Human Prehistory: How Can We Understand the Passage of Time?

Yves here. This post covers some of the profile of human prehistory. A subtext is that modern societies have embraced the idea of progress, when that became almost an organizing principle during the Industrial Revolution. The book Agnotology points out (contrary to our belief in the superiority of our current ways) that some types of knowledge were forgotten, such as birth controls methods. There are other areas where ancient technology beats our or had to be studied carefully in order to be copied, such as Roman concrete.

But this post raises a question it then largely skirts: how can we being to under the experience and thinking of early humans?

By Deborah Barsky, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution and associate professor at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, with the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). and the author of Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2022), and Jan Ritch-Frel, the executive director of the Independent Media Institute, and a co-founder of the Human Bridges project. Produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute

We can all agree that most people want to know about their origins—spanning from their family and ancestral history and even, occasionally, deeper into the evolutionary story.

Lately, this desire has become more palpable in society at large and even taken on urgent tones as we drift away from the lifestyle patterns and traditions that humans relied on for millions of years toward a technoculture that is highly addictive, and hard to understand or break away from.

But the desire to know the deep past doesn’t translate so easily into understanding, especially since the information we encounter is necessarily filtered by our own sociohistorical context. One of the biggest obstacles to gaining a true understanding of the unfolding of humanity’s past is the way that modern societies foster a superficial understanding of the passage of time.

To delve deeply into human prehistory requires adopting a different kind of chronological stance than most of us are accustomed to—not just a longer period of time, but also a sense of evolution infused by the operating rules of biology and its externalities, such as technology and culture. But exploring the past enables us to observe long-term evolutionary trends that are also pertinent in today’s world, elucidating that novel technological behaviors that our ancestors adopted and transformed into culture were not necessarily better, nor more sustainable over time.

Nature is indifferent to the recency of things: whatever promotes our survival is passed on and proliferated through future generations. This Darwinian axiom includes not only anatomical traits, but also cultural norms and technologies.

Shared culture and technologies give people the ongoing sensation of the synchronization of time with each other. The museums and historical sites we visit, as well as the books and documentaries on the human story, overwhelmingly present the past to their audiences through simultaneous or synchronized stages that follow a kind of metric system of conformity in importance. Human events are charted along the direction of either progress or failure.

The archeological record shows us, however, that even though human evolution appears to have taken place as a series of sequential stages advancing our species toward “progress,” in fact, there is no inherent hierarchy to these processes of development.

This takes a while to sink in, especially if you’ve been educated within a cultural framework that explains prehistory as a linear and codependent set of chronological milestones, whose successive stages may be understood by historically elaborated logical systems of cause and effect. It takes an intellectual leap to reject such hierarchical constructions of prehistory and to perceive the past as a diachronous system of nonsynchronous events closely tied to ecological and biological phenomena.

But this endeavor is well worth the effort if it allows people to recognize and make use of the lessons that can be learned from the past.

If we can pinpoint the time, place, and circumstances under which specific technological or social behaviors were adopted by hominins and then follow their evolution through time, then we can more easily understand not only why they were selected in the first place, but also how they evolved and even what their links with the modern human condition may be.

Taking on this approach can help us understand how the reproductive success of our genus, Homo, eventually led up to the emergence of our own species, sapiens, through a complex process that caused some traits to disappear or be replaced, while others were transformed or perpetuated into defining human traits.

While new discoveries are popularizing the exciting new findings dating as far back as the Middle Paleolithic, the public is typically presented with a compressed prehistory that starts at the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago. This is understandable, since the more recent archeological register consists of objects and buildings that are in many ways analogous to our own patterns of living. Ignoring the more distant phases of the shared human past, however, has a wider effect of converting our interpretations of prehistory into a sort of timeless mass, almost totally lacking in chronological and even geographical context.

Among recent breakthroughs reaching the public eye, it has been shown that H. sapiens emerged in Africa much earlier than previously thought, some 300,000 years ago. We now know that the first groups of anatomically modern humans arrived on the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea as early as 200,000 years ago, a fact that implies a far longer cohabitation of our species in territories already occupied by other forms of Homo, such as the Neandertals and the Denisovans.

Genomic research is progressively telling us something about what our interactions with these species might have been like, proving not only that these encounters took place, but even that they sometimes involved interbreeding and the conceiving of reproductively viable offspring. Such knowledge about our distant past is therefore making us keenly aware that we only very recently became the last surviving species of a very bushy human family tree.

Because of their great antiquity, these very ancient phases of the human evolutionary story are more difficult to interpret and involve hominins who were physically, cognitively, and behaviorally very different from ourselves.

For this reason, events postdating the onset of the Neolithic Period tend to be more readily shared in our society’s communication venues (e.g., museums and schools), while the older phases of human prehistory often remain shrouded in scientific journals, inaccessible to the general public.

But rendering prehistory without providing the complete picture of the evidence is like reading only the last chapter of a book. In this truncated vision, the vast majority of human development becomes a mere prelude before we move on to be amazed at how modern humans began to create monumental structures, sewage systems, and grain storage silos, for example. Just how we got there remains largely undisclosed to the public at large.

Bringing Prehistory Into the Open

The good news is that the rapid development of modern technologies is presently revolutionizing archeology and the ways that scientific data can be conveyed to society. This revolution is finally making ancient human prehistory understandable to a wider audience.

While many of the world’s prehistory museums still display only the most spectacular finds of classical or other “recent” forms of modern human archeology, we are finally beginning to see more exhibits dedicated to some of the older chapters of the human story. By generating awareness, the public is finally awakening to their meaning and significance, enabling themselves to gain a better understanding of the global condition of humanity and its links with the past.

People are finally beginning to understand why the emergence of the first stone tool technologies some 3 million years ago in Africa was such a landmark innovation that would eventually embark our ancestors onto an alternative evolutionary route that would sharply distinguish us from all other species on the planet.

By developing their stone tool technologies, early hominins provided the basis for what would eventually be recognized as a culture: a transformative trait that transformed us into the technology-dependent species we have become and that continues to shape our lives in unpredictable ways.

Archeologists provide interpretations of these first phases of the human technological adventure thanks to the stone tools left behind by hominins very different from ourselves and the contexts in which they are discovered. Among the authors of these groundbreaking ancient technologies are Homo habilis, the first species attributed to our genus—precisely because of their ability to intentionally modify stone into tools—but also other non-Homoprimates, such as Paranthropus and Australopithecines, with which they shared the African landscape for many millennia.

Surprisingly, even at a very early stage beginning some 2,600,000 years ago in Africa, scientists have found that some hominins were systematizing stone toolmaking into a coherent cultural complex grouped under the denomination “Oldowan,” after the eponymous sites situated at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. This implies that stone toolmaking was being transformed at a very early date into an adaptive strategy, because it must have provided hominins with some advantages. From this time onward, our ancestors continued to produce and transmit culture with increasing intensity, a phenomenon that was eventually accompanied by demographic growth and expansions into new lands beyond Africa—as their nascent technologies transformed every aspect of their lives.

Unevenly through time and space, this hugely significant development branched out into the increasingly diverse manifestations of culture that came to characterize the successive hominin species composing the human family tree. Each technocomplex of the Lower Paleolithic, from the Oldowan to the subsequent Acheulian phase (beginning in Africa some 1,750,000 years ago and then spreading into Eurasia up to around 350,000 years ago), and onward into the Middle Paleolithic and beyond, is defined by specific sets of skills and accompanying behavioral shifts. The tools developed in service of those skills reveal to us the sociocultural practices of the hominins who used them.

Fossilized human remains, and the stone tool technologies they developed, provide the keys to understanding more about ourselves. We can comprehend the changes we observe in the archeological register through time thanks to the bodies of material evidence that tell the story of how humans evolved up to the present. It gives us a frame of reference to recognize the directions that our species might be taking as we move into the future.

To see more clearly, we need to explore how this evolution took place, understanding the transformations diachronically, with change often occurring in nonlinear ways. To do so, we need to leave behind models of path dependence that condition our thinking, leading us to believe that particular aspects recognizable to us through our lens of modernity have a forcing effect of change on the next stages of technosocial development.

Human prehistory widens our conceptual lens by taking into consideration not only innate human traits particular to each phase of hominin ancestral evolution, but also the exterior forces at play throughout the shifting climatic conditions that characterize the long time periods we are considering.

In much the same way as biological evolution, some technosocial innovations can emerge and persist, while others may remain latent in the human developmental repertory, providing a baseline for new creations that can be further developed. If proven to be favorable under specific conditions, selected behavioral capacities can be developed to the point of becoming defining aspects of the human condition.

The latent aspects of technology can, in different regions or time frames, be selected for, used, and refined, leading human groups to choose divergent evolutionary pathways and even triggering technological revolutions: when the changes lead to positive results, they can set off wider cultural developments in the populations that use them.

This way of thinking about technosocial evolution also helps to explain why, more often than not, specific cultural phases generally appear in some kind of coherent successive order through space and time, even though the transitions from one to the other—and the related social processes they engender—can appear blurry as we try to make sense of the archeological evidence.

In this case, it is essential to keep in mind that, through time, different hominins also evolved biologically, as toolmaking and its associated social implications had effects on the evolution of the brain. Developing stone tool technologies provided hominins with an evolutionary edge, enabling them to carve out a unique niche in the scheme of things since it improved their capacity to compete for resources with other kinds of animals. Technological and behavioral developments occurred and evolved in a nonlinear fashion because they were unevenly packed in accordance with each specific paleoecological and community setting.

When we look deeper into our prehistory, it is important to remember that the degree of complexity of human achievements was largely dependent upon particular stages of cognitive readiness. Human technosocial evolution thus appears to have global coherency through time because it reflects the successive phases of cognitive readiness attained on an anatomical level by distinct groups of hominins thriving in different paleoecological settings in diverse geographical regions.

While drawing straight lines between specific hominin species and particular kinds of tools presents some pitfalls, science has already demonstrated that cerebral development was (and is) tightly linked to technological evolution. Specific areas of the brain—the neocortical regions of the frontal and temporal lobes responsible for language, symbolic thought, volumetric planning, and other abstract cerebral functions—were merged with toolmaking. Toolmaking contributed to endowing hominins with unique cerebral capacities—in particular, the abilities to communicate complex abstract notions and create multifaceted sociocultural environments.

Different types of symbolic behavior—the use of a system of symbols to communicate—were employed by different hominin species who found them to be positively adaptive. As a result, cerebral and technological evolution were linked into a co-evolutionary process by which early Homoand subsequent hominins developed idiosyncratic brain structures relative to other animals.

Following the Oldowan, the Acheulian cultural phase is commonly (but not uniquely) linked with the arrival of the successful and widely dispersed Homo erectus. It is during this era that humanity produced some of its most significant technological and behavioral breakthroughs, like fire making and the capacity to predetermine the forms they created in stone. The archeological record attributed to the Acheulian bears witness to advanced technosocial standardization, with the advent of symmetrical tools like spheroids or handaxes attesting to the emergence of aesthetic sensitivity.

The expanding repertory of tool types that appeared at this time suggests that hominins were carrying out more diverse activities, while subtle differences observed in the ways of making and doing began to appear in specific regions, forming the foundation of land-linked traditions and social identities.

The fact that these breakthroughs occurred on comparable timescales in widely separate regions of the globe—South Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent—underpins that hominins already living in these regions had reached a comparable stage of cognitive readiness and that the specific conditions favoring the emergence of analogous latent technosocial capacities were ripe for the taking. The huge expanses separating the geographical hotbeds suggest that the Acheulian emerged without interpopulational contact.

The explanation that better fits the evidence is that there was a convergent development in the transition from a fairly simple form of Oldowan stone toolmaking to the more complex and sophisticated Acheulian—when Oldowan toolmakers spread out over the planet, they carried the seeds of the Acheulian with them in their minds, their culture, and in the shapes of the stone tools they brought with them.

Indeed, it was only during the later phases of the Acheulian, when we observe denser demographic trends in Africa and Eurasia, that hominin populations would have developed the social networking necessary for technologies to migrate from place to place through direct communication networking.

A similar process of latency and development is in fact observed even in more recent phases of the human evolutionary process—for example, with the emergence of such complex technosocial achievements as the intentional burial of congeners, the construction of monumental structures, the practices of agriculture and animal husbandry, or the invention of writing.

A diachronous approach to time permits more valuable insights from 7 million years of evidence we have of human development. How we structure our understanding of it can create big opportunities to have a better future.

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  1. H. Alexander Ivey

    The post is a read of interesting thought alternating with over long, jargon dense paragraghs, too many of which are…well, let’s not go further with this.

    My big question to the gang of prehistorians is how can a culture (any variety of Homo) exist for thousands of years, clearly using technology, and yet not seem to significantly change over that time?

    1. TomDority

      Not part of the gang of prehistorians but, what is the definition of the significant change you are not seeing?
      What aspect do you want to change significantly –
      I am not seeing the jargon dense paragraphs you mention.
      No offense – just interested in your view.
      As for me – I get the idea that we humans have lost a ton of knowledge about plants, animals, technology and cooperative survival in our native environment (earth) and used technology (unwittingly) in ways that undermine and separate us (in some dangerous ways) from that ecosystem. The change may be that we believe we are separate and superior to the evolutionary processes that brought us here to live on this planet.

      However, the evolutionary process by which monkeys made men of themselves was considerably slower than the reverse process.

      1. juno mas

        I generally agree with you. Much of the jargon is actually technical scientific speak; e.g., “conjoners” are simply members of the same social group or class.

        However, the progenitor of homo sapiens are not monkeys.

        1. TomDority

          I pulled that joke from an unknown author of the 1920’s – I should have quoted and dated it

    2. Travis Bickle

      Growth/progress would seem to be a function of ambition, external pressures, and perhaps vision. In a relatively unpopulated landscape it would otherwise be easy to relocate a few days walk to avoid resource competition. At a certain point, with modern brains and the minimal language skills to transmit knowledge, it wouldn’t be tough to master their environment, as remaining hunter-gatherer cultures continue to demonstrate Then, it’d be easy to settle into an idyllic, Garden Of Eden existence….beyond time.

      A sense of time is where I think we have a hard time getting a grip on prehistory. Going 10,000 years (500 generations), without a significant improvement on even how a common stone tool is crafted, is hard for us to grasp, when modern recorded history stretches back less than half that (say to the classic Greek).

      It’s interesting to speculate on what changed, where knowledge was able to compound so much faster (modern language/writting systems), but perhaps more importantly, the necessary psychological ambition.

    3. H. Alexander Ivey

      Uh-oh, hope I didn’t leave my wallet in my other pants…

      Upon further re-reading, I’ll soften my charge of jargon laden paragraphs (although the 28th one is a sample “In much the same way as biological evolution, some technosocial innovations can emerge and persist, …defining aspects of the human condition.”).

      But I think what got my goat is the authors not-clearly-stated belief in social Darwinism, a belief that is not shared by Charles Darwin.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I find it really interesting how modern genetic and isotope research is overturning many assumptions about prehistory, and ironically indicating that early researchers – even going back to the 18th Century – were sometimes more accurate than 20th century archaeologists. An example being that we now know that early linguists were remarkably accurate in their theories about the spread of peoples in Europe in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Some theories that were dismissed as crankish for much of the 20th century are now known to be true – an example being the connection between Ireland and Scotland and the eastern Mediterranean. We also now know that the transition between Neolithic and Bronze Age was pretty brutal – there was an abrupt and dramatic change in DNA makeup of the populations of much of Western Europe – this makes so many older textbooks, which talked about a gradual diffusion of metalworking and pottery making designs seem very naive.

    Even going back to prehistory, when I briefly studied archaeology in the 1980’s we were told the out of Africa hypothesis was almost certainly correct, and the multi-regional theory (favoured by earlier researchers) was more or less dead. Now multi regional theories are fully back in vogue thanks to some pretty amazing genetic research.

    It seems almost inevitable that our view of the past is strongly coloured by current politics and beliefs, so you always have to be careful when trying to hypothesise about early humans based on scant physical remains. One interesting theory is that the dominance of Sapiens was less to do with cognitive superiority, but that sapiens were simply more uni cultural and focused compared to the more creative Neanderthals, so a battle between them was like bulldozers against hippies – there could only be one winner.

    While I don’t buy into the whole evolutionary psychology thing thats so popular now, especially on right wing media, there seems little doubt that we are heavily imprinted with the scars of our deep prehistory. One fascinating little theory I like to bring up in conversation with immigrants to Ireland is in answer to the question I always get from people from foodie countries – why the hell don’t Irish people eat much fish when its surrounded by some of the best fishing grounds in the world? Usually people explained it in terms of some post colonial thing, but recent discoveries indicate that going back to the Neolithic there was a very clear and unambiguous divide between the herding people who arrived in several waves and the remnant Mesolithic populations. Mesolithic peoples ate vast amounts of shellfish and fish, as can be seen in numerous middens that can be seen on beaches all around the coastline, but archaeologists rarely if ever find evidence of fish eating among the herding people in comers, who we now know have roots in the region between Ukraine and Armenia. It seems these people either didn’t know how to fish, or more likely, simply disdained fish eating as a disgusting habit of the scruffy hunters of the forest and shoreline, food only to eat when starving. And those preferences can still be seen in the choices of the average Irish family in a pub carvery.

    On Yves point about early technology – it’s certainly true that they could teach us a lot. It always annoys me when people talk about ‘science’ as if it was a 19th century invention. People have always been scientists. Early peoples observed their environment intently and were always experimenting – in other words, developing hypotheses and testing them systematically. This is how native Americans took a bunch of obscure grasses and forest creepers and turned them into peppers and tomatoes and corn. It’s how we took wolves and turned them into chihuahuas. It’s how Polynesians calmly navigated the Pacific on canoes. It’s how early arrivals in Ireland deliberately terraformed the land (almost certainly devoid of most animal life apart from a few post glacial species like hares) by deliberately introducing deer, badgers, foxes – even bears and a vast number of plants.

    1. caucus99percenter

      > bulldozers against hippies — there could only be one winner

      Up till this moment I had never pictured Neanderthals as being like Rachel Corrie beneath the bulldozer, but you’re right.

    2. paul

      Not disagreeing at all, but I have always wondered how the move was made from animal husbandry(milk, draft labour etc) to exploiting and processing grass/wheat.

      1. Adam Eran

        See Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity for a fairly extensive discussion of this, as well as previous social organizations.

        1. Travis Bickle

          Absolutely an essential read in these discussions, just to crack our minds open to alternatives in deeper history, but that still isn’t that far back. The earlier stuff, where time scales get stretched out, is where it gets hard to grasp what was happening.

      2. Synoia

        That is reasonably obvious to me as I spent some time in Africa: The Women drove the changes.

        Your post: husbandry(milk, draft labor etc) to exploiting and processing grass/wheat. Is all about actions by gatherers, or keeping infants and children alive.

        Generally Men Hunted and Women Gathered.The men focused on self survival of the hunters as many food animals are much stronger than a few males.

        Hunting is about nets, spears and traps. Gathering is about finding food while looking after the young.

        Throwing a spear well requires a specific carrying angle of the shoulder. Men have that, Women do not.

        Us humans are well adapted for specific tasks for males and females, where both sexes have evolved specific roles.

    3. anahuna

      Takes me back to Lévi-Strauss and his great Triste Tropiques of the mid-50s, introducing us all to the truly scientific, evidence-testing minds of peoples regarded as primitive.

    4. vao

      People have always been scientists. Early peoples observed their environment intently and were always experimenting – in other words, developing hypotheses and testing them systematically.

      For a seminal, remarkable discussion of this, linking empiricism, science, and mythology, see “La pensée sauvage” by Claude Lévi-Strauss (translated in English as “The wild thought” — older, deprecated translations used the title “The savage mind“).

      1. anahuna

        Thanks for the correction. I read Tristes Tropiques first and distant memory brought the two books together.

        1. vao

          That is essentially what Lévi-Strauss argues. Human beings, everywhere and everytime attempt to answer fundamental questions: How is the world organized? What is our place in it?

          The answers, derived from extensive empirical observations and experimentations, lead not only to developing very practical solutions to everyday’s problems, but also to the elaboration of complex mythological and spiritual constructs in which scientific knowledge is woven.

          For instance it was noted that the classifications of plants by “primitive people” were surprisingly often more accurate and relevant than the ones made by European botanists — despite the fact that their classification criteria may appear somewhat quirky compared to the “scientific” ones. As another example, myths and legends contained crucial information about environmental phenomena. I remember one about the flowering of a very specific plant being the signal for some Amerindian tribes that it was time to relocate to the places through which animals to be hunted would migrate.

          1. Weil

            Agreed. But I would prefer to say that it was the questions that also derived from particular material and social conditions, more than the answers, the were and are the motor engine of thought..

            Humans are now in a cross roads. With the death of the Enlightenment, the Guttenberg press and the rise of an epoch of irrationality and technological manipulation, critical thinking is going to be the ingredients that bake any new bread.

            It is important to remember: it is not so much we want people to answer questions, we also want people to question answers.

    5. Carolinian

      While I don’t buy into the whole evolutionary psychology thing thats so popular now, especially on right wing media

      Guess I don’t read enough right wing media as I was unaware this was some kind of MAGA obsession. But it was the line of attack that Stephen Jay Gould and his followers used against E.O. Wilson. They once shouted Wilson down at a lecture. Seems like now.

      Of course Wilson was an actual scientist (Richard Rhodes recent book about him is titled Scientist) as opposed to a seat of the pants scientist and if he suggested our social behavior has animal origins perhaps it should be taken seriously. Indeed to some of us who aren’t actual scientists but enjoy observing animals the connection seems more than obvious. Darwin thought so too and his observations of both pets and the new gorilla at the London Zoo kicked off an intellectual earthquake that was later misused by many.

      But science is science and we need to see ourselves for how we really are.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Much as I loved reading both Gould and Wilson, I always felt Wilson was a more insightful scientist. I have to say though that i always found myself disliking both sides of the debate. I think a lot of evolutionary psychology is little more than a series of plausible sounding stories, with little real hard data. But of course the opposite side, in its relentless refusal to accept that some human psychological traits are hardwired (even sex differences) can be quite ridiculous.

    6. redleg

      I’ve never thought about Irish pescatarians in this light before now. Interesting.
      Another one is the Abrahamic peoples’ ban on pork. It’s always been handwaved as some kind of hygiene issue or other variant of “pork = unclean”. IMO as a non-expert, it makes far more sense to attribute the ban to the fact that the Abrahamic peoples descend from herders, and unless I’ve missed some important piece of basic information pigs can’t be herded. In other words, the ranchers and the farmers can’t be friends.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Thats an interesting theory, I hadn’t heard of it.

        The reason I’ve read most often is that in rocky desert countries it can be hard to bury bodies the required 6 feet under, so animals that dig up bodies to eat become stigmatised – i.e. pigs and dogs.

        1. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

          Alternatively, pigs tend to need a lot of water and that’s difficult to manage in the desert.

          At least, that was my minister-father’s theory…. :)

          I like the “can’t herd the varmints” idea, though.

    7. Kouros

      Beside what Adam is saying below, on the cleavage of cultures as an intentional act, Jared Diamond talks in Collapse on this separation, and how the Norse died of hunger in Greenland because wouldn’t touch fish or seals. And Cain & Abel story is also a good one, with God prefering the meat of pastoralists compared to the leven bread of agriculturalists, leading to fratricide…

  3. Lex

    Never underestimate our ancestors, after all, these were people who domesticated animals and figured out agriculture. They were of great intellectual capability, ingenuity and curiosity.

    The fundamental problem is a desire and tendency to create a narrative that puts not only modern humans but specific, modern cultures at the pinnacle of development. So “hunter-gatherer” is a lower life way than agriculturist. At least in popular understanding and due to the rigors of academia, we also seem to conceptualize the archeological record as a series of “firsts”. Statistically the chances of us finding the first example of any human technology are on par with me winning the lottery even though I don’t play it. Our archeology almost certainly finds things that were sufficiently developed and common enough for there to be enough examples that one might be found tens of thousands of years later. And we must consider that the majority of the human technological suite was organic material and wouldn’t survive at all.

    We also tend to denigrate the hunter-gatherer life way, partly because they were the subject of early, systematic anthropology and those studies were of specific groups already impacted by modernity and geography. A hunter-gatherer group on a South Pacific island is not likely representative of a Neolithic group on the Eurasian landmass. Even though we now know that indigenous peoples in (for example) N. and S. America were operating complex cultivation food systems that early Europeans simply failed to recognize as such, we tend to not use that to inform our understanding. If our ancestors tended a berry patch next to a bend in the river where they built rock weirs to catch spawning fish, would we recognize it? Maybe by a midden. But wouldn’t there either need to be a fair number of people or a smaller group seasonally returning to the same location over long periods to develop the midden we find?

    Perhaps we lack sufficient imagination when we examine prehistory. Perhaps the academic study of it lacks people who do things with their hands. The latter promotes the former in ways of practical, technological problem solving and then the former promotes the latter in expanding the potential solutions to problems. And so on for the big brained ape with opposable fifth digits.

    1. Weil

      Humans no face the horrendous reality of irrationality as they contract their cerebral work out to the ruling class.

      The age of domination, Master – Slave, Lord-peon, capitalist-worker has left us mere instruments of profit under capitalism.

      Our use value is plummeting as fast as our mortality.

      How we organize our productive and reproductive lives remains the issue.

    2. vao

      Never underestimate our ancestors, after all, these were people who domesticated animals and figured out agriculture. They were of great intellectual capability, ingenuity and curiosity.

      From the last-but-one paragraph of the aforementioned book by Lévi-Strauss:

      To be sure, the properties accessible to wild thought are not
      the same as those that hold the attention of scientists. In the two
      cases, the physical world is approached from opposite ends: one
      supremely concrete, the other supremely abstract; and either from
      the angle of sensible qualities, or from that of formal properties. But
      that these two roads were destined to meet, at least theoretically,
      and had there not occurred abrupt changes in perspective, explains
      that one and the other, and each independently of the other in time
      and space, have led to two distinct, although equally positive, forms
      of knowledge: one based on a theory of the sensory that flowered in
      the Neolithic period and continues to provide for our essential needs
      by means of the arts of civilization (agriculture, animal husbandry,
      pottery, weaving, preservation and preparation of food, and so on);
      and one that, from the beginning, has situated itself on the plane of
      the intelligible and which is the source of contemporary science.

  4. The Rev Kev

    To give the short version of this post, it is seeking in its own way to answer a very basic question. What does it mean to be a human and to answer that you have to see where we came from and how we got here. Was it through the ability to leverage technology i.e. tools? Was it when we expanded our diet to become omnivores? maybe it was our adoption of persistence hunting which changed our bodies and how they worked. Where the earlier branches of humans also humans in a real sense? Perhaps it was or adoption of fire that gave us warmth, protected us from predators and allowed us to cook foods that would have been inedible to us normally. Or maybe how changing climates forced us to change our way of life. There must have been some transitional point where the early humans looked at the world in a way that animals did not and at that point, we started to become human. But when was it and why?

  5. steven t johnson

    The biological species concept was (and so far as I know still is) widely regarded as sound. According to it, a species is the collective interbreeding populations of organisms that routinely produce viable offspring (or can, in widely separated groups—if this seems ambiguous, that’s inescapable.) Thus, if “sapiens” is interbreeding with Neandertal or Denisovans, it is not clear “sapiens,” Neandertal or Denisovan are in fact separate species. It is true that the noticeable morphological differences between Neandertal and sapiens species conflict with our current experiences of variation in humanity. Still…

    The notion that speciation is a singular event, which seems to me the most natural reading of the post, is incorrect. Speciation is a process, with a terminus a quo and a terminus ad quem. Gene flow from populations in the process of speciation is to be expected. Sufficient gene flow with prevent speciation, to be sure. The implied notion Neandertal and Denisovan went extinct because unfit is not well supported and again brings back in notions of progress. This is particularly true if population collapse in the history of sapiens is ignored. Another implication of speciation as a relatively lengthy process in human lifespan (but not necessarily in geological terms!) is that the notorious “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation” essential to Evolutionary Psychology is unlikely to be a real thing. What environment lasts a hundred thousand years?

    Also, perhaps sapiens should be described as historic, rather than modern. Neandertal and Denisovan are prehistoric after all, and “modern” implies progress.

    1. MT_Wild

      The biological species concept is pretty loosey-goosey.

      People can be either “lumpers” or “splitters” and fashions in final determination s of species status change all the time.

      Wolves, dogs, and coyotes can all produce fertile hybrids and this can and does occur naturally all the time.

      Barred owls and spotted owls produce “sparred owls”, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout produce cutbows, the list goes on and on.

    2. vao

      Wasn’t there a time were human species were ordered as Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis? Perhaps that classification was more adequate after all.

    3. Charles McFadden

      Did I miss something from the article or discussion thread that might shed more light on the question of origins and durability of class-organization of our species? Or have the participants in this discussion concluded that humankind is now so trapped within capitalism (and its supporting ideology) that no viable path to a more ecologically sustainable civilization exists?

      1. Carolinian

        We aren’t trapped by anything. Pure capitalism is merely an idea–the least motivating of human mainsprings–and as many point out what we really have is socialism for the rich threatening to turn into the new feudalism. The prob for our would be Davos masters is that they no longer walk around in pitchfork resistant metal armor and need to control the poors.

        But as has been said history is the future and our current upper classes act remarkably like past upper classes because there’s something else going on that makes them act that way.

        I have just finished a book called Coyote America and the theme is that while the ranchers and big game types succeeded in exterminating the wolves (some have been brought back from Canada) they got nowhere against the coyote population despite shooting and poisoning many thousands. And the reason is that coyotes instinctively know how to modify their behavior to adapt to conditions and have many many more offspring when persecuted.

        And, says the author, we are like them which makes our obsession with wiping them out doubly ironic. Coyotes often kill domestic pets–cats and dogs–as potential predator competition and we do the same to them to preserve big game or cows and sheep that we plan to eat.

        If we want to understand humans we need to look at the rest of nature and celebrate, not hide from, the fact that we are part of it. That’s what science tells us. So there is hope. Perhaps the remarkable thing about the nuclear age is that we haven’t already blown ourselves up. Survival in the end is job one (maybe not for the other species unfortunately). Look to the coyotes, now in every city in the country including mine.

        1. Charles McFadden

          Like coyotes, our species can reproduce. But given the nature and depth of the ecological crisis, it is not by increasing our numbers that our species is likely to increase the prospects of an extended future on Earth.

          An ecologically sustainable human civilization would have to be one that manages its relationship with the rest of nature to that end. That will require human agency, in my view by consciously challenging the ruling ideas of the DAVOS elite, including by building on the theoretical foundations provided by dialectical and historical materialist theory, itself a work in progress.

  6. John Merryman

    An issue touched on, by the question of our linear understanding, versus the more thermodynamic process, is the nature of time itself.
    As mobile organisms, this sentient interface our bodies have with their external situation functions as a sequence of perceptions, in order to navigate, so our experience of time is as the point of the present, moving past to future. It’s the basis of culture and civilization, as narrative and physics codifies it as measures of duration.
    The evident physical reality is that activity and the resulting change turns future to past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday, because the earth turns. Duration is the present, as the events coalesce and dissolve. Potential, actual, residual.
    There is no physically manifest dimension of time, no time traveling around the fabric of spacetime, because the past is consumed by the present, to inform and drive it. Causality and conservation of energy. Cause becomes effect.
    It’s like a tapestry being woven of strands pulled from what was woven.
    The future is not predetermined, because the act of determination only occurs as the present.
    The energy is “conserved,” because it manifests this presence, creating time, temperature, pressure, color and sound. Frequencies and amplitudes, rates and degrees.
    The energy, manifesting this presence, goes past to future, because the patterns generated come and go, future to past. Energy drives the wave, the fluctuations rise and fall. No tiny strings necessary.
    Ideal gas laws correlate volume with temperature and pressure, but we don’t confuse them with space, even though they are as fundamental to our emotions and bodily functions, as sequence is to thought.
    Consciousness also goes past to future, while the perceptions, emotions and thoughts giving it form and structure go future to past. Suggesting consciousness expresses as an energy. Though it is the digestive system processing the energy and feeding the flame, while the nervous system sorts through the information projected, while the circulation system is feedback in the middle.
    I could continue with this train of thought, such as that galaxies are energy radiating out, as structure coalesces in, but the general premise might help to drive a better understanding of why people seem so at odds with our context, given we tend to be linear, goal oriented creatures in a cyclical, circular, reciprocal, feedback generated reality.
    Basically, life is a dance, not a race.

  7. steven t johnson

    The notion of ecotypes could I think be useful one to deal with variation within large extended populations (like wolves, dogs and coyotes, for one.) Adult lactose tolerance or high altitude adaptations are far more interesting (as in, meaningful) than “race” in studying humanity, I think.

    PS Meant to respond to MT_Wild above

    But that would also require clarity on sexual selection. So far as I can tell though, “sexual selection” has been excised from theory, turned into another case of natural selection. The rationale is that sexual selection is adaptive because it is a fitness marker. I get confused as to why population size is not regarded as a meaningful sign of survival of the fittest, and therefore the peacock’s tail cannot be a poor adaptation that limits the species’ fitness.

    But to be fair to a fault, I do tend to suspect DNA fetish drives a lot of thinking. The current revival of multiregional hypotheses does imply the return of the hypothesis there is an inner drive in the DNA towards “modern” (read, better) humanity in widely separated populations. The idea seems to be that the evolution of historic man is the inevitable ascent towards us.

  8. FatNHappy

    Humans should be more concerned with detecting objects in space. Can you imagine if an asteroid hit the northern ice sheet 14K years ago.. melting it instantly. The aftermath of all that erosion can be seen in the scab lands of washington state. Oceans rose considerably; we know it as the great flood.

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