Archive for October, 2011

1. What is "Humanosophy"?


This is the first post of this brand-new blog. What does “Humanosophy” mean? Humanosophy stands for a basic insight in what it means to be human: an insight based on knowledge from realms of science such as archaeology and paleo-anthropology, biology, anthropology and psychology. What is new about humanosophy? Not these research-based insights by themselves, but  rather the fact that humanosophy integrates the knowledge from these various disciplines into one multi-disciplinary, common, shared story of mankind.

So this blog will introduce you to this common identity and background that is shared by us all, as human beings on this little planet. Once our earliest ancestors were apes, now we are humans. The story of how we became what and how we are today is the core business of a humanosopher: reconstructing the shared story of our human development and identity.

[You:] Isn’t that the core business of philosophy? Or (and) of humanism?

That should it be indeed. But have you read already the philosophical or humanistic shared story of our human development and identity? The answer is no. And that’s a pity. Because as long as this story is not available, the backward patriarchal Adam-and-Eve story is still in charge. To the detriment of millions of women who lead an unhappy and undignified life; or of millions of secular people who feel no ground under their thinking.
Because I spend all my life in reconstructing how we became human and determining human nature, doing the work of a philosopher and humanist, I name myself ‘humanosopher’, hoping you’ll become humanosopher too.

[You:] But there are already tens of science-based books of human origins!

O yes. But they put on record the successive fossils of australopithic and human kinds, the successive technologies of stone and other tools, the growing contents of skulls and so on. But you can nowhere read what made our ancestors so special that they displayed behaviour that no other kind of apes ever did, like taming the fire and believe in gods. No of those books can replace the pessimistic and suppressing monotheistic creation story.

[You:] Aah! you want to write a modern bible!

No, I want to plea for a science-based project of the United Nations. The Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (1948) is based on the humanness of men. I plea for a science-based project to filling in this humanness, with participation of all governmental universities of all countries. A never ending project: as long as science progresses. But in later posts I will work out this idea. In the next post I want to give you an oversight of the authors who are important for my thinking.

As for your mentioning of the idea for a modern bible: in the following posts I’ll sketch a science-based human mental story: how we became linguistic apes (the picture above omens it already) and how our early ancestors experienced their world in a creation story of it. It is an innate need in us: we need a ‘creation story’ of our world to feel grounded in it and to feel human togetherness. Humanosophy is a humanistic/philosophical endeavor to work on this, with help of as much scientific material as possible.   

2. Essential authors for the humanosopher

First and foremost: today most academic authors, writing about humans, are important or at least interesting. The following short list is only to give you an idea of my thinking.

I name them from memory.

  • Frans de Waal, with his books Chimpansee politiek (1982), Good Natured (1996) and Bonobo (1997).
  • Marvin Harris Our Kind (1989).
  • Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steal(1997).
  • Roger Fouts Next of Kin (1997).
  • Johanson & Shreeve Lucy’s Child (1989).
  • Chagnon Yanomamö. The Fierce People (1983).
  • Steven Mithen The Prehistory of the Mind (1996), After the Ice (2003).
  • Steven Stanley Children of the Ice Age (1996).
  • Michael Corballis The Lopsided Ape (1991).
  • Ad Borsboom De clan van de Wilde Honing (1996).

Aah! Much-much more books. But this is only to give you an idea. And it was not all from memory: for each book I stood up and reached to the shelf above my head, put it before my nose to write the title and year right.

I read four newspapers each day, cut important articles or items and the clippings come in tabloid size scrap-books of 250 pages (I am now at volume number 37). I can recover the articles in a card system. The same applies to what I find on internet and what I print out (very much). When the pile of prints is about two centimetres high, I glue the pages to an hardcover book, number the pages and start to read. Each article is noted down on the front, so is easy to recover. My little house is full of bookshelves; I’m busy with download no. 323.

A humanosopher is reading from breakfast till he switches off his bedside lamp (with the only break for the daily walk and the trip to the supermarket).

3. Human nature

Human nature is a three stage rocket.

1. On the most basic level we are a life form, like bacteria. All existing life forms strive to take as much energy as possible out of their environment, to maintain and propagate their own organism. The me-myself-and-I- inclination. This is still an influential incentive in us and it is or becomes dominant when we are in danger or think we are. And when it is tolerated by our environment and situation (a situation of power, e.g.).2. But we are (as apes et al) a kind of group animals. A group animal will be able to gather more energy sources when it belongs to a group then when it is alone. A group animal has an interest in the power of his group (collective) , in competition with other groups. This means that a group animal has to give up a part of his ego-inclination on behalf of the power of his group. Two incentives fight in the soul of the group animal: self-interest and common interest! How can it live with that internal conflict? By culture, by norms and values. The chimpanzees, who live under permanent threat of war with other groups, are the best examples of this. We know it as the fight between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in our conscience. An aside: collectivistic systems like fascism and other forms of despotism always need to create a situation of war against a (foreign) enemy, to suppress opposition.

3. As group animals we bear in us both egoism and altruism. But as humans we bear in us a third incentive on top of both. In the cultural evolution of our ancestors, who lived for about two millions of years in small bands, as nomads on the verge of extinction, we couldn’t permit disharmony, not within our own band nor with neighbour bands from which we were dependent for sex partners, common hunting, exchange of knowledge and asylum in bad times. This human incentive is our nature of the ‘noble wild’ that each of us wants to be in his deepest desire. This deep incentive became frustrated in us some ten thousand years ago, when we came to live in an overpopulation situation, like the chimpanzees. Frustrated; but far too short ago to destroy this third stage in us.

How we acquired this third hyper-social quality, we will see in the next post: “How we became humans from apes”.

In modern philosophy, the thinking about human nature became frustrated by political correctness. The ongoing nature/nurture debate, a distinction made by Galton (1822-1911), is about what is most influential in our behaviour: the environment in which we are born and live, or hereditary and genetic factors. In post-modern philosophy the environmental factors were considered dominant. Scientific attention for hereditary and genetic factors was been associated with eugenics and even fascism. In reality both nature and nurture are playing their role in us, so in post-modernism, dominant in the years after World War II, the debate was severely biased. When I started in 1993 with the humanosophy-project, a friendly biologist still cautioned me for this pitfall. I’m happy postmodernism is ‘out’: it was a philosophical desert and standstill.

4. How we became humans 1

Eight millions years ago [8 mya] our ancestors were normal animals. They were apes. Our ‘nephews’, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, still are apes and normal animals. Apes live in rainforests. When the place where our earliest ancestors lived had not been changed, we would still be apes and normal animals.

However, from 10 mya the climate was becoming cooler and dryer. Rainforest needs heat and wetness; so the rainforest belt, in early Miocene reaching over southern France and Italy, shrank and 8 mya our ancestral jungle turned slowly into open savannah. It is here where our story begins.

Frans de Waal (Bonobo 1997) says that, when we want an image of our earliest ancestors, we can look at the bonobos. They are the only kind of chimpanzee whose environment never changed. A species only changes when its environment changes. The environment of our earliest ancestors changed totally, so our earliest ancestors changed totally. The environment of the ancestors of the chimpanzees changed much later and somewhat, so the chimpanzees changed somewhat.

Here, we will name our earliest ancestors ‘our ANBOS’ (ancestor-bonobos).

It took tens of hundred thousands of years for their jungle to turn into a savannah. The ANBOS never had any idea of this change; for them the world was in every phase like it always was. So the adaptations to the new conditions passed unnoticed. But for our story these adaptations are crucial.

The savannah is a diversified environment consisting of open woodlands mixed with impenetrable shrubs and grasslands accommodating herds of many kinds of grass eaters.

Our ANBOS lived in the woodlands, where they spent the nights in nests high in the trees. But these woodlands along the shores of rivers and lakes didn’t contain the fruit trees their ancestors used for sustenance. For their food, our ANBOS had to roam the open grasslands which was very dangerous because of the big cats that preyed on the grass eaters. Big lions, sabre toothed tigers and similar species were formidable predators. The sabre toothed tigers were specialists in preying on pachyderms: rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and (ancestors of the) elephants. In a short sprint the sabre tooth ran under them and ripped open their bellies with their sabre teeth. The mighty colossus was felled and after his downfall the ‘tiger’ fed on the entrails only. The sabre teeth were too frail for the rest of the cadaver. The rest of the carrion was left to the giant hyenas. Nature is cruel and doesn’t know empathy.

What I emphasize: the Miocene (22 – 5 mya) savannah was characterised by megafauna and was much more dangerous than the current Serengeti. Though the little ANBOS were much stronger than we are now, they needed special armament to roam the grasslands safely.  As normal apes, they protected themselves by throwing anything they could grasp at their predators.

Jane Goodall tells the story of Mister Worzle. The bananas she put down for the chimpanzees in order to keep them in her neighborhood for studying their behaviour, also allured baboons (a large and brave monkey) who frightened some female chimpanzees. But Mister Worzle did not give a centimeter of ground and threw anything he could grasp: grass, branches, one time a bunch of bananas (the baboons were happy!). But soon he discovered that stones worked and soon found out that bigger stones worked even better.

5. How we became humans 2: Stones

Our ANBOS had to become professional stone throwers. They could not safely take a step on the open grasslands without their armament of stones. One stone was not enough to ensure their safety; they needed a handful of stones.

But how can apes carry a handful of stones? On the open grasslands, plenty of animal hides could be found. Sabre toothed tigers ate the entrails of their kill. The hyenas with their mighty jaws were capable of eating the rest of the carcass, including bones, but left the basically inedible, hairy hides. So the ANBOS used those animal hides to carry things; and with their long experience in braiding their sleep nests, knitting these hides together was easy. But how would apes carry bags filled with stones? How do bonobos and chimps carry heavy things? They use their hands, and in order to do so they must walk upright on their feet.

In tens of hundreds of thousands of years our ANBOS, having no other choice, turned into ‘professional’ bipeds with longer and stronger legs, special pelvic and buttock muscles, special midriff, and adapted blood circulation. At least they began to develop these features in a way that was good enough for foraging on the savannah. They still kept the climbing facilities of their hands and feet: it was not safe to sleep on the ground, so they still had to make their sleeping platforms high in the bushland trees.

Females had to carry their babies and gather food for themselves and the rest of the group, so they couldn’t carry and throw stones. Males couldn’t gather food: they had to protect the others, because the predators were always watchful for moments of inattentiveness. So from the very beginning, our ANBOS cultivated a division of labour. Women and children gathered the food: grass seeds, tubers and roots (with digging sticks), larvae and insects, eggs and small animals. The adult men did nothing but provide safety. The groups with the most effective behavior flourished, kept more young alive and soon outnumbered the groups that were clumsy at these things. In tens of hundreds of thousands of years, through hundreds of generations, the most adept populations survived.

The same mechanism applies to group harmony. Bonobos live in female-dominated groups characterized by group harmony. They solve all tensions with sex. It is clear that our ANBOS ‘professionalised’ this behaviour too. Nice breasts and buttocks for the women (the ‘attractive’ red vaginas of the chimpanzee-women and heavy scrotums of the males were not maintainable for bipeds), large penises for the men, and continuous sexual willingness and unnoticeable oestrus of the women are all mechanisms for reducing tensions.

Didn’t the men hunt? No way. The bipedal speed was insufficient to keep up with the savannah predators. But thanks to the presence of predators such as sabre toothed tigers, there were hides all over the place, leftovers of the other carnivores of the savannah. The hides provided a new niche for the handy apes. The ANBOS could pick and scrape protein-rich tissue from the hides with the sharp edges of bones, shells and stones. And when a hide was totally clean, it made a perfect bag for carrying things, a blanket on cold nights, a screen against sun, wind, or rain, or a practical canvas for stone tools. The multipurpose hides were the ANBOS’ most valuable property. The ‘paleos’ lack attention for the importance of these hides in the technical development of our ancestors. It was the beginning of ‘the stone age’: the beginning of the use of stone flakes for processing hides.

All these environmental changes and physical adaptations developed unperceived by our ANBOS. Just like normal apes 10 million years ago, they made their daily foraging tracks in a vast territory. In the course of two million years even more open grasslands became part of their territory and daily route. All needed adaptations developed during this time. By 6 million years ago, our ANBOS were experienced savannah dwellers.

They had evolved into a new kind of chimp, a totally new species in the history of life on earth: the australopiths. The only thing which remained unchanged was their way of life. They would leave their nests early in the morning, wander along a route they knew perfectly, gathering food along the way, and finally come to the next wood where they would share the gathered food and then make their nests high in the trees. The only part of the routine that changed was that instead of eating their food while ranging on the woodlands, they carried most of the gathered food (tubers, grass seeds, larvae, eggs, and so on) to their camps to be distributed equally among group members.

99.5 % of the time we exist, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. This is an important fact for understanding ourselves.

6. How we became humans 3: Names for the things

 

What makes our species so special, compared to other ones?

We are the only kind of animals who have names for the things.

All group animals have their specific kind of communication; without communication you cannot be a group animal anyhow. But no kind of animals possesses names for the things.

How can I be so sure of this?

Well, having names for the things does something with an animal. With names for the things it can talk with its companions about everything, even things that aren’t on the spot, on a faraway place or in another season, in the future or in the past. He can consult and devise plans. If other kinds had names for the things, we would have perceived it for a long time.

But … (you are not convinced) the vervet monkeys, and the chimpanzees, and … ?

You are right, they have some special calls for special things. Chimps have even a call for meat, distinguishing from the call for fruit. However, a chimp can only utter those calls in reaction on seeing (or smelling) fruit or meat. Moreover, in such situations our chimp cannot withhold such a cry. Also, he cannot call [meat!] when he just wants a beef burger. In the next blog I will go further into the implications of names for the things for the mentality of an animal.

The discussion about man’s first language was already animated in the eighteenth century, and dominated the first meetings of the Société de Linguistique (found in 1864) of Paris. Most of the presented ideas, especially those that emphasized sign language as the first kind of language, earned scornful laughter and to maintain the serious character of the meetings, in 1866 the direction of the Société forbade further presentations about language origins. The taboo on this subject also held  Darwin back in his theorizing about language origins. Darwin’s authority long discouraged later theorizing, especially about sign language as the beginning of our linguistic competence. And even today by far most linguists, theorizing about language origins, neglect this possibility. Without or with poor argumentation. Poor knowledge of the character of sign languages is a hampering factor also.

Language origins is essentially a matter of speculation. So all theories will remain speculative. However, there are weak and strong speculations; the latter are based on strong arguments and elucidate most questions.

As I suggested: most of the modern linguists see language as speaking and the ape vocalizations as starting point of it. None of the scientists see the implications of names for the things for the mentality of an animal and poses the question why our ancestors became the masters of the animal world, and not one of the other kinds of apes or animals. As long as one cannot answer this question (nor even imagine this question), we have a weak speculation.

OK, let we go to the next post, for a strong one.

7. How we became humans 4: Language – linguisticness

In one australopithecus group, some 4 million years ago, the custom of imitating things with the hands appeared. This started (in my scenario, perhaps you have another) as a playful performance between some girls.

At first my idea was that the more complicated new foraging environment enforced a sophistication of normal ape communication. However, recent discoveries of savanna chimpanzee women who dig up roots with digging sticks – without language communication! – convinced me that our linguality is not the result of a need to survive. The only other scenario I could imagine was that it started as a casual girl play.

The alpha woman had decided this morning that the foraging route was ‘that way!’. The girl on the right knew that this would lead to the place with the delicious berries! She wanted desperately to communicate her excitement with her friends. And she imitated [berry] with her hand. The sitting girl tries to imagine what is in the mind of her friend. The girl left is only agitated because they are in danger: the others are already on the way and the predators are always on the look-out. But then the sitting girl will get it. And she makes the imitating gesture too! And then there is laughter! All day long they make the same gesture, and laugh. The next day the foraging route leads to another place, and the other girl tries to think over another gesture for another thing. And again there is laughter all day long.

That’s my speculation. I made this picture of the pivotal moment. Perhaps you can imagine another and better scenario. But it has to be started with something: we are language-using creatures now.

This casual girl play (or something like that) was a performance that never happened in the whole history of life on earth: an animal that communicates a thing that is not there on the spot. An animal that communicates not a feeling or emotion, but a special thing that is in her mind. The imitating gesture is a name. A gestured word. It is a handle, a grip, with which you can grasp a thing in your mind and put it in someone else’s mind. No other kind of animal has this capability.

A casual girl play; when that particular day the alpha women or man accidentally would have been bad-tempered and annoyed, this play could have been stopped and then we would have been still normal australopitheci today.

But is was a nice, a creative, a generative play and it didn’t stop. It became a special group culture; when the girls moved to another group to find a partner, they took the habit along and so the culture spread over the whole tribe. Our earliest ancestors.

What then makes having names for the things so important for human evolution?

1. The feeling of distance between the ‘namer’ and the named thing. Normal animals are part of their environment; for our ancestors there became ‘light’ between them and their environment. Not yet on individual scale, more as the feeling of ‘us’ (our group) and their environment. The distance between subject and object. Our ancestors became the first and only animals who could objectify the world of things. Philosophers like Kant understand what I mean. Thanks, Kant.

2. Our ancestors became the first and only animals who could talk with each other about things that were not there, not on the spot or on that moment: a plant, a place, an animals, water, earthquake, volcano, yesterday, tomorrow, other season, you name it.

3. Knowledge obtained by the older generation could be transmitted more easily and in more detail to the younger generation; knowledge could accumulate in our ancestors.

4. Naming a thing gives a feeling of power over the thing. It is this aspect that helped our ancestors to lose of their animal fear for the fire and to use it; no other animal has ever achieved this.

5. Two know more than one, and with a group we can solve big problems: our ancestors could put together all individual intelligence, could brainstorm; they could develop plans, they could consult together. From the slow and scared new savanna-dwellers of the Miocene with names for the things, they soon became the hooligans of the Pleistocene African savanna.

Bigger brains perhaps? Oh no. It was long after the birth of the facility of names for things, long after the first use of fire, long after the spread over the African continent and the first Out of Africa, that our ancestors got bigger brains. The more social an animal species is, the bigger the brains. Linguisticness is the most social of all social behaviors. So bigger brains are the result of it, not the cause.

Linguisticness! Ever more names for more and more things… In the end the whole environment of our ancestors, their whole ‘world’, existed of named things. Our ancestors got to live in a named world, a words world. That’s a sort of ‘virtual world’, and we still live in it. For us a thing only exists when we have a name for it. Isn’t it, Kant? (He nods.) We are linguistic creatures.

8. What is so special about linguisticness?

Our earliest ancestors were apes: normal animals. Now we are humans. A very, very special kind of animals: all that horrible predators such as lions and hyenas are now attractions in our zoos and nowhere it is vice versa. We are communicating via Windows Live Writer: no other animal does. We are abnormal animals What made us abnormal animals? Linguisticness.

It started with nothing. OK, it started with a stupid girls play: imitating/communicating with your hands something what is an image (idea)  in your mind.

An incidental new habit … a huge step towards becoming human! This was a totally new phenomenon in the history of life on earth. All group animals have their own means of communication. But in no other species can individuals communicate about something beyond their awareness, about something in another place, in another season, in the past or in the future. These gesture-imitations of things by our ancestor-bonobos were (the beginnings of) names for the things, enabling them to communicate on a new level.

Once an animal can name things, something special happens at the mental level. This is not only a better means for communication and cooperation. It is not only a way to transfer knowledge from one generation to the following, thus building up a reservoir of knowledge in the entire population. It also is the creation of a (feeling of) distance between the namer and the named thing, the creation (or experience) of distance between a creature and his environment. This was something entirely new in the history of life: a creature that was no longer totally dependent on his environment, a creature that could objectify things in his environment.

One might also see this as a parallel to the professionalizing of the ape’s ability of throwing, which furnished a distance between the thrower and the object: only this time in the mental sphere. Throwing  enables to keeping the predator at bay; naming enables to grasping the predator,  mentally. This supplies a feeling of power over the object, even – or just – when you are not powerful. This new faculty set our species apart from the animal world. It defines humanity. So we have to find a name for this characteristic. We choose linguisticness.

The term linguisticness is coined by the philosopher Heidegger, as English for his Sprachlichleit. But Heidegger was an idealistic philosopher, and deserved a scientific view on humanness. This missed the hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) either, but from his ‘magnum opus’ Truth and Method (Wahrheit und Methode) we derive its useful definition of linguisticness. We read in the chapter Seinsverfassung: “Linguisticness characterizes our human world-experience” … and the exercize of “the wirkungsgeschichtliche Bewusstsein”. We adopt this hermeneutic term and give it a humanosophic (and more comprehensible) content!

The road to linguisticness started ex nihilo (such as the Big Bang?), but I think it started from the very beginning. Because the need for more communication existed from the beginning, and the free hands with those ten fingers were available from the beginning. It started from nothing and it started slowly, like all developments in nature, like the beginning of life itself on earth.[1]

It started incidentally, with a single gestured imitation. But it proved to be a useful habit in a world which demanded better communication. So it grew quickly into ever more names for ever more things. Our ancestral tribe became an entirely new kind of animal in nature, a species with more flexibility and inventiveness than all others, even than other hominid populations whose groups remained without such a cultural habit of communication. Around the time of ‘the great jump’ of our species, ca 2.5 million years ago, all other hominids got extinct. Hominids is the name palaeontologists give to bipedal apes of the Mio-Pliocene period (Pliocene is 5 – 1.4 million years ago and Miocene is the preceding era). The common name for these Pliocene hominids is Australopithecus.

Our ancestor-australopiths developed more flexibility and inventiveness than other animals and even than other australopiths. Why? This was the result of the power of consultation and conference with one another. Two know more than one, and as a group you can solve big problems. One hooligan may be a timid boy, but as a group, hooligans are terrifying. It is the stack-up of inventiveness. Australopith groups without this facility of conferring with each another – boisei, robustus, aethiopicus, even afarensis– died out, presumably with some help of the ancestor-australopiths, the ‘hooligans’ of the Pliocene savannah. Abnormal animals! Linguistic apes!


[1] For three billion years, there was nothing to see – there weren’t eyes anyway; only the sky turned from brown into blue. And then: whoops! – from 500 million years ago on, little worms and crabs and fishes, plants and amphibians on the land, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals, apes, us.

9. The second big jump to humanity: fire.

We are not sure which fossil, if any, belongs to the population of animals that could name things. Brunet, head of the French group which found the 6-7 million year old hominid skull in Chad, is shown with the skull, saying: “It’s a lot of emotion to have in my hand the beginning of the human lineage…” But there is no label on the skull, and it is impossible to know if the skull in his hand is from an ancestor-bonobo, or from a prey of the ancestor-bonobos.

Around 2.5 million years ago, the ancestor-bonobos evolved into ancestor-australopiths. There is proof of their existence: not a skull, but stone tools.

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At 15 locations east and west of the Kada Gona river, Ethiopia, Sileshi Semaw and his team recovered more than 3000 surface and excavated artifacts, dated 2.6 –2.5 million years ago. [Journal of Archaeological Science (2000) 27, 1197-1214]

Makers of these well-flaked artifacts: Australopithecus garhi. Archaeological name of these earliest stone industry: Oldowan.

Other early Oldowan sites, older than 2 million years ago: Olduvai, Omo, Bouri, Lokalei.

All these 2.5 million years old artifacts were found together with animal bones, many of them with stone-tool cut-marks. A recent publication[1] about cut-marks on bones from the Dikika site in Ethiopia demonstrates that stone ‘knives’ for processing of bones of scavenged carcasses may have been used even earlier: 3,4 million years ago. So these artifacts are butchery tools: the cut-marks on the bones are the result of “hunting and/or aggressive scavenging of large ungulate carcasses”.

To me, these Kada Gona tools are the hallmark of the second big jump of our ancestors, as the consequence of the first jump: names for the things. It was the climate again that triggered the jump. For five million years, the climate had been stable without giving much reason for changing behavior. But then the Ice Ages, the periodical increase of ice caps on the poles and around the high mountains, began. Now there were cold periods (stadials, maxima) interspersed with warm periods (interstadials, minima). It started with a dramatic cooling and drying. Jungles receded to a narrow and interrupted belt around the equator; savannahs turned into deserts. There were ever less trees to sleep in, ever more natural fires.

The ancestor-australopiths knew some attractive qualities of fire, and they were not the only animals who were lured by the far clouds of a natural fire. Vultures and other carrion eaters and even antelopes approached carefully, enticed by carrion and salty ashes. The females that could name things knew that some tubers and other plants, normally not edible, were edible after the work of the fire.

Why women again? Women have to feed their children. In everything they do, they are motivated by the need for more and better food for their children. Perhaps this time it was an old and experienced woman, a grandmother who had the courage to take a glowing branch of an smoldering natural fire. Trembling with fear, she took it to a safe place, fed it with dry grass and wood and breathed in new life: fire.

Terrified, of course, the other ancestor-australopiths observed from a distance, screaming in fear at what the grandma did. She held a tuber on her digging stick in the flames. When she thought the tuber was done, she tasted it, went with the tuber to her granddaughter. Granddaughter would remember this moment ever in her life.

Too nice, this ‘just-so-story’? Then consider this: gorillas have been observed sitting near a smoldering fire in nights when the temperature on the savannah approached the freezing point. But no ape is known to ‘feed’ the extinguishing fire with combustible material.

But our ancestor-australopiths did: because they already had a name for fire, they gradually lost their instinctive fear of the fire and got a feeling of power over it. After this, of course it took many generations before they had developed the technique to carry the fire from one campsite to the other, as live charcoal in a bovine’s horn or in some similar way.[2]


[1] Nature, 12 Aug.’10
[2] If you don’t believe that such an early ‘taming’ of fire can be postulated, ask Ralph Rowlett of the University of Missouri-Columbia in Missouri.

10. About the dating of the first use of fire.

How dare I assume that this taming of fire occurred some 2 million years ago? Most paleos don’t go farther back than the 790,000 years old Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in Israel, where charred wood and seeds were recovered[1]. Most paleos only accept evidence of fire use when there are hearth stones used; but even today San people don’t use hearth stones when the cook a tuber en route. They dig up a tuber, gather some dry material and branches, sit down, make fire with turning around the point of a digging stick between the hand palms onto a dry piece of wood. When the tinder glows, they blow it in flame et voila!: fire. Some brave paleos accept the evidence from Swartkrans and Chesowanja dating 1.5 million years ago, but that is the limit.

For me as a humanosopher, there are three kinds of evidence of an earlier use. First: there is no other way our ancestor-australopiths could have evolved smaller teeth and more gracile chewing apparatus (mouth) than through more soft and digestible food. Second: no other way to become larger beings and with larger brainpans, than through some kind of radically improved food supply. As experimentally proven by Richard Wrangham[2], a raw (not cooked, not grilled, not roasted) chimpanzee diet would be simply inadequate to sustain larger-brained beings of human size. Three: palaeontologists such as Ralph Rowlett and Randy Bellomo studied the differences in the soil beneath a natural fire and a campfire. The soil under campfires reaches much higher temperatures and a campfire leaves behind a bowl-shaped layer of highly oxidized and magnetized soil. At Koobi Fora in the African Rift Valley, Jack Harris of Rutgers University in New Jersey found such evidence of campfires dating 1.6 million years ago. Fire control must have started a long time before that moment.

‘2 million years ago’ is of course not an exact date; it is just an educated guess.

Perhaps controlled fire existed even earlier than these 2 million years ago. The first ‘professional’ stone tools found at Kada Gona are 2.6 million years old. They attest to a new niche for protein: meat.

For the start of meat consumption, we have to look back to about 6 million years ago: to the hides that could be found all over the Miocene savannah. In the following millions of years the hooligans of the savannah, ever more audacious with their stones, learned to chase away feeding predators from their prey. That was the moment when the males began to contribute to the diet: carrion became an increasingly important part of nutrition.

About 2,5 million years ago, the earth climate became even more cool and dry: the onset of the Ice Ages. Woodland savannah began to turn into desert savannah. The carrion competition grew more fierce. The best sources of carrion, the pachyderms (elephants, rhinos, hippos) had skins that were too thick for lions and hyenas and vultures to penetrate. Those predators had to wait until, after two or three days, the skin cracked open by decomposition gasses. However, with their knife-sharp stone tools the ancestor-australopiths could start processing the dead animal immediately!

The evidence of the stone tools of Kada Gona (2,6 million years ago) is recently transcended by the publication of the Dikika Research Project: evidence of stone tool use and meat-eating dating back 3,4 million years![3] And who made and handled this early stone tools? In June 2010, the discovery of Kadanuumuu, a 3.6 million years old australopith, was published. Its skeleton was found in Afar, where also the famous Lucy-skeleton was found. But Kadanuumuu was nearly a half million years older, much taller and had a more humanlike shoulder blade. So in my view, these people were the butchers of the Dikika antelope from 3,4 million years ago.

The image on the right is a artist reconstruction of the Dikika Child fossil

Meat was a new protein niche for our hooligan ancestors. It incited them to improve their stone ‘knives’. For millions of years, the standard way to make a ‘knife’ or scraper had been to smash a stone against another stone or rock, and then pick out the best ‘knife’. In the new circumstances, this was no longer sufficient. I think knapping the ‘knife’ from a core stone with a hammer stone was too risky for long, bent ape fingers (they still needed those ape fingers for climbing quickly into trees for sleeping and safety). But in order to improve the stone ‘knives’ they needed some knapping technique; and in order to develop a knapping technique they would need shorter, “handier” fingers.

Evolution had to find a balance between the need for long, bent fingers for climbing and making nests in trees on one side, and the need for shorter, handier fingers for knapping better knives on the other. It was the use of the fire that altered this balance. Since the fire provided protection from predators, this made it possible to stay on the ground instead of climbing in a treetop to build nests. Because our australopith ancestors no longer needed to climb trees at night, they no longer needed long “ape” fingers. This allowed the development of shorter, handier fingers suitable for better knife production.


[1] in a recent PNAS article (March 2011) the paleos Roebroeks and Villa suggest that the real control of fire is not older than 400.000 years; we have to take in consideration that their research only concerns European archaeological sites, and that they emphasize that earlier use of fire was possible in an opportunistic way: using smoldering wood from a natural fire, keeping it smoldering in a gourd or something
[2] Cooking Up Bigger Brains (2008); Wrangham himself did a research experiment by trying to live on a chimpanzee diet of fruit and raw meat: he found it not feasible for humans!
3] in a PNAS-article 17 Oct.’10 Dominguez-Rodrigo et al. charged this claim and proposed the marks as inflicted by animals trampling on the bones. However, they didn’t look at the original specimens but based their arguments on photos of the bones. Moreover, their research lacked the rigor of multiple person blind testing. The arguments were easily fielded. The paper was rushed forward in a scientifically unjustified hurry.

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