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!

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