Our ancestors or ‘them’

Posted January 23rd, 2010 by Andrea Vianello

It is since Darwin published his monograph entitled On the Origins of Species in 1859 that modern society has troubles in relating with hominins. There are several different species that are known to science nowadays, but the old divide of considering us significantly different from “them” has all but died away. Science tells us that they are our ancestors, and while this is tacitly accepted, the debate has moved on to the human mind. Perhaps the body was similar, certainly not the mind detractors would say. In Darwin’s time the debate was just sharper and wittier: human or chimps was the choice. It is with these thoughts in mind that I have read some news on recent research on hominins. The reporting of symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Neandertals (Professor João Zilhão is the leading author of the paper) publishes the first solid evidence of symbolic behaviour in Nenadertals, and there are tones of surprise since many scholars assumed that symbolic behaviour was a key characteristic of anatomically modern Homo sapiens (i.e. our own species). Competing theories have been built on that assumption (for example see pp. 6-7 of my own paper on gestures and rituals). Researchers have demonstrated now that seashells cracked at a suitable spot (they were not pierced by humans) were selected and collected to use them as ornament and in a few cases seashells were stained with pigments. Not much, but enough to say those consuming such seashells possessed symbolic behaviour, and given the context, we are talking this time of Neandertals.

The other news comes from a session at the recent Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) meeting on island archaeology and concerns Palaeolithic stone tools from Crete. Professor Curtis Runnels, a member of the Plakias survey in southern Crete, has announced that stone tools at least 130,000 years old have been found at Preveli Gorge. There were previous reports of Palaeolithic stone tools from Crete published in Antiquity (September 2008 and September 2009), but the new discoveries date back to the Upper Palaeolithic. Professor Runnels went further and suggested that the tools most closely resemble African tools manufactured by Homo erectus about 800,000 years ago. This suggestion has reproposed another very torny issue: Palaeolithic seafarers. Robert Bednarik published online a paper (in the AURANET library) on such hypothesis already in 20o2 (The maritime dispersal of Pleistocene humans). The discovery at Atapuerca in Spain of very old hominins 1.3 million years old had reproposed such hypothesis primarily with suggestions that Homo “erectus” could have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. For Homo erectus to populate Crete (an island not near mainland) however, we would have to accept that a hominin even older than Neandertals possessed the significant cognitive abilities to navigate open seas. This is not impossible as hypothesis; the only problem really is the disbelief that some scholars have in attributing any cognitive abilities sufficient to distinguish a species as ”human” rather than “animal” to any human species but our own. It seems one of those cases where scholars are actually holding back science by fearing to discover something new or daring in exploring some difficult issues. In fact, the “engine” that pushes science constantly ahead is the insatiable curiosity and desire to know of those involved, when that is missing not even a fortunate discovery providing hard evidence can change things. The recent discovery at Preveli Gorge has yet to be published, but hopefully once that will happen a serious debate will start.

In the end, if it will be proven that the minds of hominins were more similar to ours than currently accepted, we would have difficulties to understand what is that separates “us” from “them”. That should not worry, just prompt further research. I personally like the idea that humans evolved many distinguishing characteristics much earlier than thought because human culture has progressed very fast since people have settled and started cultivating plants and animals, perhaps too fast to be accounted on the handful of genetic changes that may have occurred between 40,000 years ago and 1o,000 years ago (from the moment that complex symbolic behaviours can be detected in the archaeological record to the moment in which “civilisations” start to emerge).

If humans acquired the skills to navigate the seas at a very ancient date many anomalies (e.g. Flores and Homo florensiesis) in the dispersal of humans from Africa may be resolved. Mastering such skills is all but easy even for a contemporary human being. We are not talking here of simple swimming, people had to use boats or canoes to cross the seas and these are complex tools way beyond what chimps have been found to use (video from BBC Life).

Paradoxically if the hypothesis will stand, it would in fact separate us from monkeys even more. It is too early to endorse or reject the hypothesis, but the discovery of stone tools should provide for exciting research in the near future.

Researchers from different avenues are now approaching these problems in what might be labelled as multi-disciplinary convergence. You may wish to read John S. Allen’s take on Was Seafood Brain Food in Human Evolution? Sentences such as “this would not require a technological advance“; “aquatic foods provided a jumpstart for cognitive evolution without requiring a cognitive revolution. The aquatic food hypothesis has been criticized on several fronts” (my italics) suggest strong resistance to some ideas in the field, stronger than the usual critique to recent research. You will note how Homo erectus is once again mentioned as the first representative of the Homo species to have benefited from increased cognitive abilities. It is a different avenue of research that is slowly pointing to the same conclusions suggested by Professor João Zilhão, Robert Bednarik and Professor Curtis Runnels. The amount of evidence is growing and perhaps soon there will be a working hypothesis openly discussed in the archaeological literature.


  1. Maximilian Koskull says: January 31, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    A very good and compact survey of the topic!
    It reminds me of John E. Pfeiffer´s assumptions concerning the origins of art and religion during the Upper Palaeolithic (“The creative Explosion” (1982)). He examined ritual activity in caves and labyrinths – by looking at the artwork, which survived – and he argues that such places are ideal places to create a high arousal and extreme emotions for possible participants in such rituals.
    Furthermore this could outline relationships between archaeology / history in common and cognitive theories, as Harvey Whitehouse (f.i. “Arguments and Icons” (2000)) has convincingly proven – at least it is `convincingly` for me…