The ancient hunt in which the tracker’s skill united reason and imagination

“The San people of the Kalahari desert are the last tribe on Earth to use what some believe to be the most ancient hunting technique of all: the persistence hunt; they run down their prey,” says David Attenborough:

 

“The hunter pays tribute to his quarry’s courage and strength. With ceremonial gestures that ensure that its spirit returns to the desert sands from which it came. While it was alive, he lived and breathed with it and felt its every movement in his own body, and at the moment of its death, he shared its pain. He rubs its saliva into his own legs to relieve the agony of his own burning muscles, and he gives thanks for the life he has taken so that he may sustain the lives of his family waiting for him back in their settlement.”

Louis Liebenberg, author of The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, argues that the rational skills required by the ancient tracker provided the basis of scientific reasoning.

The first creative science, practiced by possibly some of the earliest members of Homo sapiens who had modern brains and intellects, may have been the tracking of game animals…

[Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?

Frans de Waal asks: are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?

Just as attitudes of superiority within segments of human culture are often expressions of ignorance, humans collectively — especially when subject to the dislocating effects of technological dependence — tend to underestimate the levels of awareness and cognitive skills of creatures who live mostly outside our sight. This tendency translates into presuppositions that need to be challenged by what de Waal calls his “cognitive ripple rule”:

Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.

In a review of de Waal’s book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Ludwig Huber notes that there are a multitude of illustrations of the fact that brain size does not correlate with cognitive capacities.

Whereas we once thought of humans as having unique capabilities in learning and the use of tools, we now know these attributes place us in a set of species that also includes bees. Our prior assumptions about seemingly robotic behavior in such creatures turns out to have been an expression of our own anthropocentric prejudices. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Paleolithic parenting and animated GIFs

The creation of the moving image represents a technical advance in the arts comparable with the invention of the steam engine during the industrial revolution.

The transition from static to moving imagery was a watershed event in human history, through which people discovered a new way of capturing the visible world — or so it seemed.

It turns out, however, that long before the advent of civilization, our Paleolithic forebears figured out that movement seen in living creatures around them could, by cunning means, be captured in crafted illusions of movement.


Let’s run with the hypothesis that this 14,000 year old artifact is indeed a toy. What does this tell us about its creator and the children for whom it was made? [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Britain First and the first Britons

The white supremacists who chant “blood and soil” (borrowing this phrase from the Nazis’ Blut und Boden) think white-skinned people have a special claim to the lands of Europe and North America.

This is an arrogant and ignorant belief to hold on this side of the Atlantic where every white person has immigrant ancestry originating from Europe, but European whiteness in terms of origin (not superiority) is a less controversial notion. That is to say, even among those of us who support the development and protection of inclusive, racially diverse societies, it’s generally believed that prior the modern era of mass migration, European societies were overwhelmingly white because, to put it crudely, Europe is where white people come from.

It turns out that European whiteness has surprisingly shallow roots, as new research findings based on a DNA analysis of “Cheddar Man” indicate. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Why your brain hates other people

Robert Sapolsky writes: As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups.

It’s been said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.” In reality, there’s lots more of the former. And it can be vastly consequential when people are divided into Us and Them, ingroup and outgroup, “the people” (i.e., our kind) and the Others.

Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture. We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality. Pretty depressing.

But crucially, there is room for optimism. Much of that is grounded in something definedly human, which is that we all carry multiple Us/Them divisions in our heads. A Them in one case can be an Us in another, and it can only take an instant for that identity to flip. Thus, there is hope that, with science’s help, clannishness and xenophobia can lessen, perhaps even so much so that Hollywood-extra chimps and gorillas can break bread together. [Continue reading…]

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Why human society isn’t more — or less — violent than in the past

Michael Price writes: Are people in big, modern societies more or less violent than our forebears? The answer is neither, according to a controversial new study: People who lived in small bands in the past had no more proclivity toward violence than we do today. The finding—based on estimates of war casualties throughout history—undercuts the popular argument that humans have become a more peaceful species over time, thanks to advances in technology and governance. But some critics aren’t convinced.

That includes the man who most recently popularized the idea, psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University, who calls the new findings “a statistical gimmick.” He argues in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that the emergence of institutions like nation-states with strong central governments, trade networks, and wide-ranging communication increased interdependence and reduced deaths due to violence. He cited data suggesting that fewer people die in wars today, relative to a society’s total population, than among small tribes of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists—how human society organized for most of its history.

But a team led by anthropologist Rahul Oka at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana wondered whether there was a mathematical explanation for why fewer people proportionally are lost to violence nowadays. They reasoned that as populations get bigger, their armies don’t necessarily grow at the same rate. In a small group of 100 adults, for example, it would be perfectly reasonable to have 25 warriors, says anthropologist and study co-author Mark Golitko, also at Notre Dame. But in a population of 100 million, supporting and coordinating an army of 25 million soldiers is logistically impossible, to say nothing of such an army’s effectiveness. Researchers call that incongruity a scaling effect. [Continue reading…]

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We found evidence of early humans in the jungles of Borneo

File 20171214 27562 12z05o6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Digging in Traders Cave in the iconic Niah Caves archaeological complex. Darren Curnoe excavates while Roshan Peiris observes. (Photo: Mhd. S. Sauffi/Darren Curnoe) Author provided

By Darren Curnoe, UNSW

I recently led a team excavating at one of the most iconic archaeological locations in Southeast Asia, Niah Caves in Malaysia.

Over a period of three weeks, we dug through what we believe to be around 20,000 years of human history. We uncovered several human bones, the remains of large mammals (probably deer and wild cattle) and marine oyster shells indicating a period of seafood meals. Stone tools and charred rocks were also unearthed.

It was exciting and a little bit daunting to be digging at Niah Caves, given its place in both the history of archaeology and more broadly of humankind.

Daily Dig Diary Day 21: ancient human bones, tools and oyster shells were found at various depths. All diary postings can be seen at https://www.facebook.com/curnoeanthropologist/.

Read more: Curious Kids: Where did the first person come from?


Famous for head hunters

Niah Caves National Park is located in the eastern part of Sarawak, a state of Malaysia that hugs the northern coastal strip of the island of Borneo.

Borneo straddles the equator, and is covered mostly by dense tropical rainforest. It’s home to a remarkable variety of wildlife, including the endangered orangutan.

Sarawak also has a rich cultural heritage with almost 40 indigenous linguistic or cultural groups living there. It is an island that was famous until the 1970s for its head hunters.

It’s also the place where Alfred Wallace, credited by history as the discoverer of evolution by means of natural selection, developed his ideas during the nineteenth century.


Read more: World’s scientists turn to Asia and Australia to rewrite human history


Sarawak also has an extraordinary history of human occupation. This stretches back at least 46,000 years ago, soon after the earliest modern humans settled the region after they made their long journey out of Africa.

Borneo is the island where these early people began island hopping across Southeast Asia and eventually settling New Guinea and Australia, making it crucial also to understanding ancient human history across the Australasian region.

[Read more…]

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Expansion of tillage through use of draft animals led to the growth of inequality across the Old World

Researchers at Washington State University and 13 other institutions have found that the arc of prehistory bends towards economic inequality.

In the largest study of its kind, the researchers saw disparities in wealth mount with the rise of agriculture, specifically the domestication of plants and large animals, and increased social organization.

Their findings, published last month in the journal Nature, have profound implications for contemporary society, as inequality repeatedly leads to social disruption, even collapse, said Tim Kohler, lead author and WSU Regents professor of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology at WSU. The United States, he noted, currently has one of the highest levels of inequality in the history of the world.

“Inequality has a lot of subtle and potentially pernicious effects on societies,” Kohler said.

The study gathered data from 63 archaeological sites or groups of sites. Comparing house sizes within each site, researchers assigned Gini coefficients, common measures of inequality developed more than a century ago by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini. In theory, a country with complete wealth equality would have a Gini coefficient of 0, while a country with all the wealth concentrated in one household would get a 1.

The researchers found that hunter-gatherer societies typically had low wealth disparities, with a median Gini of .17. Their mobility would make it hard to accumulate wealth, let alone pass it on to subsequent generations. Horticulturalists — small-scale, low-intensity farmers — had a median Gini of .27. Larger scale agricultural societies had a media Gini of .35.

To the researchers’ surprise, inequality kept rising in the Old World, while it hit a plateau in the New World, said Kohler. The researchers attribute this to the ability of Old World societies “to literally harness big domesticated mammals like cattle and eventually horses and water buffalo,” Kohler said.

Draft animals, which were not available in the New World, let richer farmers till more land and expand into new areas. This increased their wealth while ultimately creating a class of landless peasants.

“These processes increased inequality by operating on both ends of the wealth distribution, increasing the holdings of the rich while decreasing the holdings of the poor,” the researchers write.

The Old World also saw the arrival of bronze metallurgy and a mounted warrior elite that increased Ginis through large houses and territorial conquests. [Continue reading…]

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It’s official: Timeline for human migration gets a rewrite

Gemma Tarlach writes: The great thing about science is supposed to be that you come up with a hypothesis and then you and other researchers try to shoot it down and, if the hypothesis doesn’t hold up, you come up with a new one based on what you learned from destroying the old one. And the scientific method generally works, as long as everyone keeps their egos in check.

Unfortunately, many researchers clung to the idea of a single migration out of Africa, no earlier than 60,000 years ago, for too long. Finds such as a human presence in the Levant 100,000 years ago, for example, were dismissed as a single band of early humans that strayed too far from home and went extinct— in other words, an evolutionary dead end.

Today, however, writing in Science, researchers say that no one can ignore the preponderance of evidence. It’s time, at long last, to revise that tired old timeline of human migration.

The timeline they call for is one of multiple migrations out of Africa beginning perhaps 120,000 years ago. While some of these early explorations certainly failed and became evolutionary dead ends, others, say the authors, survived, not only spreading across Asia but interbreeding with Denisovans and Neanderthals.

Both the archaeological and genetic evidence support a large dispersal from Africa around 60,000 years ago, but it was by no means the first — or the last — to occur. [Continue reading…]

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The deep history of the domestication and enslavement of humans

Steven Mithen writes: When our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together. However it happened, the human control of fire made an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and marked the beginning of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet.

In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker. New layers of human impact were added by the adoption of farming about ten thousand years ago, the invention of the steam engine around 1780, and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Today the Anthropocene is so dense that we have virtually lost sight of anything that could be called ‘the natural world’.

Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then – according to the conventional narrative – the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds – ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica – into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.

The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state. [Continue reading…]

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How Yamnaya nomads and other herding cultures became early forces of globalization

Science News reports: Nomadic herders living on western Asia’s hilly grasslands made a couple of big moves east and west around 5,000 years ago. These were not typical, back-and-forth treks from one seasonal grazing spot to another. These people blazed new trails.

A technological revolution had transformed travel for ancient herders around that time. Of course they couldn’t make online hotel reservations. Trip planners would have searched in vain for a Steppe Depot stocked with essential tools and supplies. The closest thing to a traveler’s pit stop was a mountain stream and a decent grazing spot for cattle. Yet, unlike anyone before, these hardy people had the means to move — wheels, wagons and horses.

Here’s how the journeys may have played out: At a time when rainfall dwindled and grasslands in western Asia turned brown, oxen-pulled wagons loaded with personal belongings rolled west, following greener pastures into central and northern Europe. Other carts rumbled east as far as Siberia’s Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet today. Families of men, women and children may have piled on board. Or travelers may have been mostly men, who married women from farming villages along the way. Cattle, sheep and goats undoubtedly trailed along with whoever made these trips, under the watchful guidance of horse riders. Wagons served as mobile homes while on the move and during periodic stops to let animals graze.

These journeys, by people now known as the Yamnaya, transformed human genes and cultures across a huge swath of Europe and Asia. Yamnaya people left their mark from Ireland to China’s western border, across roughly 4,000 kilometers. [Continue reading…]

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Primate vocalizations are much more than gibberish

By Jay Schwartz

A chimpanzee is strolling along a trail through the lush Budongo Forest in Uganda when he spots a deadly Gaboon viper. Chimps have an alarm call for scenarios like these: a soft “hoo” grunt that alerts others to potential danger. But there’s no point in alerting his group mates if they’re already aware of the threat. So what does he do?

This is the question that Catherine Crockford, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and her colleagues were keen to answer. They are the ones who’d put the viper—a convincing model made out of wire mesh and plaster—in the chimp’s path. It sounds like a silly prank, trying to surprise a chimp with a model snake. But the researchers were trying to get at an elusive and profound question: How much of what a chimp “says” is intentional communication?

Their findings, published in 2012, along with those of a 2013 follow-up study by University of York psychologist Katie Slocombe and colleagues, challenged long-held assumptions about what makes humans unique among our primate relatives.

Researchers have spent decades endeavoring to unravel the depth of communication that nonhuman primates can achieve. Do they have words as we would think of them? Do they have grammar? Since language is so integral to our identity as humans, these questions get to the heart of what it means to be human. While the public tends to imbue every cat meow and dog bark with meaning, scientists have traditionally taken a much more conservative approach, favoring the least cognitive explanations and assuming that animal vocalizations are involuntary and emotional. “Conservatism is essential if animal cognition work is to be taken seriously,” says Slocombe.

We can’t see inside primate brains (at least not without a lot of practical and ethical difficulty), or ask primates what they mean or why they vocalize. So primate-communication researchers have been forced to devise clever studies to work out what’s going on in their subjects’ minds.

[Read more…]

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The case against civilization

John Lanchester writes: Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of STEM (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.

In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.

The other reason fire was central to our history is less obvious to contemporary eyes: we used it to adapt the landscape around us to our purposes. Hunter-gatherers would set fires as they moved, to clear terrain and make it ready for fast-growing, prey-attracting new plants. They would also drive animals with fire. They used this technology so much that, Scott thinks, we should date the human-dominated phase of earth, the so-called Anthropocene, from the time our forebears mastered this new tool.

We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. To demonstrate the significance of fire, he points to what we’ve found in certain caves in southern Africa. The earliest, oldest strata of the caves contain whole skeletons of carnivores and many chewed-up bone fragments of the things they were eating, including us. Then comes the layer from when we discovered fire, and ownership of the caves switches: the human skeletons are whole, and the carnivores are bone fragments. Fire is the difference between eating lunch and being lunch.

Anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, came what is generally agreed to be the definitive before-and-after moment in our ascent to planetary dominance: the Neolithic Revolution. This was our adoption of, to use Scott’s word, a “package” of agricultural innovations, notably the domestication of animals such as the cow and the pig, and the transition from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivating crops. The most important of these crops have been the cereals—wheat, barley, rice, and maize—that remain the staples of humanity’s diet. Cereals allowed population growth and the birth of cities, and, hence, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.

The story told in “Against the Grain” heavily revises this widely held account. Scott’s specialty is not early human history. His work has focussed on a skeptical, peasant’s-eye view of state formation; the trajectory of his interests can be traced in the titles of his books, from “The Moral Economy of the Peasant” to “The Art of Not Being Governed.” His best-known book, “Seeing Like a State,” has become a touchstone for political scientists, and amounts to a blistering critique of central planning and “high modernism,” the idea that officials at the center of a state know better than the people they are governing. Scott argues that a state’s interests and the interests of subjects are often not just different but opposite. Stalin’s project of farm collectivization “served well enough as a means whereby the state could determine cropping patterns, fix real rural wages, appropriate a large share of whatever grain was produced, and politically emasculate the countryside”; it also killed many millions of peasants.

Scott’s new book extends these ideas into the deep past, and draws on existing research to argue that ours is not a story of linear progress, that the time line is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong. He focusses his account on Mesopotamia—roughly speaking, modern-day Iraq—because it is “the heartland of the first ‘pristine’ states in the world,” the term “pristine” here meaning that these states bore no watermark from earlier settlements and were the first time any such social organizations had existed. They were the first states to have written records, and they became a template for other states in the Near East and in Egypt, making them doubly relevant to later history.

The big news to emerge from recent archeological research concerns the time lag between “sedentism,” or living in settled communities, and the adoption of agriculture. Previous scholarship held that the invention of agriculture made sedentism possible. The evidence shows that this isn’t true: there’s an enormous gap—four thousand years—separating the “two key domestications,” of animals and cereals, from the first agrarian economies based on them. Our ancestors evidently took a good, hard look at the possibility of agriculture before deciding to adopt this new way of life. They were able to think it over for so long because the life they lived was remarkably abundant. Like the early civilization of China in the Yellow River Valley, Mesopotamia was a wetland territory, as its name (“between the rivers”) suggests. In the Neolithic period, Mesopotamia was a delta wetland, where the sea came many miles inland from its current shore.

This was a generous landscape for humans, offering fish and the animals that preyed on them, fertile soil left behind by regular flooding, migratory birds, and migratory prey travelling near river routes. The first settled communities were established here because the land offered such a diverse web of food sources. If one year a food source failed, another would still be present. The archeology shows, then, that the “Neolithic package” of domestication and agriculture did not lead to settled communities, the ancestors of our modern towns and cities and states. Those communities had been around for thousands of years, living in the bountiful conditions of the wetlands, before humanity committed to intensive agriculture. Reliance on a single, densely planted cereal crop was much riskier, and it’s no wonder people took a few millennia to make the change.

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls them not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” Who would choose to live in one of those? Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial. [Continue reading…]

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Did the first people to reach the Americas arrive via a kelp highway?

Gemma Tarlach writes: The average person’s idea of how — and when — the first people arrived in the Americas needs a serious revision, say researchers: The First Americans arrived significantly earlier and via a different route than most of us learned in school. There’s something fishy about the whole thing.

Open most middle school textbooks to the chapter on how our species migrated to the Americas and you’ll likely see an image of people in furs trekking over taiga and tundra, the lost world of Beringia. The land bridge, now submerged, once linked Siberia to North America. For years the standard story was that hunter-gatherers from Siberia crossed it on foot when the glaciers retreated enough, at the end of the last ice age, to open an ice-free corridor.

And people did cover Beringia on foot when such a route opened up. But they probably weren’t First Americans. Think of them as… Second Americans, perhaps.

Thanks to a growing body of archaeological and genetic evidence, researchers publishing today in Science say it’s increasingly likely that the first humans to arrive in the Americas followed a coastal route, making the most of marine resources on a “kelp highway” that spanned the edge of the north Pacific from Asia to North America. And they made this journey well before glaciers retreated to open the traditional Beringia overland route. [Continue reading…]

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A conversation on the deep history of humans and music with Gary Tomlinson

Damon Krukowski: Something I love about A Million Years of Music is this idea of deep time. How did you move from studies of Monteverdi and opera to prehistory?

Gary Tomlinson: There are a couple of ways this happened. One is that it’s a return to my past, because, though I’ve been a musician from my childhood, I went to university thinking I was going to become a biochemist and spent my first three years working toward a biochemistry major. Then I came under the influence of a wonderful music teacher. I was playing in an orchestra and ensembles—mostly classical, with a little bit of acoustic rock and roll on the side. And suddenly I said, “Why am I in science when what I really want to be doing is thinking about music?” And so I went off to graduate school in musicology at UC Berkeley.

My interest in music history also was always anthropological in a general sense. It was the placement of music in culture, and in cultures of the past, that fascinated me, and I approached other cultures of the past in some ways like an anthropological fieldworker. And my sense of that anthropological purchase was not just to place music in a context but to understand how music helps to make the context that it’s a part of, so that there’s a real mutuality and reciprocal kind of interaction; I never saw those as separate things. The anthropological stuff took me off toward social theory and poststructuralist theory and cultural theories of various sorts. And it gradually turned toward Foucauldian work. The trajectory for me was a smooth one, in a way—even though my books seem to be on very different subjects: from Monteverdi as a part of the context of late Renaissance Italian culture, through opera as a manifestation of fundamentally shifting conceptions of the voice and its powers over four hundred years (in Metaphysical Song), to Aztec and Inca song (in The Singing of the New World)—an attempt to understand the really different ways in which cultures can come to appreciate the powers of music and voice. And the next stretch was in a way just leaping back and saying, “Well, I always was interested in evolutionary theory—how the hell did humans come to be armed with the capacities to do all these things in the first place?” So that’s the short answer. [Continue reading…]

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Mating with Neandertals reintroduced ‘lost’ DNA into modern humans

Science News reports: Interbreeding with Neandertals restored some genetic heirlooms that modern humans left behind in the ancient exodus from Africa, new research suggests.

Those heirlooms are versions of genes, or alleles, that were present in humans’ and Neandertals’ shared ancestors. Neandertals carried many of those old alleles, passing them along generation after generation, while developing their own versions of other genes. A small number of humans left Africa around 100,000 years ago and settled in Asia and Europe. These migrants “lost” the ancestral alleles.

But when the migrants or their descendants interbred with Neandertals, Eurasians reinherited the ancestral heirlooms along with Neandertal DNA, John “Tony” Capra reported October 20 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.

Present-day Europeans have more than 47,000 of these reintroduced ancestral alleles, and East Asians — who have more Neandertal ancestry than Europeans (SN Online: 2/12/15) — carry more than 56,000, said Capra, an evolutionary geneticist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. [Continue reading…]

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Scientists battle over whether violence has declined over time

Bruce Bower writes: Contrary to a popular idea among researchers, modern states haven’t dulled people’s long-standing taste for killing each other in battle, a controversial new study concludes. But living in a heavily populated society may up one’s odds of surviving a war, two anthropologists propose.

As a population grows, larger numbers of combatants die in wars, but those slain represent a smaller average percentage of the total population, say Dean Falk of Florida State University in Tallahassee and Charles Hildebolt of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. That pattern holds for both small-scale and state societies, the researchers report online October 13 in Current Anthropology.

Increasing absolute numbers of war dead in human societies have resulted from the invention of ever-more-lethal weapons, from stone axes to airborne bombers, the researchers suspect. But Falk and Hildebolt show that states, which centralize political power in a bureaucratic government, are less likely to lose large portions of their populations to war than are small-scale societies, such as hunter-gatherers. That’s a consequence of large populations acting as a buffer against war casualties among noncombatants, not a lesser appetite for violence, the researchers contend.

“Small-scale societies are not more violent than states,” Falk says. “But there is safety in numbers.” [Continue reading…]

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Chimpanzees learn to use tools on their own, no teaching required

Leah Froats writes: As it turns out, chimpanzees don’t need to see in order to do, no matter what the old mantra might lead you to believe.

A common belief among researchers is that chimps need to watch other members of their communities use tools before they can pick the behavior up. In a study published in PeerJ in September, researchers from the University of Birmingham, and the University of Tübingen challenged this belief and checked to see if it would hold for a specific kind of tool use.

They attempted to recreate a behavior commonly found in the wild: the use of sticks to scoop algae from the water to eat. Would chimpanzees that were unfamiliar with this behavior be able to figure it out on their own? [Continue reading…]

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