Posts Tagged ‘PNAS’

1.2 Names for things

So far, the ANBOs didn’t stand out from other australopith species, such as afarensis or africanus, whose remnants our paleos have found in Africa. Now we get to the incidental invention that led, in the end, to our human condition.

For us, what we are going to tell now has been a familiar story for decennia. But yesterday (June 11, 2018) we read the article by Richard Nordquist[1] on ThoughtCo and again we knew that for philosophers in general and for linguists in particular it is still new. He quotes Bernard Campbell[2]”We simply do not know, and never will, how or when language began”, and continues with the enumeration of the five most common theories which nevertheless have been put forward to then pull all five down. He ends by citing Christine Kenneally[3] “To find out how language began is the hardest problem in science today.”

Certainly, discipline scientists have to limit themselves to hard facts and the first words have left no trace. But reconstructing our Genesis story is philosophical work and for humanosophers, making use of as much discipline as possible is sufficient. Moreover, the astronomers leave with their Big Bang from an unproven just-so-story, in order to explain their universe phenomena satisfactorily. So we consider ourselves entitled with ours.

Again a women’s invention. No invention that resulted from a change in their environment, no new form of adaptation. Today there are chimpanzee women in Ugalla (Tanzania) who leave the protection of the woodland during the wet seasons to excavate tubers on the open grasslands with homemade digging sticks. For us the proof that our ANBOs did fine without any linguisticness. We would today still be ape-men (so normal animals) somewhere in Africa, if not 5 mya had happened something accidental in one of the ANBO groups.

But where something is possible, it happens too, sooner or later. So it was bound to happen somewhere and sometime in the australopitic world, that in one group, presumably in a forwarded group, and probably again a woman, somebody started with the first name for a thing. Because we are a symbolic species now and no other species has names for the things – if there was another species with names for things, then we would have noticed this for a long time. Because disposing of names for the things does something with an animal. It does 5 things and later on we will list these 5 things.

Of course there were forwarded and backwarded living-groups, and different environments. In forwarded groups, in more savanna-like environment such as the Rift valley around 5 millions of years ago (mya), one may imagine that in the early mornings a patrol of three adult men scouted the route that the alpha woman had in mind for the next foraging trip. So that not the whole group of old people and children had to go back and decide to another route if some danger had been identified. In this case the patrol returned and imitated [sabre tiger!] or [hyenas!]. [ 4]

Our speculation is – and if you can imagine a better one, you are welcome – that on one morning a young girl of such a vicious group was very happy because she knew that the group would come across bushes with tasty berries on the foraging route of that day. Her two girlfriends looked at her in astonishment: why was this euphoria? The girl racked her brain: how could she communicate what she had in her mind?

I made a painting of this pivotal moment: the birth of humanity

Inspired by the gestured imitations of the morning scouts she imitated [berry], [picking], [putting in mouth’], facial expression of delicious tasting and finally pointing with her digging stick in the direction of the group, already being on its foraging way.
No understanding. Another time. And another time. One girl became impatient: it was dangerous to detach the protection of the group. The older girlfriend racked her brain: and after again the berry-pick-imitation the penny dropped at her. Yess!!

The girls ran after the group, laughing, and they had fun with the berry-pick pantomime the whole day. Some women understood the imitation and also got fun.
The next morning the older girl friend invented something the group might encounter that day: digging tubers! And she imitated for her friends [digging] [corms]. And again fun with the new imitation, and some more women joined the fun of the imitation.

Except that the game was fun, it was also useful: so women could communicate what they had in mind. It was an extension but also an enrichment of their normal group animal communication. It improved their cooperation, benefited survival, and the group flourished more than australopithic groups without this handy practice. When young women moved to a neighboring group to find a mate, they took this habit along, spreading this gesturing practice over the whole clan and tribe. Our ancestors! Our ANBOs.

This was an incidental, casual beginning of a new group culture. It must have been contingent, because it was not necessary for surviving.[5] The childish game might have been forgotten, in which case we would be still a kind of ape men in the African savanna today. But this new ‘culture’ turned out to be helpful and useful. It improved group cooperation.

Keep in mind that in our opinion this has been the second women’s invention that has made us from apes into people. Why a female again (after stone technology)? Because most (if not all) new things in apes begin with young females[6].
You may notice that it was the men of the patrols after all? No, because their imitations were no more than the delayed warning cries of the vervet monkeys: stimulus-response reactions.

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 individuals can 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 ANBOs were (the beginnings of) names for things, enabling them to communicate on a new level.

A new level?

Disposing of names for things does something with an animal. It does 5 things, and you can better memorize these 5 things if you want to know what had made our species so special in the animal world. I will briefly list them here, and I will repeat them in more detail in the following section, so that they have a better chance of ending up in your memory.

  1. A name IS not the thing . With the enrichment of their communication with names for things, a sense of distance developed between the appointing ANBOs and the appointed environment. The ANBOs became emotionally ‘detached’ from their environment, while the other animals remained unwillingly part of it. 
  2. With the name you ‘grasp’ the thing (or action, whatever). The ANBOs began to “grasp” their environment. She entered the path of ever better understanding things. We are still on that path today.
  3. “Grabbing” things by name gives a sense of power over things. With the name of the saber-toothed tiger the ANBO got a feeling of power over the dreaded monster. It was this mechanism that caused the ANBOs to use the fire that their fellow animals continued to flee from.
  4. You know the thing with the name of the thing. Knowledge acquired in one generation could be transferred to the next. Knowledge could accumulate at our ANBOs.
  5. Individual intelligence could be thrown in a heap, the ANBOs could brainstorm. They could forge plans. Together with their fire, they developed from frightened apemen to the hooligans of the savannah.


1.”Five Theories on the Origins of Language”
2. author of “Humankind Emerging”, 9the ed. 2018
3. “The First Word: Search for the Origins of Language”, 2007
4. or a male buffalo …
5. PNAS, December 4, 2007: “Savannah chimpanzees use tools to harvest underground storage organs of plants”
6. For instance, the young macaque IMO on the Japanese island Koshima who started with washing her sweet potatos in 1953, a ‘culture’ that is still in use long after her dead

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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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.