The Measure of Stone Age Skulls

Posted on September 10, 2012


1874:  How much is concealed, and why? Aboriginal people were often wrapped in blankets by Euro photographers in such early pictures to conceal their modern dress. Not “Indian” enough.

The following is an exerpt from Featherfolk, a work in progress.

 Computers in the Jungle: 

A Perspective on Civilization Pt 1

Civilized is superior to savage, the rich more important than the poor, and moderns more clever than the prehistoric.  And today—because of the obscure machinations of progress—is much better than yesterday.

We may believe some or all of these things.  But sometimes it is useful to go back and remeasure the skulls.  Just to make sure.

It is easy, in the vein of self-congratulation, to be dazzled by the accomplishments of our twenty-first century world.  We forget how recently it came about and how little of it we accomplished ourselves, as well as how reliant we are on the work of others, past and present.

But think of this.

Let’s say we took the entire computer faculty of the local university, dumped them for a month in the jungles of Borneo armed only with a match, a paper bag and a pointed stick.  Do you think we could come back at the end of the month and find that they had built a computer?  Only according to Warner Brothers.  The real world is a world of specialists joined together in a dynamic web, each dependent on others to accomplish what they do.  Without the resources of a full-fledged industrial complex, no one is going to be building computers in the jungle.  So, where would you plug it in, Elmer?

Unless a sarcastic rabbit lived next door in a hole in a ground.  And he hooked you up with an extension.

My point is that you can do anything with a head start and worldwide civilization behind you, but without these advantages we are no different from our stone age ancestors.  This is not an insult.  Our stone age ancestors, the most recent ones from the Upper Paleolithic onwards, were pretty sharp.

They should be.  They were us.

The Measure of Stone Age Skulls

Let’s go back to the very beginning.

The earliest hominids were, according to their brain size, hardly more than walking apes.  We know them as ancestors because they walked on two legs.  The most recent evidence suggests that this ability—bipedalism—began about 4 million years ago.  Because the changeover to walking on two legs required a rearrangement of the skeletal structure, a side effect of bipedalism was a narrowing of the birth canal.  This was a problem because hominid infants had to be smaller to get through it.  Nature’s solution was for the child to leave the womb earlier. As anybody knows who must deal with premature children, the earlier the birth, the smaller the child.  This was the clue for nature’s solution.   In order to be small enough to safely negotiate their mother’s narrowed birth canal, hominid babies were born, essentially, premature.

According to some modern theories, this premature delivery, and the attendant long period of childhood, was to have far-reaching consequences.  Other primate species have infants capable of clinging to the mother’s back while she forages, and the period of dependent childhood is much shorter.  In mammals like horses, the foal is up and walking minutes after being born.  But the hominid infant, born before its time, is peculiarly helpless and vulnerable, and represents a difficult and extended problem in survival.  In primate species other than human, the female takes almost sole responsibility for childcare.  But how could a mother effectively forage for food with such a helpless creature to take care of?  Nature provided a solution, the nuclear family.

In theory it happened as follows.  Instances where the father stuck around and helped the mother to forage resulted in better reproductive success for both mother and father, since more of the infants survived to adulthood to have children of their own.  Reproductive success, as everyone ought to know, is one of the driving forces of evolution.  If the willingness to nurture was a genetic trait passed from father to son, and this genetic trait added significantly to reproductive success, eventually fathers possessing this trait would out-compete the fathers who didn’t.  In the course of time, the nuclear family, with longstanding mating pairs, would become the human norm.

As it did.

Another thing happened.  Hominid babies spent an extended period of time in the company of their parents, learning from them the basics of survival.  The human infant and child’s ability to learn, to absorb information, even while remaining comparatively helpless, also served to offset and pay back the long laborious process of raising them.  The ratio between innate, instinctual skills and learned skills tipped decisively in favour of the latter.  Culture became the primary basis of human survival.  And this development was in process millions of years before sophisticated and bigger-brained modern humans came along.

If fact, such a process would seem to naturally reward more sophisticated brains that could learn more during childhood, in fact, require them, because being a social animal, as recent studies have shown, is strongly positively correlated with intelligence.  And the social unit for early humans–what with dad hanging around and all–was growing, and the communities which housed these units needed to become more complex and sophisticated merely to accommodate the new family arrangements.

About 1.8 million years ago in some estimates, another human ancestor, homo erectus, applied fire to food.  This had the effect of enriching the diet of humans, since cooking renders edible and nutritious foods which the human digestive system otherwise has trouble dealing with.  The chemistry of cooking added to what humans could eat, and enhanced the nutritional rewards of foods which humans already ate.

Over time, as well as becoming more sophisticated in structure and organization, the hominid brain grew larger (both absolutely, and in relation to body weight) and its energy demands grew greater.

A mammal will use 3 to 5% of its caloric intake to fuel its brain.  A nonhuman primate will use 8 to 10%.  The first structurally modern humans, the species to which all human beings now belong, apparently came into existence around 200,000 years ago. Their skeletons, skulls and DNA are indistinguishable from ours.  We know that adult modern humans use a remarkable 20 to 25% of their nutritional energy to fuel their brains.

(Indeed, playing Go or reading Mervyn Peake burns calories.  I’d be thin as a pretzel stick if I could take my work station for a walk.)

With large, active brains draining so much of the food intake, added to the continuing issue of caring for such helpless young, our earliest modern human ancestors had to get something in return.  They needed to be clever, imaginative and energetic merely to survive.  And they were.

Culturally modern humans appear perhaps 40 or 50 thousand years ago.  Their appearance represents another break-point in the archeological record, the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, where archaic stone tools begin to be rapidly replaced by the sophisticated stone technology of modern humans, by people which scientists unhesitatingly identify with us.

The rapid cultural and technological progress characteristic of this archaeological breakpoint has been attributed by some experts to the development of modern human language.  If this is so, then stories began then as well, and human culture as we know it.

Human culture is what makes human civilization possible.  In the course of time, beginning long before there were modern humans, human society had become the primary engine for human survival.  When language was added to society as a tool for passing learning from generation to generation, when the ability for language was imprinted or inscribed somehow on the human brain, this engine of survival became an engine for the human mastery of the world.

Unfortunately, most of what was known and understood by people of that ancient era has been lost.  Their songs, their gods, their rituals, their stories.  Only the sort of evidence that could survive tens of thousands of years remains available to us.  That is why so much of the evidence takes the form of stone.  Technologies in wood and bone, using sinew, animal hide or straw, could not often survive the journey.  However, despite the slenderness of the evidence that remains, patient study—and sometimes great good luck—allows us a few brief glimpses of these Old Ones and the way they thought and lived.

Among the most spectacular of these glimpses comes in the form of cave paintings discovered at Altamira, Spain, and Lascaux, France, and, most recently, at ChauvetCave near Ardeche, France.  Pablo Picasso, one of the most gifted and influential artists of the twentieth century, is said to have remarked upon visiting the 17,000 year old paintings at Lascaux:  “We have invented nothing!”  And paintings equal to those at Lascaux, found at Chauvet Cave, a 30,000 year old site, prove that artistic skill was there all along, not a late development of our Upper Paleolithic ancestors.

These earliest of ancestors lived in mobile hunting and gathering communities, had religious beliefs and theories about their place in the world, were observant, curious and inventive, and were probably—given our present understanding of how these things work—rather more humane, free and egalitarian, and considerably less violent, than the generality of modern societies.

Very early on, these Upper Stone Age peoples invented navigation, and learned to live just about everywhere, from arctic to desert, and their restlessness populated the world. Their ingenuity and industriousness was displayed in 35,000 year old chert mines, featuring mine shafts and galleries, which have been discovered along the Nile.  These Old Ones developed the fire-technologies which, later in the story, other prehistoric people employed in smithies and for the manufacture of pottery.  Modern archaeologists have demonstrated that their mastery of stone-working required considerable skill, patience, and knowledge.  On occasion, Upper Paleolithic doctors performed amputations and surgeries using stone tools.  Antlers from this era, with complex patterns incised into them, strongly suggest sophisticated counting devices.

In Japan, 12,700 years ago, a settlement of Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers developed some of the earliest known pottery.  In the Middle East, about 10,500 years ago, but beginning the process long before that, the Old Ones gave us agriculture.

Those who were responsible for this most profound of gifts were probably female. Because of the division of childcare, it is the men who hunt and the women who gather, generally, in hunter-gatherer societies.  With a child in tow, or at the breast, it’s easier for a woman to search out plant resources than it is to track an animal.  (Proof of this age-old division of labour may be burned into our brains:  women have been shown in laboratory tests to have a substantially better ability to recognize plants than men.)  Accordingly, it was women, not men, who were most likely to be the masters of plant lore, and to have developed the understandings which led to agriculture.

Agriculture, foundation of so much of the last ten thousand years of human civilization, was not an accident.  It developed again and again, in the Middle East, in China, in Indonesia, perhaps in Africa, and at least three times in the Americas.  Stone Age people everywhere were observant and enterprising.

The evidence, if looked at without prejudice, shows that the roots of science lie in the Stone Age, not, as has often been asserted, in Ancient Greece.  The Greeks came along 40 or 50 thousand years too late to claim that honour.  In fact, the scientific impulse looks to be, essentially, a human impulse, not the outgrowth of a particular cultural tradition.  It is merely human to observe, experiment, speculate, innovate and synthesize knowledge.

Our earliest culturally-modern ancestors demonstrate all the traits, all the skills, all the genius of the people from later ages.  There is no good reason to believe that they were inferior to us in any way.  They were not the grunting cavemen of popular myth, but had minds and imaginations which blazed as brightly as in all the eras that followed.

The Mesolithic and the crop-raising Neolithic cultures which followed—though still classified as Stone Age—continued to grow and innovate.  From them rose the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Central Mexico, the IndusValley and China, among others.  They invented mathematics and the smelting of metals, domesticated most of the world’s crops, as well as cattle and horses, raised up monuments, built Stonehenge, performed skull surgery and populated the Pacific.

Then somewhere in the midst of that—again, like agriculture, several times over, and in different parts of the world—they invented writing.

And history began.