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.