The art of not trying

John Tierney writes: Just be yourself.

The advice is as maddening as it is inescapable. It’s the default prescription for any tense situation: a blind date, a speech, a job interview, the first dinner with the potential in-laws. Relax. Act natural. Just be yourself.

But when you’re nervous, how can you be yourself? How you can force yourself to relax? How can you try not to try?

It makes no sense, but the paradox is essential to civilization, according to Edward Slingerland. He has developed, quite deliberately, a theory of spontaneity based on millenniums of Asian philosophy and decades of research by psychologists and neuroscientists.

He calls it the paradox of wu wei, the Chinese term for “effortless action.” Pronounced “ooo-way,” it has similarities to the concept of flow, that state of effortless performance sought by athletes, but it applies to a lot more than sports. Wu wei is integral to romance, religion, politics and commerce. It’s why some leaders have charisma and why business executives insist on a drunken dinner before sealing a deal.

Dr. Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, argues that the quest for wu wei has been going on ever since humans began living in groups larger than hunter-gathering clans. Unable to rely on the bonds of kinship, the first urban settlements survived by developing shared values, typically through religion, that enabled people to trust one another’s virtue and to cooperate for the common good. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Massive genetic effort confirms bird songs related to human speech

Scientific American reports: Songbirds stutter, babble when young, become mute if parts of their brains are damaged, learn how to sing from their elders and can even be “bilingual” — in other words, songbirds’ vocalizations share a lot of traits with human speech. However, that similarity goes beyond behavior, researchers have found. Even though humans and birds are separated by millions of years of evolution, the genes that give us our ability to learn speech have much in common with those that lend birds their warble.

A four-year long effort involving more than 100 researchers around the world put the power of nine supercomputers into analyzing the genomes of 48 species of birds. The results, published this week in a package of eight articles in Science and 20 papers in other journals, provides the most complete picture of the bird family tree thus far. The project has also uncovered genetic signatures in song-learning bird brains that have surprising similarities to the genetics of speech in humans, a finding that could help scientists study human speech.

The analysis suggests that most modern birds arose in an impressive speciation event, a “big bang” of avian diversification, in the 10 million years immediately following the extinction of dinosaurs. This period is more recent than posited in previous genetic analyses, but it lines up with the fossil record. By delving deeper into the rich data set, research groups identified when birds lost their teeth, investigated the relatively slow evolution of crocodiles and outlined the similarities between birds’ and humans’ vocal learning ability, among other findings. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

The thoughts of our ancient ancestors

The discovery of what appear to have been deliberately etched markings made by a human ancestor, Homo erectus, on the surface of a shell, call for a reconsideration of assumptions that have been made about the origins of abstract thought.

While the meaning of these zigzag markings will most likely remain forever unknown, it can reasonably be inferred that for the individual who created them, the marks had some significance.

In a report in Nature, Josephine Joordens, a biologist at Leiden University whose team discovered the markings, says:

“We’ve looked at all possibilities, but in the end we are really certain that this must have been made by an agent who did a very deliberate action with a very sharp implement,” says Joordens. Her team tried replicating the pattern on fresh and fossilized shells, “and that made us realize how difficult it really was”, she says.

Saying much more about the engraving is tricky. “If you don’t know the intention of the person who made it, it’s impossible to call it art,” says Joordens.

“But on the other hand, it is an ancient drawing. It is a way of expressing yourself. What was meant by the person who did this, we simply don’t know, ” she adds. “It could have been to impress his girlfriend, or to doodle a bit, or to mark the shell as his own property.”

Clive Finlayson, a zoologist at the Gibraltar Museum who was part of the team that described cross-hatch patterns linked to Neanderthals, is also agnostic about whether to call the H. erectus doodles art. What is more important, he says, is the growing realization that abilities such as abstract thinking, once ascribed to only H. sapiens, were present in other archaic humans, including, now, their ancestors.

“I’ve been suggesting increasingly strongly that a lot of these things that are meant to be modern human we’re finding in other hominids,” he says. “We really need to revisit these concepts and take stock.”

Palaeoanthropology, by necessity, is a highly speculative discipline — therein lies both its strength and its weakness.

The conservatism of hard science recoils at the idea that some scratches on a single shell amount to sufficient evidence to prompt a reconsideration about the origins of the human mind, and yet to refrain from such speculation seems like an effort to restrain the powers of the very thing we are trying to understand.

Rationally, there is as much reason to assume that abstract thinking long predates modern humans and thus searching for evidence of its absence and finding none would leave us agnostic about its presence or absence, than there is reason to assume that at some juncture it was born.

My inclination is to believe that any living creature that has some capacity to construct a neurological representation of their surroundings is by that very capacity employing something akin to abstract thinking.

This ability for the inner to mirror the outer has no doubt evolved, becoming progressively more complex and more deeply abstract, and yet mind, if defined as world-mirroring, seems to have been born when life first moved.

facebooktwittermail

Long before we learned how to make wine our ancestors acquired a taste for rotten fruit

Live Science: Human ancestors may have begun evolving the knack for consuming alcohol about 10 million years ago, long before modern humans began brewing booze, researchers say.

The ability to break down alcohol likely helped human ancestors make the most out of rotting, fermented fruit that fell onto the forest floor, the researchers said. Therefore, knowing when this ability developed could help researchers figure out when these human ancestors began moving to life on the ground, as opposed to mostly in trees, as earlier human ancestors had lived.

“A lot of aspects about the modern human condition — everything from back pain to ingesting too much salt, sugar and fat — goes back to our evolutionary history,” said lead study author Matthew Carrigan, a paleogeneticist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. “We wanted to understand more about the modern human condition with regards to ethanol,” he said, referring to the kind of alcohol found in rotting fruit and that’s also used in liquor and fuel. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Societies in harsh environments more likely to believe in moralizing high gods

EurekAlert!: Just as physical adaptations help populations prosper in inhospitable habitats, belief in moralizing, high gods might be similarly advantageous for human cultures in poorer environments. A new study from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) suggests that societies with less access to food and water are more likely to believe in these types of deities.

“When life is tough or when it’s uncertain, people believe in big gods,” says Russell Gray, a professor at the University of Auckland and a founding director of the Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences in Jena, Germany. “Prosocial behavior maybe helps people do well in harsh or unpredictable environments.”

Gray and his coauthors found a strong correlation between belief in high gods who enforce a moral code and other societal characteristics. Political complexity–namely a social hierarchy beyond the local community– and the practice of animal husbandry were both strongly associated with a belief in moralizing gods.

The emergence of religion has long been explained as a result of either culture or environmental factors but not both. The new findings imply that complex practices and characteristics thought to be exclusive to humans arise from a medley of ecological, historical, and cultural variables.

“When researchers discuss the forces that shaped human history, there is considerable disagreement as to whether our behavior is primarily determined by culture or by the environment,” says primary author Carlos Botero, a researcher at the Initiative for Biological Complexity at North Carolina State University. “We wanted to throw away all preconceived notions regarding these processes and look at all the potential drivers together to see how different aspects of the human experience may have contributed to the behavioral patterns we see today.” [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Cooperation is what makes us human

Kat McGowan writes: Tales about the origins of our species always start off like this: A small band of hunter-gatherers roams the savannah, loving, warring, and struggling for survival under the African sun. They do not start like this: A fat guy falls off a New York City subway platform onto the tracks.

But what happens next is a quintessential story of who we are as human beings.

On Feb. 17, 2013, around 2:30 a.m., Garrett O’Hanlon, a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet third class, was out celebrating his 22nd birthday in New York City. He and his sister were in the subway waiting for a train when a sudden silence came over the platform, followed by a shriek. People pointed down to the tracks.

O’Hanlon turned and saw a man sprawled facedown on the tracks. “The next thing that happened, I was on the tracks, running toward him,” he says. “I honestly didn’t have a thought process.”

O’Hanlon grabbed the unconscious man by the shoulders, lifting his upper body off the tracks, but struggled to move him. He was deadweight. According to the station clock, the train would arrive in less than two minutes. From the platform, O’Hanlon’s sister was screaming at him to save himself.

Suddenly other arms were there: Personal trainer Dennis Codrington Jr. and his friend Matt Foley had also jumped down to help. “We grabbed him, one by the legs, one by the shoulders, one by the chest,” O’Hanlon says. They got the man to the edge of the platform, where a dozen or more people muscled him up and over. More hands seized the rescuers’ arms and shoulders, helping them up to safety as well.

In the aftermath of the rescue, O’Hanlon says he has been surprised that so many people have asked him why he did it. “I get stunned by the question,” he says. In his view, anybody else would’ve done the same thing. “I feel like it’s a normal reaction,” he says. “To me that’s just what people do.”

More precisely, it is something only people do, according to developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

For decades Tomasello has explored what makes humans distinctive. His conclusion? We cooperate. Many species, from ants to orcas to our primate cousins, cooperate in the wild. But Tomasello has identified a special form of cooperation. In his view, humans alone are capable of shared intentionality—they intuitively grasp what another person is thinking and act toward a common goal, as the subway rescuers did. This supremely human cognitive ability, Tomasello says, launched our species on its extraordinary trajectory. It forged language, tools, and cultures—stepping-stones to our colonization of every corner of the planet. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

35,000 year-old Indonesian cave paintings suggest art came out of Africa

The Guardian reports: Paintings of wild animals and hand markings left by adults and children on cave walls in Indonesia are at least 35,000 years old, making them some of the oldest artworks known.

The rock art was originally discovered in caves on the island of Sulawesi in the 1950s, but dismissed as younger than 10,000 years old because scientists thought older paintings could not possibly survive in a tropical climate.

But fresh analysis of the pictures by an Australian-Indonesian team has stunned researchers by dating one hand marking to at least 39,900 years old, and two paintings of animals, a pig-deer or babirusa, and another animal, probably a wild pig, to at least 35,400 and 35,700 years ago respectively.

The work reveals that rather than Europe being at the heart of an explosion of creative brilliance when modern humans arrived from Africa, the early settlers of Asia were creating their own artworks at the same time or even earlier.

Archaeologists have not ruled out that the different groups of colonising humans developed their artistic skills independently of one another, but an enticing alternative is that the modern human ancestors of both were artists before they left the African continent.

“Our discovery on Sulawesi shows that cave art was made at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world at about the same time, suggesting these practices have deeper origins, perhaps in Africa before our species left this continent and spread across the globe,” said Dr Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Ants are cool but teach us nothing

E.O. Wilson writes: For nearly seven decades, starting in boyhood, I’ve studied hundreds of kinds of ants around the world, and this qualifies me, I believe, to offer some advice on ways their lives can be applied to ours. I’ll start with the question I’m most often asked: “What can I do about the ants in my kitchen?” My response comes from the heart: Watch your step, be careful of little lives. Ants especially like honey, tuna and cookie crumbs. So put down bits of those on the floor, and watch as the first scout finds the bait and reports back to her colony by laying an odor trail. Then, as a little column follows her out to the food, you will see social behavior so strange it might be on another planet. Think of kitchen ants not as pests or bugs, but as your personal guest superorganism.

Another question I hear a lot is, “What can we learn of moral value from the ants?” Here again I will answer definitively: nothing. Nothing at all can be learned from ants that our species should even consider imitating. For one thing, all working ants are female. Males are bred and appear in the nest only once a year, and then only briefly. They are pitiful creatures with wings, huge eyes, small brains and genitalia that make up a large portion of their rear body segment. They have only one function in life: to inseminate the virgin queens during the nuptial season. They are built to be robot flying sexual missiles. Upon mating or doing their best to mate, they are programmed to die within hours, usually as victims of predators.

Many kinds of ants eat their dead — and their injured, too. You may have seen ant workers retrieve nestmates that you have mangled or killed underfoot (accidentally, I hope), thinking it battlefield heroism. The purpose, alas, is more sinister. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How ancient DNA is rewriting human history

Michael White writes: There are no written records of the most important developments in our history: the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, the initial colonization of regions outside Africa, and, most crucially, the appearance of modern humans and the vanishing of archaic ones. Our primary information sources about these “pre-historic” events are ancient tools, weapons, bones, and, more recently, DNA. Like an ancient text that has picked up interpolations over the millennia, our genetic history can be difficult to recover from the DNA of people alive today. But with the invention of methods to read DNA taken from ancient bones, we now have access to much older copies of our genetic history, and it’s radically changing how we understand our deep past. What seemed like an episode of Lost turns out to be much more like Game of Thrones: instead of a story of small, isolated groups that colonized distant new territory, human history is a story of ancient populations that migrated and mixed all over the world.

There is no question that most human evolutionary history took place in Africa. But by one million years ago—long before modern humans evolved — archaic human species were already living throughout Asia and Europe. By 30,000 years ago, the archaic humans had vanished, and modern humans had taken their place. How did that happen?

From the results of early DNA studies in the late 1980s and early ’90s, scientists argued that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa, and then expanded into Asia, Oceania, and Europe, beginning about 60,000 years ago. The idea was that modern humans colonized the rest of the world in a succession of small founding groups — each one a tiny sampling of the total modern human gene pool. These small, isolated groups settled new territory and replaced the archaic humans that lived there. As a result, humans in different parts of the world today have their own distinctive DNA signature, consisting of the genetic quirks of their ancestors who first settled the area, as well as the genetic adaptations to the local environment that evolved later.
There are very few isolated branches of the human family tree. People in nearly every part of the world are a product of many different ancient populations, and sometimes surprisingly close relationships span a wide geographical distance.

This view of human history, called the “serial founder effect model,” has big implications for our understanding of how we came to be who we are. Most importantly, under this model, genetic differences between geographically separated human populations reflect deep branchings in the human family tree, branches that go back tens of thousands of years. It also declares that people have evolutionary adaptations that are matched to their geographical area, such as lighter skin in Asians and Europeans or high altitude tolerance among Andeans and Tibetans. With a few exceptions, such as the genetic mixing after Europeans colonized the Americas, our geography reflects our deep ancestry.

Well, it’s time to scrap this picture of human history. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Robert Sapolsky: Are humans just another primate?

facebooktwittermail

Humans are wired for bad news

Jacob Burak writes: I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first? If it’s bad news, you’re in good company – that’s what most people pick. But why?

Negative events affect us more than positive ones. We remember them more vividly and they play a larger role in shaping our lives. Farewells, accidents, bad parenting, financial losses and even a random snide comment take up most of our psychic space, leaving little room for compliments or pleasant experiences to help us along life’s challenging path. The staggering human ability to adapt ensures that joy over a salary hike will abate within months, leaving only a benchmark for future raises. We feel pain, but not the absence of it.

Hundreds of scientific studies from around the world confirm our negativity bias: while a good day has no lasting effect on the following day, a bad day carries over. We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and they affect us longer. Socially, we invest more in avoiding a bad reputation than in building a good one. Emotionally, we go to greater lengths to avoid a bad mood than to experience a good one. Pessimists tend to assess their health more accurately than optimists. In our era of political correctness, negative remarks stand out and seem more authentic. People – even babies as young as six months old – are quick to spot an angry face in a crowd, but slower to pick out a happy one; in fact, no matter how many smiles we see in that crowd, we will always spot the angry face first. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Why do laughter, smiles and tears look so similar?

Michael Graziano writes: About four thousand years ago, somewhere in the Middle East — we don’t know where or when, exactly — a scribe drew a picture of an ox head. The picture was rather simple: just a face with two horns on top. It was used as part of an abjad, a set of characters that represent the consonants in a language. Over thousands of years, that ox-head icon gradually changed as it found its way into many different abjads and alphabets. It became more angular, then rotated to its side. Finally it turned upside down entirely, so that it was resting on its horns. Today it no longer represents an ox head or even a consonant. We know it as the capital letter A.

The moral of this story is that symbols evolve.

Long before written symbols, even before spoken language, our ancestors communicated by gesture. Even now, a lot of what we communicate to each other is non-verbal, partly hidden beneath the surface of awareness. We smile, laugh, cry, cringe, stand tall, shrug. These behaviours are natural, but they are also symbolic. Some of them, indeed, are pretty bizarre when you think about them. Why do we expose our teeth to express friendliness? Why do we leak lubricant from our eyes to communicate a need for help? Why do we laugh?

One of the first scientists to think about these questions was Charles Darwin. In his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin observed that all people express their feelings in more or less the same ways. He argued that we probably evolved these gestures from precursor actions in ancestral animals. A modern champion of the same idea is Paul Ekman, the American psychologist. Ekman categorised a basic set of human facial expressions — happy, frightened, disgusted, and so on — and found that they were the same across widely different cultures. People from tribal Papua New Guinea make the same smiles and frowns as people from the industrialised USA.

Our emotional expressions seem to be inborn, in other words: they are part of our evolutionary heritage. And yet their etymology, if I can put it that way, remains a mystery. Can we trace these social signals back to their evolutionary root, to some original behaviour of our ancestors? To explain them fully, we would have to follow the trail back until we left the symbolic realm altogether, until we came face to face with something that had nothing to do with communication. We would have to find the ox head in the letter A.

I think we can do that. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

The way we live our lives in stories

Jonathan Gottschall: There’s a big question about what it is that makes people people. What is it that most sets our species apart from every other species? That’s the debate that I’ve been involved in lately.

When we call the species homo sapiens that’s an argument in the debate. It’s an argument that it is our sapience, our wisdom, our intelligence, or our big brains that most sets our species apart. Other scientists, other philosophers have pointed out that, no, a lot of the time we’re really not behaving all that rationally and reasonably. It’s our upright posture that sets us apart, or it’s our opposable thumb that allows us to do this incredible tool use, or it’s our cultural sophistication, or it’s the sophistication of language, and so on and so forth. I’m not arguing against any of those things, I’m just arguing that one thing of equal stature has typically been left off of this list, and that’s the way that people live their lives inside stories.

We live in stories all day long—fiction stories, novels, TV shows, films, interactive video games. We daydream in stories all day long. Estimates suggest we just do this for hours and hours per day — making up these little fantasies in our heads, these little fictions in our heads. We go to sleep at night to rest; the body rests, but not the brain. The brain stays up at night. What is it doing? It’s telling itself stories for about two hours per night. It’s eight or ten years out of our lifetime composing these little vivid stories in the theaters of our minds.

I’m not here to downplay any of those other entries into the “what makes us special” sweepstakes. I’m just here to say that one thing that has been left off the list is storytelling. We live our lives in stories, and it’s sort of mysterious that we do this. We’re not really sure why we do this. It’s one of these questions — storytelling — that falls in the gap between the sciences and the humanities. If you have this division into two cultures: you have the science people over here in their buildings, and the humanities people over here in their buildings. They’re writing in their own journals, and publishing their own book series, and the scientists are doing the same thing.

You have this division, and you have all this area in between the sciences and the humanities that no one is colonizing. There are all these questions in the borderlands between these disciplines that are rich and relatively unexplored. One of them is storytelling and it’s one of these questions that humanities people aren’t going to be able to figure out on their own because they don’t have a scientific toolkit that will help them gradually, painstakingly narrow down the field of competing ideas. The science people don’t really see these questions about storytelling as in their jurisdiction: “This belongs to someone else, this is the humanities’ territory, we don’t know anything about it.”

What is needed is fusion — people bringing together methods, ideas, approaches from scholarship and from the sciences to try to answer some of these questions about storytelling. Humans are addicted to stories, and they play an enormous role in human life and yet we know very, very little about this subject. [Continue reading… or watch a video of Gottschall’s talk.]

facebooktwittermail

Humanity at the crossroads: Sheldon Solomon on the work of Ernest Becker

facebooktwittermail

When chance surpasses reason

Michael Schulson writes: In the 1970s, a young American anthropologist named Michael Dove set out for Indonesia, intending to solve an ethnographic mystery. Then a graduate student at Stanford, Dove had been reading about the Kantu’, a group of subsistence farmers who live in the tropical forests of Borneo. The Kantu’ practise the kind of shifting agriculture known to anthropologists as swidden farming, and to everyone else as slash-and-burn. Swidden farmers usually grow crops in nutrient-poor soil. They use fire to clear their fields, which they abandon at the end of each growing season.

Like other swidden farmers, the Kantu’ would establish new farming sites ever year in which to grow rice and other crops. Unlike most other swidden farmers, the Kantu’ choose where to place these fields through a ritualised form of birdwatching. They believe that certain species of bird – the Scarlet-rumped Trogon, the Rufous Piculet, and five others – are the sons-in-law of God. The appearances of these birds guide the affairs of human beings. So, in order to select a site for cultivation, a Kantu’ farmer would walk through the forest until he spotted the right combination of omen birds. And there he would clear a field and plant his crops.

Dove figured that the birds must be serving as some kind of ecological indicator. Perhaps they gravitated toward good soil, or smaller trees, or some other useful characteristic of a swidden site. After all, the Kantu’ had been using bird augury for generations, and they hadn’t starved yet. The birds, Dove assumed, had to be telling the Kantu’ something about the land. But neither he, nor any other anthropologist, had any notion of what that something was.

He followed Kantu’ augurers. He watched omen birds. He measured the size of each household’s harvest. And he became more and more confused. Kantu’ augury is so intricate, so dependent on slight alterations and is-the-bird-to-my-left-or-my-right contingencies that Dove soon found there was no discernible correlation at all between Piculets and Trogons and the success of a Kantu’ crop. The augurers he was shadowing, Dove told me, ‘looked more and more like people who were rolling dice’. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

When we were fish

Nautilus: Neil Shubin has been going backward his whole life. “I teach anatomy but I want to understand why things look the way they do,” says the paleontologist and professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago. “And to understand the fundamental questions you have to go ever deeper into history. So I have gone backward from humans to fish to planets.”

Shubin, 53, is referring to his two books, Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, which detail the atoms and molecules, genes and cells, sculpted by evolution into the common bonds of life. In 2004, on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic, Shubin discovered one of the key links in animal evolution, the fish known as Tiktaalik, that, he writes, “was specialized for a rather extraordinary function: it was capable of doing push-ups.”

Shubin and his team learned from Tiktaalik fossils that the big fish with the flat head had a shoulder, elbow, and wrist composed of the same bones in a human’s upper arm, forearm, and wrist. Tiktaalik used those bones to navigate shallow streams and ponds “and even to flop around on the mudflats along the banks.” Here was the creature from the lagoon that revealed how animals evolved from fish to us. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Prehistoric skeleton in Mexico links modern Native Americans to Siberians

The New York Times reports: Most geneticists agree that Native Americans are descended from Siberians who crossed into America 26,000 to 18,000 years ago via a land bridge over the Bering Strait. But while genetic analysis of modern Native Americans lends support to this idea, strong fossil evidence has been lacking.

Now a nearly complete skeleton of a prehistoric teenage girl, newly discovered in an underwater cave in the Yucatán Peninsula, establishes a clear link between the ancient and modern peoples, scientists say.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers report that they analyzed mitochondrial DNA — genetic material passed down through the mother — that was extracted from the skeleton’s wisdom tooth by divers. The analysis reveals that the girl, who lived at least 12,000 years ago, belonged to an Asian-derived genetic lineage seen only in Native Americans. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Neanderthals were not less intelligent than modern humans, scientists find

The Guardian reports: Scientists have concluded that Neanderthals were not the primitive dimwits they are commonly portrayed to have been.

The view of Neanderthals as club-wielding brutes is one of the most enduring stereotypes in science, but researchers who trawled the archaeological evidence say the image has no basis whatsoever.

They said scientists had fuelled the impression of Neanderthals being less than gifted in scores of theories that purport to explain why they died out while supposedly superior modern humans survived.

Wil Roebroeks at Leiden University in the Netherlands said: “The connotation is generally negative. For instance, after incidents with the Dutch Ajax football hooligans about a week ago, one Dutch newspaper piece pleaded to make football stadiums off-limits for such ‘Neanderthals’.”

The Neanderthals are believed to have lived between roughly 350,000 and 40,000 years ago, their populations spreading from Portugal in the west to the Altai mountains in central Asia in the east. They vanished from the fossil record when modern humans arrived in Europe.

The reasons for the demise of the Neanderthals have long been debated in the scientific community, but many explanations assume that modern humans had a cognitive edge that manifested itself in more cooperative hunting, better weaponry and innovation, a broader diet, or other major advantages.

Roebroeks and his colleague, Dr Paola Villa at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, trawled through the archaeological records to look for evidence of modern human superiority that underpinned nearly a dozen theories about the Neanderthals’ demise and found that none of them stood up.

“The explanations make good stories, but the only problem is that there is no archaeology to back them up,” said Roebroeks.

Villa said part of the misunderstanding had arisen because researchers compared Neanderthals with their successors, the modern humans who lived in the Upper Palaeolithic, rather than the humans who lived at the same time. That is like saying people in the 19th century were less intelligent than those in the 21st because they didn’t have laptops and space travel.

“The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there,” said Villa. “What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true.” The study is published in the journal Plos One. [Continue reading…]

It’s always worth remembering that modernity as it is lived (rather than as it is written about) is nothing more than a name for the present — that point which stands right on the edge of an unknown future. In this sense all humans and other hominids have lived in a modern condition and their innovations have been defined by what was contemporary.

If comparisons can usefully be made between humans and their closest kin at different points in history, rather than judge them on the basis of the artifacts they have created, a more interesting question is how well each has been attuned to the environment that supports them.

That attunement probably cannot be scientifically quantified since in part it would have to be measured through attributes that might leave no physical traces — such as knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants.

Since the arc of human progress has largely been defined by our increasing ability to cut ourselves off from the world in which we live, in terms of environmental attunement, the human of today is less advanced than a Neanderthal.

facebooktwittermail