Sunday, January 24, 2016


Here’s the message of the “radical anthropologists” as simply as I can state it with my current level of understanding.

The enormously expanded knowledge about human fossils, the genome of various homonins, the neurology of brains, the weather of the past, molecular geology, have presented an amazing wealth of information about the deep past before there was writing, or speech, or anything resembling apes — much less hominins.  We’re far beyond the days when educated people still believed the Bible was a literal account or even that a mega-humanoid made little humans out of clay and breathed life into them.  But there are echoes.  

A little group of people who studied ancient skulls of humans and their predecessors were very aware of the well-known fact that at some point there was an expansion of the brain in what came to be called the “pre-frontal cortex” that pushed out the skull into a forehead.  Experts know that the brain responds to use by creating more neurons, so strongly that like a dandelion pushing up the cement over it, the neurons can bulge the skull.  But what use did these very early pre-humans have for the part of the brain we know houses things like the “working platform” of the senses, empathy through bits like mirror cells, ethics, self-management, much of what makes us human— all the things that JFK’s sister and Tennessee Williams’ sister lost when they were lobotomized.  A lobotomy erases a million millennia of evolution.

by Lucian Freud (l.) and Carracci (r.)

Trauma to this area means a higher likelihood of being involved in violence, more likelihood of ending up in prison, less ability to hold a job or develop a relationship with another human.  I had both a brother and a father who suffered “closed skull trauma”.  My brother fell and my father was in a car crash in 1948.  If you’re keeping up with the conversation about football and boxing damage, you know what I’m talking about.  It can be very subtle and develop over time.  Both had rage attacks, but none became violent except that my father spanked us for small infractions.  My brother was dependent on my mother to guide him, though he seemed normal, and my father changed into an erratic and domineering but passive man. 

What these anthropologists wanted to know was what made that forehead area bulge in the first place.  It happened too early in evolution to be speech, too early to be tool-making, way too early to be agriculture.  At the time the species involved were hunter-gatherers, moving around in small groups, just on the verge of figuring out how to use fire.  Once cooking was invented, the human body suddenly took in far more calories of higher quality, easier to digest, extra energy for thought.  Brains burn calories rapidly. 

They stood up, which meant they could carry and throw, and some of the gender dimorphism faded, since the massive jaws and robust bodies of males were not so crucial.  A smaller area could supply enough food for more people so the group size expanded a bit.  This is what we call “the Stone Age” because most of the fossils from the time are stone.  Bones, too.  Body-stone.  These Brit scientists speak of “lithic times” — “lith” means stone.

The trouble is that aside from flint-knapping edged tools of enormous effectiveness (surgeons have reported that flint-knapped scalpels exceed metal edges in sharpness) and considerable beauty, the rest of their material culture has disappeared except for remnants in deep caves.  No one was making pecked out or painted images yet.  The remnants were incredibly stable — nothing seems to have changed for another million years and more.  So — these scientists asked — if these hunter-gatherers have this pre-frontal cortex with its developing working platform, essentially the brain’s dashboard, and we can’t see anything physical, what might have been going on in those neurons.  What are we missing?  What is the dashboard managing?

Their answer was social collaboration, partly for hunting and partly for relationships among themselves.  Of course, a big part of the relationships was managing hunting and the products of hunting and gathering.  “You go with Herb to track grazers and Alf and I will circle the mountain to see what’s ripe now.”  When they got back, they shared out the food, in conformity with the group's customs.  You want to be quiet while hunting, so a gesture language developed.

Some of this was happening before physical evolution created the larynx/pharynx shapes and placements that allow language sounds: the vowels; the hisses, stops, smacks, trills, and clicks of consonants.  I listen to my cats communicate  quite clearly without words.  The Striped Terror bursts through the cat flap and announces, “I’m back safely!”  The Dust Bunny goes looking for his beloved Terror, calling, “Where are you?”  More relentlessly than any alarm clock, the two of them come to my pillow and say, “Catfood.” 

Maybe you’ve seen a little group of humans working on some project that they agree about.  They watch the main person, adjust to them, learn from them, interrupt them — all without words.  It’s why YouTube works when you want to learn about plumbing: you can watch.  Gambling is one of the things people watch most intently and a game like stick game is the most absorbing of all because it’s watching other people to see the "tells" of what they’re doing with that little marker.  One of the earliest stone artifacts is a little marker with diagonal lines on it that looks very much like a stick game marker.  Africa.  Blombas.

So the Radical Anthropologists are saying that watching and interacting with each other developed all those pre-frontal cortex neurons until finally something triggered the explosion of art, music, and language that until now we have thought were the first signs of being human.  It wasn't the development of the pre-frontal cortex that caused elaborating humanness but the USE of that tissue for material objects that suddenly clicked.  Someone made a gift for a beloved and said, "I love you."

Here’s the real-life, right-now significance.  The assumption of the Victorians, etc., was that people without writing were without culture (written words WERE culture), therefore could be morally oppressed and treated like animals.  To them it was very important to be distinguished from animals, which is why evolution was such a terrifying shock.  It meant that humans could be treated like animals, as meat, which was self-evident to armies, cops, doctors and cannibals.  It challenged religion.  

The problem of indigenous non-European people who had only oral cultures was something like the problem of early Euros who didn't have metal yet, and thus were assumed to be dumb.  Experts kept labeling Indians "Stone Age."  American Indian culture had no churches, no writing, no metal, no flags and no boundaries.  To Europeans, that meant they were not quite human, fair game for oppression.  The Euros had no ability to perceive the intricate, spiritual, and powerful systems of the North American people, just as they never speculated about the extremely early lives of pre-humans and portrayed them as hairy knuckle draggers.

Much attention has been paid to the idea that agriculture was what pulled us into modernity, technology, and the other wonders of science.  This is probably true, at least partly, but there was a lot more out there before agriculture than we are used to assuming.  An intricate pattern of useful soft materials has been lost, though we can see chimps with their little twigs and sticks, prying insects out of their holes or knocking down high fruit.  The whole reason that Leakey was so determined for Jane Goodall and those other women to go “be a primate” was for them to learn the social culture that underlay everything else.  And they did.  A lot of it was “monkey business,” tricking, hiding, hoarding, “look-over-there!” and other poker shenanigans.  But also compassion, grief, and attachment.

I think that in this vid of a release, recognition by the chimp took even Goodall by surprise.
This is all before the appearance of language — oral or written — and though even a bonobo can learn human behavior and words, they have no sentence syntax.  We don’t know about their consciousness. They certainly know where they are and what to do. 

The next step is learning how to use metaphor and the use of material culture to mean things.  This is the verge of modern thought, though that, too, continues to evolve, partly because of the internet.  That’s the next step that I’ll pursue, and it means doubling back to 1957 and Dean Barnlund’s “Language and Thought” class at Northwestern and to sweep up Turner’s and Lakoff’s ideas about perception and expression, being in the world, creating meaning.

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