Tag Archives: Homo erectus

Antecessor rising

932-882 kya (thousand years ago)

A common way of demeaning another group is to call them cannibals. Roman pagans sometimes accused early Christians of cannibalizing infants during their secret ceremonies (a horror-show misreporting of the Christian Mass?) Later on, medieval Christians sometimes accused Jews of murdering Christian infants and mixing their blood into Passover matzohs. In response to such libels, anthropologists have sometimes swung to the opposite extreme, occasionally even denying that cannibalism (other than emergency survival cannibalism) was ever an established practice. But there is no serious doubt that human populations have sometimes practiced cannibalism, sometimes in the very recent past. In 1961, for example, Michael Rockefeller, traveling in search of tribal art, was killed and eaten by a group on the coast of New Guinea.

At the Grand Dolina site in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain, the fragmentary remains of 6 people, mostly children, were discovered mixed in with animal bones and stone tools. Animal and human remains were treated the same. In both cases, cut marks show that flesh was cut from the bones. There’s no evidence that the human remains received any specially respectful treatment. Cannibalism is the most plausible explanation.

The researchers involved have proposed a new species name, Homo antecessor, for these and some other early European finds, although not everybody buys this.

Quest for fire

1,043-986 thousand years ago

What really distinguishes humans from other animals? We’ve covered some of the answers already, and will cover more in posts to come. But certainly one of the great human distinctions is that we alone use fire. Fire is recognized as something special not just by scientists, but in the many myths about how humans acquired fire. (It ain’t just Prometheus.) Claude Lévi-Strauss got a whole book out of analyzing South American Indian myths of how the distinction between raw and cooked separates nature from culture. (I admit this is where I get bogged down on Lévi-Strauss.)

Until recently the story about fire was that it came late, toward the latter days of Homo erectus. But Richard Wrangham, a primatologist at Harvard, turned this around with his book Catching Fire (which is not the same as this book), arguing that the taming of fire goes back much earlier, to the origin of Homo erectus. Wrangham argues that it was cooking in particular that set us on the road to humanity. Cooking allows human beings to extract much more of energy from foods (in addition to killing parasites). Homo erectus had smaller teeth and jaw than earlier hominins and probably a smaller gut, and it may have been fire that made this possible. Cooking is also likely to have affected social life, by focusing eating and socializing around a central place. (E O Wilson thinks that home sites favored intense sociality in both social insects and humans.)

Surviving on raw food is difficult for people in a modern high-tech environment and probably impossible for people in traditional settings. Anthropologists are always looking for human universals, and almost always finding exceptions (e.g. the vast majority of societies avoid regular brother-sister marriage, but there are a few exceptions). But cooking seems to be a real, true universal. No society is known where people got by without cooking. Tasmanians, isolated from the rest of the world for 10,000 years, with the simplest technology of any people in recent history, had lost the art of making fire, but still cooked.

Recent archeological finds have pushed the date for controlled use of fire back to 1 million years ago (see today’s tweet on Wonderwerk cave), but not all the way back to the origin of Homo erectus. This doesn’t mean Wrangham is wrong. Fire sites don’t always preserve very well: we have virtually no archeological evidence of the first Americans controlling fire, but nobody doubts they were doing it. It could be that it will be the geneticists who will settle this one. The Maillard (or browning) reaction that gives cooked meat much of its flavor generates compounds that are toxic to many mammals but not (or not so much) to us. At some point we may learn just how far back genetic adaptations to eating cooked food go.

An alternative to an early date for fire, there is the recent theory that processing food, by chopping it up and mashing it with stone tools, was the crucial early adaptation.

Whenever it is exactly that humans started cooking, the date falls in (Northern hemisphere) grilling season on Logarithmic History, so you can celebrate the taming of fire accordingly. It doesn’t have to be meat you grill. Some anthropologists think cooking veggies was even more important. I recommend sliced eggplant particularly, brushed with olive oil to keep it from sticking, and with salt, pepper, and any other spices.

And here, if it’s your kind of thing, is Iron Maiden doing Quest for Fire.

My handaxe

1.31-1.23 million years ago

By today’s date, Acheulean tools are well developed in Africa, and found in India too. Sophisticated tools like the Acheulean hand axe probably tell us something not just about cognition in relation to tool making, but also about social cognition. You wouldn’t make a hand axe, use it, and abandon it. Nor would you go to all the trouble if the biggest, baddest guy in the group was immediately going to grab it from you. So there is probably some notion of artifacts-as-personal-possessions by the time Acheulean appears.

Possession is a social relationship, a relationship between two or more individuals with respect to the thing possessed. Robinson Crusoe didn’t “own” anything on his island before Friday came along.

Linguists have noted something interesting about the language of possession that maybe tells us something about the psychology of possession: Expressions for possession are often similar to expressions for spatial locations. Compare spatial expressions:

João went to Recife.
Chico stayed in Rio.
The gang kept Zezinho in Salvador.

and corresponding constructions for possessions:

The Crampden estate went to Reginald.
The Hampden estate stayed with Lionel.
Thag kept axe.

Of course the Crampden estate didn’t go anywhere in physical space, but it still traveled in the abstract social space of possession. In some cases just switching from inanimate to animate subject will switch the meaning from locative to possessive. The Russian preposition y means at/near when applied to a place (People are at Nevsky street) but possession when applied to a person (Hat is “at” Ivan = Ivan has hat.)

What may be going on here: people (and many other creatures) have some mental machinery for thinking about physical space. That machinery gets retooled/borrowed/exapted for thinking about more abstract relationships. So the cognitive psychology of space gets retooled for thinking about close and distant social relationships, or time ahead and behind. In other words, we may be seeing a common evolutionary phenomenon of organs evolved for one purpose being put to another purpose – reptile jaw bones evolve into mammalian inner ear bones, dinosaur forelimbs evolve into bird wings. You can find Steve Pinker making this argument in his book The Stuff of Thought. For a while most of the evidence of repurposing spatial cognition for more abstract relationships came from linguistics, but there’s now some corroboration from neurology.

And I’ve made the argument for the particular case of kinship: regularities in kin terminology across cultures tell us something about pan-human ideas of “kinship space.” (My kin and my body parts are arguably the most basic, intrinsic primitive sorts of possessions, since long before my handaxe.) This implies that the evolutionary psychology of kinship has not just an adaptive component (adaptations for calculating coefficients of relatedness and inbreeding), but also a phylogenetic component  (homologies with the cognitive psychology of space).


We’ll see other possible examples, involving e.g. the evolution of speech sounds, as we move along.

Calories and curves

energyfatThis figure is from a neat recent paper comparing energy expenditure (TEE or Total Energy Expended) and fat among humans and our closest relations: chimpanzees (genus Pan), gorillas (Gorilla), and orangutans (Pongo). (The numbers are adjusted for differences in overall body mass.)

What stands out here is that humans are a high energy species. Also we carry a lot more body fat than the other great apes. This applies particularly to women, who need a lot of extra fat to meet the high energy demands of human infants. But it even applies to men. For both sexes, a high energy life style means you want to carry around an extra reserve of fat in case of emergencies.

We don’t know how long ago our ancestors decided to crank up their energy consumption. Maybe back with the rise of Homo erectus (just a few days ago on Logarithmic History). Or maybe later, when the typical modern human pattern of slow maturation was more firmly in place. At some point in the near future, we’ll actually nail down the specific genetic changes leading humans to accumulate more fat, and be able to put a date on the change. It may be that the distinctively human mating system also arose back then, with human females concealing ovulation (no chimp-style monthly sexual swellings) but advertising nubility (with conspicuous fat deposits).

A high energy life-style also goes with extensive food sharing, and changes in human kinship.


From around 1.4 million years ago, Acheulean hand axes appear in Africa. They will eventually show up in southwest Europe and as far east as India. Hand axes were long thought to be absent from further east, but now have been found sporadically in East Asia. Wear analyses show that hand axes, “the Swiss Army knife of the Paleolithic,” were used for a variety of purposes: cutting wood, slicing meat, scraping hides.

The hand axe implies a great leap forward cognitively from earlier Oldowan tools (although you can flay an elephant with Oldowan flakes). People (let’s call them people) were not just choosing the right material and making the right hand movements, but choosing the right shape of stone, and imagining the hand axe inside it before they started.

Dietrich Stout, an experimental anthropologist at Emory University, has trained students to make modern-day Acheulean handaxes, and monitored their brains as they learn. (The students’ axes, after months of practice, still aren’t as good as the real thing.) See the video below:

Mannish boy

1.6 million years ago

Turkana Boy (KNM WT 15000), from West Turkana, Kenya, is a striking find: the most complete early human skeleton we’ve got.
turkana boy
In addition to confirming a lot about Homo erectus’s shift to not-totally-unlike-modern bipedalism, he also seems to be telling us something about Homo erectus’s not-really-modern-human life history. Turkana Boy is not a grown up, but he has his second molars erupted. If he were a modern human, this would make him about 12 years old. Based on this, a lot of earlier accounts on the kid suggested he had a lot of growing to do, and would have ended up being a really tall adult – over 6 feet. But the latest evidence is that he was only 8-9 years old when he died, and wouldn’t have grown much taller than his 5 foot 3 if he had lived. In other words, Homo erectus back in his day grew up a lot more quickly than modern humans, and probably didn’t have much of the secondary adolescent growth spurt (coming after a late childhood slowdown) that we see in modern humans.

This in turn, if it holds up, is telling us that life was a lot rougher back then. Humans hadn’t got their act together keeping juvenile mortality low, and there was still strong pressure to rush through childhood and get on to reproducing quickly. A lot of kids, like Turkana boy, didn’t make it.

Homo erectus

Evolutionary theory implies that the transition from one species to another takes many generations. There’s never going to be a point at which a non-human animal gives birth to a human offspring. But on the scale we use to measure things at Logarithmic History, the time 1.8 million years ago has a good claim to be the time when human beings began. Genus Homo has been around for a while, but there are major evolutionary changes around now in the human direction. We can start with geography. It’s now that we find the first hominins outside of Africa, at least as far as Georgia in the Caucasus. The Dmanisi fossils from Georgia can probably be assigned to the new species Homo erectus, albeit somewhat shorter and smaller-brained than later erectus. Homo erectus also appears around this time in Africa.

It’s still possible that hominins got out of Africa even before erectus. Just this April, an article came out suggesting that Homo floresiensis, the famous diminutive “hobbit” from Flores island, Indonesia, has its closest affinities with African Homo habilis, raising the possibility of an earlier exit. It’s even possible that H. erectus evolved outside Africa from this earlier emigrant (so far undiscovered), and then some migrated back to Africa.

H. erectus has a bigger brain than earlier forms, and reduced jaws and teeth. And there are dramatic changes below the neck. Erectus has a body shape and size quite similar to ours. Strikingly, the changes in body form seem to be systematically related to distance running. Tendons in the feet and calves turn into springs that put a bounce in our running stride (but also rule out serious tree-climbing). Our neck gets longer and shoulders and head get more independent so we can swing arms for balance without twisting our heads from side to side. And the gluteus maximus becomes the largest muscle in the body, to prevent our bodies from toppling forward with each step. Homo erectus is the first hominin with a serious butt.

Moving from what we know to what we guess, it looks likely that Homo erectus had shifted to a new diet and a new mode of acquiring food. David Carrier argues that H. erectus was a persistence hunter, running after prey until they were exhausted. Human beings, although pretty poor sprinters, have a big advantage in distance running, in that our breathing is uncoupled from our running. This lets us run efficiently at whatever speed we choose. Most mammals, by contrast, have to breathe and run in synch, and pay a heavy price – wasting energy and overheating – for running at non-optimal speed. Bipedal dinosaurs enjoyed a similar advantage.

Like anything else in paleoanthropology, there are arguments about this. For example, fire may or may not have played a significant role at this early stage. We’ll cover some of these arguments in posts to come.