Tag Archives: Origin of Modern Humans

How Dogs Won The World

Years ago I proposed a theory (not anywhere in print, just in seminars and talks) that went roughly like this. Humans hunt. Dogs hunt. Prey animals get hunted. Each species (or set of species) has a number of characteristics such as the ability to stalk, track, kill, run away, form herds, etc. Now imagine a landscape with humans, wolves, and game animals all carrying out these behaviors, facilitated with various physical traits. Then, go back to the drawing board and redesign the system.

The hunting abilities of humans and dogs, the tendency of game animals to herd up or take other actions to avoid predation, etc., if disassembled and reassembled with the same actors playing somewhat different roles, give you a sheep herder, a protecting breed of dogs (like the Great Pyrenees or other mastiff type breeds), a herding dog (like a border collie) and a bunch of sheep, cattle, or goats.

Even human hunting with dogs (not herding domesticated animals) involves a reorganization of tasks and abilities, all present in non-dog-owning human ancestors and wolves (dog ancestors), but where the game are, as far as we know, unchanged. Human hunters documented in the ethnographic record, all around the world, had or have dogs, and those dogs are essential for many hunting types. The Efe Pygmies, with whom I lived in the Congo for a time, use dogs in their group hunting, where they spook animals into view for killing by archers, or drive them into nets that slow the game down long enough to be killed. The Efe actually get a lot of their game by ambush hunting, where a solitary man waits in a tree for a game animal to visit a nearby food source. He shoots the animal from the tree with an arrow. But, even then, the dog plays a role, because the wounded animal runs away. The trick to successful ambush hunting is to do it fairly near camp so you can call for help when an animal is wounded. Someone sends out a dog, and the dog runs the animal to ground. And so forth.

Scientist and science writer Pat Shipman has proposed another important element that addresses a key question in human evolution. Neanderthals, who were pretty much human like we are in most respect, and our own subspecies (or species, of you like) coexisted, but the Neanderthals were probably better adapted to the cooler European and West Asian environment they lived in. But, humans outcompeted them, or at least, replaced them, in this region very quickly once they arrived. Shipman suggests that it was the emerging dog-human association, with humans domesticating wolves, that allowed this to work. Most remarkably, and either very insightfully or totally fancifully (depending on where the data eventually lead), Shipman suggests that is was the unique human ability to communicate with their gaze that allowed this to happen, or at least, facilitated the human-dog relationship to make it really work. We don’t know if Neanderthals had this ability or not, but humans do and are unique among primates. We have whites around our Irises, which allow others to see what we are looking at, looking for, and looking like. We can and do communicate quite effectively, and by the way generally viscerally and honestly, with our glance. This, Shipman proposes, could have been the key bit of glue (or lubricant?) that made the human-dog cooperation happen, or at least, rise to a remarkable level.

The Invaders: How humans and their dogs drove Neanderthals to extinction, by Pat Shipman, outlines this theory. But that is only part of this new book. Shipman also provides a totally up to date and extremely readable, and enjoyable, overview of Neanderthal and contemporary modern human evolution. Shipman incorporates the vast evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology, and genetics to do so, and her book may be the best current source for all of this.

This is a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it. Shipman also wrote “The Animal Connection,” “The Evolution of Racism,” “The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins,” and several other excellent books on human evolution and other topics. Shipman, prior to becoming mainly a science writer, pioneered work in the science of Taphonomy, developing methods for analyzing marks on bones recovered from archaeological and paleontologic sites, such as those marks that may have been left by early hominins using stone tools to butcher animals.

Seriously, go read The Invaders: How humans and their dogs drove Neanderthals to extinction.

How to find a Leprechaun

Nature editor and author Henry Gee has produced his Christmas list in which he describes his three wishes as an editor at a scientific journal; he enumerates the scientific discoveries that sit at the top of his professional “bucket list.”

Henry Gee. Not a Leprechaun.
Henry Gee. Not a Leprechaun.
I started to write a comment on Henry’s blog post, here, but it turned into a blog post of my own, here:

Henry: As you know, I address in a fictional context in “Search for Sungudogo” (now only 99 cents on Amazon) all three of your wishes, the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe, the discovery of intelligent life somewhere, and the documentation of non-human hominids in recent times (including the present) like, but later than, the “Hobbit” at Flores. (Drop me a line for a review copy.) In the revised version of the novella I also explain the origin of Penn and Teller. But I digress.

The chance of the existence of Homo notspaiens at present must be zero, unfortunately. But I do like the idea of proto-historical or historical cases. “Like” as in how a TV detective “likes” a particular suspect for a particular crime. Maybe it is just a hunch. A re-examination of all those cases in the sepia literature of little people or not-quite-humans thought to be imagination, serious confusion, or out and out racism may be necessary.

I’d like to put a finer point on the prediction though. The hominid needs to have existed after some key point in time (which may be hard to identify on the ground but that could be fairly easily defined as an archaeological or historical transition). For example, post first writing or post settled horticulture. Flores already fits the obvious next oldest criterion of post Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Also, and this is not a requirement but it would be way cool, I would like them to have existed at the same time as and in the same region as the Wrangle Island Mammoths because then tiny people-like creatures could have hunted, or ridden, or otherwise lived among, tiny furry elephants.

Also, I’ll offer a prediction of where the hominid would have lived. It is most likely to be in an area where the landscape has two distinct habitats that are long term and well defined. One is a habitat likely to be inhabited long term by regular humans and the other where regular humans are likely to forage or visit only now and then, but where this second, marginal, habitat is livable. Also, it is more likely at the outer edge of post-LGM expansion, and in a region where human population would not have been dense prior to the great Exchange of Horticultural Products that began in the 15th century. (In fact if I were to pick the most likely local date formula for the extinction of Homo notsapiens globally, if there were a bunch of them, it would be the introduction of yams, manioc, maize, taro, or other staple plant brought in from the other side of the planet to grow locally.) This means the Flores hominid may have chipped its last rock when cassava or corn were first planted in the region, which would be very late and easily meet your criteria. I assume people are looking vigorously.

Yes, I just described Flores, but that’s the point. Those are the characteristics that allowed for the Indonesian Leprechaun. We might look at regions covered by the last glacial ice mass, regions far to the east of Africa, dense tropical rain forest, etc.

This also predicts that stories of “the little people” (or “the big people” depending) would be distributed more commonly in a certain region of the world’s map. Like this, maybe (and roughly):

Where to look for lepruchans or big foots.
Where to look for Leprechauns or Bigfoots.

I’ve ruled out the new world simply because. Bad reason, I know. It is entirely possible that the New World was thickly inhabited by Taltos and Leprechauns, the only really solid argument against that being a complete lack of evidence…

Masters of the Planet

Yesterday I wrote about Chris Stringer’s modified version of human evolution. Today, let’s have a look at Ian Tattersall’s new book, Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins (Macsci). Tatersall’s boo, like Sringer’s, is a good overview of the newer evidence in the constantly changing field, but he goes back earlier and provides a much broader context for human evolution. His main thesis is that the features that made modern humans unique have two main characteristics: 1) they were sufficient and causal in the process of making that one species “master of the planet” and 2) the transition to fully modern form, with respect to those features, is relatively late. Tattersall argues for a late and rather sudden development of symbolic abilities and language (I disagree with this) and seems to agree with Klein in something like a “single gene” theory describing this transition as sudden and dramatic. So, I basically disagree with his thesis, but if you want a good source to find out about the “symbolic explosion” version of modern humans, this is accessible and the documentation is pretty thorough.

The Evolution of Modern Humans

Chris Stringer’s new book, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, attempts to reconcile the age-old conflict between the “Multiregional” and “Out of Africa” hypotheses of Modern Human origins. Stringer has long been identified with the “Out of Africa” hypothesis, and his criticism of the Multiregional model pretty much still hold. In the Multiregional model, different groups of a human ancestor, i.e., Homo erectus (and friends) existed over a large region of the earth (Africa and Eurasia) and different populations of that ancestral populations evolved in parallel to become different groups of humans, sometimes regarded as different races. In the Out of Africa model, the same hominids would have been spread around the world (the evidence for that is incontrovertible) but only one population, an African one, became “fully modern” and they replaced all the other groups with varying levels of interaction.

It is important to mention at this point that a third hypothesis, often classified as a subset of the Mutiregional model, had been proposed by C. Loring Brace. In this model a large continuous ancestral population was transformed regionally. The use of fire, Brace claimed, was invented in East Asia, and this transformed hominds in a certain way, and the use of improved projectile spears was invented in Africa, transforming those individuals in different ways. Specifically, the East Asians got smaller teeth and the Africans got more gracile bodies. These two transformations spread from their centers and overlapped each other and eventually transformed the entire global population.

Stringer’s new model isn’t like Braces in detail, but does account for the evidence better than both the Multiregional and Out of Africa models, assuming that evidence is sufficient to even develop a story for the rise of Modern Humans. Stringer still has a basal Modern Human form coming out of Africa, but then there is considerable interaction with extant non-Modern Human populations during which technologies, other aspects of culture, and genes, are exchanges. The results R us.

As you know, I’ve got my own theories about the origin of Modern Humans. I see the evidence of modern looking technology in Souther Africa quiet a bit before any evidence of symbolic behavior (i.e., the Fauresmith culture as documented by Peter Beaumont and others). A group of us led by Richard Wrangham published the idea that fire was controlled by early Homo and this transformed an asutralopith (roughly) like creature into Homo Erectus. By the time we get to the last interglaical, there is pretty good evidence of a very nearly modern human in Southern Africa and elsewhere on that continent. This, however does not obviate the idea of later spread and interaction with other populations, in accord with recent evidence from the genetics.

I don’t think we are there yet. I think we have a very coarse resolution and we are looking at a fairly fine tuned problem. Having said that, I would recommend Stringer’s book as an excellent window on the current thinking that does not privilege genetics (as is so often done these days in the larger discussion, because of the spectacular genetic finds) and incorporates both old and new evidence from physical and archaeological remains.

It is possible that I could assign this in an upcoming human evolution class. It is a good, easy read yet full of data and stuff. As one would expect form Chris Stringer.

How are art and human evolution related?

My interest is in developing a plausible evidence-based story of how modern humans emerged from ancestral species. This means guessing at what features of humans make us “human” and attempting to see the emergence of each of these features in the fossilized record of our bodies (bones) and behaviors (artifacts and archaeological sites). This question has traditionally been treated, inappropriately, as simple. Walking upright, or freeing of the hands, or using tools, or hunting animals, or scavenging from carnivores, violence, provisioning mates, bonobo-ism (a form of erotica, it would seem) or some other thing (or combination of two, possibly three, of these things) is seen as the “kick” causing the evolution of our peculiar brand of ape. The situation is certainly more complex than that.
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Evidence for an ancient lineage of modern humans

ResearchBlogging.orgIt almost seems like there are two separate research project under way regarding the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens. One focuses on recent humans, tends to use DNA as a major source of information, and from this base projects back into the past. This approach tends to confirm the idea that humans share an African origin with a subsequent spread from Africa, with various degrees of complexity in that series of historical events. The other focuses on early human remains, sometimes including remains that would be placed by some in a separate species or sub species. This sort of approach typically results in a similar conclusion regarding the African origin.But the two populations … modern or recent humans and humans several tens of thousands of years old do not necessarily share a history that has been coherently assembled by researchers. Of course, they shared an actual history, but do the lines linked together to make reconstructed phylogentic trees from these two data sources match up or integrate in any sensible way? Not really.A new paper coming out in the Journal of Human Evolution shares some light on how we might connect these similar but unintegrated reconstructions. Continue reading Evidence for an ancient lineage of modern humans

The Myers – Rue Debate And Why They Had to Taser Me

Last night, the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists club (C.A.S.H.) presented a debate between PZ Myers and Loyal Rue on the question: Can religion and science co-exist? I witnessed this event and would like to tell you what happened.

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Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival 33


Welcome to the Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival #33, ‘specializing’ in the four fields of anthropology. The previous edition of 4SH can be found at Testimony of the Spade, and the next edition will be hosted by Our Cultural World. The main page for Four Stone Hearth has additional information on the carnival, and you can submit entries via Blog Carnival.

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Did Humans or Climate Change Cause the Extinctions of Pleistocene Eurasian Megafauna?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchDid humans wipe out the Pleistocene megafauna? This is a question that can be asked separately for each area of the world colonized by Homo sapiens. It is also a question that engenders sometimes heated debate. A new paper coming out in the Journal of Human Evolution concludes that many Pleistocene megafauna managed to go extinct by themselves, but that humans were not entirely uninvolved.

Continue reading Did Humans or Climate Change Cause the Extinctions of Pleistocene Eurasian Megafauna?