Sunday, October 9, 2011 - 0 comments

Once We are NOT Alone : 3. The Roots of Our Solitude

By : Ian Tattersall

ALTHOUGH THIS is all true, H. sapiens embodies something that is undeniably unusual and is neatly captured by the fact that we are alone in the world today. Whatever that something is, it is related to how we interact with the external world: it is behavioral, which means that we have to look to our archaeological
record to find evidence of it. This record begins some 2.5 million years ago with the production of the first
recognizable stone tools: simple sharp flakes chipped from parent “cores.” We don’t know exactly who the inventor was, but chances are that he or she was something we might call an australopith.

This landmark innovation represented a major cognitive leap and had profound long-term consequences for hominids. It also inaugurated a pattern of highly intermittent technological change.
It was a full million years before the next significant technological innovation came along: the creation about 1.5 million years ago, probably by H. ergaster, of the hand ax. These symmetrical implements,
shaped from large stone cores, were the first tools to conform to a “mental template” that existed in the toolmaker’s mind. This template remained essentially unchanged for another million years or more, until the invention of “prepared-core” tools by H. heidelbergensis or a relative. Here a stone core was elaborately shaped in such a way that a single blow would detach what was an effectively finished implement.

Among the most accomplished practitioners of prepared-core technology were the large-brained, big-faced and low-skulled Neandertals, who occupied Europe and western Asia until about 30,000 years ago. Because they left an excellent record of themselves and were abruptly replaced by modern humans who did the same, the Neandertals furnish us with a particularly instructive yardstick by which to judge our own uniqueness. The stoneworking skills of the Neandertals were impressive, if somewhat stereotyped, but they rarely if
ever made tools from other preservable materials. And many archaeologists question the sophistication of their hunting skills.

Further, despite misleading early accounts of bizarre Neandertal “bear cults” and other rituals, no substantial
evidence has been found for symbolic behaviors among these hominids or for the production of symbolic objects—certainly not before contact had been made with modern humans. Even the occasional Neandertal practice of burying the dead may have been simply a way of discouraging hyenas from making incursions
into their living spaces or have a similar mundane explanation. This view arises because Neandertal burials
lack the “grave goods” that would attest to ritual and belief in an afterlife. The Neandertals, in other words, though admirable in many ways and for a long time successful in the difficult circumstances of the late ice ages, lacked the spark of creativity that, in the end, distinguished H. sapiens.

Although the source of H. sapiens as a physical entity is obscure, most evidence points to an African origin perhaps between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Modern behavior patterns did not emerge until much later. The best evidence comes from Israel and its surrounding environs, where Neandertals lived about 200,000 years ago or perhaps even earlier. By about 100,000 years ago, they had been joined by anatomically modern H. sapiens, and the remarkable thing is that the tools and sites the two hominid species left behind are essentially identical. As far as can be told, these two hominids behaved in similar ways despite their anatomical differences. And as long as they did so, they somehow contrived to share the  Levantine environment.

The situation in Europe could hardly be more different. The earliest H. sapiens sites there date from only about 40,000 years ago, and just 10,000 or so years later the formerly ubiquitous Neandertals were gone.  Significantly, the H. sapiens who invaded Europe brought with them abundant evidence of a fully formed and unprecedented modern sensibility. Not only did they possess a new “Upper Paleolithic” stoneworking  technology based on the production of multiple long, thin blades from cylindrical cores, but they made tools from bone and antler, with an exquisite sensitivity to the properties of these materials.

Even more significant, they brought with them art, in the form of carvings, engravings and spectacular cave paintings; they kept records on bone and stone plaques; they made music on wind instruments; they crafted intricate personal adornments; they afforded some of their dead elaborate burials with grave goods (hinting at social stratification in addition to belief in an afterlife, for not all burials were equally fancy); and their living sites were highly organized, with evidence of sophisticated hunting and fishing. The pattern of intermittent
technological innovation was gone, replaced by constant refinement.  Clearly, these people were us.

Next : Competing Scenarios


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