The Great Human Race: How to survive

The Great Human Race is a new production of National Geographic, in three parts. I recently viewed the first episode, “Dawn” which comes with this description:

All people can trace their roots to the savanna of East Africa, the home of one of the first members of the human species — Homo habilis. Archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival instructor Cat Bigney face what early man did as they work together to survive in the wild savanna just as these primitive people did 2.6 million years ago — without any weapons or fire. But they soon find that living like our ancestors is harder than they expected.

Great Human Race premieres Monday, February 1, at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.

Photo at the top of the post: NG Studios

NGS has asked me to participate in a roundtable (here is the link to the roundtable) focusing on this documentary, specifically addressing this question:


Do you think that experts today can accurately replicate the challenges that Homo habilis faced thousands of years ago? And do you think that experts today could survive and thrive as Homo habilis did?

This is very much my area, and I’m glad to contribute to the discussion. The short answer is, of course, no, this is too hard. But, we can try and in so doing, we can develop some interesting thinking about early human evolution.

My contribution to the conversation centers on two rules of being a human hunter gatherer. Homo habilis was not, of course, a human, but we assume that this early hominin had some incipient human traits, further developed with early Homo erectus/ergaster. The two rules of being a human hunter gatherer refer to important aspects of living off the land that my research indicates apply to modern humans living without agriculture or animal husbandry as a source of food. I don’t know if these rules applied to earlier hominins or not … that is the $64,000 dollar question.

Rule 1: If you don’t know where it is, you are not likely to find it.

Much of the story in the first episode of The Great Human Race has to do with the two scantily clad protagonists, a professional survivalist of sorts and an “experimental archaeology” expert, set lose in the African Savanna to see what would happen, searching for various resources. I won’t give you a spoiler, but the episode ends with their discovery of one of the most important resources they need to survive, with that discovery realized in a very spectacular way.

I spent a lot of time in the 1980s and early 1990s living with, and studying the foraging patterns of, the Efe Pygmy foragers of the Ituri Forest, Zaire (now Congo). One of the things I discovered and documented is the simple fact that most of the resources they use are not really found by them, as though they had no idea where they might be. They already know where most of the stuff they can eat either will be, or are likely to be.

Bot men and women gather plant resources, but this is more of a woman’s job. In most cases, the more important plant resources are well known fruiting trees or concentrations of trees, or patches of wild yams that are frequently exploited. Women catch fish in streams that they have fished repeatedly before. This involves damming the stream at two points and removing the water from between the dams so the fish are easy to harvest.

Men seasonally hunt honey, and much of the honey is taken from trees they have exploited in the past, and check on a regular basis to see if the bees have settled in that cavity again. They do occasionally cut down a honey tree, but this is fairly rare (it is very hard work).

Even hunting, which one might assume is somewhat random, is done with a great deal of expectation based on knowledge. One type of hunting (not the most revered but among the most predictable) is to take porcupines or other small mammals from cavernous areas beneath rock piles that are found here and there across the landscape. If you find a rock pile and try to get at the animals hiding in it, even with the use of dogs, the animals can easily escape as they have many hidden exists. But if you return to the same rock pile repeatedly, you know where many of these escape routes are and can block them with wood or stone. A repeatedly used rock pile can be exploited with a high degree of confidence in success.

One of the most productive methods of hunting is the ambush. A well known tree that produces a fruit eaten by small ground mammals such as duikers is identified as currently producing the bait. A nearby tree which is climbable is used as a hide, where the Efe man waits for his prey, shooting it from the tree. The Efe almost always camp in locations that were previously used as camps, so at any given location where they are living, any of the men can easily point out the location of excellent ambush sites, rock piles, and nearby potential honey spots, and the women, and some of the men, can easily point out the locations of nearby fruit trees or yam patches.

There is uncertainty as to what resource will pay off, and not every resource is so easily predicted, but most of the wild foods the Efe gather and hunt are exploitable because of this knowledge.

The information is probably shared among people in a group, but remarkably little conversation centers on this topic. You don’t hear Efe talking about the location of this or that resource more than you hear, say, Americans talking about the locations of this or that grocery story. Certainly, such things are part of the normal conversation but do not make up a large percentage of it.

Rule 2: If you are doing it right, the use of a given instance of a resource can increase its future return.

This is probably a more important finding than that related to the first rule, and is rather counterintuitive. If the Efe use a resource, they will quickly use it up. This is one of the main reasons they move frequently from camp to camp over the year. But, the value of that resource, both the likelihood that it will produce something, and the abundance it produces, is enhanced by their very use of it.

I’ve already implied a couple of examples. If you block off a few exit ways on a rock pile, you don’t unblock them when you are done. Those escape routes may remain blocked between uses. If you add to your ambush trees a blind to sit on (usually just a few sticks tied on here and there) or modify the tree to make it easier to climb, these modifications may make the use of that ambush spot easier in the future, allowing you to climb and sit in the tree more quickly, more quietly, and more comfortably. Efe will also remove branches that interfere with their view and their shot.

Often, after an Efe man has finished taking the honey and comb out of a bee nest way up in some tree, he will spend a few more minutes making the cavity the bees had nested in larger. This may increase the amount of honey that can be fit into that cavity the next honey season.

When Efe women harvest yams, they tend to keep the “head” of the yam, attached to the above ground vine, intact, and rebury it. The space where they took the yam out will then be filled, with a little luck, with more yam months later.

As the Efe walk along the trails they habitually use to get around in the forest, they maintain the trails to keep them open and passable. it takes an Efe twice as long to traverse a given distance of forest without a trail as with a trail. This is a huge long term enhancement in the return of foraging.

As the Efe walk along a trail, they often grab up fruits from trees along the way. They eat the fruit as they walk, or stop at a resting place and eat it there. I documented five species of fruit tree where the Efe spit out or otherwise discard the seed of the fruit. This process of dispersal, well known to plant ecologists, enhances the number of those fruit trees along these trails, roughly doubling the abundance of these seasonally consumed fruits.

And there’s more, I won’t bore you with now. Much of the energy the Efe put into foraging enhances future return, including the development and maintenance of the basic knowledge of where various resources are.

There is some evidence that chimps do something like this as well. Chimps are probably primary dispersers of some of the fuits they exploit, almost certainly enhancing the abundance of that type of tree or plant. Where chimps use nutting stones (this is rare, but there are some groups that do this), they seem to keep track of the where the stones were left, so finding this rare object is much more efficient.

Given that chimps use prior knowledge and enhancement a little, and human foragers are capable of using these two “rules” a lot, I would assume that some of this would have been going on with Homo habilis.

I should mention that the observations I’ve made with the Efe have since been made among other groups of foragers. This seems to be a general pattern among African tropical and subtropical foragers, and possibly beyond. If you don’t already know where something is, you are not likely to find it. And, once a resource is exploited, foragers are often likely to enhance its future value. The emergence of those two features of modern human foraging must have been part of the hominin evolutionary story.

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12 thoughts on “The Great Human Race: How to survive

  1. Fascinating – thanks Greg – I’ll have to look for the series. I would think that one of the biggest problems (aside from your two points) for these two adventurers would be they know too much about tools and how to fashion primitive ones that Homo habilis wouldn’t have. Then again they are not as connected to that environment as our ancestors were. They have the advantage that language gives them to communicate with each other but I can see where it would be a disadvantage as well – abstracting consciousness from the immediacy of the environment adds time to process information, and while with language you can do more with that info, to our ancestors that might have proved (had they that ability) the difference between life and death (thinking about a threat rather than reacting to it immediately).

  2. Terrific blog, Greg, and a great service to scientists and the public. As a fellow researcher of the Efe, I always find your description of their lives as accurate as it is compelling and generalizable. By the late 1980s, the route through the Ituri neighborhood where we studied had degraded such that Lese farming retracted, for the most part, to subsistence level. (By 1992, researchers entered the area on motorbikes, a two day trip). With lower seasonal demand of cash crops, Efe women spent much of the time foraging in the way you describe, exploiting several resources in one trek. (In 20 months of focal follow data, I have very few observations of Efe women in gardens).
    A group of women, and youngest babies (who need to be nursed frequently) and older children who can keep up, head to a wild yam patch in the late morning, dig until lunch, detour to a fruiting tree where they will rest, and let the kids have their fill (less to feed back in camp), gather more in their baskets and snack all the way home (leaving a trail of seeds beside them). They arrive in camp updating news about potential hunting sites, as well: new activity at a rock pile, fresh droppings, a larvae bloom too high in a tree to reach. As they near camps, they pick up a choice piece of (drier) firewood or two that they placed on the side of the trail for retrieval on the return trip.
    To add to the ‘niche construction’ of activities that increase the productivity of resource patches, I would add that social relationships are central to this strategy. Just as low opportunity cost cavity excavation and tuber replanting ‘seed’ the forest, Efe life is replete with cooperation that is low cost to the actor and high benefit to the recipient – in fact, the extended development of childhood itself is likely to have evolved from this trade. But in investigating why adult non-parental Efe women and men might engage in so much infant care, it seems that hanging out with someone’s baby when you don’t have a lot going on is an easy way to look (and be) helpful to a multi-tasking mom who is trying to build a hut or put dinner on the hearth. All the little help from a lot of people adds up to a nice window of hands-free time for mothers.

    Efe have become specialists at planting social seeds for future exchange with Lese farmers, helping in little ways, and gaining a lot when they are able. Certainly, the marriage exchange system among Efe qualifies, as particular clans are visited frequently in efforts to woo future mates.

    I wonder what elements of Efe and other H&G men’s social investments yield future economic gains in hunting groups. Some men are particularly good at making arrows, or keeping dogs. Do others (perhaps who are not) engage in small forms of helping in hunting groups that have not been appreciated because they are not as obvious (and sexy) as bringing down game?

  3. Well done, Greg.
    In interest of full disclosure, I was a scientific advisor to this program, mainly about archaeology and to a minor degree survival stuff.
    The production team did do a lot of homework. Again and again, though, we came back to the issue that prehistoric humans would not have been just “passing trough” an area, but rather deeply familiar with their surroundings.
    I have not see the final version, but I gather from the production team that it was a very tough project. I hope people find it interesting and entertaining.
    Cheers,
    John

    PS: To this day, I still repeat some of your stories about living with the Efe to show hunter-gatherers’ ingenuity.

  4. Chrisopher, I don’t know that book, but I know of Bickerton’sw work. He is right about the discontinuity (this is widely accepted) but I don’t subscribe to his ecological theory, mainly because the evidence does not really suggest a scavenging niche.

    Paula, I’m surprised we did not cross paths in the Ituri!

    I agree with everything you say. I would add that Efe men also extend the requirement of cooperation where it need not be. For example, at least among the Efe I worked with (near Malembi and Nepoko), the men rarely carried their own arrows, and the person who made the arrow that strikes an animal is included in the list of people who contributed to the hunt (as is the man who trained/owned the dog(s)) Even if a guy kills an animal entirely on his own, between the dog and arrow connection, and some hunting magic someone might have performed earlier in the day, the list of involved parties is large. This gets even larger when the rule that the person who killed the animal should usually not butcher it, and butchering always requires two people (though it can be done).

  5. John, thanks. Yeah, as I started watching the documentary, I was thinking, “this is fine but they should have had Joh Shea involved somehow)… then I saw your name as chief consultant and all was well.

    You may remember Tom Barfield’s conversations about Afghan folk. Not foragers, but herders. There would be some dominance conflict and a young guy would take off with a portion of the community to start a new group out in the hills. They were just passing through, as it were, and had less than a 50-50 chance of ever being seen again.

    I calculate that over half of the food that the Efe obtain from the wild would not be available to the without the enhancement and a priori knowledge. This doe put a bit of a limit on the rate of expansion of human groups into new territories.

  6. Greg, I followed you, arriving in Jan 1988-89. There were many fond friends of Grégoire we will have to catch up about one day.

    The depth and nuance of ecological knowledge you well describe defies Western cognitive constructs altogether. But a recent paper by Reyes-Garci?a et al. “Schooling, Local Knowledge and Working Memory: A Study among Three Contemporary Hunter-Gatherer Societies” scratches the surface: “People with and without schooling have similar levels of accurate and inaccurate recall, although they differ in their strategies to organize recall: people with schooling have higher results for serial clustering, suggesting better learning with repetition, whereas people without schooling have higher results for semantic clustering, suggesting they organize recall around semantically meaningful categories. Individual levels of local ecological knowledge are not related to accurate recall or organization recall, arguably due to overall high levels of local ecological knowl- edge. While schooling seems to favour some organization strategies this might come at the expense of some other organization strategies.”

    An additional but integral part of the complexity of ecological intelligence that is rarely discussed is developmental and epigenetic – sensory experience is a powerful process, and I was stunned by the auditory, visual and olfactory perception of the Efe – and not just while foraging. Some of this is borne out by research (Perry et al. 2014), and others by way of warned a half hour in advance that a Cesna mail drop was on its way, or of a thin vine snake 50y away. Smelling flowering and fruiting trees long before they are ripe is advantageous in such an unpredictable and competitive environment, full of other primates.

    It would be a beautiful, if difficult film, to attempt to capture some of the density of sensory experience that our comfortable but insulated lives are now deprived of. ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ of tropical rainforests.

  7. It is sooooo irritating for presumably educated persons to continue to mess up the English language…. e.g. “for Bill and I”, NOOOOOO! “for Bill and ME!” you wouldn’t say “for I”, so why do you say it when you put another name in it?

  8. Correct your use of English. I know it’s not necessary if you’re in a situation when you’re trying to survive, but it sure is irritating when talking about your survival. You wouldn’t say … “for I”, so why do you do it when you say “for Bill and I”? Say “for Bill and Me”!

  9. I’m very impressed by how these two people display how we’ve learned what was required by our ancient ancestors to survive and that they’re reenacting it. Their skills, knowledge, unity, and perseverance encompasses the amazing true drama behind what their accomplishing. The Ice-age episode is truly epic!

  10. People who have a low tolerance on proper grammer are not very likable people. Look at the newest atudy on it. Ive known this for years.

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