Thursday, August 2, 2018

Cavemen Rock, Part VII: Stay off My Lawn




Hello again friends, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor, the Show that’s Proudly Irrelevant.  Today we’re continuing Cavemen, but I’m changing the name.  The new name of this series is “Cavemen ROCK,” since, obviously, rocks, cavemen, ha ha ha.  It’s so obvious, I don’t know why I didn’t think of this.  Even now, my friend suggested this to me.  Oh well.

Anyway, let’s move on.  We last talked about the species known respectively as Homo ergaster and Homo erectus in the context of African and Asian assemblages.  I’ve also hear the expression “African H. erectus” used, but I’m not sure what the difference is here with H. ergaster.  If you know, please tell me!

Ergectus, as I’ve recently taken to calling them, held on from almost 2 MYA until well into the last five hundred thousand years—maybe even as recently, relatively speaking, as 150 KYA.  During time we have seen the emergence of true hunting and gathering, sporadic fire use, and maybe even primitive seafaring.  We also see the very first glimmerings of human consciousness as we know it: care for the elderly and infirm, family units, and maybe even a sense of the aesthetic in their wonderfully knapped hand axes.  According to Iain Davidson at the University of New England, by the ergectus era our ancestors were able to control our vocal utterances independently of our emotional state(1)—and, indeed, the vertebrae of the classic Turkana boy specimen show humanlike vocal capabilities.  These creatures may have had names for the things around them, or even had names themselves—though I doubt they had anything close to what we would call “articulated language”.

Still, as with H. habilis, I don’t think we could have interacted with ergectus the same way we interact with each other.  Although, as evidenced by Grandpa George and Turkana Boy, that they cared for infirm members of their own groups, they probably hadn’t yet mastered the art of not tearing each other apart when meeting new acquaintances—this will factor in today’s discussion, so keep that in mind. 

It was into this milieu, around 1.2 million years ago, that one European strain branched from the ergectus lineage.  Unlike ergectus, these guys had more humanlike facial features, especially in, according to Smithsonian Magazine, “the shape of the nasal region and the presence of a facial depression above the canine tooth called the canine fossa”(2).  That sounds like a small difference, but these features are more gracile than those of ergectus.  These creatures, attested from the Atapuerca Mountains of Spain, were christened Homo antecessor, or “Pioneer man”, by modern science.

Atapuerca is an important site, so let’s familiarize ourselves with the area.  This is a mountain range in Northern Spain, although to be honest, it looks more like a hill to me.  Maybe the name comes from Don Quixote’s fevered imagination:

“Behold, Sancho!  Mountains, soaring up to the heavens!  Surely, these peaks must hide the secret of Dulcinea’s enchantment!”

Or, maybe I’m just a snob, being as I am from the heart of Colorado’s majestic Rocky Mountains!  At any rate Atapuerca has a number of sites stretching across prehistory, from the lower Paleolithic to the Bronze Age.  The finds here are quite remarkable for their diversity of time depth!

H. antecessor, documented from this site, was present between 1.2 and 0.78 MYA.  Behaviorally and technologically, they appear not to be markedly different from their ergectus brethren, in that their tools are a continuation of the Acheulean industry(3).  We can tell by examining their teeth that they subsisted on tough, difficult-to-chew foods (4).  This implies that, like H. erectus, they did not have (regular) access to fire.  There is little else we know about antecessor’s behavior, apart from one more point that I’d like to bring up now.

In fact, this is a bit of an elephant in the room.  I don’t want to spend too much time on this, because it’s not that big of a deal, and it’s not very nice to think about.  Here goes: the bones of some antecessor specimens had had the muscles removed with stone tools, before the bones were scattered among those of game animals.  The implication is that these individuals had been hunted, butchered and eaten by other H. antecessor.

I know, I know!  That’s disgusting, and I hate to even mention it.  Also, it’s annoying to talk about because this stuff gets heavily sensationalized by non-academic media.  There’s this deeply-ingrained disgust we feel at the idea of cannibalism, be it survival, mortuary or otherwise.  So that’s what the non-academic press likes to jump on, I guess as a kind of clickbait.  We also see it in caveman movies, from “Quest for Fire” to “The Thirteenth Warrior”.  I don’t know why it’s such a big deal in our popular perception of cavemen, but there it is.  It may be related to the racist image of the “cannibal savage” used to justify Western imperialism during the Age of Exploration.  That is to say, focusing on this behavior among our ancestors may be a way of distancing ourselves from them and making them out to be inferior to us.  I don’t know, and it’s a gross, strange thing for everyone to dwell on as much as they do.  I wouldn’t have mentioned this point at all, if it didn’t have an important implication for behavior.

First, eating these guys appears not to have been ritual or funerary behavior, which is unsurprising, since the mind of H. antecessor probably wasn’t quite there yet.  We know this because the bones were treated exactly the same as those of game animals.  So, what exactly happened here? 
One easy explanation is that if one of your bros keels over and dies, eating him is kind of a convenient thing to do, since it gets rid of the body and you guys don’t need to go hunting that day.  You can stay home, crack some cave-brews and play Cave Mario Kart.  That’s possible, but why don’t we see evidence of this with, say, Grandpa George or Turkana Boy?  Did H. erectus not connect the dots that far?  Furthermore, I have yet to see evidence of pathology in the bones of these individuals.  That doesn’t mean they didn’t die of illness or injury, but there’s no published evidence thereof from the fossil remains—which we have with Grandpa George and Turkana Boy.  The latter was old and weak, and the former died from an infection.  Neither was cannibalized.  That said, H. antecessor is almost a million years, and thousands of miles, removed from Grandpa George and Turkana Boy, so perhaps it’s not appropriate to bring them into the discussion.

Another possibility is that there was a famine or something, and there was that thing that happens in cartoons where they looked at each other and their buddies turned into talking steaks.  But by all reconstructions, the environment of the time wouldn’t have made a very difficult place to live(5).  That said, there’s always the possibility of a lean season.

Let’s look again at the individuals that became dinner.  Examining the butchered remains, we realize a commonality shared by the victims: these individuals were children, as young as ten years old.  Again, disgusting and disturbing, I know, sorry.  But that fact is important because we see a parallel behavior among chimpanzees: male chimps, when patrolling their territory, will kill and eat infants that they come across(6).  We could be seeing a similar behavior here.  The juvenile H. antecessor specimens that were eaten could have been members of an out-group encountered by adult males on patrol. 

One problem with this scenario is, of course, that ten years old isn’t exactly an infant, unless we’re  speaking French.  Indeed, we know from other specimens, one of them being Turkana Boy, that archaic hominins reached adolescence faster than kids today.  Turkana Boy was eight when he died, but had adolescent skeletal morphology.  H. antecessor was about 800 thousand years after Turkana Boy, so even if the rate had slowed somewhat in the intervening time, it would still be reasonable to guess that a ten-year-old antecessor might have already entered adolescence.  In that case, this situation would differ even more from that of modern chimpanzees, since killed infants of outgroups are eaten, but for some reason killed adults are not—at least, such behavior has not yet been observed.  For this reason, it’s important not to discount the in-group death or famine hypotheses.  Still, the “Patrol Hypothesis” seems to me to be the most probable, or at any rate the least improbable.  That is to say: the cannibalized H. antecessor remains found represent the same phenomenon observed among male chimpanzee patrols.  This has serious implications for our attempt to reconstruct H. antecessor behavior.

If in fact the Patrol Hypothesis is true, it provides a serious counterpoint to the various baby steps we’ve seen in the progression toward modern behavior.  We’ve seen ergectus care for its elderly and sick, knap symmetrical tools, probably use fire, and very possibly use rafts and simple word-like utterances.  But for all that, the discovery of these poor kids demonstrates starkly that raw animal instinct still had a heavy influence upon these creatures, at least in terms of their dealings with out-groups.  Deep down, they were in many ways quite far from “human” in terms of cognition. 
Do you remember way back at the beginning of this series, probably a year ago now, when I talked about a mark of “peopleness” as being morally responsible for your actions?  If the Patrol Hypothesis explains this incident, Homo antecessor and its ergectus predecessors were not morally responsible for what they did.  Chimpanzees don’t think about cannibalizing the infants that they kill on patrols, they just do it.  In the same way, they don’t think about not cannibalizing the adults that they kill.  It’s simply something that’s hardwired into their brains, and may have been hardwired into the brains of early Homo. 

How could we test if the Patrol Hypothesis is true?  We would have to look at other fossils of the same time period and before, with a special eye toward both juvenile bones and those which show evidence of having been butchered.  If there is an overlap, perhaps this hypothesis is worth considering.

So, here’s what I think happened: one day, some H. antecessor males were walking around on patrol.  They knew that there were other groups in the area, with whom they occasionally clashed in conflicts not unlike those between modern chimpanzee troops.  Along they came, minding their own business, when in the distance they saw some punk kids skateboarding on their driveway—or the Lower Paleolithic equivalent.  The kids knew that they should stay off the other group’s territory.  However, they were acting with the same rashness and impulsiveness characteristic of today’s twelve-or-thirteen-year-olds, and they paid the price.  The patrolling males ran them down, killed them, and ate them without really considering what they were doing.  They acted entirely on impulse.  Had the victims been adults, the patrol would have simply killed them and left the bodies, but juveniles, for whatever evolutionary reason, triggered a different response.  Whatever explanation this behavior had, it is the same thing that we observe today among chimps.

So, to sum up: here was a creature that was capable of touching tenderness toward members of their in-groups, but remained quite aggressive toward members of out-groups.  Which, if you think about it, is quite human in a way!  Goodness knows that we have enough trouble with racism and xenophobia in our time.  But, unlike them, we have gained the amazing ability to think through our actions, and consciously decide to cooperate with members of out-groups, rather than instinctively kill them.  I think there’s a lesson here for us today—when we give in to prejudice toward those who might not be in our “tribe”, we are stooping to the same level as H. antecessor all those years ago!

In my discussion of Grandpa George and Turkana Boy, I talked about how these two cases demonstrate how the goodness of humanity predates “humanity” itself.  Well, the antecessor finds show us that humanity’s bad side goes back a long way too.  So, to any Paleolithic kids out there: stay off Old Man Antecessor’s lawn!


Saturday, June 2, 2018

Proudly Irrelevant


What’s up people, welcome to Office Hours with the Brofessor: the show that’s proudly irrelevant.  You’re probably thinking, wow: Proudly Irrelevant.  What a cool new catchphrase!  Well, thank you.  My last one, The Show Where I Say Things, I got from the brilliant theological comedy channel Lutheran Satire.  Check them out if you haven’t, especially “Frank the Hippy Pope”.  The old catchphrase fit the show pretty well, because that’s what it is: a show where I say things.  My friends kept encouraging me to start a Youtube show because it would give me an outlet for stuff I would otherwise yammer on about at parties.  So the original concept was really just a show where I talked about whatever topic was my flavor of the month.  Still, I like “Proudly Irrelevant” more because it really captures the show’s essence: nothing here is applicable to modern, everyday life, and I hear people all the time saying there’s no point to knowing this stuff.  Well, guess what?

I DON’T CARE.

I think it’s too bad that people belittle the Humanities for their supposed lack of relevance.  Whether or not something is marketable or timely shouldn’t matter, as long as it’s cool and interesting.  Just as an example, the other day I was talking to some German gap-year kids at a hostel in Vientiane.  They were talking to me about how studying languages was boring.  So, I started talking about the ancient correspondences that exist between Germanic languages, and from there to Proto-Indo-European, and the prehistoric cultural concepts that live on in the words we use every day.  All of a sudden, learning foreign languages seemed a lot more interesting.  Now, what I told these guys isn’t going to help them order in a restaurant or give presentations at work, but it is going to give them a contextual frame for the language points they do learn—and, more importantly, it’s cool and interesting, and instills a love of the language.

As another example, let’s talk about classical knowledge.  It’s appalling to me that students aren’t taught Latin and Greek in school anymore.  It robs students of the intellectual heritage of Western civilization.  I use the verb “rob” deliberately—I really feel that the modern educational system steals a treasure of enormous value from students in not teaching them the classical languages of the West.  An important component of this knowledge is literature.  So even if you did read Homer in school—I didn’t—you probably didn’t read him in Greek, unless you were very lucky.  If you were one of those lucky ones, a baton was passed to you that has been carried for three thousand years over the yawning depths of history.  Reading Homer in Greek or Virgil in Latin, or the Eddas in Old Norse— or, for that matter, the Popol Vuh in Classical K’iche—connects you to something larger than yourself, a connection sorely needed in this generation of egotism and fatuousness. 

But what, in our day, do we say of this knowledge of the ages?  “It’s not practical” and “it’s not relevant”.  That’s not the point, dingus.  The point is that a) the knowledge of the ages connects us to something greater than ourselves, and b) by nature of that connection, it’s badass and cool.  It’s worth learning for its own sake.  This, I think, is the thread that connects everything I talk about here, whether it’s prehistoric hominid behavior, Xiongnu word etymology, or Ket shamanism.  It’s knowledge that intimately connects us to the greater narrative of human existence, and consequently ignites within us a sense of wonder.  So it doesn’t really matter if this stuff is “usesful” or not—it’s still worth learning.  That’s the message of my channel, and that’s why I’m “Proudly Irrelevant”.

Anyway, I know that was a bit of a rant, but thanks for bearing with me.  Next time, it’s back to cavemen!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Cavemen Rule, Part VI: Homo Erectus (huh huh huh)


Dating

Ergaster/Erectus was the most successful Homo species, attested from almost two million years ago to as recently as 150 thousand years ago.  Sometimes you’ll see weird dates like fifty thousand years ago, or even ten thousand years ago, but the former was re-dated in 2011(1), while the latter is more likely the result of artificial cranial deformation among modern    humans(2).  Personally, in the latter case, I think it would be cool to sample the DNA, just to be   sure—but the remains in question were repatriated to the indigenous people on whose land they were found .

At any rate, the most recent undisputed Erectus remains were found near the Solo River in Indonesia; they were dated to between 140 KYA and 550 KYA.  This seems like a big gap, but even at the most conservative estimate, that would mean these guys were around for a million and a half years.  

Compare that with our species, Homo sapiens, which has only been around for 200 KYA—an eighth of that time!  By timespan alone, that makes them much more successful than us, especially if things keep going they way they are with North Korea!

I jest, of course.  Hopefully.

Geographical Range

Ergaster/Erectus not only made it out of Africa, they spanned the whole of tropical and subtropical Eurasia, as far north as France in the west and Beijing in the east.  I haven’t heard about any Erectus discoveries further north, or in the Western Hemisphere at all.  This suggests to me that they hadn’t yet developed technology needed to survive in a cold climate—for example, fur clothing or reliable control of fire.  Of course, such technology would have been a prerequisite for entry into the Americas, which they appeared not to have done.

In the south, as I’ve already mentioned, Erectus definitely made it as far as Indonesia.  Now, the way I see it, if they made it to Indonesia, there’s nothing that would have prevented them from reaching Australia; but we can’t be sure.  Australia has yet to yield any Homo remains dating from before the arrival of modern humans around 65 KYA(3). 

Fire and Other Technology

As I say, the inability of Erectus to expand its range to the north suggests to me that they did not have things like warm fur clothing or the reliable control of fire.  It does appear, however, that Ergaster/Erectus had occasional access to fire.  We have pretty good evidence for controlled fire in South Africa around a million years ago (4).  Southwest China has yielded blackened mammal bones dating to 1.7MYA, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that the fire was anthropogenic.  Over the course of Ergaster/Erectus’ existence, brain volume increased substantially, which has led some experts to suggest that easily-digestible cooked meat was available.  The excellent PBS documentary Becoming Human talks about how fire and cooking could have led Ergaster/Erectus to become more social—e.g. by sharing fires for cooking and warmth.  At any rate, fire use would have been a very gradual process.  Perhaps it could have begun with discovery of embers in the wake of wildfires, which led to fires being maintained over long periods of time.  If you’ll allow my imagination to step in here for a moment, we may even have a faint psychological memory of a “fire-carrying” past, before fire could be reliably created, in ceremonies like the Olympic torch.  Even recently, indigenous populations in wet climates like Tasmania preferred to carry coals from one campsite to another, so that they didn’t have to go to the trouble of finding dry wood for a new fire(5).

Finally, it’s very worth mentioning that Ergaster/Erectus may also have been the first human ancestor to travel by sea.  Heading back to Indonesia, we find evidence of Erectus habitation from 900 KYA.  Although most of Indonesia was, at the time, linked by a land bridge, there were still some areas that were cut off by water—the  island of Flores, for example, whence comes the 900 KYA figure(6).  It seems plausible that Erectus was able to put together simple rafts that allowed them to reach this remote island—and to discover that even here, they were not alone.  But we’ll get to that later.

As far as the Ergaster/Erectus toolkit is concerned, we see an interesting new technology emerging in their wake: the Acheulean industry, a toolmaking tradition that spanned a mind-boggling 1.7 million years, from about 1.8 MYA to 100 thousand years ago.  Typifying the Acheulean tradition are what we call the “hand-axe”.  These tools, to me at least, are remarkable not just for their practicality, for their rough beauty.  Let’s take a look:




  
I’m no flintknapper, but I think it’s very important to note the symmetry that we see with these tools, as compared to the earlier Oldowan industry.  To me this suggests greater planning ability: these tools were made with an end result in mind.  Unlike Oldowan tools, Acheulean hand axes were sourced from high-quality material, often at a distance of several miles from where they were found.  Their owners invested significant time and effort into their creation, and probably kept them for some time.

Looking at these beautiful tools, I can’t help but wonder if there could possibly have been an aesthetic element to their creation.  Surely their symmetry and ease of handling had a practicality to it, but there must have been something more.  This “moreness” becomes most evident when we compare these artifacts with the crude pebble tools of the Oldowan industry.  Indeed, the Acheulean hand axe may have been a catalyst for the birth of human aesthetic sensibility as we know it.  Could we be witnessing—dare I say it—the birth of Art?

Art and Abstraction

If indeed the Acheulean knappers had some primitive aesthetic sensibility beyond the mere utility of their artifacts, that’s a huge jump forward, and in a way, the birth of human consciousness itself.  Abstract imagination is what sets us apart from the animals in a way that nothing else does.  From these tools, we can already see that Ergaster/Erectus was able to sit down with a rock, visualize a hand-axe, and turn that visualization into a reality.  That’s powerful stuff, and at a very visceral, “gut” level, that must have been almost traumatizing in its immensity.  It must have taken thousands of generations to work through—imagine!  You have this picture in your mind—and at this time, neither the concept of a picture nor the concept of a mind existed.  It was only there as potential, and then you recognized that potential and made it into a physical reality.  I’m no philosopher, as you can probably tell, but…wow.  Imagine experiencing that and trying to work through it with your friends and family, some of them getting it, some of them not…and, generation by generation, the number of those “getting it” gradually getting larger.

Toward the end of Erectus’ tenure, we see some tantalizing glimpses of what may have even been art, or at least abstract symbolism, in the proper sense.  In Indonesia, at the remarkable Trinil Erectus site, there was a seashell discovered that had carved into it this beautiful zigzag pattern.

 (7)

Now, this doesn’t look like much, and you may roll your eyes when I call it beautiful, but it is!  Just think: this is an original abstract pattern from five hundred thousand years ago.  This is the birth of art!  Now, the question is, were these absentmindedly scratched onto the shell—that is, a doodle—or was it more deliberate?  In other words, was this the prehistoric equivalent of you drawing spirals and zigzags in the margins of your math textbook?

There appears to have been some genuine effort that went into this item—after all, it’s much more difficult to carve a pattern into a hard surface than it is to doodle on paper.  However, I’m not sure that means the pattern had a special significance.  Here’s what I imagine happened: some Erectus—let’s name him Lucas—was sitting around camp one day, processing shellfish.  His task complete, Lucas got bored, and amused himself by scratching a cool zigzag pattern onto one of the shells.  It was cool and interesting because first it went up, then it went down.  And then up again!  Wowie!  How pleased with himself he would have been!  His line went up and down!  He then gave it to his girlfriend as a romantic gesture.

Now, I’m kind of having a laugh at the poor guy’s expense, but if you think about it, by Erectus standards a zigzag doodle would have been a pretty big deal.  And Lucas wasn’t the only one!  The Bilzingsleben Site in Germany(8) has these enigmatic engravings on an elephant tibia:


I always get chills when I look at these radial lines engraved onto the bone.  Clearly this wasn’t an attempt to scratch the meat off of the bone or to get the marrow; these marks were made for their own sake.  Some people are calling this a potential calendar, or a ruler, or even a protractor.  I don’t know about all that.  Regardless the critical fact here is that someone sat down, imagined lines engraved onto the bone, and then made them.  For these early creatures, bringing the conceptual into physical reality must have been an almost mystical experience. 

The Bilzingsleben finds are dated to about 370 KYA, and the bones found there are classified as E. erectus--that surprises me a little, since that’s a very late date for H. erectus in Europe.  For the most part, we see H. erectus being phased out in Europe by around 600 KYA or so by the more modern H. heidelbergensis.  Still, I assume that the professionals know better than I do, so I’ll buy it. 
Regardless, in my view, which exact species made these engravings is a technical point, the relevancy of which pales in comparison to the cognitive development that’s demonstrated by these engravings.  Even a chimpanzee would never do something like that by itself.  But here we have a pre-human creature conceptualizing a geometric pattern, and then working it into a physical reality.  Whether or not it carried some symbolic meaning, this is a huge step.  When considered together with the hunter-gatherer societies formed by these creatures, the Trinil shell suggests to me that these creatures were much closer to us in behavior than to chimpanzees, australopithecines, or even H. habilis.  Would they have understood, say, the concept of time?  I doubt it, since ideas like that must have come around very slowly over thousands of generations with herculean mental effort.  But on the other hand, they amused themselves by doodling, which is perhaps just as monumental.

Before I move away from the Bilzingsleben finds, I would like to mention one other cool discovery that may well have to do with the increased cognitive aptitude of late H. erectus: the skulls that were found at this site appeared to have been smashed in…postmortem.  That is, these individuals were already dead when they had their skulls smashed.  Now why would you do that to someone who’s already dead?  Incredibly, we may be seeing evidence of some sort of funerary ritual.  Think about it: if you don’t want your friend coming back as a zombie, what do you do?  It sounds ridiculous, but I’m really only half-joking here.

Could They Talk?

While we’re on the topic of abstract symbols, let’s talk about whether Ergaster/Erectus was able to talk.  Language is inherently symbolic—after all, if I say the word “cat”, there’s nothing about that word that is inherently cattish, and you wouldn’t know what it meant unless you were “initiated” into the language club. 

Physiologically, there is some controversy.  Two parts of the body most intimately connected with language are the vertebrae, which reflect vocal capability, and the Broca’s area of the brain, which controls speech production.  Turkana Boy’s vertebrae, when examined, show that he could probably not have produced the same speech sounds as we can.  On the other hand, the older Dmanisi finds show not only humanlike vertebrae, but also the presence of a Broca’s Area(9).  But even if they could speak, did they?  I doubt that they woke up one day and suddenly began making sentences in the third conditional.  I like to think that they did have what we would call words, but they were used only in short utterances, in the strictly physical and pragmatic realm.  It probably started out as a series of nouns, since “cat” is an easier concept to grasp than “go” (Going where?  Who is going?) or “bad” (What happened?  Why is this bad?).

I also like to think that sooner or later they must have started naming each other.  For example, if I my brother has a big nose, I could call him Nose.  If my friend likes eating berries, I could call him Berry.  Simple things like that.  Of course, this is all in my imagination, and I’m certainly no neurolinguist, but it could well be during the ergaster/erectus era that this stuff began to happen.

Conclusion

So, that's my whirlwind overview of H. ergaster/erectus.  What do you guys think?  Are my imaginings too fanciful, or could have some of my hypotheses been accurate regarding their behavior?  Tell me your thoughts.  Next time we'll talk about the guys who phased out H. erectus in Europe: Homo antecessor and Homo heidelbergensis.  See you then!

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.



Sources