Posts Tagged ‘anthropology’

Our Epic Prehistory

Neanderthal reconstruction by Kennis & Kennis/Photograph by Joe McNally

I love me some Tolkien. But for everything that The Lord of the Rings has done for the fantasy genre, it has also been so overwhelmingly influential and compelling that it is has spawned entire franchises set in worlds imitating Middle Earth, and has stifled the genre’s creativity. Unless otherwise specified, fantasy is assumed to be set in a medieval European setting and populated by humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and halflings. Dwarves are always assumed to be great craftsmen and miners who live underground in halls of stone and favor geometric patterns in their art and writing. Elves always inhabit verdant forests, are skilled in magic and craft fine weapons and armor with leaf shapes and magical properties. Orcs are brutish and primitive and wear spiky black armor and wield spiky black weapons. I am hardly the first person to make these observations, and in recent years there has finally been some real progress in emerging from the shadow of Tolkien, but we have a long way to go. I would like to propose just one alternative that not only bucks some of the trends that Tolkien started, but also has some science at its heart.

In most fantasy settings, there are several intelligent species coexisting in the same world, each with a distinctive culture and appearance. In our modern world of course, there are humans of cultures and appearances that vary beyond anything seen in most fantasy, but there are no other similarly advanced intelligent species for us to interact with. This was not always the case. In the course of human evolution, we coexisted with several other species of human, including Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, and the recently discovered Denisova hominin.

Hominid evolution is a complicated and rapidly changing field, and my summary here will likely make archaeologists and anthropologists cringe, but I hope it will also kindle some ideas for speculative fiction writers looking for something a bit different.

I will start with homo erectus, a species that originated in Africa around 1.8 million years ago and spread across much of Asia into India, China, and Indonesia. Homo erectus was clearly quite successful, and there is evidence that they used stone hand axes and fire, and were probably one of the first hunter-gatherer societies. They stood about as high as modern humans, but their skeletons are more robust and they were more heavily muscled. It is not clear when homo erectus went extinct, but they may have lasted in isolated pockets until relatively recently, and may have interacted or even interbred with early homo sapiens. In fact, Homo floresiensis, which lived in Indonesia as recently as 12,000 years ago, shows some similarities to homo erectus, although homo floresiensis is smaller.

Model of Homo erectus from Museum of Archaeology, Herne, Germany

The most famous hominid that coexisted with humans is the Neanderthal. Neanderthal remains have been discovered throughout Europe and as far east as the Altai mountains. They lived from 600,000 years ago until about 25,000 years ago. Despite the stereotype of Neanderthals as dumb brutes, evidence suggests that they may have been just as intelligent as humans. (In fact their brains were larger than ours!) They made wood, bone, and stone tools, and the discovery of healed fractures in some skeletons suggests that they cared for their sick and wounded. They buried their dead and may have used body paint, and they constructed large shelters out of animal bones. (They also may have practiced cannibalism, but then, so do some modern humans so you can’t hold that against them.) Neanderthals have long been thought of as pure carnivores, surviving by hunting mammoths and other big game, but recent discoveries show that they ate plants too.  Evidence in a cave in Gibraltar, the most recent Neanderthal site, shows that they even foraged from the sea, much like the humans who used the cave thousands of years later.

There is good evidence that Neanderthals used language, and there are even some speculations that their language pre-dated the separation between speaking and music – that it was a hybrid of the two – something that just screams (sings?) to be used in fiction.

So why did the Neanderthals go extinct if they were as smart as we are, significantly stronger, and geographically widespread? There are several theories. One, put forward in the book “The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived” by Clive Finlayson, is that they were simply unlucky. It appears that Neanderthals hunted primarily in wooded areas, ambushing their prey using short spears and relying on their strength to bring the animal down. As the climate changed, the forests receded and gave way to wide steppes. Ambush hunting is less effective out in the grassland: it favors a hominid species specialized for long-distance walking or running, who use projectile weapons. That’s us.

Simulation of the spread of modern humans into neanderthal territory, beginning 1600 generations ago. Neanderthal territory is light gray, homo sapiens territory is dark gray, and the black band indicates areas of coexistence.

Another theory says that Neanderthals competed – perhaps violently – with homo sapiens and that we eventually won. This scenario is appealing from a fictional point of view because it goes against preconceptions and lends itself easily to the tale of a noble species of intelligent (perhaps even musical) Neanderthals being wiped out by a smaller, more devious species of humans: homo sapiens.

Of course, you can go completely in the other direction too. Another theory is that Neanderthals and humans interbred to the point where we stopped being different species. Some Neanderthal remains are sufficiently well-preserved to extract DNA, and the DNA of non-African humans include some portions that match pieces of the Neanderthal genome. Recently, DNA recovered from a 41,000 year old finger bone found in Denisova cave, Russia, shows that it came from a species that is distinct from both Neanderthals and humans, but which shows some degree of interbreeding with both.

My suspicion is that all of these theories are at least partially correct. It is conceivable that even as Neanderthals were dying out as their forests receded, humans could have accelerated their demise. And, knowing human nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if some interbreeding occurred even as our species was killing off the Neanderthals.

All of this evidence for coexistence between humans and other hominids is a ripe setting for fiction much like modern fantasy but with the added benefit of being somewhat realistic. Add in the various exotic mammals that still roamed the world and the changes in climate that drove the migration or extinction of entire ecosystems, and the stories practically write themselves.

The wide geographic range of earlier species like homo erectus, and the persistence of pockets of similar species until quite recently, also spark the imagination. Almost every culture in the world has tales of human-like creatures that live in remote locations on the fringes of civilization. Could these stories be rooted in our distant past when they were not fiction at all? Could the revulsion triggered by the “uncanny valley” be a deep-seated instinct based on a time when there were other humanoids out there, competing with us?

There’s no reason that fantasy has to be confined to a pseudo-medieval Europe populated by the same old fantasy races. Long ago, our planet really was home to multiple species of human, and they fought and loved and explored and invented and sang songs into the night. Let’s hear their stories.



Not as Alone as We Think

When laypeople think of culture, it’s generally in terms of the art produced by a group of people (Paris has a lot of culture) or a group’s social behaviours (teen culture, geek culture). When anthropologists think of culture, they use both those meanings at the same time. Culture in an anthropological sense is “the customs, civilization, and achievements of a particular time or people” (my Canadian Oxford dictionary), “An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning” (Wikipedia), and “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group” (also Wikipedia). The ‘social learning’ of that second definition means that culture is transmitted between people and especially between generations. No transmission? It’s not a culture.

When I think of anthropological cultures, I think of stone tools, pottery, buildings, clothing, body modification and adornment, weapons, burial rituals, music, taboos, and social structures—the kinds of things you can dig up, extrapolate from existing artifacts, or document in indigenous cultures. There’s more than this, of course, but these are what get reported in pop science magazines and introductions to anthropology, including children’s books and the class I took in university. It’s hard to draw a line over how many behaviours, like using rocks to open seed pods or putting furs on your back when it’s cold, qualify as a formal culture, but the widest possible definition—one transmitted behaviour is culture—means that humans have had culture for a very long time. Tool use has been documented in hominids as early as 2.5-2.6 million years ago although there’s debate over which hominids made them. Neanderthals had weapons, buried their dead, painted their bodies, and constructed shelters. This wide definition is the one I’m going with here, because at the very least, one cultural behaviour is the beginning of culture.

You see, culture isn’t unique to the Homo genus and its ancestors, although H. sapiens sapiens seems to have taken it the furthest. Chimpanzees, our closest living relative, use tools, including termite sticks and spears. They have a vocabulary of gestures. They have a rigid hierarchy, patrol their borders, form alliances, and start wars. Of course, some of that may be purely instinctive, but where does the line get drawn? Is the human tendency to back up a friend in a fight culture or instinct?

As for other primates: Gorillas also have a social order. A group of Japanese snow monkeys wash their food (link to Youtube). Gorillas, orangutans, and capuchin monkeys use tools. (More examples at the Wikipedia articles.) Notably, orangutan tool use varies by geographical region, suggesting cultural transmission rather than innate knowledge. Chimpanzees have been observed learning tool-making techniques. Of course, tool use is generally seen as an indicator of intelligence, which is accurate, but the facts of population variance and learned behaviours also point towards present culture(s).

Using tools is actually one of the main ways we see cultural behaviour in animals. Dolphins have been seen teaching offspring to push sponges as a foraging tool. One species of Indonesian octopus uses shells and coconuts for protection. Sea otters use rocks to crack open shellfish (Youtube). Elephants will use bark to save drinking water, sticks to swat flies, and rocks to get past electric fences. And of course, birds, especially corvids such as ravens, crows, and jays, and perching birds such as finches and nuthatches, use tools—most often a twig or piece of bark to retrieve insects. New Caledonian Crows are particularly interesting, because they’ll adapt tools for new uses, then pass the knowledge to the rest of their group.

Other evidence for animal cultures include: learned foraging behaviour and evasion tactics in parrots, death rituals in elephants, and the recently discovered adoption of new mating songs in humpback whales. Whales, dolphins, and elephants also have social structures.

It’s hard to say, of course, if any of these behaviours, even if they’re passed on or widespread in populations, are signs of a culture. They may be instinct. They may be evidence of how culture evolved, while not being culture themselves—especially when a species displays only one or two behaviours. They may fall more under biology or psychology than under anthropology. And of course, I’m only an armchair anthropologist. I don’t have nearly enough training to argue definitively in any of the cases I’ve mentioned. But I ask:

  • If these are signs of non-human cultures, could there be signs that we haven’t noticed yet, signs we haven’t realized are signs, and deeper cultural traditions than we’re aware of? What might they be? What species?
  • Alternatively, what if these animal behaviours are signs of cultures evolving as we speak? If we left the animals alone for thousands or millions of years, would they develop civilizations as we did?
  • What if Douglas Adams was right about dolphins and mice having advanced cultures? And/or alien origins? What if he was wrong about them, but crows or octopuses had cultures equal to those of humans?
  • There’s a movement to give the great apes human rights. Could proving conclusively that they had a culture advance the cause? How would having apes as equal citizens change things? If apes get rights, what other species will?
  • All the animals I’ve mentioned are highly intelligent. Some can learn human language. Some have theory of mind. Many are capable of spontaneous problem solving. Does intelligence beget culture? Does culture beget intelligence? Do they evolve simultaneously? Or is there no correlation at all?