Saturday, July 20, 2019

Cavemen Rock, Part X: We're Here!

           
 Hi guys, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: the Show that’s Proudly Irrelevant.  We’re coming up to the end of our cavemen series, but our next season, if you will, is going to be super cool, so I just want to do a plug for it here.  Maybe you guys remember a long, long time ago, I was traveling in far northwestern China and was able to collect some data on a language called Evenki.  Evenki is an indigenous Siberian language, and I was fortunate to be able to meet a few speakers and record a few simple words and phrases.  The videos I made on it were pretty crap, since I didn’t know how to use the video software back then.  So, I’ve decided to remake my Evenki series, and along with the language I learned I’m going to be presenting a lot of cool stuff on Evenki culture.  A couple people I know have been asking about a return to Evenki, so I hope everyone enjoys this next series.

            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:



(1)


(2)


 (3)



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.

Until…

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:




(7)



(8)

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:




(9)

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.



(10)

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!


Sources










Sunday, June 9, 2019

Cavemen Rock, Part IX: Pre-Contact Neanderthals


Cavemen Rock, Part IX: Pre-Contact Neanderthals


            So, these guys really need no introduction.  Everyone has heard of Neanderthals, and everyone knows that you’re not really supposed to say the th since it’s a German word, and no one cares.  They are the closest known relatives of “modern” humans, or Homo sapiens, outside their own species.  As the popular-science narrative goes, Neanderthals lived across western Eurasia from 400,000 years ago until their gradual replacement by modern humans between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago.  The replacement process occurred gradually, at least partially as the result of genetic admixture with modern humans.  This last point is the big one, for which credit is owed to Svante Paabo and company. 

Their (re-)discovery was monumental: most people today have Neanderthal DNA; if that’s the case, it follows that Neanderthals and “modern” humans had children together.  This happened in the last hundred thousand years.  In other words, most people today—myself included—are part Neanderthal.

            Neanderthals, named after a 17th-century German pseudointellectual (really!), were around between 400kya and 30kya.  The name translates more or less to “Newmandales” (really! neo “new” ander “man” thal “dale”).  Here’s what they looked like:



WHAT’S THIS???  A CHALLENGER EMERGES FOR THE TITLE:

WHO IS THE SMUGGEST CAVEMAN?

H. neanderthalensis vs. H. georgicus


            I think it’s a draw.

            As you can see, especially when compared with a more archaic species like H. erectus georgicus, better known to us as Grandpa George, Neanderthals looked a whole lot like us.  If you look closely, you can see that their foreheads and chins aren’t as pronounced as ours, but not noticeably so.  They also had shaggy hair and a beard.  We know they were (comparatively) hairless.  They tended to be about a head shorter than us, but were “denser”—much physically stronger, and consequently needed more calories than modern humans.  They had this great little niche in the northern latitudes of Eurasia, occasionally reaching as far south as the Levant.  They hunted big game of the forest and tundra—mammoths, et cetera.  They lived lives as difficult and violent as you might expect.  Few lived past thirty, which means I’m going to be a pretty old Neanderthal in July.

Behavior, Spoken Language, and Technology

            Now, the primary focus of this series is exploring the development of modern human behavior.  So, how did Neanderthals act?  They looked like us, did they act like us? 

It has become fashionable in the pop-science literature to say, “we used to think Neanderthals were dumb cavemen, but not anymore”.  Well, hang on.  They were cavemen.  They lived in caves—at least some of the time.  A man who lives in a cave is by definition a caveman, especially when that man happens to live in prehistoric times.  They were cavemen, or at least many of them were.  Pop culture, 1.  Science nerds, 0.  PROUDLY IRRELEVANT.

But no, they weren’t dumb—well, at least, they weren’t incapable of learning, and in fact they were almost—almost—on par with people today in terms of behavior and cognitive ability.  The more we examine Neanderthal behavior, the more we come to understand a creature whose ways were almost like ours…behavior that is conclusively pre-modern, but that tiptoes on the edge of modernity.  Toward the end of their tenure, they ran into us—that is, modern humans—which may have exposed them to new ideas and technologies that they didn’t come up with on their own, but were quite happy to borrow from us.  By the time they disappeared, Neanderthals were creating art, music, and ritual items.  But these phenomena only arose after contact with H. sapiens—so, what about beforehand?

I recently got a question asking about Neanderthals and spoken language.  We think right now that Neanderthals could speak, given the skeletal and genetic evidence—their voice boxes and ears were as fine-tuned for speech as ours, and Neanderthal remains have yielded FOXP2, the famous “language gene”.  But just because they could, doesn’t mean they did.  It could also be that Neanderthals had a language that worked, cognitively, for the Neanderthal brain, but wouldn’t work cognitively for ours.  Or maybe Neanderthals had language, but it was simple and easy to pick up, which contributed to our eventual triumph—we could learn their language, but they couldn’t learn ours.  We don’t know.

The pre-contact Neanderthal tool type is known as the Mousterian tradition, which emerged from the Acheulean (remember that?).  The Mousterian tradition is characterized by a complex flaking procedure known as the Lavallois teachnique:


(1)


(2)

I am not even a fraction as cool as John Shea, my paleoanthropology hero.  Being one of the most badass flintknappers this side of the Great Rift Valley, he’d be able to tell us a lot more about the Lavallois Technique than I could. All I know is that it’s quite difficult and not something you get simply by banging rocks together.  It was a cognitive skill that required mastery in order to survive, and Neanderthals were quite good at it.  Even better than John “the Titan” Shea.

Once we’ve made a spearhead with the Lavallois Technique, we need to stick that sucker on a shaft.  How, you say?  Check this out: Neanderthals could make glue using a complex chemical process.  That’s right, they were chemists too.  In what is now Modern Italy, Neanderthals figured out how to make glue from birchbark (3), a complicated step-by-step process that you or me couldn’t for the life of us work out on our own.  So with Neanderthals, even pre-contact Neanderthals, we’re seeing more complexity and elaborateness than ever before.  We’re not, however, seeing adaptation.  Neanderthals did one thing, did it well, and kept doing it.  Neanderthal technology seems to have changed very little over a very long time—until they ran into us.

Neanderthal Church

Early on, we talked about how one of the marks of behavioral modernity, or “peoplehood”, is a sense of the spiritual.  Could Neanderthals have had this sense?  Neanderthals are the descendants of H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis; indeed, the academic lumpers among us would call H. heidelbergensis an early kind of Proto-Neanderthal.  Do you remember where, behaviorally, we were with heidelbergensis?  They were deliberately disposing of their dead in the same place, and it may just be that they had some conception of an afterlife—the beautiful Excalibur hand-axe perhaps the world’s oldest extant burial offering.  The Neanderthals stood on their shoulders, and seemed to have developed a genuine sense of the spiritual or religious—a key marker of behavioral modernity.

One site that suggests some sort of spiritual activity is—and this is a real trip—the mysterious stone rings of Bruniquel Cave, in modern France (4).  The site consists of these, well, stone rings, made from broken stalagmites and apparently consciously arranged.  This site, furthermore, is so deep into the bowels of the cave that its builders must have had some way of carrying fire there for illumination—and, indeed, ashes remain smudged on the surrounding rocks to this day.  The builders of these circles must have had some means of bringing the fire this deep into the cave—torches or embers, perhaps, with slow-burning fuel.  Modern humans were not at this time present in France—these structures had to have been made by Neanderthals.

(5)


(6)

What were they?  Winter shelters?  Properly rid of bears etc., the deep interior of a cave provides a toasty place to hole up for a few months if you have fire—which, as we see, they did.  The Bruniquel circles might be the remains of huts.

But if that were the case, we’d see trash heaps and other signs of habitation.  At Bruniquel, we don’t.  It doesn’t appear that anyone lived here—just that they arranged the circles and completed their non-residential business therewith.  What was going on down there?  It’s a maddening question.  Could we be seeing the remains of some sort of cultic shrine?  What else would be down that deep in a cave, with no signs of other use, with structures that took time and labor to make?  Perhaps the structures are ritual, perhaps not.  Perhaps they served a purpose, one that would be eminently clear to a Neanderthal, but unclear to us.  We don’t know.  Maybe they could’ve explained the structures’ purpose us, using conventional language, or maybe they could explto one another in a language that is inherently unlearnable

Just how big was the gap?  Again, we don’t know.   At any rate, however, there is something, some inherent difference, between humans and Neanderthals.  As things are right now, we just don’t know what it is.  We’ll take a few guesses at those differences later on, when we discuss what happened when they met modern humans.

Sources






Monday, January 7, 2019

Cavemen Rock, Part VIII: Excalibur, or Homo heidelbergensis




Hi everybody, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show that’s Proudly Irrelevant.  Today we have Cavemen Rock, Part VIII: The Quest for Excalibur!

Well, you’re probably thinking, I wasn’t expecting Bro to make that connection!  What does Arthurian Legend have to do with cavemen?  Well, if you’re a paleoanthropology nut like I am, then you already know!  If you don’t know what I’m referencing, don’t google it yet—that would ruin the surprise.

H. heidelbergensis

To start with, let’s ask RZA for the keys to the Time Traveling Elevator again, and go back this time to between 600 and 300 KYA.  Homo antecessor, whose, shall we say, atavistic behavior we discussed last time, has developed into—or been replaced by—the larger-brained Homo heidelbergensis, named of course for the German city of Heidelberg, where its fossils were first found.  Of course, as I like to pretend, the reality is that Heidelberg was named after him! 

Now, the line of succession here with H. antecessor is a little fuzzy.  Was H. antecessor ancestral to H. heidelbergensis, or was H. heidelbergensis a separate line that arose from ergectus and replaced H. antecessor?  This is a matter of heated debate among the approximately seven people who care.

At any rate, by 600 KYA or so, we see H. antecessor replaced generally throughout Europe by H. heidelbergensis.  Due to the amount of material of this period that we have from Europe, we’re focusing on this part of the world right now.  That doesn’t mean interesting things weren’t happening elsewhere.  In Africa and Asia all sorts of crazy stuff was going on, much of which has just been discovered.  As we do more work in these parts of the world, surely more cool stuff will show itself!  And as for what we have seen from Africa and Asia during this period, we’ll cover that in future episodes.  For the moment, however, we’re focusing on Europe.

One thing that I really like about these heidelbergensis guys is that they were some of the first archaic hominins to look reasonably like us up close.  Remember, if you saw an ergectus from a distance, you’d recognize it as vaguely humanlike, but up close you would change your mind.  On the other hand, with H. heidelbergensis, you’d have to look much closer to see differences.  For one thing, H. heidelbergensis was the first human ancestor to be as tall as us.  On average, they stood at five feet seven, which is comparable to modern humans. For another, they, along with later H. antecessor, had reached the end of the process of body hair loss, which means that they might have been hairy, but no more so than my uncle Jim.  Everyone has an uncle Jim.  He’s the guy who has his wife shave his back every week.

So let’s see what these guys looked like.  We have a wonderful variety of individuals from H. heidelbergensis remains, as I’ll discuss shortly, so we get to see a good variety of variation.  In fact, we have enough data to put together whole family portraits:


By Kennis and Kennis


By Mauricio Anton

            These are two of my favorite pictures ever.  They’re so wonderful.  Of course the individuals these reconstructions are based on probably didn’t all live at the same time, but that’s not the point, doofus.  How wonderful it is to see them together in a community, and look at them as they looked at each other!  There is something almost mystical here.  These are the first human ancestors where I feel as though I could look into their eyes and see my fellow man, my brother or sister in the Romance of the Ages.  When I look at these pictures, even more than other reconstructions, I feel like I’m looking through a window in time.  I would love to hang out with these guys and be friends with them.  And I say “friends” deliberately—I can be friends with my cat or dog, but it’s not the same thing as being friends with another human.  But when I look at these pictures I have to imagine that if these guys and I got to know each other, we could actually forge something approximating a human friendship.

How did they behave?

            Could we be bros with H. heidelbergensis?  You might roll your eyes at the absurdity of this question, but it is an important one.  No matter how much we love our pets, our bonds with them are intrinsically different from our bonds with other people.  Could we have made a genuine human connection with these creatures? 

            First of all, H. heidelbergensis was not behaviorally modern.  There is no evidence for art, symbolism, religion or any of the marks of a behaviorally modern society.  They probably could not speak to the extent that we can.  Still, they were certainly no dummies.  They stood on the shoulders of their H. erectus and H. antecessor forebears, who passed onto them the persistence hunting strategy, the Acheulean hand-axe, and the control—but not necessarily manufacture—of fire(2):


If they practiced persistence hunting, it follows that they knew how animal footprints worked.  That’s huge, because to understand how footprints work necessitates an implicit understanding of cause and effect.  That’s an incredibly complex mental process, and just like the pre-planned nature of Acheulean hand-axes, it would’ve taken thousands upon agonizing thousands of generations for everyone to get on board with it.  But by the time of heidelbergensis, they had been axe-planning and persistence hunting for a good million years.  Furthermore, the advantages of hand axes, persistence hunting, and their requisite cognitive abilities suggest that once developed, they would present an evolutionary advantage and spread quickly.

            Following the premise that, having had a million years’ trial run in fire, knapping, hunting, and fire, it is safe to assume that H. heidelbergensis would have had the cognitive ability to reliably and consistently:

·         plan outcomes (make hand axes);

·         anticipate cause and effect (follow tracks), and;

·         follow step-by-step processes (control fire).

Each of these abilities represents “a giant leap for mankind”: a successful jump over the yawning chasm between man and beast.  If H. heidelbergensis was able to perform these functions, he would finally, definitively, be more mentally like us than like a chimpanzee.  So I think it is safe to say that yes, you could forge a genuine human-to-human friendship with these creatures.  That is not, again, to say they are “behaviorally modern”.  H. heidelbergensis probably couldn’t speak like we do, or learn to read, or write a symphony.  But the groundwork was there, so I think that even if they couldn’t understand human friendship, they did feel it.

            Now, why am I waxing poetic about these guys?  After all, at a date of 400-ish KYA, these guys are still halfway between us and those wacky cannibals that we met last time.  Fair enough, but we do have evidence of something very deep down in H. heidelbergensis that resonates with us today.  It is possible—don’t get your briefs in a knot, I said possible, not certain—that somewhere around this time, H. heidelbergensis caught a glimpse, faint though it may have been, of the spiritual.

Atapuerca Findings

So let’s head back to Atapuerca, the mountain that isn’t really a mountain.  It is here that we find the MOST METAL PALEOANTHROPOLOGICAL SITE IN THE WORLD: La Sima de los Huesos, which is Spanish for…


THE PIT…OF BONES!!!!

Isn’t that name badass?  Earlier on I talked about how it’s a shame that there are lots of good Viking metal bands, but no caveman metal bands, at least as far as I know.  Well, if you’re starting that band, I’ve got your name right here.  Take it, it’s yours, just give me a shout-out at the Grammys.

Anyway, the Pit of Bones gives us a wonderful glimpse of this H. heidelbergensis population.  There’s a wide range of individuals that we can study, of both sexes, and of a variety of ages.  We can also find clues about their lives, just like with our H. ergectus finds.  One poor schlub sustained an injury on his face that healed oddly, rendering him goofy-looking for the rest of his life (1):


Fortunately, he was a good listener and had a really sweet personality, so he could still get dates.

But even more interesting, to me anyway, than the physical remains are the implications of their placement here.  If we find a pit full of H. heidelbergensis, it raises the possibility of these remains having been put there on purpose.  Could we be looking at an early form of deliberate burial?  If so, what are the implications for their behavior?  Could we even infer the presence of primitive religious beliefs and rituals?  If not, what are some other possible explanations?

For modern humans, the way we dispose of our dead is a practice that varies by religious or cultural tradition.  Whatever the method, however, every culture has some way of doing this.  Evolutionarily, this must have emerged because dead bodies bring disease and dangerous scavengers.  For modern humans, however, treatment of the dead has become infused with ritual, taboo, and beliefs about the afterlife.  It is therefore natural to jump to the conclusion of “this must be evidence of a funeral”.  We must, however, detach ourselves from our modern cognitive abilities and look at the Pit of Bones from the point of view of H. heidelbergensis.  There is no clear evidence of religious belief—or, indeed, abstract thought of any kind—at this time depth.  Even if the bodies were left there deliberately, he conclusion is unavoidable that H. heidelbergensis was not depositing of his dead here for ritual reasons, but rather simply because a giant hole in the ground is a convenient place to dispose of dead bodies.  Doing something with dead bodies does not necessarily imply the existence of religion, despite modern sensibilities.

And that would probably be agreed upon, if it were not for one important find.  As archaeologists dug through the pit, they made an amazing discovery:


HOLY MOLEY JUST LOOK AT THAT HAND AXE.  THAT IS A NICE HAND AXE.

            Not only is it well-crafted, but it’s aesthetically beautiful too.  It’s made of red quartzite, which would produce a beautiful sparkling effect in the sun.  What’s more, the material appears not to have been sourced locally, which means that it was brought from some distance away (I remember reading that somewhere, but can’t find the source.  Sorry).  These items took a lot of effort to make, and were the difference between life and death for their users.  Scientists, as a nod to its beautiful workmanship, have given it the name of Excalibur.

            Looking at this frankly amazing piece, one has to wonder what it was doing at the bottom of…


THE PIT…OF BONES!!!!

            You almost don’t want to say this, because it would be such an incredible development, but…could it have been left there on purpose?  Are we seeing in Excalibur the first rumblings of humanity’s belief in the afterlife?

            I know, I know, it sounds crazy.  Besides, it could’ve just been that some guy was exploring the cave, and he fell down the pit along with his trusty hand axe.  I acknowledge that this is possible, and perhaps even probable.

            Still, looking at the exceptional quality of this hand axe brings to mind the haunting possibility that we could be looking at some kind of funeral offering.  What could this have looked like?  Let’s get in the Wu-Tang time-traveling elevator and find out:

The Emergence of “Shouldness”

             It was 400KYA.  A tribe of H. heidelbergensis lived in the forests and plains of what is now northern Spain.  They hunted animals like elk and wooly rhinoceros by following their tracks, running them down, and killing them with spears:

This spear, for example, was found in Germany and dated to 400,000 years ago.

These spears were mostly sharpened sticks but they may have worked out the idea of sticking a hand-axe on the end.  Hand-axes were extremely important items, and to be good at making hand-axes was to be evolutionarily successful.  They had no language, and communicated perhaps through onomatopoeic vocal calls, or occasional utterances of isolated proto-words.  They had no music or art, but they could recognize, and liked producing, audible rhythms and visual patterns without understanding why.  They felt, but had no concept of, love.  They valued courage, intelligence, and altruism, again without having any comprehension of these abstract ideas.  Behaviors like hugging, waving, and hand-clapping probably existed among them and were done in specific times and places.  They had also realized that dead bodies attract scavengers, so they had a habit of disposing of their dead:


Art: Mauricio Anton

The most convenient place was a big pit, which was found at the back of a cave where nobody lived.  It was here that they habitually deposited bodies, thereby avoiding scavengers and pestilence:


A scale model of the Pit of Bones…in Lego!

            After a few generations, this habit became so ingrained that even if it would’ve been convenient to do so elsewhere, they were still disposing of the dead in this place.  It had become a tradition in the community.  It was the place of death, where children placed their fathers, and were eventually placed themselves.  They may have had some vague idea of their own mortality, and an idea that they too would someday drop into that great darkness.  That they mourned their dead is virtually certain, since mourning behavior is present in both humans and chimpanzees(4).  Could it be that certain specific actions were performed, in the course of mourning, in association with the disposal of the body?  Perhaps certain vocal calls were made that were exclusive to disposal of the dead.  Perhaps bodies were always disposed of by the same member of the community.  Perhaps even a primitive taboo had developed wherein this place, the place of death, was avoided by the living. 

Finally, one day, somebody was disposing a body, and it just seemed right to toss his friend’s hand-axe down with him:


Whoever did this wasn’t sure why, but he had the feeling that he needed to do it, the feeling of shouldness.  He felt that he should dispose of the dead in this place.  He should make the designated ululations at the time of death and when carrying the body, ululations that he should not make at other times.  And he had a deep, gut feeling that he should leave the hand-axe with its owner.  Perhaps—just perhaps—this feeling was developed enough that he could conceptualize some idea that his friend’s death was not really the end, and left him his favorite tool in that hope.

But given the isolation of this occurrence, it does not seem that the community was consistently depositing grave goods with the dead, and thus it seems that they did not consistently have the cognitive ability to sense the need for them.  But one day, somebody was getting rid of his loved one, and he thought something like, “Wherever he’s going, I should leave him this.”

There’s that should again.  The shouldness that this individual felt was the first stirring of the human conscience, of morality, and of religion.  That individual stood, though he did not know it, at the precipice of perhaps the most important development in humanity’s behavioral evolution thus far observed.  If you are a theologian looking for a date to the Fall of Man, I would put it around here someplace.  Shouldness is not mustness, and necessarily gives us free will, the option always being there not to do as you should.  A sense of shouldness, therefore, is a prerequisite for the ability to sin.  It is in this sense, demonstrated by a primitive funeral offering, that we are seeing the first stirring of the conscience, that noblest of Man’s faculties.

Now before you neckbearded basement trolls rev up your keyboards, I’m not saying that this is definitely evidence of funeral practices, or even of deliberate burial.  I’m just saying that it could be, and wouldn’t it be cool if it was.  I don’t know.

So this, I think, is the verdict: we still could not interact with H. heidelbergensis the same way we interact with each other.  But we almost could.  While they could not speak, perhaps their nonverbal communication was humanlike.  Important physical actions at the core of our being, like hand-clapping, pointing, or whistling, would have had some meaning to them.  They probably laughed and cried like we do, for the same reasons.  And I believe there was that shouldness which we call a conscience.  So on the big stuff, we connect with these creatures.  We have crossed the behavioral Rubicon, and have by this time almost certainly had embarked on the path to behavioral modernity.  By this time if not earlier, our ancestors were behaving more like us than like our primate cousins.

Before I go, there’s one thing I want to leave you guys with: under the direction of the man, the myth, the legend, the towering badass Svante Paabo and his team of science nerds, we can now study scraps of H. heidelbergensis DNA, potentially giving us more clues about their story.  I would be interested to see whether this genetic data could give us any clues to their behavior.

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