Well anyway, let’s get back to cavemen. Today we finally move out of the Lower Paleolothic period—remember that?—and into the Middle Paleolithic, which began around 350KYA and lasted until 50KYA. Why do scientists make this distinction? Because we happened.
So today we’re learning about—finally!—the very first “modern” humans, or Homo sapiens. Now when I say “modern”, I am talking about what scientists call anatomical modernity—that is, the dimensions of these guys’ physical morphology falls into the range observable today. In other words, they look just like us. Homo sapiens seems to have emerged from H. ergaster or H. heidelbergensis in Africa. Originally, we thought that our species was about 200,000 years old, but recent discoveries in Morocco have pushed our emergence even farther back, to about 350 KYA. This is the face of the oldest member of our species ever unearthed. In a sense, the face of Adam:
So yeah, as you know by now, I like to give nicknames to prehistoric remains. This guy’s nickname is Old Jeb—not after Jeb Bush, but because he was unearthed at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. As you can see, Old Jeb looks very humanlike, which you would expect because he is human. With a shower, haircut, and new outfit, this guy could pass as someone alive today. So Old Jeb was anatomically modern, but could he act, think, and talk like us? That is, was he behaviorally modern?
Well, as the mighty, the legendary, the unflappable John Shea says, if they looked like us, it’s reasonable to suppose they acted like us too. If that’s the case, the Jebel Irhoud man was able to:
· Think critically and make informed decisions;
· Talk using a fully developed language;
· Hold religious or spiritual beliefs; and,
· Make and be responsible for moral decisions.
Good point, Titan! Think about it like this. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? Every generation builds upon the achievements of the one before. Progress, furthermore, builds on itself in an almost exponential pattern. Remember, fifty years ago, smartphones and Google were unimaginable outside of science fiction. Now, both of those concepts are taken for granted as pedestrian aspects of modern life. That doesn’t make my parents’ generation morons, contrary to my generation’s prevailing opinion; it just means that they didn’t have the same technology. Similarly, Old Jeb may have been behaviorally modern with a pre-modern toolkit.
Still, for the majority of our species’ existence, from 350 KYA until about 70 KYA, the archaeological record from this time period tells us that people at the time had the same tools, and the same glacial rate of development, as other primitive species. Just like the Neanderthals in Europe, early H. sapiens in Africa had worked out a niche with their toolkit, but they didn’t innovate, except at the same painfully slow progress we’ve seen so far. As alluring it is to agree with the Titan and say that, if someone looks like us, they can probably think like us, there’s no evidence to support this hypothesis other than our own experience as members of the same species.
It seems, then, that even if Old Jeb had the capacity for behavioral modernity, we’re not sure if he was in fact behaviorally modern.
Around 100 KYA, something happened. We’re not sure what clicked, but suddenly we are beginning to see a totally new side to our ancestors; we are uncovering perforated pieces of bone and shell, for instance, that seem to have been strung on necklaces. That might not sound like a big deal, but suddenly we see something we’ve never seen before: concrete evidence for aesthetics and adornment, key signals of behavioral modernity. As we’ve seen, we’ve come tantalizingly close to hard evidence for abstract thought—consider H. erectus’ engravings on seashells, along with the Pit of Bones burials and the “Neanderthal church”. However, none of these cases can conclusively prove that the creatures behind these finds were in fact acting out of some abstract thought process. But finally, beyond doubt, the existence of this process is demonstrated by the existence of personal adornment. At the same time, we are beginning to see what are looking more and more like deliberate burials of the dead.
Things escalated quickly, relatively speaking.
We are finding examples of deliberate burial and personal adornment from about 100,000 years ago; by 70,000 years ago, it appears, people were acting and thinking just like we do now, at least in some places. In South Africa, there is a wonderful site by the name of Blombos Cave. Situated close to the sea, the cave was inhabited some 70,000 years ago by some very interesting people—yes, people. Whoever they were, they liked shellfish, which can only be gathered during low tide. This is important because if you go out during low tide, and you’re not careful, you’ll be fish food as soon as the tide comes back in. You have to calculate the time you have very precisely to effectively gather food in such an environment. What this suggests, for the first time ever, is that these people had effectively harnessed time, which implies language (you need to coordinate your trip to the beach), which implies a rational mind. They were thinkers in exactly the same way we are.
But could they feel? Yes! They had sense of the aesthetic that, seventy thousand years later, sends chills down my spine. In the course of their dig, archaeologists found this:
This is a piece of ochre, a kind of stone that people rub down to this day to make body paint. Which was then held in a kind of seashell makeup palette, also shown above. I don’t know what the crosshatch pattern symbolizes, but the important thing is that it’s there—and if it’s there, it meant something.
Not only do we have a piece of ochre, but we have conclusive proof that it was used for art. Take a look at this picture:
See those red lines? They were drawn on with ochre. You are looking at the world’s oldest drawing. Now, this might look like bad modern art, but you do better on a piece of rock while fighting off a saber tooth cat. Their most stunning works of art would have probably been on the canvas of these people’s own bodies. Aesthetics implies emotional connection to an object beyond its immediate use. I have to think, therefore, that the emotional lives of these people were like our own.
Not only do we see art, but we are also seeing tools of greater complexity and difficulty to make, along with a new material not present on the archaeological record: bone.
It appears, then, that full behavioral modernity was present in Africa at least 70,000 years ago, probably longer. For all we know, maybe Jeb himself was a scholar in the oral literature of his tribe. But we can’t prove that. All we can prove is that he looked like us. But we can say that the Blombos people thought, spoke, and acted like us.
This brings us into the Upper Paleolithic, the age of behavioral modernity. The rest is history. About 60,000 years ago, we—that is, behaviorally and anatomically modern humans—blasted our way across the planet, assimilating or outcompeting any archaic species in our paths. These include not just the Neanderthals, but newly-discovered species as well.
What made us emerge in our full splendor at this time? Probably the Toba Supervolcano, which was roughly concurrent with Blombos. This colossal geological zit popped the world into a pseudo-nuclear winter, where geneticists tell us that our population may have undergone a bottleneck. The eruption may have also contributed to the extinction of archaic species, such as Neanderthals and H. erectus holdouts, around this time. Some of them, such as the Neanderthals, survived, but just barely. The last full-blooded Neanderthals probably lived between 30 and 40 thousand years ago.
This has been a lot of information at once, just like our species experienced with the onset of behavioral modernity! Can you imagine life in one of the first behaviorally modern communities, being one of those first great pioneers? I certainly cannot. But anyway, because it’s a lot of information I’m going to stop here. In our next video, we’re going to conclude our series by talking about holdouts and survivals of ancient species, some of them until a startlingly recent date. See you next time!