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 Academia.edu 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!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cavemen Rule: Part I

Hi Everybody, time for another exciting season of Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I say things!  I’ve been planning to do a new series for a while now, and I’m finally ready to go.  Presenting: Intro to Human Origins, or: Cavemen Rule!
So I’d like to start off this series by talking about how inconceivably badass cavemen are.  I know everyone talks about Vikings, pirates, gladiators, and all these dudes, but for some reason people forget about cavemen, the original badasses whence all other badasses, myself included, were spawned.  These dudes clawed their way up from being a house lunch special on the Serengeti to mastering the world around them, paving the way for humanity’s greatest accomplishments, from the Pyramids of Egypt to Boston’s More than a Feeling:
For most of humanity’s existence, we have lived under conditions that, in popular culture, would be described as a “caveman” mode of life—or, more accurately, what anthropologists call band societies.  But before you get excited and start thinking that this is going to be a rockumentary*, I have to burst your bubble and say: it’s not that kind of band.  A “band society” refers to a mobile hunter-gatherer society of less than 100 individuals, usually no larger than an extended family or clan.  For most of our existence as a species, this was the way we lived.  Billions upon billions of people have lived out their lives in this kind of society.  Were not their lives as precious and full of color as ours?

*Unless, of course, the "rock" in "rockumentary" refers to the stone artifacts left behind by prehistoric man!

We do seem to have this idea that human prehistory goes a long, long way back, but I think a lot of people don’t really have much idea of what went on during this time.  Who were these people?  When, where, and how did they live?  Why is it that we learn about the Egyptians and Romans, but not the Mousterians and Aurignacians?  The answer, of course, is “relevance”.  But like I always say: who cares about relevance, as long as it’s badass? 

These societies existed for thousands of years, with as much drama and life as any society in written history.  And there’s just as much, arguably, to learn, if we are able to interpret the clues correctly.  Prehistoric cultures may not have left written records, but they did leave us clues, here and there, that add up over thousands of years.  Every day we are developing a clearer picture of how these people lived and died.

Let’s start with a few common misconceptions that people have about the 98% of humanity’s existence that predates the written record:
·         Prehistoric people were in some way “less human” than us: less developed, less evolved, however you want to say it:
·         Prehistoric people didn’t behave the same way we do, or had limited intelligence compared to us.
·         Prehistoric people saved money on their car insurance by switching to Geico.
·         People, one day, “discovered” agriculture, as if they didn’t know how seeds worked.
·         The five thousand years of our existence when we’ve had written history somehow matter more to the human story than any other five-thousand-year period.  They don’t.
People are people now, people were people five thousand years ago, and people were people fifty thousand years ago.  Prehistoric societies—and modern-day small-scale cultures—are just as important as any other human society—Roman, Chinese, Navajo, whatever.  
Another problem that popular consciousness has with human prehistory is that most of us don’t have much of a “timeline” for this vast, unrecorded period of our existence--for example, I was talking with a friend once who asked me which came first: fire or cave paintings.  That’s not a stupid question, because most of us just never learned this stuff in school.  But to me, it’s a terrible betrayal of our shared human heritage that we do not!

So let’s fix that!  In this series we’re going to take a trip though prehistory, and learn about the origins of who we are as a human family.

Traditionally, scholars have divided up human prehistory and proto-history by the materials used for toolmaking: hence, we have the stone age, bronze age, and iron age.  Some people would also add the “copper age” as a transitional period between the stone and bronze ages, but these three are the most important.  I’ve always thought “stone age” was kind of a misnomer, since that implies stone was the only, or even the dominant, material used, but people during this period had just as much ingenuity as we do; consider, for example, that plenty of bone artifacts have been recovered as well.  At any rate the “stone age” lasted from the very beginnings of humanity to about five thousand years ago; the bronze age, between five and three thousand years ago; and the iron age, from about three thousand years ago to the emergence of written history.  

Note that this is a fairly Eurocentric way to look at protohistory; we use this division simply because Greece and Rome developed iron technology before consistently writing stuff down.  But just because they were late to the party doesn’t mean everyone else was; consider that fully developed written scripts were used in Mesopotamia and Egypt concurrently with early bronze smelting.  Hence, the terms “bronze age” and “iron age” have little true significance to these cultures, since these periods overlap with the historical record.  In the same way, there are still societies today that do just fine without the use of metal.
The “stone age” concept, however flawed, is nonetheless used as a handy tool by archaeologists to describe what they have divided into three periods:
  •       The Paleoloithic, or “old stone age”, which is further divided into the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic periods;
  •       The Mesolithic, or “middle stone age”, and;
  • The Neolithic, or “new stone age”.

Of these, the Mesolithic and Neolithic pale in comparison to the enormous timescales of the Paleolithic, which lasted from the very dawn of humanity to about ten thousand years ago—maybe twenty in some places.  This period was characterized primarily by band societies engaging in scavenging, foraging, and hunting of big game.  The Mesolithic is characterized, again, by band societies, but now with more emphasis on small game, along with collection of wild cereal grains.  During the Neolithic, grain took on an even larger role as people began to settle down and develop true agriculture.  Lots of people think of the Neolithic as the beginning of what we call “civilization” but it took thousands of years of small-scale farming before cities, metal tools, or writing developed—hence the need for “Neolithic” as a classification.

But how old is humanity itself?  Well, that’s a difficult question, because first you have to answer the somewhat bloated philosophical question of “what is human?”—something we will attempt to do in our next video.  Thanks for watching!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

UNIT 1: ɯ̀r “Spring” Lesson 3: “Quska”

Aims: By the end of the lesson, students should be able to talk about Ket household items using locative postpositions and expressions for “to (not) be there”

Story: You have just made friends with a family of Ket people living on the shores of the Yenisei river.  You met them while they were setting up their spring encampment.  Now that their birchbark teepee is set up, they invite you in.  Inside the air is smoky and warm.  You can distinguish a few important items belonging to the family, not least among them the family’s guardian spirit dolls.

U:: əkŋna qu's qà aqtas!
Kətdum: E’.  Quska usam.
U:: Quska akus
Kətdum: Quska etna
hojaŋ usaŋ.
U:: Kire hojaŋ akus?
Kətdum: Kire lә:q haj sujad.  Ture Dahani
ŋda qa’d, haj kire ap usans.
U:: Tune akus?
: Tune ətna allel haj daŋgols.  Uk quska allel tam daŋgols usaŋ?
U:: Ap quska allel tam daŋgols bənsaŋ.

1.      Locative: Ket locative suffix is produced by adding the suffix -ka to a noun, regardless of gender or number.  Therefore, we can make constructions like quska “in the tent” or hɯssejka “in the forest”.
2.      Stating the presence of nouns: Ket uses the phrase-final usaŋ and bənsaŋ to state presence or lack of a noun.  Thus, we can produce sentences like Quska tɯ'n usaŋ/bənsaŋ “In the tent there is/is not a kettle.”
3.      We ask and answer “where” questions by putting “where?” and “here/there” after the noun.  So, I can say “Ap təgol biseŋ?  Uk təgol kiseŋ/qaséŋ” “Where is my tall birchbark container?  Your tall birchbark container is here/over there”

Household Items
Female guardian spirit doll
Male guardian spirit doll (less common)
Furs, Pelts
Bed (made of skins)
Blanket (literally “warming one”)
Tall Birchbark Container
Wide Birchbark Container
Kneading Trough
1.      Uk kəla biseŋ?  Bu se:ska. ___________________________________

2.      Buŋna kə'd biseŋ?  Bu:ŋ hɯssejqa. _______________________________________

3.      Quska allel bənsaŋ. ____________________________________

4.      Qare u:l usam. __________________________________________

5.      Tɯnka a:ŋ u:l usaŋ. __________________________________________

6.      Qu’s hɯssejka? Bə:n, qu’s se:ska. _______________________________________

7.      Qare uk sɯ’k? Bə:n, qane ap amda sɯ’k.______________________________________________________

8.      Kire usans u:sam. ________________________________


9.      Kətdum haj Dahaniŋda quska akus usaŋ? _____________________________________________

10.   Quska tajam tam usam? _________________________________________