A brief introduction to the history of early humans


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Chapter 3 of The dawn of everything begins with a history of the human species, beginning three million years ago. David Graeber and David Wengrow recall that we have practically no information on most of this period, a few bones or teeth, a piece of shaped flint, a footprint. There were a number of different forms of ancestral and early humans, but we know little or nothing about them, their origins, or their way of life. I focus on three points that come up in the book.

1. The New History of Human Evolution.

The basic story we all know is that Homo Sapiens emerged from a single site in Africa perhaps 500,000 years ago and gradually spread across the continent. About 80,000 years ago, H. Sapiens Sapiens, our species, began to leave Africa.

Graeber and Wengrow dismiss this story. They agree that H. sapiens emerged as a separate species around 500,000 years ago. This species included a large number of bpdy types, called morphologies. These groups crossed paths. Occasionally, groups have been isolated from each other by environmental change or migration, sometimes for millennia. Then they reconnected and crossed paths. The full panoply of modern human physical features did not fully emerge until perhaps 100 to 40 ka (thousands of years before present).

Here are two articles about it: link, link. The first article is cited by the authors; it is very readable. The second is harder. It describes current knowledge and areas requiring further research. There is a graph showing the spread of humans out of Africa and a discussion of the possible mixing of Neanderthal and Denisovan populations which are now extinct. This question is unstable.

These articles and the book describe a few fossils thought to be related to H. sapiens, but there aren’t that many. here is a Wikipedia entry on major fossils. This paper describes current thinking on the development of Homo sapiens Sapiens (sometimes called modern humans). The summary and the first part can be interesting. I just skimmed over the rest.

2. Evidence of primitive human culture.

We have virtually no evidence of human culture before about 100,000 years ago. We don’t know much about how H. sapiens evolved, or exactly when we became an identifiable species. But our authors claim that “as soon as we were human, we started doing human things”. P. 83. They believe that groups of H. Sapiens moved and separated from other groups. They assume that each group has decided how to organize itself, given its environment and the state of its technology. They assume that decisions were made consciously, intentionally, with specific goals in mind. That’s what they mean by “doing human things.”

They assume that different groups made different decisions. They simply cannot imagine that everywhere in Africa, all groups have made the same choices regarding hierarchy, rituals, gender relations, child-rearing practices, diet, dress, etc. . Then, when they came together, permanently or not, they shared their decisions and their newly acquired knowledge and technologies; and, they suppose, embraced new ideas.

There is agreement on one point. Until about 300 ka ago, humans used hand tools such as axes. Then suddenly, across Africa, there was a shift to microliths. These are shards of stone cut and shaped for tools and weapons. The splinters are attached to wood and bone by glue and wire, instead of being held by hand. This is about all we know with reasonable certainty, until about 80-100 ka ago

From maybe 100 ka ago, we begin to see hints of the culture of our ancestors. We worked beads and shells, and decorated clothes, some found in burial sites, others in caves. We find no cemeteries or common burial sites, but there are a few ‘rich burials’, with deliberate arrangements of corpses and grave goods. We also find remains of relatively large structures.

However, the authors say there is little evidence of the kinds of things one would expect in hierarchical societies. There are no permanent monumental structures. The rich burials appear to be young, or physically deformed people. There is at least one apparently young woman buried with pelvic and abdominal plates. They are not the hardy individuals one would expect to see in a hierarchical society.

The authors do not describe any ritual, which could testify to a sort of priestly hierarchy. They don’t believe we have enough evidence to support any particular view of social structures. Instead, they suggest there was a wide range of social practices.

3. Seasonal changes and gatherings.

The authors believe that our ancestors lived in small groups for part of the year and met about once a year. Native American groups lived this way, in small hunter-gatherer groups for part of the year, and in large groups to hunt migrating animals or to overwinter safely. They describe the African cultures that lived like this. Ethnographic studies show that the hierarchical structures of these later groups were different in the two contexts. The authors believe this was probably the case with our prehistoric ancestors.

There is evidence of regular gatherings of large numbers of people for at least 40,000 years. For example, there is evidence that people gathered in the Périgord region of southern France, near the confluence of the Vézère and Dordogne rivers, where there appear to have been large reindeer migrations. . It might be 25 to 35 ka ago during the last ice age. End. 38, p. 542. There are similar sites in Eurasia and Turkey.


1. Before reading all this, I had this idea that people lived in small groups close to each other until they left Africa. A moment of reflection would tell me that this is not a realistic plan. If people stayed in one group, mutations due to interbreeding would accumulate until we disappeared. The story told by Graeber and Wengrow and the other scientists quoted here makes much more sense.

On the one hand, the annual small group meetings would be good opportunities to find partners outside the small group, insuring against inbreeding. There is evidence of coordination at these meetings. Some seem to be linked to large animal migrations. It would be easier to hunt them in large groups. There is evidence of the semi-permanent construction of large buildings. Both of these suggest that people planned ahead so that there was food and shelter for the gatherings, and that they were organized in some way for these complex operations.

For much of the year, people lived by foraging and hunting small game. It would be much easier to do it in small units. A large group would eat everything in a given area faster, requiring more movement and more foraging. Getting more people involved is an exercise in bringing cats together. Large groups require more coordination than small groups.

2. I hadn’t thought much about the fossil record. I knew there were big gaps, but somehow I hadn’t noticed that having several thousand fossils wasn’t enough. Looking at the more technical articles, I realized that every story about our evolution comes from speculation based on careful examination of a relatively small number of fossils. This really makes you think about this passage from the book:

Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with myths. Probably or not, the tendency to invent stories about the distant past as a means of reflecting on the nature of our species is itself, like art and poetry, one of those distinctly human traits that have begun to take shape. crystallize in deep prehistory. And there is no doubt that some of these stories – for example, feminist theories that clearly see human sociability as emerging from collective child-rearing practices – can indeed tell us something important about the paths that have converged in modern humanity.8 But such ideas can never be partial because there was no Garden of Eden and only one Eve ever existed. P.82-3.


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