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.


No comments:

Post a Comment