[Note: This is the ninth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
The Dance of Hominin Evolution
Experts have endless lively disputes about many aspects of hominin evolution. There were many predecessors to Homo sapiens, but an accurate lineage of the hominin family tree does not exist, and probably never will. The physical evidence discovered so far is extremely incomplete. It’s like a million piece jigsaw puzzle where more than 99 percent of the pieces are missing, and most of these have disintegrated over time.
Evolution does not resemble automobile assembly plants, where production of 2018 models completely ends on a fixed date, and the process of building new and improved 2019 models begins. The transition from one species to the next is a blurry process that can take hundreds of thousands of years, and isolated groups of the same species can evolve in significantly different ways.
In addition to arguments over the branches of the family tree, the dates assigned to specific events are also controversial and inconsistent. Technology for dating specimens has advanced over the years, and different technologies often produce very different dates for the same bone or artifact. Also, ongoing field work continues to make new discoveries. So, did Homo sapiens emerge 190,000 years ago, or 300,000? Did they arrive in Europe 50,000 years ago or 36,000? And so on. Numbers are slippery.
If we step back a bit, and disregard numeric dates, there is general agreement on a number of big picture trends. Homo erectus is much older than Neanderthal, and both are older than Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, and Neanderthals did not. Erectus and Neanderthals are not associated with megafauna extinctions, but our species certainly is. For the purposes of this book, the trajectory of trends is important — event A preceded event B. All numeric dates presented here are controversial.
Although the Earth Crisis has roots much older than Homo sapiens, our species is playing a starring role in this catastrophic tragedy. For this reason, the following chapters will primarily focus on humans, and the emergence and expansion of some highly destructive cultures. But first, a few comments on two notable cousins.
Erectus and Neanderthal
Homo erectus emerged maybe 1.9 million years ago, and eventually spread across some of the warmer regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe. They may have been an early ancestor of modern humans. Erectus hunted, gathered, and used stone tools. They were the first hominins to evolve a larger than average brain, and they may have been the first to domesticate fire. Erectus maybe walked off the stage somewhere between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. Their long era of existence does not correspond to extinction spasms or serious ecological injuries. Erectus apparently lived on Earth much longer than Neanderthals did.
Neanderthals probably evolved north of the Mediterranean, not in Africa. Their remains have been found in Siberia, the Middle East, and Europe. The earliest discoveries date to maybe 350,000 years ago. We share up to 99.9 percent of our DNA with them. Because they lived in non-tropical regions, they evolved thick bodies with large bones that provided greater strength and better cold tolerance. Elizabeth Kolbert noted that modern humans have up to four percent Neanderthal DNA.
Erectus, on average, had 1,000 cc brains. Neanderthals were the brainiest hominins, at 1,600 cc. Sapiens averages a modest 1,350 cc. Could our smaller brains be the result of having access to cutting edge new technology (javelins, harpoons, bows and arrows, etc.)?
Kathleen McAuliffe reported on research finding that human brains have shrunk about 10 percent in the last 20,000 years. The Homo sapiens with the biggest brains lived in Europe 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. They were the Cro-Magnons, who had to overcome the many new challenges of surviving in snowy ecosystems, while fending off hungry cave lions, cave hyenas, and saber-tooth cats. The shrinking brain trend has been found in China, Europe, Africa, and even Australia, which remained Stone Age until 1788. Why? Perplexed experts propose some theories, but they don’t know for sure.
One study found that brains get smaller as population density increases. Tim Flannery suggests that modern consumers live like cattle on a feedlot, all our needs conveniently provided. We no longer have the skills or knowledge to survive in the wild. Thirty species of animals have been domesticated, and for every one of them their brain volume was 10 to 15 percent smaller than their wild ancestors. Some think that humans domesticated themselves.
Anyway, the trademark Neanderthal weapon was a heavy thrusting lance. Hunters had to slowly, silently, and very skillfully approach the prey undetected, then suddenly charge the animal, firmly gripping the spear with both hands, and ram it deep into its flesh. Readers who have hunted hippos with wooden thrusting spears know that this can be very dangerous. One site in Croatia contained the remains of 75 Neanderthals, and none were older than 35. Many of their bones had healed fractures, suggesting painful accidents or encounters with fierce animals. Dying of old age was unlikely.
The climate of the Neanderthal era was like a roller coaster. In Europe, they were pounded by an era of extreme cold maybe 70,000 years ago. From maybe 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, the climate was a spastic freak show. Clive Finlayson noted that the climate often flip-flopped between warm periods and intensely frigid. Radical shifts could arrive suddenly, and last hundreds or thousands of years, all across Eurasia. Youngsters might grow up in a chilly steppe ecosystem that used to be a comfortable forest in the days of their grandparents.
Would Neanderthals have become the modern global primate if Homo sapiens had blinked out in Africa? I sometimes wonder if real estate was a significant limiting factor. Caves were luxurious addresses during glacial centuries, compared to hide-covered teepees or huts. The primo caves were south (sun) facing, and ideally overlooked the seasonal migration routes of animal herds. But there was a limited number of caves, and many were not vacant. Neanderthals were always welcome dinner guests when they stumbled into caverns inhabited by hungry, jumbo-sized cave lions, cave hyenas, and cave bears.
In warmer and wetter periods, glaciers retreated, and tundra transformed into forest and grassland, habitat for critters like red deer, horses, and moose. In colder and drier periods, glaciers advanced, forest retreated, and tundra returned, as did mammoths, woolly rhinos, and reindeer. Neanderthals listened to their growling tummies, and went where the meat was. They migrated northward in warmer eras, and retreated south when blast freezers returned. The last Neanderthals died on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, in Gibraltar, maybe 40,000 to 28,000 years ago. This was definitely after the arrival of humans in Western Europe, and before the spasm of megafauna extinctions on the continent.
Our human supremacist culture routinely preaches that Neanderthals were pathetic dullards. During their long vacation in Europe, maybe 270,000 years, Neanderthal technology didn’t change much. From the supremacist perspective, Neanderthals’ 350,000 year era of stable, low impact, ecological sustainability was indisputable proof of low intelligence.
Elizabeth Kolbert absolutely disagreed. Neanderthals lived in Europe for a very long time while affecting their ecosystem no more than any other large mammals. Flannery noted that, for hundreds of thousands of years, Neanderthals coexisted with straight-tusked elephants, mammoths, and woodland rhinos — without driving them extinct. If humans had never wandered in from the Middle East, Europe might still be a wild, free, and happy celebration of Neanderthals, Irish elk, saber-tooth cats, straight tusk elephants, and aurochs. What’s wrong with that?
Everything! The supremacists leap to their feet, jump up and down, spitting, shouting, smashing bottles. Humans are blessed by incredible intelligence, brilliant innovation, complex hunting weapons, sophisticated language skills, artistic creativity, decorative ornaments, and the powerful ability to invent totally irrational beliefs, accept them as absolute truth, and exterminate large numbers of nonbelievers. Ancient mystical stories invented by Homo sapiens proudly assert that Homo sapiens is the absolute Crown of Creation, and the rest of the family of life was provided for our sustenance, amusement, and assorted perversions.
OK. Stop right here. Reread the list of human blessings in the previous paragraph. For the most part, these are not characteristics of species that managed to live sustainably for more than a million years, like the chimps, baboons, lions, horses, and on and on — “ordinary animals” in other words. In the big picture, it’s not irrational to conclude that the unusual intelligence we have acquired is powerful, dangerously irrational and destructive, and has become the primary threat to our continued existence.
For 150+ years, it has been a normal and respectable tradition for scholars and theologians to line up and urinate on the stupid Neanderthals. European intellectuals were quite sure that the Garden of Eden was located rather close to London. They were stunned and bewildered by the growing evidence that the ancestors of all hominins trace back to Mother Africa. All Homo sapiens living 50,000 years ago had beautiful dark skins. Oh my God! It can’t be true! Horror!
In 2014, Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks reexamined the traditional beliefs in Neanderthal inferiority, to see if the latest archaeological research still supported them. They did not find compelling data. They also pointed out that the traditional beliefs of human superiority in language, symbolic communication, cognitive abilities, and abstract thinking were impossible to prove via archaeological data. These were the biased opinions of supremacist imaginations. Science is not required to be rational, and very often isn’t.
Sustainability Doesn’t Suck
Anyway, Neanderthals demonstrated that bipedal primates with huge brains can live sustainably for several hundred thousand years, in extremely challenging conditions, without agriculture, metal making, animal enslavement, fish mining, deforestation, or writing. In fact, stability is not a problem or flaw. Stability sounds like a fun and healthy alternative to mindless perpetual growth, fanatical eco-destruction, and devastating hurricanes of irrational illusions.
Clive Finlayson reminded us that no animal species can foretell the future. When life is comfortable, and the ecosystem is not being ravaged, the safe and intelligent option is to be conservative, and remain on the well-worn time-proven path. But when the <bleep> hits the fan, and traditions totally fail, innovation might be a less dangerous option. The path of innovation is risky, often leading to unintended consequences and bloody surprises. In worst case scenarios, innovation can backfire spectacularly, as 7+ billion people are now painfully discovering. Yikes!
Chris Stringer reminded us that the myth of progress is a new idea. The notion of utopia-bound continuous improvement is a bit over 200 years old. Civilization was imagined to be an upward spiral.
But in earlier civilizations, mobs of loonies were furiously mowing down ancient forests, triggering landslides, flash floods, and harbors choked with silt. Each new generation inherited an ecosystem that was obviously in worse condition. The passage of time was seen as a downward spiral of decay and decline, an inevitable one-way descent into social and ecological Armageddon.
Hesiod, an ancient Greek thinker, described the glorious days of his venerable ancestors as the Golden Age, when men were pure and lived like gods. It was followed by a descent into the Silver Age, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, and finally the Iron Age, when men were violent, foul-mouthed, and fascinated by every form of evil.
Stringer noted that the wizards of modern society are possessed by an overwhelming and irrational blind faith in progress and perpetual growth. We are far more advanced than Neanderthals, and they were better than Erectus. You and I are lucky to enjoy the amazing pinnacle of billions of years of evolution. Stringer does not see this as proof of divine destiny. He believes that the fact that Neanderthals blinked out, and we didn’t, was largely a result of chance. We survivors were assisted by the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.
For example, about 70,000 to 75,000 years ago, the Mount Toba super volcano erupted on the island of Sumatra, spreading enormous amounts of ash. In some regions of India, up to 19 feet (6 m) of ash accumulated. Much incoming sunlight was blocked, and global temperatures may have dropped by 3° to 5°C for several years. Others imagine an intense thousand year instant ice age. Still others suspect far less global impact. One theory, presented by geneticists, asserts that the human population plunged to 5,000 to 10,000 individuals — implying that we nearly went extinct. Others point out that there is no evidence of extinction spasms among mammals at this time. It’s not easy being an expert on days long past.
Anyway, Stringer suggests that if a similar eruption had happened closer to Africa, instead of Sumatra, it could have been game over for our species, but maybe not Neanderthals, who resided north of Africa. Or, today might look very different if the rollercoaster of ice ages had occurred in a slightly different pattern over the last 200,000 years. The outcome could have easily been quite different. Chance is powerful juju. Stringer is not a member of the progress cult. He believes that our long-term future is entirely unpredictable. I agree.