Mar 18, 2011

History: The earliest evidence of culture

When Archeologists do their digs looking for artifacts or fossils, they can only find what is made of stone or is preserved somehow as a fossil or frozen in ice. Accordingly we now have the most extensive collection of stone tools and weapons going back far into antiquity. This has led some to believe that stone was the only material all human races have ever used or maybe just the first material that we mastered which has led to the term ‘stone age’. Joseph Campbell mentions that wood is probably the oldest material humans have ever used as it’s easily available and is still used almost exclusively by hunter-gatherer groups that have survived to our age. It is also the easiest to re-use in another construction or for burning (firewood) and it is easily lost from our historical (archeological) record through decay.[note: can’t find the exact quote but have some more recent authoritive evidence] Could our earliest houses, weapons and even jewelry have been made of wood? After all, we don’t need stone to make an arrow or a spear.

Our recent archeological discoveries are simply mind-blowing and though there is currently no evidence of wooden jewelry or wooden musical instruments (how difficult would it be to make a wooden lute/guitar with a box and some appropriately prepared animal hair?) from our deep deep past, we may yet find some as the following presentation of evidence and examples will show.

Wood does decay but it also gets preserved by accident. First take a look at this 10,000 year old wooden spear-like object found in some melting ice:

Next consider the wooden spears found even longer ago (400,000 years!)

Gamble cites wooden spears found preserved in a bog at Schöningen, Germany, and are associated with horse bones. Dated to 400,000 years ago, the spears provide the first hard evidence of human hunting and are weighted at the ends to be thrown like a javelin.

"I just wonder whether the Schöningen spears were ever used. Yes, there are horses at the site, but are the tips of the spears damaged? You'd think spears like that would break after they'd been jammed in a few horses," muses Gamble. For heidelbergensis, tools and hunting weapons may have played an important role in social display, one that we don't yet fully understand and may even border on ritual.

"They may have been more interested in making things as a demonstration of who they were and what was important to them. Killing horses was probably something they did once a week," Gamble remarks.

"It is very hard to get colleagues to accept evidence of ritual for early humans," says Bermúdez de Castro.   BBC

To say there are signs of ritual or culture is one thing but to actually begin to describe how they must have performed a possible ritual is a little absurd. To compare with modern tribes in some way to draw some logical conclusions about possible meanings of the rituals or possible lifestyles of ancient humans is more appropriate.

No matter what we now know that ancient man did use wood in hunting and probably in other spheres of life. Since wood is easiest to form or build with it is possible that every stone advance came after a development that was earlier and based in wood.

For example, check out this hunter-gatherer group, their 'huts' are made solely of wood and leaves;

They are not living in caves, (though I’m sure if they were facing horrible weather they would lose their housing and end up in any caves available to them) and their little thatched houses would rot away with time so that people living 10,000 years from now would find no evidence of them, plus if there is any change in environmental or geographical conditions they would provide great firewood. With the rise and fall of the ice ages (and local catastrophes that must have been associated with large changes in weather throughout history) such evidence of human culture would be completely wiped out.
Because humans lived as hunter-gatherers for 95 percent of their species' history, current foraging societies provide the best window for viewing human social evolution, according to the authors. Given that, the researchers focused on co-residence patterns among more than 5,000 individuals from 32 present-day foraging societies around the globe, including the Gunwinggu, Labrador Inuit, Mbuti, Apache, Aka, Ache, Agta and Vedda.

A major point in the study is that foraging bands contain several individuals completely unconnected by kinship or marriage ties, yet include males with a vested interest in the offspring of daughters, sisters and wives.

"The increase in human network size over other primates may explain why humans evolved an emphasis on social learning that results in cultural transmission," said Hill. "Likewise, the unique composition of human ancestral groups promotes cooperation among large groups of non-kin, something extremely rare in nature."

The group's findings appear in the paper "Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure." It is the first published analyses of adult co-residence patterns in hunter-gatherer societies based on census data rather than post-marital residence typologies, Hill noted.

Notice how flexible these groups of human are. They aren’t bound to a small tribe for life but rather a system of tribes that together form a large social system. Here we find a modern counterpart to what an ancient culture of small hunter-gatherer groups could look like.

In fact, even in the large cultural groupings of the North American Apaches or Sioux or Cherokee we can see possible echoes of an ancient system of cultural organization that maximized the resources of the land and the practice of the hunt by forming small groups that could live together without adversely affecting their food supply. They use stone but notice how much of their technology revolves around wood. At the same time these North American hunter-gatherers would have large social meetings where two or more small tribes celebrate some event. Could this be a practice that is natural to any human culture going back through the millennia?

What about the hunt? To hunt you need to track animal footprints, understand its habits, prepare a trap or have some skill in killing it effectively and have the ability to communicate this body of knowledge to youngsters, i.e. language. The Apache teach the whole role a youngster is expected to play using stories which we call their 'religion' or mythology. Every primitive tribe has such stories that explain and train the young ones. Why not ancient humans?

The theme of language and the hints of the existence of a human culture and society can be been clearly in the development of the hand ax, as Campbell explains;

Indeed, some excavations (for example, those of L. S. B. Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in the north of Tanganyika) have revealed in perfect sequence every stage of the evolution of the hand ax from the pebble tools of man’s first beginnings to the finely finished, really elegant axes of the period of the Neanderthal. And if the view into the depth of the well of time that we obtained in the South of France was great, this of Olduvai is simply beyond speech. But what is even more amazing than the profundity of the prehistoric past here illustrated is the broad diffusion over the face of the earth of exactly the same ax forms as those of Paleolithic East Africa. As Dr. Carleton S. Coon has remarked: “During the quarter of a million years when man made these tools, the styles changed very little, but what changes were made are to be seen everywhere… This means that human beings who lived half a million years ago were able to teach their young skills that they had learned from their fathers in most minute detail, as living Australians and Bushmen do. Such teaching requires both speech and a firm discipline, and the uniformity of hand-ax styles over wide areas means that members of neighboring groups must have met together at stated intervals to perform together acts that require the use of these objects. In short, human society was already a reality when the hand-ax choppers of the world had begun to turn out a uniform product.

All of which speaks volumes for the force and reach of diffusion in the primitive world.

Moreover, what is perhaps more remarkable still is that some of the most beautiful of the symmetrically chipped hand axes of this period are as much as two feet long, a size too cumbersome for practical use; the only possible conclusion being that they must have served some ceremonial function . Professor Coon has suggested that such axes were not practical tools but sacred objects, comparable to the ceremonial tools and weapons of later days, “used only seasonally, when wild food was abundant enough to support hundreds of persons at one place and one time. Then the old men,” he supposes, “would cut the meat for the assembled multitude with some of these heavy and magnificent tools,” after which, like the magically powerful tjurungas of the Australians, the sacred implements would be stored in some holy place. Primitive Mythology by Joseph Campbell, Page 364

In Campbell’s time the debate of when the human species first appeared on our planet was considered to be about a half a million years ago.
The African finds that have most recently stirred the halls of science are roughly (very roughly) dated at the commencement of the Pleistocene or Ice Age, circa 600,000 B.C.; and at the Fifth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, held at the University of Pennsylvania in 1956, Dr. Raymond Dart of Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, South Africa, showed a convincing series of slides in which the implements of this pre-lithic (pre-Stone Age) culture were illustrated. These included the lower jaw bones of large antelopes, which had been cut in half to be used as saws and knives; gazelle horns with part of the skull attached, which showed distinct signs of wear and tear use, possibly as digging tool; and a great number of ape-man palates with the teeth worn down – human palates being used to this day as scrapers by some of the natives of the area. Primitive Mythology by Joseph Campbell, Page 359
In our time evidence of the use of jaw bones of animals to cut and eat meat (indicating the hunt was developed) goes back even further. The following extracts bring Joseph Campbell’s archeological survey up to date. The last article I’m presenting in full as I think that it represents the border of our current archeological acceptance of the existence of a species that has the distinct behavior patterns that can be called human. Hunting (involving tool making such as wooden spears, the need for speech for communication of the techniques of the hunt and passing on of the art of the hunt – i.e. how to make the spears/arrows(?) or just a way to trap an animal and drop rocks on it or push it over a cliff), walking upright and taking care of the members of the tribe. Lucy, whose people are at the forefront of archeological theory as the possible first humans, was found in the geological layer indicating an age of about 3 million years. 
The Stone Age (known to scholars as the Paleolithic era) in human prehistory is the name given to the period between about 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago. It begins with the earliest human-like behaviors of crude stone tool manufacture, and ends with fully modern human hunting and gathering societies. The Paleolithic is the earliest archaeology; anything older is paleontology. Today scholars divide the Paleolithic into three categories, more or less as follows. 
Lower Paleolithic (sometimes called the Early Stone Age) 
The Lower Paleolithic lasted between 2.5 million-200,000 years ago (or at least according to one permutation), and it was when the Hominin ancestors of human beings, including Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, roamed most of the earth and began making the first stone tools.
ScienceDaily (Feb. 11, 2011) — A fossilized foot bone recovered from Hadar, Ethiopia, shows that by 3.2 million years ago human ancestors walked bipedally with a modern human-like foot, a report that appears Feb. 11 in the journal Science, concludes. The fossil, a fourth metatarsal, or midfoot bone, indicates that a permanently arched foot was present in the species Australopithecus afarensis, according to the report authors, Carol Ward of the University of Missouri, together with William Kimbel and Donald Johanson, of Arizona State University'sInstitute of Human Origins. 
The research helps resolve a long-standing debate between paleoanthropologists who think A. afarensis walked essentially as modern humans do and those who think this species practiced a form of locomotion intermediate between the quadrupedal tree-climbing of chimpanzees and human terrestrial bipedalism.

Researchers working in Ethiopia's remote Afar region have recovered evidence that humans began using stone tools and eating meat far earlier than previously thought. The finds—cut-marked animal bones dating to nearly 3.4 million years ago—push the origin of butchery back a stunning 800,000 years. Furthermore, these ancient butchers were not members of our own genus, Homo, but the more primitive Australopithecus, specifically A. afarensis, the species to which the celebrated Lucy fossil belongs.

Scientists have typically viewed tool use as the purview of Homo. Indeed, in 1964 Kenyan paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey and his colleagues named the earliest Homo species, H. habilis ("handy man"), for its association with stone tools. Subsequent finds have since extended the evidence of stone tool use back to between 2.5 million and 2.6 million years ago. But exactly which member of the human family made and wielded these older tools was unclear, both because no human remains turned up in direct association with the tools and animal bones, and more than one human species lived in the area at this time. The earliest example of a clear association between humans and tools dated to 2.3 million years ago, and the human remains belonged to an early Homo species.

Still, archaeologists suspected that earlier stone tools remained to be discovered, because these examples seemed too advanced to represent humanity's first foray into tool manufacture. "Nearly everyone that works with the earliest stone tool industries at between 2.3 [million] and 2.5 million years has commented on the surprisingly high level of skill and understanding that we see in these early knappers. Most have predicted that something older will be found," says archaeologist Shannon P. McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

That hunch helped motivate McPherron and his colleagues, who have been working at a site in the Afar region called Dikika—just a few kilometers from the Lucy site—to look in older geologic deposits in the area for earlier evidence of stone tool use or manufacture. They were rewarded with bones from two animals—one cow-size and another goat-size—that display cutmarks and percussion marks indicative of flesh removal and marrow extraction with stone tools. McPherron, along with Dikika Research Project leader Zeresenay Alemseged of the California Academy of Sciences and their collaborators, describe their discovery in an August 12 paper in Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

Because the earliest Homo remains date to just 2.3 million years ago, scientists can be certain that an australopithecine made the cut marks on the 3.4-million-year-old Dikika bones. And because the only human species that is known to have lived in the Dikika area during this time period is A. afarensis, it seems reasonably certain that this species in particular butchered the bones. (The A. afarensis remains found at Dikika include a spectacularly well-preserved skeleton of a youngster, popularly dubbed "Lucy's baby.")

Australopithecines had teeth and jaws that were in many ways adapted for eating fruit, seeds and other plant foods. "[The discovery] shows that meat was added to the diet earlier than we had thought," McPherron observes, although he notes that it is difficult to say what portion of the diet was meat. "We could now be looking at an extended period of time when hominins were including meat in their diet and experimenting with the use of stone tools."

Although the Dikika finds prove that A. afarensis was using tools, whether they were fashioning implements from stone or just picking up sharp-edged rocks from the landscape and using those to carve up the carcasses remains unknown, because no stone tools have turned up at the site. Future discoveries may resolve this question. They may also reveal the extent to which Lucy and her kin relied on stone gadgetry, setting the stage for developments that would profoundly impact the course of human evolution.

"This discovery dramatically shifts the known time frame of a game-changing behavior for our ancestors,"Alemseged remarked in a prepared statement. "Tool use fundamentally altered the way our early ancestors interacted with nature, allowing them to eat new types of food and exploit new territories. It also led to tool-making—a critical step in our evolutionary path that eventually enabled such advanced technologies as airplanes, MRI machines and iPhones."

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