17. Anatomical Modern Humans (AMHs)


As said before, sign language is an extension of body language. Not just the hands and fingers play their role, but also the arms, facial expressions, and posture and movements of the body as a whole. In early humans’ emotional and dramatic performances, this body language function merged into a kind of dancing which over time became more and more ritualized. One of the essential features of dancing has always been the repetitive movements, which (just like walking, jogging or playing sentry-go) release endorphins. As such, it serves as one of our uncertainty-allaying mechanisms.

As for singing, I already mentioned how our ancestor-bonobos probably were very communicative animals, screeching emotionally all day long just like present-day bonobos. From the beginning, vocal sounds accompanied their gestured communication. Besides the screeches that were beyond conscious control (being driven from the limbic system) there probably evolved a more intentional application of conscious (neocortical driven) sounds like [puffs] and [clicks] and [mmms], to support the communicating of still primarily gestured names for things. Such non-vocal sounds proved useful in the dark, too[1]. In the dancing-singing of the Creation Story, the neocortical control gradually emerged over many generations: in line with Steven Mithen[2] I assume that the Neanderthals were indeed already more or less ‘singing Neanderthals’.

Most scholars assume that the AMHs (Anatomical Modern Humans) were the first real speakers to communicate with spoken names, while for them the gestures were reduced to an accompanying role. In a relative short time during the great migrations, these AMH descendants of the African early humans replaced earlier humans wherever they showed up. These Anatomical Modern Humans are our nearest ancestors: every human today is an AMH.

Scratching on ochre from Blombos cave, South Africa.

Now what made these first AMHs so special? A genetic mutation, says Richard Klein of Stanford University.[3] Other paleos do not agree, but they do not offer a satisfying answer on the question either. Sure is that (apart from anatomical differences) the AMHs in Africa were culturally quite different from all earlier humans. Unlike their predecessors, they used bone, antler and ivory to make fish hooks and harpoons. For the first time in human history, they also relied on sea food: their camp sites were characterized by shell middens.

At the Blombos cave some chunks of ochre were found that were marked with cross-hatched scratches 70,000 years ago: perhaps the first graphic symbols ever. And the research of Richard Klein[4] shows how the AMHs hunted buffaloes with more sophisticated weapons. But still the question remains: why did AMHs develop this new behavior, while the Early Humans did not?

I have my own humanosophic hypothesis here. Communicating with only one’s mouth and without further body language makes lying more easy. When trying to lie with sign language, you have to keep too much nerves of your body under control (and the person you are trying to deceive, will already be closely watching your body language). The others will see more easily that you are lying. Even in today’s sign language for the deaf, lying is much more difficult than in spoken language[5]. But when you communicate primarily by sounds, you can lie with a poker face.

Of course the AMHs didn’t lie every day or even every year. But the fact that they could so when needed, may have made them a tiny little bit more self-confident and individualistic. This growing inner confidence made them a little more flexible, a little less restricted to rigid traditions. In the early human mindset, thus far mainly formed by traditions and rituals, tradition and truth were two closely related concepts. Once people became aware they were able to lie (to deviate from truth) this may have made them, by inference, more aware of the possibility to deviate from tradition as well. Eventually this made them more inventive. Unlike their conservative[6] Neanderthal counterparts, the AMHs began to manufacture new kinds of hunting weapons (such as fish harpoons and fish hooks) from other material than the traditional stone: bone, antler and ivory. These helped them to open a new food niche which until then was not being used by other early humans: the water world.

Maybe I overplay my hand with this theory about the effect of the new spoken communication. We also might simply ascribe the transition from Early Human to AMH to the fact that the AMH ancestors in the glacial period of extreme dryness were forced to search for alternative food sources – which they found at the coast, in lakes and in rivers. Therefore they became coastline dwellers, adapting to feeding on shells and other water animals. The oldest harpoons, found at Katanda, date from 90,000 years ago; the beads, used as jewellery, found at Blombos cave, are from 75,000 years ago. Christopher Hensilwood, the paleo who found them, says: “There’s more and more evidence that they could fish and hunt large mammals, and that they were making fine bone tools. When our ancestors left Africa, they were already modern, already thinking and behaving in many senses the way we do today.”[7] However, this still leaves the question open why these Early Humans were able to make these ‘modern’ changes, and why this did not happen earlier than some 90.000 years ago.

Their extra nutritional niche: mollusks, fish and other water animals, enabled them to feed larger groups. The groups of the Early Humans numbered around 30 people; those of the AMHs could number around 100 people. In a small group, new ideas may find not enough support and die away, while in a larger group new ideas may easily find at least some followers. Furthermore: as a consequence of better nutrition, the number of AMH-groups also increased, which in turn caused more inter-group exchange of goods and ideas over larger areas. Hensilwood[8] points out the increase in population of modern humans, and how this easily explains both the new, modern behavior that lead to the ‘Out of Africa’-migrations, and the “creative explosion” that took place around 45,000 years ago in Europe. But the question why these Early Humans managed to achieve this, and why it did not happen earlier than some 90.000 years ago, is still waiting for a scientific answer (maybe our humanosophic approach can offer better answers here).

Vocal communicating – just by larynx and mouth – must have had a strange effect on an Early Human: making her a tiny little bit more individualistic, a tiny little bit more independent from traditional thinking. Yes, I see this as a female attainment again; for the still-gesturing men this may have been a female foolishness, too weird and unreliable to use it in their ritual prayers to the Big Ancestor before hunting. Women had a big share in the daily danced-singing of the Creation Story, but also in the allaying and charming and medicating of illness. I think the first shamans were mostly women.[9] So initially, the sophisticating of traditional sign language with ever more meaningful vocalizations may have been primarily a female concern.

Harpoons of 90.000 years ago, jewelry of 75.000 years ago: AMH-behavior may have flourished around 100.000 years ago. Also the consequences from this behavior: increasing population and perhaps some population stress, resulting in the first Out of Africa II movement. This first emigration wave (we could name it OoAII-A) not only let his traces in Skhul and Qafzeh (dated around 100.000 years ago) but also the first AMH-groups arriving in the Far East.

[1] the dark … for the Early Humans we have to consider their very sharp vision; even the slightest light was enough for them to see in the dark

[2] Steven Mithen Singing Neanderthals (2006) proposes the term Hmmmm for the pre-linguistic system of communication used by Early Humans: an acronym for Holistic (non-compositional), Manipulative (utterances are commands or suggestions, not descriptive statements), Multi-modal (acoustic as well as gestural and mimetic), Musical, end Mimetic

[3] a friendly but rather negative review of his (and science writer Blake Edgar’s) book The Dawn of Human Culture (2002), including his theory that spoken language was the result of a genetic mutation, immediately followed by a cultural ‘big bang’, has been written by Derek Bickerton in Scientific American Sept. 2002, “A Bare-Bones Account of Human Evolution”. The review ends: “The likeliest conclusion is that language as we know it arose most probably through some fusion of preexisting capacities, around the time our species originated more than 100,000 years ago. Precisely how this happened remains one of the great unsolved scientific problems. Unfortunately, Klein and Edgar don’t bring its solution any nearer.”

[4] he discovered that the Early Humans from the Klasies River caves concentrated on eland—large antelopes—instead of the more dangerous buffaloes, although buffaloes probably outnumbered eland in the local environment. In more recent sites, by contrast, buffalo bones dominate those of eland. “Something happened after 50,000 years ago that allowed people to hunt buffaloes.” (Klein, R. G. & Cruz-Uribe, K. (1984) The Analysis of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago).

[5] we remember the reactions of American deaf people on a speech of Ronald Reagan: they saw he was lying

[6] we were in the excavation site Veldwezelt-Hezerwater (Belgium): two Neanderthal campsites, one from 130.000 ya and another from 34.000 ya. On the question: is there difference in stone technology? was the answer: not at all!

[7] in National Geographic News, April 15, 2004

[8] Christopher S. Henshilwood is a Research Professor at the Institute for Human Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand. With Francesco d’Errico e.a. he excavated the Blombos cave (near Cape Town, SA) and found ornament shell beads from 75,000 years old. So 5000 years older then the engraved ochre chunks mentioned before. The oldest shell midden, the ‘hallmark’ of AMH-behavior, is also found at Blombos cave … dated 140,000 years old

[9] Remnants of this tradition can still be found in several aboriginal cultures, for example in Siberia; see also the work of Mircea Eliade.

3 Responses to “17. Anatomical Modern Humans (AMHs)”

  • Alan:

    Two books I recommend:
    ‘Hierarchy In The Forest’ by Christopher Boehm
    ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ by Jared Diamond
    They discusses the difference between AMH and ‘Fully Modern’ (AMH plus ‘modern behavior’). Diamond suggests that it was ‘maybe language’ that caused the change to fully modern. Boehm offers a more compelling explanation: the development of the ability to form into negotiated egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands.

  • admin:

    Dear Alan,
    Only one of my many book shelves is right above my work place. It carries the most important books, and as soon as a new important book has appeared, it replaces a book on it that has lost importance. The 1992 book of Jared Diamond is still there, but not for long, I’m afraid: too long not consulted.
    ‘Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behaviour’ (1999): I’ve only read a review of it with many citations, leaving me with the impression that Boehm with this book didn’t add something to what I already knew. In my pages you read that from the very beginning (from some six million years ago) natural selection favoured egalitarianism in our species – with our special sex equipment and the waning of the canines in hominid dentition as evidences for it. For Boehm only extant hunter-gatherers provide argumentation.

    >>>the development of the ability to form into negotiated egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands.<<< What are 'negotiated' bands"?

  • Alan:

    Here I hold with Diamond and Boehm: That egalitarianism was forced upon humans by our cultural choice to pursue meat and take up weapons. You do note (in earlier posts) how humans have a far stronger INSTINCT for cooperation than do apes. I suggest that we developed that instinct over millions of years of being unable to form communities in a typical (ape like) fashion – due to our weapons. Chimps form hierarchical communities with constant fighting for position. With weapons, fighting was too lethal, so early humans dispersed into small family bands. Our instinct for cooperation was barely enough to offset our much older instinct to express domination over our own brothers such that even small family bands would be marginally stable.
    Milford Wolpoff (‘Race and Human Evolution’) estimates that the total population of Neanderthals never exceeded 15,000 individuals across Europe and the Middle East.
    From his studies of modern bands, Boehm notes that they are dynamic and that there are often individuals who try and dominate the group. In a successful group, the other individuals pull together and ‘negotiate’ the strong-man wannabe into accepting equal status in the group or leaving the band altogether. Less successful outcomes were lethal combat or disintegration of the band. In his observations, viable bands require very active negotiations among members to prevent our instinct to dominate from destroying the unity. Modern human bands were completely dependent upon this cultural development, this negotiated egalitarianism.

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