Archive for August, 2009

In the previous entry, I began exploring the idea that there may have been an evolutionary leap from almost-modern to fully-modern humans as recently as 80,000 years ago, when art and personal ornament first appear in the archaeological record.

A further piece of evidence for this theory is the extremely low genetic diversity of the human population, even today. It was estimated in 2003 that all modern humans are descended from no more than 2000 individuals who lived around 80,000 years ago.

Some scientists argue that this figure may be a bit on the low side, but it seems generally accepted that there was a significant population bottleneck. The reasons for the contraction, however, remain unclear. One possibility is that a natural disaster caused a significant die-back — but there is no geological evidence for such a disaster.

In addition, the bottleneck was immediately followed by the Great Migration, when modern humans spread from Africa throughout the world. That would seem like an odd adventure for a species which had just avoided extinction by the skin of its teeth.

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In recent entries, I have sketched out two different ancient visions of the fundamental principles of existence, which together underlie the beliefs and practices of all archaic societies.

The first of these visions is likely to have grown out of the discovery that natural materials could be altered by means of fire to make them more useful. It emphasizes flux and change and metamorphosis and is closely tied to the mysteries of childbirth and the female body.

The second vision probably began with the elaboration of formal kinship systems that was necessary when humans began to live in social groupings larger than the biological family. In sharp contrast to the first, it emphasizes order, control, and the superseding of natural processes by socially-determined rules and rituals.

The roots of the transformative vision may go back at least 164,000 years, to a time when the earliest modern humans were already engaging in complex alchemical operations. The kinship vision probably began somewhat later, but it was well-established by 80,000 years ago, when archaeological remains first hint at social complexity and long-distance trading networks.

Despite their profound differences, these two visions operate jointly in all present-day archaic societies. Depending on circumstances, either one or the other may predominate. They may be viewed as mutually complementary, as antagonistic, or as some mixture of both. They are often compartmentalized, with the transformative vision being associated with the female sphere and the kinship vision with the male.

Further complicating matters, however, is a third vision which is also present in all archaic societies. That vision involves a belief in things unseen — in spirits, in a long-ago Dreamtime where spirit-people laid down norms for those who came after, and in the possibility of contacting the spirits for guidance through trance or other shamanistic practices.

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A few months ago, I discussed recent findings on the ancient use of fire to produce a kind of glue which was used to attach stone axe heads to wooden handles. Now another early example of the sophisticated use of fire in tool-making has been described — and like the glue, it comes from South Africa and has been dated around 72,000 years ago.

The technique in question involves heat-treating a yellowish stone called silcrete, which is not well-adapted to tool-making, so that it turns a deep, glossy red and is very easily flaked.

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Primate studies suggest that the first modern humans would have lived in small bands of some two dozen individuals in which relationships among the women were central to the structure of the group. The men may have been dominant, but their own status would have been largely dependent on that of their mothers.

At some very early point, however, all that changed. Even the simplest and most archaic present-day societies tend to have bewilderingly complex kinship structures, where every individual is expected to conform to an elaborate set of rules that govern their relationships with every other member of the group.

In these societies, there are not only rigid guidelines for such matters as who can marry whom but even prescriptions for how each individual is to address every other individual, depending on their biological relationship and relative status. Modern vestiges of this sort of system — such as the use of titles and honorifics, or the choice between last name, first name, and nickname — represent only a pale shadow of what it was like at its peak of elaboration.

In addition to participating in a spectrum of socially-defined relationships, each individual in these societies also passes through a series of different statuses in course of their lifetime — child, adult, spouse, parent, elder — generally by means of formal transitions that may involve elaborate and often grueling rites of passage.

Nothing about this extravagant structure of statuses and relationships is hard-wired into the human psyche, and none of it is self-evident. That means it had to be invented at some point by people with an idea of what they were trying to accomplish.

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