A. The Modern Human Brain
The brain is the seat of intelligence. Whatever it is that happened in early Homo sapiens, it must have originated in the brain. We have already taken note of the big brain bang. 1 Here, we will see that it isn’t just a matter of size. The human brain is also unique in its structure, from the level of gross anatomy down to the snippets of DNA that control brain development. The big question is when this happened. Archaeology suggests that modern behavior blossomed fairly recently, within 50,000 years. As we study humans in comparison to other species, we are especially on the lookout for correspondingly recent changes.
The nearest living brain we can compare to our own is the chimpanzee’s. The human brain does not seem to have any “new parts” over chimps. The differences lie in the size, function, or structure of the same parts. A human brain is proportionally more well-endowed in the cerebellum 1 and the association areas of the cortex. 2 The cerebellum controls voluntary movement, including hand-eye coordination and the production of speech. The association areas allow us to make higher-order decisions about things we sense, such as recognizing a face. They are also involved in the highest-level mental activities independent of the senses, like making plans or expressing our feelings in words.
The human brain is more asymmetric than the chimp’s, both in form 3 and function. A symmetric brain allows for redundancy – if the left side gets injured, the right half can still handle the same task. Ape brains, especially humans’, sacrifice redundancy for specialization. When the left and right brains specialize, together they can perform twice as many functions. The human brain does most of its language processing in the left hemisphere, while the right side specializes in perception and imagination. Brain / mind complexity arises from connecting different regions like the left / right hemispheres; integration gives our mind a chance to look at things from different angles.
At the cellular level, some regions of the human brain are unusually rich in white matter, the “wiring” beneath the surface that connects neurons in different areas. 4 There are also newly-discovered human brain cells that have not yet been detected in other animals. 5 “Rosehip neurons” provide very targeted control of other brain cells. 6 “Predecessor cells”, interestingly, are the first cells to appear in the cortex of the developing human embryo. 7
Two particular genes called MCPH1 and ASPM, which are associated with brain size, are thought to have experienced mutations within the last 100,000 years. 89 One of the most oft-discussed genes is called FOXP2. Variations in this gene are known to have profound effects on language, 10 and the human version of FOXP2 is not found in chimps. Interestingly, it was shared by Neanderthals, electrifying the debate about whether they could speak. The age of FOXP2 rules it out as a miracle mutation in modern humans, but it is only one of several genes involved in language.
When it comes to our DNA, the difference between humans and chimps is not so much new genes as gene regulators – the controls that turn genes on or off. 11 Geneticists have identified a whole class of DNA snippets called Human Accelerated Regions (HAR) that are uniquely human. Many of them are involved in regulating genes for brain development. 12 Some of these HARs, like FOXP2, were already present in Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA, so they are not smoking guns in modern human adaptations. 13
One of Homo sapiens’ most distinctive characteristics is the large, globular skull. This is no coincidence; a changing skull indicates a changing brain. The adaptations in our braincase would be necessary to accommodate growth in the regions called the frontal lobes, parietal lobes, and cerebellum. 14 The history of the human skull tells us that these regions swelled precisely during the emergence of modern humans. The frontal lobe is dominated by association areas. Two of these areas, the prefrontal cortex and the fronto-insular cortex, are particularly larger in humans than in chimps. The prefrontal cortex, at the very front of the brain, is associated with personality, social behavior, and decision-making. The fronto-insular cortex is one of the few regions of the brain that contains spindle neurons. It has been associated with spatial awareness, self-awareness, the complexities of emotions, cravings, and even addiction.
What does it all mean? The human brain is not only large but uniquely organized. However, the organ has been evolving for several million years. Only a few specific changes can be pinpointed to the last few hundred thousand years. It’s a safe bet that modern behavior was facilitated not just by biology but also by culture.
1. What is Language?
In the mind of an individual, the essence of language begins with symbolic, abstract thought. When you see, say, a tree in your backyard, you can symbolize that tree with a sketch, a hand gesture, a name (“Leafy”), or anything else that your mind can perceive. You can then use that symbol in ways that you can’t use the tree. What’s more, you can mentalize abstractions of that tree. When you see several trees that look like Leafy, your mind can lump them into a category represented by another symbol (“elm”). The process of abstraction is unlimited (“tree”, “green thing”, etc.) By abstracting your immediate surroundings, you can imagine things in a different place or time – even things that don’t exist (a “tree of life”).
Next, language is social. Communication requires a listener as well as a speaker. The two conversationalists must share joint attention, a deliberate shared focus on a topic of conversation. 15 Furthermore, language must be taught culturally; it is not entirely instinctive. In the rare cases when children grow up without exposure to language, they do not create their own.
Language can be conveyed with gestures, pictograms, or smoke signals for that matter. The human medium of choice, as we know, was vocalization. Spoken language has unique properties. It is formed with a small set of meaningless vocal sounds (“c”, “a”, or “t”) that can be combined in an infinite number of ways. Some of these combinations (“cat”) are chosen as meaningful symbols, which can again be combined with infinite variety to express complete thoughts.
That brings us around to grammar, which is a socially-agreed set of rules about how words are strung together. An intelligent ape can sign words in combination like “cat me give food”, but is incapable of creating finer clarifications like “I will give food to the cat” or “give me the cat food.”
2. The Origins of Language
As foreshadowed in Chapter 6, the origins of language are notoriously inscrutable. We frankly don’t know when, how, or “why” our ancestors progressed from animal communication to human language. Speculative hypotheses can (and do) fill entire books. Some models are gradualist, proposing that language skills evolved bit by bit over time. Others believe that a recent genetic mutation rapidly bestowed the gift of language on our recent African ancestors. If there’s anything I have learned in my decade researching this book, it is that nature is patient. I am inclined toward a gradualist belief just as a matter of principle.
The evidence in favor of lightning-bolt language acquisition is the archaeological record of modern behavior. The earliest African emigrants clearly exhibited modern behavior (more on that behavior in the next topic). The line of reasoning is that these humans must have become “modern” because their capacity for language allowed them to communicate complex thoughts and to perpetuate culture through the generations. The circumstantial evidence is noteworthy: modern behavior, the worldwide spread of Homo sapiens, and the extinction of all other human species all accelerated rapidly 40 – 50 TYA. The key assumption is almost undeniable: language does seem necessary to explain the sophistication of modern behavior. We can establish 50,000 years, then, as a conservative minimum age for the proliferation of language as we know it.
The further we go back in time, the less direct evidence is available. A few recent (controversial) archaeological discoveries could be interpreted as signs of modern behavior in Africa almost 200 TYA. 16 Linguists search for clues among the world’s living languages. Some teams have concluded that today’s degree of diversity would have required upward of 100,000 years of language development 17 , with a proposed origin in Middle Stone Age Africa. 18 Others insist that any linguistic analysis beyond 10,000 years is futile. 19
3. Language and the Mind
Language and thought form a symbiotic cycle. Thoughts provide us with some of the basic subject matter of language. Without language, though, it would be almost impossible to nail down a thought that is very detailed or abstract. Linguistic relativism is the idea that language influences our very perceptions of reality. There is evidence that cultures visualize space, time, gender, or colors in various ways, influenced by the words used to measure or categorize. 20
Children are very good at learning spoken language – so good, in fact, that some scientists believe that all babies are born with an instinctive “universal grammar”. 21 Others believe that language is just one special cultural skill enabled by our general capacities for memory and association. 22 The brain develops very quickly in early childhood. Language might be “hard-wired” in infancy, not by instinct, but by exposure to language while new connections are forming in the brain.
Another debate concerns the mind’s own representation of ideas. One conjecture is that the subconscious mind processes ideas in an unknown logical language of its own, the language of thought. 23 Alternatively, thought might originate in non-linguistic form, like a map 24 or a network of interconnected switches 25 , that somehow produces language-like properties. In fact, such experimental systems are called neural networks.
Recursion is a thought process that is almost uniquely human. It involves applying an idea repeatedly or to itself, like the idea of a “part”:
Recursion may be one of the key prerequisites to thinking linguistically. 26 For example, our well-developed theory of mind allows us to have a “thought within a thought”. A “story within a story” allows us to integrate past, present, and future – one of the most important functions of thought and language. 27
4. The Sociology of Language
Language is the vessel of culture. It greatly expands the range of ideas that people can share, whether for making tools, gossiping, or organizing a hunt. Language is especially powerful for preserving skills through the generations, allowing cultural wealth to accumulate. That seems to be what happened among the earliest Eurasians, providing us with the evidence that they had mastered language.
Language was one of the first great institutions to reinforce the ironic us-versus-them effect. While a common language acts as a bridge to bring small communities together, it is a barrier against integration with other people. The hunter-gatherer world must have been fragmented into many thousands of language zones. In New Guinea, one of the last refuges of foraging economies, the average language spans only 15 villages! 28 Language barriers are effectively insurmountable for marriage, so the history of languages must have closely tracked the genealogy of the populations who spoke them. 29
Spoken languages are very fluid. They change with every generation and easily splinter into dialects. We know from the history of Europe that a root language like Latin can diverge into dozens of mutually incomprehensible languages within a millennium. Partly for this reason, spoken language has serious limitations for preserving factual information. Poetry and song help people memorize their history and folklore, yet, as languages themselves are ephemeral, these verses are not eternal. There are a few extreme traces of collective memory allegedly going back 10,000 years, like American recollections of woolly mammoths. 30 By and large, though, historians believe that collective memories only survive a few centuries. 31 The modern human experience was relived and forgotten 100 times over before writing captured a snapshot of it less than 10,000 years ago.
C. Modern Behavior
1. Modernity and Language
How do we define the human spirit? Everyone agrees that advanced human behavior sets us apart from all other species. The interesting question is where we draw the line between our animalistic and human nature. Only if we define that threshold can we begin to answer questions about how our ancestors crossed it. I will define human “modernity” as the behavior that requires language or the mental processes associated with language. Leading anthropologists have enumerated such mental processes as abstract thought, symbolism, planning, and innovation. 32
Chapter 6 introduced two exceptionally early breakthroughs that form a category of their own. Stone knapping and the control of fire must be considered “borderline modern” behavior. These skills did not necessarily require full-blown language (a handful of scientists argue that they did), yet they are clearly beyond the capacity of other species. Both skills involve planning. The first humans to accomplish them were clearly innovative, but then stone age technology hardly changed for a million years. Neither fire nor tools indicate abstract or symbolic cognition. These noteworthy examples suggest that the transition to linguistic thought and modernism might have been very gradual.
2. Modernity Trait Lists
The definitions of modernity above are philosophically interesting but too abstract to guide archaeologists in the field. Since we can’t administer intelligence tests to Stone Agers, we must look for concrete evidence that they used language, symbolism, abstract thought, planning, and innovation. Scientists have published numerous “trait lists” of the evidence at hand. Hardly any two lists are identical, and these lists shift with new discoveries. One of the most significant and commonly-cited examples is ritualistic burial of the dead, which I will discuss further in the following topic. Other key signs of modernity are presented here.
a. Clothing and ornamentation
Ornamentation, like paint and jewelry, constitutes some of the earliest known behavior that archaeologists construe as modern. The idea is that a person wears jewelry to symbolize a sense of self, projecting a particular image to others. Jewelry, face paint, head dresses, and the like are also important elements of a uniform dress code that symbolizes group identity. Very often, ornamentation is valued for its sheer aesthetic value. Red ochre is a very common pigment found in archaeological sites going back almost 300,000 years. 33 Beads drilled with holes, presumably for stringing on necklaces or bracelets, date to at least 100,000 years in Israel 34 and are found throughout Africa in sites 70 – 80 TYO.
Clothes are another obvious indicator of modern behavior. Not only is clothing used for personal expression and identity, but it is an innovative use of resources as protection against the elements. Unfortunately, clothes decompose quickly, so it is difficult to date their origin directly. A particularly clever study has analyzed lice DNA. The lice that occupy our clothes are a different species than head lice. These species appear to diverge from a common ancestor in Africa around 70,000 years ago, and it is reasonable to speculate that clothing, or at least tailored clothing, became common in that time and place. 35
Clothes are a prime example of cultural adaptation. When any other species encounters a new environment, whether through migration or geologic change, its only option is slow biological adaptation by evolution. Humans can afford to be much more impatient. We can put on clothes, erect shelters, or even alter the environment. Cultural adaptation has reduced evolutionary pressure on our physique, one reason that our species is evolving very slowly now.
b. Mastering land and sea
Early Homo sapiens had a good sense of places and times beyond the here and now. Only at the modern human horizon do we begin to find resources located far away from their places of origin. 36 People must have had a mental layout of the land. They knew of specific locales that were rich in plants, animals, and minerals, and they understood seasonal variations. They probably traded resources with neighboring bands of people.
The first wave of modern Asians was likely the earliest seafaring people. The journeys to Australia and Japan 37 give us the oldest indirect evidence of boats or rafts. Even during the lowest sea levels, Australia was never joined to Asia. The only way to get there was by boat, which is why earlier species such as Homo erectus had never made it to Australia. Early settlers of Oceania somehow found a way to catch tuna and other deep-sea fish 40,000 years ago, well before the invention of fish hooks! 38 Fish and birds have become much more prevalent in the diet of modern humans.
c. Tool technology breakthroughs
Western Eurasians, in a culture that archaeologists call Aurignacian, utilized a new “prepared core” technique of making stone tools. One of the Aurignacian traits that has especially impressed archaeologists was the degree of specialization and diversity in their toolkit. They seemed to have “a tool for every job”, including blades, numerous shapes of scrapers, and awls for punching holes in leather. The blade, defined as a sharpened stone more than twice as long as it is wide, was one of the most important new tools of this period. Craftsmanship became standardized and reached impressive heights. Blade technology offered a much more efficient use of stone material than hand axes. 39
The burin was a stone chisel used to carve softer materials such as wood, bone, ivory, and antlers. This gave modern humans a whole new toolkit made of organic materials. In other words, the burin was a tool to make tools – there’s that recursive thought again! In fact, some of these stone-carved antler tools were used to flake or sharpen new stone blades. Needles made of bone demonstrated that people were sewing and probably had quite sophisticated clothing by 40 TYA. Organic materials were also useful for compound tools, such as a spear with a stone tip hafted to a wooden shaft. Compound tools were often strengthened with adhesives.
Middle Stone Age Africans decorated items with patterns such as dots and cross-hatches. This proto-artistic phase progressed to the famous cave paintings and “Venus” figurines of the Upper Paleolithic. Figurative art more than 30,000 years old is found throughout the Old World. It usually depicts people or animals. Representational paintings and sculptures are undeniable signs of abstract thought, for they are tangible symbols of other things. One of the oldest known sculptures is this downright fanciful lion-man. Musical instruments are also found among Upper Paleolithic artifacts.
3. Where and When?
When we define modernity by a trait-list of several archaeological examples, tracing its origins gets complicated. Although Upper Paleolithic Europe was originally defined as the cradle of behavioral modernity, we now know that most modern traits made their earliest appearances in Middle Stone Age Africa. 40 Some of the oldest art in the world is found in southeast Asia and Australia. Even Neanderthals exhibited some behaviors that would be characterized as modern.
However, the strands of modernity did not coalesce in a single culture until the Aurignacians in Europe about 45 TYA. Scientists today are fiercely debating the reasons for this surge: ecological need 41 , cultural accumulation 42 , a sudden shift in human mentality 43 , or even a historic bias toward European archaeology. 44 Nevertheless, all humans were living “modern” hunter-gatherer lifestyles by 30 TYA.
1. Why we are Religious
The modern human mind is hardwired with at least two critical faculties: abstract thought and the theory of mind. We live in a social world inhabited by conscious, willful minds like our own. We recognize our peers acting in self-interested ways. We understand how to negotiate, scheme, plead, and partner with each other.
With abstract thought, modern humans can conceive of the essence or “spirit” of people and things. If I ask you to think of “your mother”, for instance, there is her spirit in your mind. With these spirits as mental imprints, we can imagine and wonder about things unknown and unseen. We can project those spirits into other places and times. It’s easy to imagine your mother even after she’s dead.
When it all comes together, this mentality creates a very powerful illusion: spirituality. 45 We believe that the spirits in our mind really exist in the outside world. We attribute to them every characteristic of our own minds, seeing them as conscious, emotional, and cunningly self-interested. In fact, when we see something that we don’t understand, we tend to “explain” it with the magic willpower of unseen spirits. Whether it’s birth, death, war, or the weather, we shrug and say, “That happened because there’s a spirit who wanted it that way.” We make every attempt to negotiate, plead, and partner with the spirits in charge.
If spirituality is just an illusion, how can it have persisted so long? Beliefs can be passed down and are subject to change, so they undergo their own form of evolution. Evolution is a survival filter, not a truth filter. If religious beliefs offer advantages to the reproduction of themselves or their practitioners, they will live on whether they are true or false. There are reasons to believe that religion adds to a community’s fitness. Every culture known to history has religious roots. 46 If there ever were atheistic societies (before the Enlightenment) apparently they either dissolved or eventually adopted a religion. A reasonable explanation is that, before governments existed, it was religion that bounded a community together in defense against others. 47
Besides that, the veil of perception is very hard to pierce. Our mind is the only window we have to the universe. If that mind has a spiritual tint, then we see spirits in the world. Spiritual beliefs are culturally reinforced from birth, so every person takes them for granted. It has taken a very unusual scientific revolution in the last millennium to understand nature in terms of inert forces rather than magic willpower.
Religious experiences, as opposed to a religious outlook, are rare, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, but they can have profound impact on a person’s life. People describe these experiences with the same few recurring themes. They generally involve a euphoric flash of “enlightenment” about spiritual unity that feels very meaningful although it cannot be clearly expressed in words. 48 Recent studies have associated some feelings of hyper-religiosity 49 , a sensed presence 50 , or a state of union with God 51 with specific neural patterns. This field of study is in its infancy, but it provides further evidence that, despite the compelling illusion, religious experiences come from within.
2. Spiritual Beliefs and Practices
Anthropologists have long suspected that the earliest religions resembled those of today’s hunter-gatherer societies. 52 These cultures are described as animistic, meaning that they see nature as animated by spirits. For all their local variations, animistic religions around the world have a common core. The overarching theme is communication with spirits in order to exert some control over the world. 53 The community honors the good spirits and petitions them for food, health, fertility, and guidance. The souls of deceased ancestors are usually revered among the most important spirits. Meanwhile, people must bargain with, defend or fight against harmful spirits that cause illness or misfortune.
Traditional religion is a social activity. Spiritual invocations are often ritualized with public ceremonies that involve special clothing, masks, dance, music, and fire. Ritual is very important for building a sense of community. It reinforces the idea that the community protects its individuals; personal needs are subjugated to the greater good. Again, this social cohesion was probably a pivotal reason that religion has flourished.
As animists must communicate with spirits, they place great import on the boundaries and gateways between the natural and supernatural worlds. Dreams are perceived as visions of the otherworld or messages from spirits. 54 Shamans are special individuals who function as go-betweens. A shaman is usually initiated with an illness, psychosis, or trauma. 55 He or she often goes into a trance to cross over to the spirit realm.
The earliest evidence of religious thought is ritualized burial. Of course, there are practical reasons for burial, like concealing smells and keeping scavengers away. Even some early humans buried their dead. Homo sapiens burials exhibited something new: a deliberately ritualistic aspect. Common Paleolithic examples included staining the dead with red ochre pigment, laying bodies to rest in standardized positions, or burying them with ceremonial grave goods, clothing, or jewelry. These rituals suggest that people were providing for the soul of the deceased as it passed into an afterlife. Some signs of ritualized burial appear by 100 TYA, 56 though it was much more common in the Upper Paleolithic.
When a modern-day shaman has a vision or dream, he describes it to his villagers. Some are painted on rocks or caves, and these depictions can bear a striking resemblance to the oldest paintings in the world. 57 Likewise, some of the earliest sculptures look like they could represent visions, spirits, or gods. These are only speculations about why prehistoric people invented art – but we can’t help speculating.
Drugs are a natural byproduct of the co-evolution of plants and animals. Our ancestors have probably been consuming drugs, wittingly or unwittingly, since well before they were human. Many species of mammals and even some birds incorporate drug-producing plants into their diet. 58
A drug can have medicinal properties such as killing bacteria or numbing pain. Other drugs are mind-altering substances, which work by manipulating neurotransmitters. For example, when a drug simulates or stimulates dopamine, it makes the brain feel “rewarded” for no reason other than taking the drug. Hallucinogens are a special class of mind-altering drugs that alter perceptions and the senses.
All these categories of drugs – medicinal, mood-altering, and hallucinogenic – are used extensively in foraging societies. 59 Shamans commonly take hallucinogens to embark on their spiritual journeys. In addition to hallucinations and visions, sacred drugs can also produce feelings of ecstasy, enlightenment, and unity with nature. In short, they trigger religious experiences in the brain. Shamans are also “medicine men”, the world’s first doctors. They treat their neighbors with a combination of ritual, prayer, and natural medicine.
Though drugs occur naturally, it is usually not possible to use them by simply chewing on leaves. Drugs require considerable preparation such as boiling, scraping, and mashing. Some must be prepared for eating, others for smoking or more unusual forms of ingestion. The desired intoxicant is often interlaced with toxins and must be carefully isolated. This kind of experimentation and preparation clearly requires a modern human mind – and our species has clearly been working hard at it for a long time. Medicine aside, every culture uses drugs, and several psychologists consider intoxication an irrepressible human drive. 60
Back to Section 5.III: Anatomically And Genetically Modern Humans
Continue to Section 5.V: Ch. 5 Summary
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