An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction

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Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock

Humans have been indistinguishable as far as the fossil record shows from today’s Homo sapiens for a minimum of about 120,000 years. Bones of Homo sapiens from back this far fit into the range of modern humans. But the archaeological record suggests that our species – just as it is today – goes back farther. The kind of material culture that the 120,000 year old humans (in Africa) had goes back to 250,000 years. But some of the key aspects of that material culture … mainly in the way stone tools are made … go back even farther, perhaps between 350,000 and 500,000 years, in southern Africa.

(Interesting aside: People often wonder if Neanderthals evolved into modern humans. That questions seems a little dumb when we consider that the earliest modern humans predate the earliest Neanderthals.)

Humans invented agriculture (domestic plants and animals) only about 10,000 years ago or so, and at that time some groups started to live in permanent settlements. But even so, many humans continued to practice hunting and gathering as their only, or at least primary, means of subsistence. A mere 4 or 5 thousand years ago, half of the human species probably lived this way.

In other words, humans evolved as hunter-gatherers and have mostly been hunter-gatherers for for more than 90% of our existence as a species.

For this reason, an evolutionary view of what we are … what human beings are all about … is best framed in the context of a hunting and gathering way of life. And this way of life has certain features that seem to be common to almost all foraging peoples. There is a large number of observations of foragers, living today or from recent times, that are helpful, given this premise, in understanding ourselves. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The way our social groups are organized.
  • The role of kinship and family in society and the nature of families.
  • What we are anxious about.
  • Our sleep patterns.
  • Pride, cooperation, competition.
  • What impresses us about specific members of the opposite sex.
  • How our diet relates to health.
  • How exercise relates to health.
  • And much, much more.

It is amazing that humans today and in the recent past live in so many different kinds of societies. When we look only at hunter gatherers, it is hard to understand how certain social systems that exist today could emerge. This is probably best understood by realizing that the way we are as adults, and the way our societies are organized, is the product of extensive learning and enculturation. The fact that a typical grown-up human does not act in a way that is deeply determined by genetic programming, but rather is a result of extended childhood (a unique human trait) and social conditioning means that all sorts of humans, and all sorts of human societies can emerge.

In graduate school, I studied the forager way of life intensively. One of my advisors was Irv DeVore, who pioneered modern forager studies during the Kalahari Project in Botswana during the 1960s. I spent a total of about three years over four forays living with the Efe Pygmies, hunter-gatherers living in the Ituri Forest of what was then Zaire. A handful of other anthropologists have also spent considerable time with various forager groups. From this collective study, we can learn a great deal about what makes us tick as a species and as individuals. In many ways, we learn much more from understanding the foraging way of life than from all the psychological studies done on undergraduate volunteers and all the social science studies done on masses of data and all of the recent anthropological ethnography and philosophical naval gazing that happens in and near ivory towers around the world.

This is the first in a series of posts that will address some of these topics. The order of topics will be more or less random, as is the selection of which topics to cover. But if anyone would like to see a particular issue addressed let me know and I’ll see if it is possible.

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction
An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep
An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names
An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing
An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

In homage to an inspiration of this post, I provide this link to the secret, generally unseen obituary of Professor Irven Boyd DeVore.

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