Frans de Waal: Primatology shows that the typical alpha male isn’t a bully

 

South Africa’s Blombos cave is home to the earliest drawing by a human

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The drawing found on silcrete stone in Blombos Cave.
Craig Foster

By Christopher Henshilwood, University of Bergen and Karen Loise van Niekerk, University of Bergen

Scientists working in Blombos Cave in South Africa’s southern Cape region have made a discovery that changes our understanding of when our human ancestors started expressing themselves through drawings. They’ve found a 73 000-year-old cross-hatched drawing on a silcrete (stone) flake. It was made with an ochre crayon. The Conversation Africa asked Professor Christopher Henshilwood, who leads the team that made the discovery, about its significance.

What does the drawing your team found look like?

It consists of a set of six straight sub-parallel lines crossed obliquely by three slightly curved lines. One line partially overlaps the edge of a flake scar. This suggests it was made after that flake became detached. The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface.

So the pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form.

This has shifted our thinking about when human ancestors started drawing. What was the earliest known drawing found before this?

The earliest known engraving, a zig-zag pattern incised on a fresh water shell from Trinil, Java, was found in layers dated to 540 000 years ago. In terms of drawings, a recent article proposed that painted representations in three caves of the Iberian Peninsula were 64,000 years old – this would mean they were produced by Neanderthals. So the drawing on the Blombos silcrete flake is the oldest drawing by Homo sapiens ever found.

[Read more…]

Seeking human generosity’s origins in an ape’s gift to another ape

Carl Zimmer writes:

How generous is an ape? It’s a hard question for scientists to tackle, but the answer could tell us a lot about ourselves.

People in every culture can be generous, whether they’re loaning a cellphone to an office mate or sharing an antelope haunch with a hungry family.

While it’s easy to dwell on our capacity for war and violence, scientists see our generosity as a remarkable feature of our species. “One of the things that stands out about humans is how helpful we are,” said Christopher Krupenye, a primate behavior researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

This generosity may have been crucial to the survival of our early ancestors who lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers.

“When our own attempts to find food are unsuccessful, we rely on others to share food with us — otherwise we starve,” said Jan Engelmann, a researcher at Göttingen University.

To understand the origin of this impulse — known as prosociality — a number of researchers have turned to our closest living relatives. [Continue reading…]

Conflict reigns over the history and origins of money

Bruce Bower writes:

Wherever you go, money talks. And it has for a long time.

Sadly, though, money has been mum about its origins. For such a central element of our lives, money’s ancient roots and the reasons for its invention are unclear.

As cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin multiply into a flock of digital apparitions, researchers are still battling over how and where money came to be. And some draw fascinating parallels between the latest, buzzworthy cryptocurrencies, which require only a virtual wallet, and a type of money developed by one Micronesian island community that wouldn’t fit in anyone’s wallet, pocket or purse.

When it comes to money’s origins, though, conflict reigns. Economists have held one view of money’s origins for hundreds of years. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists, holding a revisionist view, say that economists’
standard story is bankrupt.

Economists and revisionists alike agree that an object defined as money works in four ways: First, it serves as a means for exchanging goods and services. Currency enables payment of debts. It represents a general measure of value, making it possible to calculate prices of all sorts of items. And, finally, money can be stored as a wealth reserve.

From there, the two groups split. Mainstream economists assume that bartering of goods and services inspired money’s invention. Anthropologists and archaeologists contend that early states invented currency as a means of debt payment.

“Much academic work assumes that [monetary systems] arose in nation-states within the last 200 to 400 years,” says sociocultural anthropologist Daniel Souleles of Copenhagen Business School in Frederiksberg. But financialized transactions and debt show up in lots of places much further back in time.

Recent research from the Americas adds new questions to the debate. These investigations suggest that money independently appeared for different reasons and assumed different tangible forms in many parts of the world, starting thousands of years ago. [Continue reading…]

The new story of humanity’s origins in Africa

Ed Yong writes:

There is a decades-old origin story for our species, in which we descended from a group of hominids who lived somewhere in Africa around 200,000 years ago. Some scientists have placed that origin in East Africa; others championed a southern birthplace. In either case, the narrative always begins in one spot. Those ancestral hominids, probably Homo heidelbergensis, slowly accumulated the characteristic features of our species—the rounded skull, small face, prominent chin, advanced tools, and sophisticated culture. From that early cradle, we then spread throughout Africa, and eventually the world.

But some scientists are now arguing that this textbook narrative is wrong in its simplicity, linearity, and geography. Yes, we evolved from ancestral hominids in Africa, but we did it in a complicated fashion—one that involves the entire continent.

Consider the ancient human fossils from a Moroccan cave called Jebel Irhoud, which were described just last year. These 315,000-year-old bones are the oldest known fossils of Homo sapiens. They not only pushed back the proposed dawn of our species, but they added northwest Africa to the list of possible origin sites. They also had an odd combination of features, combining the flat faces of modern humans with the elongated skulls of ancient species like Homo erectus. From the front, they could have passed for us; from the side, they would have stood out.

Fossils from all over Africa have modern and ancient traits in varied combinations, including the 260,000-year-old Florisbad skull from South Africa; the 195,000-year-old remains from Omo Kibish in Ethiopia; and the 160,000-year-old Herto skull, also from Ethiopia. Some scientists have argued that these remains represent different subspecies of Homo sapiens, or different species altogether.

But perhaps they really were all Homo sapiens, and our species simply used to be far more diverse than we currently are. “If you look at skulls, you’ll see different features of modern humans arising in different locations at different times,” says Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford. And the reason for that, she says, is that “we’re a species with multiple African origins.” [Continue reading…]

Music: Jon Hassell — ‘Dream Theory’

 

Jon Hassell: “Dream Theory in Malaya is titled after a paper by a visionary anthropologist, Kilton Stewart, who in 1935 visited a remarkable highland tribe of Malayan aborigines, the Senoi, whose happiness and well-being were linked to their morning custom of family dream-telling—where a child’s fearful dream of falling was praised as a gift to learn to fly the next night and where a dream-song or dance was taught to a neighboring tribe to create a common bond beyond differences of custom.

“The Semelai are another tribe not far from the Senoi but who live in the largest swamp area of Malaya. A recorded fragment of their joy-filled watersplash rhythm was re-structured and became the generating force for the composition, Malay, as well as providing a thematic guide for the entire recording.”

Kilton Stewart wrote:

If you should hear that a flying saucer from another planet had landed on Culangra, a lonely mountain peak in the Central Mountain Range of the Malay Peninsula a hundred years ago, you would want to know how the space ship was constructed and what kind of power propelled it, but most of all you would want to know about the people who navigated it and the society from which they came. If they lived in a world without crime and war and destructive conflict, and if they were comparatively free from chronic mental and physical ailments, you would want to know about their methods of healing and education, and whether these methods would work as well with the inhabitants of the earth. If you heard further that the navigators of the ship had found a group of 12,000 people living as an isolated community among the mountains, and had demonstrated that these pre-literate people could utilize their methods of healing and education, and reproduce the society from which the celestial navigators came, you would probably be more curious about these psychological and social methods that conquered space inside the individual, than you would about the mechanics of the ship which conquered outside space.

As a member of a scientific expedition traveling through the unexplored equatorial rain forest of the Central Range of the Malay Peninsula in 1935, 1 was introduced to an isolated tribe of jungle folk, who employed methods of psychology and interpersonal relations so astonishing that they might have come from another planet. These people, the Senoi, lived in long community houses, skillfully constructed of bamboo, rattan, and thatch, and held away from the ground on poles. They maintained themselves by practicing dry-land, shifting agriculture, and by hunting and fishing. Their language, partly Indonesian and partly Non-Kamian, relates them to the peoples of Indonesia to the south and west, and to the Highlanders of Indo-China and Burma, as do their physical characteristics.

Study of their political and social organization indicates that the political authority in their communities was originally in the hands of the oldest members of patrilineal clans, somewhat as in the social structure of China and other parts of the world. But the major authority in all their communities is now held by their primitive psychologists whom they call halaks. The only honorary title in the society is that of Tohat, which is equivalent to a doctor who is both a healer and an educator, in our terms.

The Senoi claim there has not been a violent crime or an intercommunal conflict for a space of two or three hundred years because of the insight and inventiveness of the Tohats of their various communities. The foothill tribes which surround the Central Mountain Range have such a firm belief in the magical powers of this Highland group that they give the territory a wide berth. From all we could learn, their psychological knowledge of strangers in their territory, the Senoi said they could very easily devise means of scaring them off. They did not practice black magic, but allowed the nomadic hill-folk surrounding them to think that they did if strangers invaded their territory.

This fear of Senoi magic accounts for the fact that they have not, over a long period, had to fight with outsiders. But the absence of violent crime, armed conflict, and mental and physical diseases in their own society can only be explained on the basis of institutions which produce a high state of psychological integration and emotional maturity, along with social skills and attitudes which promote creative, rather than destructive, inter-personal relations. They are, perhaps, the most democratic group reported in anthropological literature. In the realms of family, economics, and politics, their society operates smoothly on the principle of contract, agreement, and democratic consensus, with no need of police force, jail, psychiatric hospital to reinforce the agreements or to confine those who are not willing or able to reach consensus. [Continue reading…]

Tiny brains of extinct human relative had complex features

The New York Times reports:

What makes humans so smart? For a long time the answer was simple: our big brains.

But new research into the tiny noggins of a recently discovered human relative called Homo naledi may challenge that notion. The findings, published Monday, suggest that when it comes to developing complex brains, size isn’t all that matters.

In 2013 scientists excavating a cave in South Africa found remains of Homo naledi, an extinct hominin now thought to have lived 236,000 to 335,000 years ago. Based on the cranial remains, the researchers concluded it had a small brain only about the size of an orange or your fist. Recently, they took another look at the skull fragments and found imprints left behind by the brain. The impressions suggest that despite its tiny size, Homo naledi’s brain shared a similar shape and structure with that of modern human brains, which are three times as large.

“We’ve now seen that you can package the complexity of a large brain in a tiny packet,” said Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at Wits University in South Africa and an author of the paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Almost in one fell swoop we slayed the sacred cow that complexity in the hominid brain was directly associated with increasing brain size.” [Continue reading…]

Warning signs: how early humans first began to paint animals

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Painting from El Castillo cave (Cantabria, Spain). Early Upper Palaeolithic or older.
Photo Becky Harrison and courtesy Gobierno de Cantabria., Author provided

By Derek Hodgson, University of York and Paul Pettitt, Durham University

Visual culture – and the associated forms of symbolic communication, are regarded by palaeo-anthropologists as perhaps the defining characteristic of the behaviour of Homo sapiens. One of the great mysteries of archaeology is why figurative art, in the form of the stunningly naturalistic animal depictions, appeared relatively suddenly around 37,000 years ago in the form of small sculpted objects and drawings and engravings on cave and rock shelter walls.

Since the discovery and authentication of such Palaeolithic art more than a century ago, theories have abounded as to what this meant to its Ice Age hunter-gatherer creators. But theories often say more about modern preconceptions regarding the function of art – how can we tell if we’re on the right track to understanding the remote and alien societies that created the first images?

In a radical new approach to the issue, we applied recent findings from visual neuroscience, perceptual psychology and the archaeology of cave art, that begin to make sense of the intriguing representations and forward what we hope can be tested scientifically.

[Read more…]

China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world

By Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




Read more:
How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

[Read more…]

Ancient humans settled the Philippines 700,000 years ago

Science reports:

In what some scientists are calling a “one-in-a-million find,” archaeologists have discovered a cache of butchered rhino bones and dozens of stone tools on the Philippines’s largest island, Luzon. The find pushes back the earliest evidence for human occupation of the Philippines by more than 600,000 years, and it has archaeologists wondering who exactly these ancient humans were—and how they crossed the deep seas that surrounded that island and others in Southeast Asia.

“The only thing missing is the hominin fossil to go along with it,” says archaeologist Adam Brumm, of Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. He’s the one who set the odds for what he calls a “very exciting discovery,” but he wasn’t involved with the work.

Researchers found 75% of a fossilized rhino skeleton—ribs and leg bones still scarred from the tools that removed their meat and marrow—lying in ancient mud that had long since buried an even older river channel. To determine the site’s age, researchers dated the enamel in one of the rhino’s teeth, as well as quartz grains embedded in the sediment layers above and below the bones, using electron spin resonance (ESR), which measures the buildup of electrons as a material is exposed to radiation over time. The team dated the bottom sediment layer to about 727,000 years old, the rhino tooth to about 709,000 years old, and the top sediment layer to about 701,000 years old. Several independent experts say they were impressed by the team’s careful use of the technique. “They’ve nailed it,” says Alistair Pike, an archaeological dating expert at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

So who were these ancient people? They couldn’t have been our own species, Homo sapiens, which evolved in Africa hundreds of thousands of years later. The most likely bet is H. erectus, an archaic human species that first evolved nearly 2 million years ago and may have been the first member of our genus to expand out of Africa, the team writes today in Nature. [Continue reading…]