1.7 the impact of fire control on communication

Most important was the impact of the campfire on communication. Before this forward momentum of fire control, communication was limited to daytime: during the foraging hours and the food sharing upon reaching the next sleeping place. Before twilight, for safety purposes, everyone had to climb high in a tree to make a nest, which effectively ended communication. But now, with a campfire keeping predators at bay, they could rest and communicate all night long! Those nightly hours could be used for nothing else but communication.

What did they communicate during this long nightly hours?

One might say: nothing at all, they just wrapped themselves in a hide and went to sleep while only one of them (a man of course) kept his eyes open and the fire burning. Speculating in this way however, one might easily overlook that they were a subspecies of bonobos: fervent communicators![1] In their new, more dangerous habitat they lived in closer togetherness than their rain forest ancestors, so they needed to be even more social. The new circumstances in combination with their bonobo-like inclination had already lead them to their new habit of names for the things.

So: what did they communicate? I propose it was the exchange of thoughts, expressions of what was going on in their mind: in other words, they were sharing emotions. For example the memory of some shocking event in the past day. Communicating these emotions took the form of performances. Let me dish up a possible ‘performance’ here.

The threatening encounter with the dangerous buffalo! The males had made a line with their stones at hand. The buffalo had hesitated, perhaps he remembered an encounter with a troupe of those apes, resulting in a hailstorm of painful stones. He scraped with his hoofs. After some long lasting seconds the buffalo had turned his back and moved.

Now, quietly around the campfire, a woman, with that threatening event in her mind, got up and imitated it with emotional gestures. The others screamed in approval. A man jumped up and imitated the buffalo. The emotional screaming increased. Other men jumped up and made the defense line, with imitated stones at hand. Then the ‘buffalo’ slunk off, and the screaming became jubilation. And calm returned in the group. But the nice performance stayed in everybody’s mind, and after several quiet minutes some women jumped up again and repeated the performance. And again, and again, until everybody wrapped himself in his hide to go to sleep. Evening after evening they did ‘the buffalo’ over and over, until a new event was subject of a new performance.

Generations after generations similar nightly performances became ever more sophisticated, and the gestured communication too. Sophistication means that the gestured ‘words’ underwent standardizing and shortening. Because when the beginning of a gestured ‘word’ is already understood, you don’t need to finish the whole gesture. In a group of women gossiping by sign language and cries, each woman wants to contribute her share. (Why women? Hunting men make no noise. But gathering women chatter and laugh: noise chases serpents away.)

Expressing such emotional thoughts the person used her/his whole body (just like bonobos do today) with accompanying cries. The others responded with imitating gestures and cries, and many of them jumped up and joined the communicating person. And when communicating very emotional items, the whole group was dancing and crying, over and over. From generation to generation, this behavior became ever more ritualized, controlled and refined.

When we say ‘ritualizing’, we mean, as neatly formulated in Wikipedia, “behavior that is formally organized into repeatable patterns, the basic function of which is to facilitate interactions between individuals, between an individual and his deity, or between an individual and himself across a span of time.” Ritual synchronizes the activity of participants, a phenomenon that contributes to group cohesion – which can also contribute to survival. Some scholars also suggest that human ritual behavior reduces anxiety. It makes me think of the ‘war dances’ of the Yanomamö[2] , as preparation of a raid. A more modern example may be the ritual drilling of recruits in the barracks.

They began dancing and singing around the campfire. In my view, dancing and singing cannot be separated here, which why we may call it dancing/singing.

  1. We can pass a fruit tree without noticing the chimpanzee group we were looking for, as it sits silently in the canopy. On the other hand, a group of bonobos will be heard from a far distance, screeching like a mob of barking dogs. See Frans de Waal’s book Bonobo (1997) and Craig Stanford’s book Significant Others (NY 2001)
  2. Napoleon Chagnon Yanomamö. The Fierce People (New York, 1983)

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Used abbreviations

GHs: gatherers/hunters (the phase from 2 million years ago to 10.000 years ago)

AGRs: agriculturers (the phase from 10.000 years ago till now)

NT(s)Neanderthal people

MSA(s): Middle Stone Age people (African NTs)

AMH(s): Anatomical Modern Humans (H sapiens people), like we are

(m)ya: (million) years ago

ANBOs: Ancestor Bonobos (ape-men), our earliest human ancestors

Paleos: all scientists that are important for our story.

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