a treeless environment for greater gracility.  Since they were less brawny, they became more reliant on tools.  This set of traits gradually led to the emergence of the genus homo about 2.8 MYA.
So what was Australopithecus like?  Most of us are familiar with the iconic Lucy, discovered in 1974:

When I was a little kid, I saw this picture, and mistook the jawbone for her smiling.

When she was alive, she probably looked kind of like a chimpanzee that stood upright:

Although Lucy is a lot more famous, we also have a beautiful skull of an infant Australopithecus from Ethiopia that its discoverers have named Selam, or “Peace”:


Here’s what she looked like when she was alive.  I actually think she was on a National Geographic cover a while back, so maybe you’ve seen her before:

Aw, she’s so cute!  I wanna give her a hug!

When paleoanthropologists examine this wonderfully preserved skull, along with others that we’ve found, it becomes clear that their skulls were a lot more like those of chimpanzees than humans.  For instance, their brains appear to have been comparable in size to those of modern chimps (5).  Their behavior was probably not much more “human-like” than chimpanzees either, although it was recently discovered that they were able to use stone tools (6):

On the other hand, there is one, very compelling, piece of evidence that there was, even then, just a spark of something incredible going on in the brains of these creatures.  It is possible that among Australopithecus abstract thought, the idea that one thing could represent another thing, was already in its infancy.  At a site associated with Australopithecus fossils in Makapansgat Cave, South Africa, an unassuming jasperite pebble was found, which was naturally shaped in such a way that it crudely resembles a humanlike face.  Now of course, there’s lots of natural stuff that looks like other stuff, just think of clouds in the sky!  But the eerie thing about the Makapansgat Pebble is that it is of a geologically different composition from the surrounding environment (7).  The nearest source of jasperite is miles away.  The chances of it somehow getting to Makapansgat by itself are astronomically, negligibly small.  It had to--and even as I say this, I get chills up my spine—It had to have been carried there.

The pebble is small enough to carry without any trouble—half a pound—and could have been held easily in one hand.  It would not have made a very good tool, given its shape, and certainly not one useful enough to carry miles away from its source.  What appears to have happened is that somewhere around 3 million years ago, an Australopithecus found this thing, looked at it, and a synapse fired somewhere in his little monkey mind, flashing like lightning on the horizon.  He found this pebble, thought, hey, this looks like me—an abstract thought—and considered this interesting enough to take back to camp to show his friends.  I wish I could’ve been there to see him find this thing.  I’d give a million dollars just to find out exactly what went through his mind, and what significance it had.

Would you like to see it?  Of course you would.  Here it is: the oldest face in the world:

I love this.  When we look at this pebble, we experience exactly the same jolt of recognition, and see exactly the same face and features, that someone saw three million years ago.  Isn’t that cool?  So we see, even at this early stage, the faintest flickers and glimmers of what would, someday, make us “people”.

Next time, we’re going to talk about the transition from Australopithecus to Homo, and what we know about the very earliest members of our genus.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cavemen Rule, Part II: Who Were the First People?

Hello friends, welcome to Office Hours with the Brofessor: the Show Where I Say Things.  Today we’ll be covering part two of my “Cavemen Rule” series.  We’ll ask the question of what exactly defines a “person” from a paleoanthropological point of view.

So, I just want to start by saying that I am not a paleoanthropologist by any means.  My background is in historical linguistics, but I do think paleoanthropology is a cool topic, and it’s a hobby that I love sharing with people!  So, I hope that if any viewers out there are in fact anthropologists, paleo or otherwise, you’ll contribute to the discussion with your two cents.  I would love to learn more.

Before we start, I’d like to introduce a few important terms.  In my high school biology class, I learned the pneumonic device “King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti”—Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species—for biological taxonomy.  Modern people, or homo Sapiens, therefore belong to the genus homo, and the species Sapiens.  As far as we know, we’re the only member of our genus still around, but in the past there were lots of others.  The most well known are homo Habilis, extant from about 2.8 million years ago, and homo Erectus, extant from 1.9 million years ago, or, as I like to say, “mya!”  Now, that said, let’s get something out of the way:

Got it out of your system?  Good, let’s be adults here.  Another well-known species was homo Neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals, extant from about 250 thousand years ago; or, as I say, “kya!”.
So, when asking the question “what are people””, there are a few metrics you could go by.  
Biologically, you could say that a “person” is any member of the genus homo.  This includes not just our species, homo Sapiens, but our extinct ancestors and relatives.

By that definition, “people” have been around for 2.8 million years.  Personally, though, I think that definition is too broad.  Early homo, in my view, did not have the cognitive and social abilities that characterize “people”.  On the other hand, we could also define “people” as belonging only to homo Sapiens, but I would view that as too narrow.  That definition would overlook the growing evidence that points to other homo species acting in a cognitively and culturally advanced way—most convincingly, our cousins the Neanderthals.

On the other hand, let’s consider for a moment the spiritual side of this discussion.  Personally, I am a Christian, and so that’s the basis I take for my opinion; basically, I would say that “people” began when they were able to fully comprehend the moral ramifications of their decisions, and, despite knowing these ramifications, make the wrong choice—that is, in theological terms, the Fall of Man.  At what point did we become morally responsible for our decisions?  Could a homo Erectus engage in a conversation about morality, or be prosecuted in court for murder?  How about a Neanderthal?  On a similar note, I would say that “people became people” when they became aware of the presence of the divine or spiritual.

Finally, there’s the linguistic aspect: “people” can talk.  That is, they can use articulated language.  They can speak a language that draws distinctions between different phonemes—units of sound—and morphemes—units of meaning.  These phonemes and morphemes can be put together to construct an original utterance about whatever topic you like.  An articulated language has a degree of predictability as to word order and syntax.  Articulated languages have lexica of possible words.  “Languages” can be adapted to any cultural or situational context to articulate the entirety of the human experience.  It doesn’t matter how small the lexicon is—Damin, an extinct ceremonial language of Australia, had a lexicon of only about 150 distinct morphemes.  Neither does it matter how much grammatical inflection* a language has—Classical Chinese has almost no grammatical inflection at all, and very little affixation.  If it can be adapted to any possible human situation or interaction, it is a “language”.  There is no such thing as a “primitive” language.  Whenever people began to use articulated language, its speakers could have used it to talk about Shakespeare as easily as they could have used it to talk about lighting being scary—that is, if they had the appropriate background knowledge.

*”Inflection” refers to words changing a word for things like tense and number, e.g. eat/ate.  This contrasts with “affixation” which refers to “adding stuff” to words for the same purpose, for example dog/dogs.

So, to review:
·         “People” are able to act in a “cognitively and culturally advanced way”—whatever that means.
·         “People” are morally responsible for their actions.
·         “People” have a sense of the spiritual or supernatural.
·         “People” can communicate using articulated language.

The question, then, is this: when and where were the first communities that checked off all of these boxes?  The first category is especially difficult to define.  Some paleoanthropologists use the term “behavioral modernity”, which also encompasses the other three categories.  Others, prominent among them being the towering badass that is John Shea of Stony Brook University, have criticized this term.  In particular, Shea prefers to use the term “behavioral variability”, which I think makes a lot more sense.  Go give his page a look if you’re interested.

If we’re going to be rigidly—and, I would say, unnecessarily—conservative with the evidence we accept, points one, three, and four can’t really be demonstrably proven until fairly recently—the last 40,000 years or so--and point two is a philosophical question that can only be inferred.  However, every day we are unearthing more evidence to show that people have been behaving the same way we do now for at least 100,000 years—and even this number is being slowly pushed back to about 200,000.  There are even tantalizing glimmers of what we would call “modern” behavior as far back as 400,000 years.

Now, I can see all my academically conservative viewers revving up their comment boxes to type something along the lines of “ackchyually, behavioral modernity and articulated language emerged last week”.  Relax, guys.  One problem with academia these days is that a lot of experts refuse to consider new possibilities until their refusal to accept them makes them look ridiculous.  That doesn’t mean we should say that homo Habilis was having philosophical discussions while they scavenged rhinoceros marrow, but on the other hand, we should be open to the possibility that behavioral variability, as Shea puts it, goes back further than we are currently comfortable thinking.

In my layman’s opinion, I would say that a good estimate for the emergence of behavioral variability was about 200,000 years ago, but there are tantalizing pieces of evidence that go back even further.  If someone asked me, “Hey Bro, how long have people been around?” I would say, “Two hundred thousand years, maybe a little more”, using the definition of “people” as discussed above.

So, what do you think?  Go ahead and contribute to the discussion by leaving a comment!  In our next discussion we’re going to briefly go over the early homo species that existed before “people” in the behavioral-variability sense.  See you then!