Archive for October, 2010

I keep thinking about the difference between pre-human and fully human — between Neanderthal, say, and us — and it’s occurred to me that the most significant distinction may be in terms of conscious control.

This idea grows out of a notion I’ve been toying with for years — that much of evolution has been a process of incremental internalization.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, for example, the hot new trend among primitive life-forms involved the development of bodily organs to take over functions that had previously been left up to the environment. Instead of passively allowing the sea to wash through them, they developed a digestive system that could pull in nutrients and eject the waste and a circulatory system to carry oxygen and nutrients to every cell. As time passed, they added shells or skeletons for stability, limbs for propulsion, and various appendages for grasping.

For higher-order creatures, biological evolution was eventually supplemented by behavioral evolution — but the goal was still to replace chance with control. Instead of depositing their eggs in the sand like a turtle and leaving the hatchlings to fend for themselves, they might feed and protect their babies like a dinosaur or mammal. Or they might create a specialized mini-environment to provide greater safety and comfort: a nest, a burrow, or an ant hill.

Among our own human lineage, however, there has been a further step — where taking control becomes a matter not of more advanced instincts but of conscious thought.

Read the rest of this entry »

As I was heading off to bed after posting the previous entry, it occurred to me there’s yet another benefit to describing the expansion of modern humans out of Africa as a slow process of settling in to new environments, rather than a frantic race along the shoreline. But to explain why that is, I have to start a few decades back.

Perhaps the most controversial theory of human nature to come out of anthropology in the 1960’s was the so-called killer ape hypothesis. As summarized by Wikipedia, this hypothesis argued that “war and interpersonal aggression was the driving force behind human evolution. … The ancestors of humans were distinguished from other primate species by their greater aggressiveness. Furthermore, according to the theory, this aggression remains within humanity, which retains many murderous instincts.”

These ideas were far from universally accepted by anthropologists, but they took hold of the popular imagination at the end of the decade because they so perfectly fitted the mood of the time. Both liberals who despaired of the human propensity to violence and conservatives who saw “toughness” as a virtue were more than ready to believe that human history had been primarily shaped by aggressiveness and a struggle for dominance.

The opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was an explicit artistic statement of this theory, with its depiction of an apeman being aroused by the black obelisk to the first stirrings of humanity — and immediately using his new-found intelligence to grab a bone that happens to be lying around and start smashing things. From that modest beginning, he quickly proceeds to standing upright, hunting fair-sized animals for food, and brutally murdering a member of a rival band.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been trying to figure out why the idea of a flourishing human community in the Middle East some 125,000-80,000 years ago strikes me as such a big deal. And I’ve realized that it has to do with the emerging multiculturalism and creative imagination visions that I’ve been discussing in recent entries.

When I studied archaeology in college in the middle 60’s, Eurocentric attitudes were still taken for granted, and it was assumed almost without question that modern humans had evolved in Europe from Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago and had set out from there to conquer the world.

The only alternative theory — based on the new technique of carbon-14 dating — was that the point of origin might lie in Israel, where skeletons had been found that were too old to date using C14 and which must therefore go back more than 45,000 years. But even that argument was accompanied by a disclaimer that those early Middle Easterners had still been using the same Middle Paleolithic tools as their Neanderthal neighbors and didn’t arrive at the full glory of Upper Paleolithic culture until they reached Europe.

Along with this tendency to put western Europe at the center of the human story went an unfailingly contemptuous attitude towards the rest of the world. Grahame Clarke’s World Prehistory (1961), which was our chief text for the course, states without hesitation that “The Advanced Palaeolithic cultures … were confined to the more northerly parts of the Old World. … Most of Africa, India and southeast Asia were henceforward by-passed by the main currents of creative change throughout the remainder of prehistoric times.”

Read the rest of this entry »

After I’d finished writing “The Great Migration Revisited” last week, I kept thinking about the mythic implications of sex with Neanderthals — and that led me, by a natural progression, to thinking about Lady Gaga.

I’d started thinking about Lady Gaga anyway, because she’s clearly important in terms of the cultural cycles that I’ve been charting and I want to understand where she fits in. But I haven’t been able to make much of her as a singer — her music frankly sounds to me like warmed-over bad-girl pop and I don’t hear anything new in it.

Lady Gaga as performance art, though — that’s something I can work with. So I took a book out from the library, Lady Gaga: Critical Mass Fashion by Lizzy Goodman, and I’ve been studying it for clues.

The first thing that strikes me about Gaga is the progression of her style, which went from basic rock ‘n’ roll outlaw in 2007, to hot blond with lots of leg and cleavage in 2008 — and then suddenly in early 2009 to a variety of outfits in which the human form seems to vanish under patterns of geometrical abstraction: triangular plates, spikes, bubbles, hoops, or disco ball mirrors.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve spent the last week tidying things up around here, tweaking the categories, but mostly creating an annotated list of all the entries to date to serve as a kind of table of contents.

The blog format really isn’t the greatest for doing connected series of posts and keeping everything sorted out, so I hope this helps anyone who’s been trying to keep track..

It’s been over a year since I turned aside from exploring the Old Stone Age to present what was intended to be a brief discussion of the sequence of historical visions. That side-trip unexpectedly took on a life of its own — but now it’s done and I’m ready to pick up the narrative where I left off.

My final entry in that earlier set concluded with the heretical suggestion that the Great Migration which brought modern humans out of Africa began not around 70,000 to 60,000 years ago, as generally assumed, but much earlier:

Over the last few decades, there has been increasing evidence that early modern humans reached the Middle East around 130,000 years ago, when the ice age prior to the most recent one was coming to an end and a moister climate in what is now the Sinai Desert made such a migration possible.

The climate remained mild for an extended period, until another ice age set in about 75,000 years ago. At that point, modern humans vanished from what is now Israel, being replaced in the fossil record by more cold-adapted Neanderthals. For that reason, those early Middle Easterners are generally written off as an evolutionary side note, irrelevant to the larger human story.

The recent finds of shell beads, however, present a very different picture. They suggest that during the entire interglacial period from 130 to 75 thousand years ago, the people of northern Africa and nearby parts of the Middle East may have formed a single population. …

And in that case, the people who lived in Israel then were not some isolated, backwoods anomaly but part of a vibrant and rapidly evolving human community. … Perhaps those ancient inhabitants of Israel, rather than quietly dying out when the cold weather came, were inspired instead to pull up stakes and set off to the east in search of greener pastures

Read the rest of this entry »