Archives for posts with tag: sapiens

Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, 2011



Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths (such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of aborigines). Such myths give sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.

As far as we can tell, changes in social patterns, the invention of new technologies and settlement of alien habitats resulted from genetic mutations and environmental pressures more than from cultural initiatives. This is why it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to make these steps.

When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal.

In the savannahs they inhabited, high calorie sweets (ripe fruits) were extremely rare and food was in short supply. A Stone Age women would eat as many fruits as possible on the spot, before the local baboon band picked the tree bare. The instinct to gorge on high calorie food is hard wired into our gene.

Evidence from fossilized skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation and malnutrition than their peasant descendants. The forager’s secret of success was their varied diet (while pre-modern agricultural population got their calories from limited number of crops -wheat, potatoes, rice) .

New agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. We did not domesticate wheat. Wheat domesticated us.

The Agriculture revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Farmers work in its service. Peasants were worried about the future [not only because it impact on their corps but also because] they could do something about (e.g. clear another field etc.). The stress of farming has far-reaching consequences: it was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems.

Bureaucracy (methods of cataloguing information, schools for scribes) proved to be more difficult than writing to invent.  Many writing systems developed independently. But most of those remain curiosities because those who invented them failed to invent efficient ways of cataloguing and retrieving data.

Rape in many legal systems, falls under property violation – the victim is not the woman who was raped, it the male who owns her. The legal remedy was the transfer of ownership – to pay a bride price to the woman’s father or brother. The Bible consider this a reasonable arrangement ( if a man meets a virgin and lies with her….he shall give 50 shekels of silver to the father and she shall be his wife).

One theory is that, in order to ensure her own survival and the survival of her children, the woman had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man stipulated so that he would stick around and share some of the burden. As time went by, the feminine gene that made it to the next generation belong to women that were submissive caretakers. [But women could have been dependent on other women instead…and as women have superior social skills to collaborate, why are they not in charge?] – we have no good answer.

The best known religions (Islam, Buddhism) are universal and missionary. People tend to believe that all religion are like them. In fact the majority of ancient religions were local (local deities) and exclusive (no interest in converting the entire human race).


The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Polytheists believe in many partial and biased powers: they have no difficulty accepting the existence of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open minded, and rarely persecutes heretics and infidels.

Roman persecuted a few thousand Christians who would reject all attempts at compromise. In contrast, over the course of the next 1500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

St Mathew lent a hand to tax collector in distress…

Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between good and evil, and that everything that happen in the world is part of the struggle.

Sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC a prophet named Zoroaster was active in the middle east. It was an important religion during the Achemenid and later the Sassanid, and inspired Gnosticism and Manicheism. Today only a handful of communities survive in India and the Middle East

The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engine (which could be freely copied). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly. Chinese and Persians did not catch up quickly because they thought and organized their society differently.

What did Europe develop in the early modern period that enable it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers: modern science and capitalism.

In year 2000 only 1.6% of dead bodies in the world are related to war and violent crimes.


Cro-Magnon, Brian Fagan, 2010


No one doubts that Cro-Magnon symbolic expression somehow reflects their notion of their place in the natural world. And their perceptions of the world, of existence, were radically different from, and infinitely more sophisticated than, those of Neanderthal.

Cro-Magnon ancestors almost became instinct in the face of a huge natural catastrophe over 70,000 years ago (explosion of Mount Toba, on Sumatra, about 73,500 years ago). The travelled from Africa some 50,000 years ago and continued after the end of the Ice Age 15,000 years ago.

Cro-Magnon are anatomically modern humans. They were homo sapiens, capable of flexible thinking , planning ahead, and fully articulated speech. Europe would never be the same after their arrival. 45,000 years ago, perhaps 15,000  to 20,000 lived between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains.

The genetic case for an African Origin for Home Sapiens seems overwhelming.

The first movement out of Africa may have occurred 100,000 year ago (stopped in the Near east, perhaps in the face of drought). A second, less documented, may have taken place 50,000 years ago.

We began to diverge from Neanderthals around 700,000 years ago. Most expert thing Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal did not interbreed. Both populations were well adapted to the climate, Neanderthal lacked what was, perhaps, one of the most revolutionary inventions in history: the eyed needle. Tailor clothing in cro-magnon can not be overestimated. They also had more lethal weapons – lighter weight stone-tipped spears with greater range. They could think of the their surrounding as a living vibrant world. This they defined with art and ritual, ceremony, chant and dance, which helped them ride out the punches of rapid climate change. There were more of them, living in larger groups than the Neanderthals, more intense social interactions, on-going culture of innovation that came from the sophistication of language and greater life expectancy. In the world where knowledge passed orally from one generation to the next, the enhance cultural buffer between humans and the climate provided an extra, albeit sometimes fragile, layer of protection during the intense cold (last glacial maximum -21500-18000).

The Lala farmer of eastern Zambia traded regularly with the San. San were shorter of stature, hard to see and vain – people outside the normal parameter of Lala’s life. They distrust one another, had no language in common.The Lala’s interactions with the San reflected an acceptance that there were others in their world. This may have been the way the Cro-Magnon viewed their neighbors.

Silent trade was relatively common place throughout the world (Scythians, Arab etc.) . The locals would carrying items across the river, lay them out on the bank, and withdraw. The traders would inspect the shipment and if satisfied would leave cloths and other merchandise that they carry. The back and forth could continue until both parties were satisfied. Yet not a word was exchanged.

The process of colonization was seemingly rapid, perhaps occupying but some 5000 years. It eventually destroyed a form of human existence that had remained virtually unchanged for more than 200,000 years.

Neanderthals appearance: from Africa, the trend toward greater aridity coincided with the appearance of a new species of human, homo Ergaster, 2 million years ago. Ergaster was a serious hunter and meat eater.

Brain size is largest among species that hunt large mammals while cooperating with and depending on one another. Brain size also correlates with time spent as a juvenile, which in turn relates to exploration, learning and play.

Some 1.8M years ago, some groups crossed the Sahara Desert into western Asia. They radiated out of continent as part of much larger mammalian communities that were to colonize Asia and Europe during brief periods of warmer climatic conditions in the north.

Milankovitch cycle: the ebb and flow of earth’s ice caps depended on fluctuation in the shape of the Earth’s orbit, from circular to oval, due to the tilt in the globe’s axis of rotation, and changes in the time of year when the earth was closest to the sun (95,000; 42,000; 21,000 years cycle). The earth’s climate swung to an extreme of earth cold or warm conditions when everything signaled in the same direction. Responsible for major glaciation every 100,000 years for the past 3.5M years. Interglacials, such as the brief one we live in, are the climatic exceptions rather than the rule. 90% of the past 500,000 years has been colder than today.

Homo Ergaster moved into Europe at the occasion of a brief more temperate periods. This was not a deliberate migration. On an annual basis, it must have covered relatively short distances, maintain close contact with other members (to ensure reproduction) and ensuring availability of food and water. Given that plant food were in much shorter supply (colder in the north), game (and hunting) assumed a greater importance in human diet.

Migrants were thin on the ground so it is not surprising we know almost nothing about them. Except for Dmanisi in Georgia where bones and crude stone shopping tools were found. Some of these people were short (unlike their African relatives) with traces of more primitive traits that predate Ergaster in Africa.

Some theories place the origin of fire at 1.8M years ago, with little evidence to back this up. The earliest known domesticated fire was made at a 790,000 year old camp sit in the Jordan Valley.

Ergaster was probably not the ancestor of the Neanderthal. Homo Heidelbergensis, some 400,000 years old, larger brain size, a reduced face, and thinner bones: this was not an erectus but a distinct human form, more advanced than erectus but with more primitive anatomical characteristics than Neanderthal and modern humans. He was the direct ancestor of Neanderthal.

Homo Heidelbergensis probably lived in relatively large group of 30 people at times, to reduce the danger from carnivores and to improve the chances of taking larger animals.  During 400,000 years , innovation was rare and technological change almost imperceptible.


Neanderthals appearance is difficult to date, as human remain between 250,000 and 70,000 are scant. 200,000 years old may be a good guess, based on a skull found near Weimar in central Germany.

Scholars have access to some 500 finds, including the more or less complete skeletons of 20 men, women and children.  DNA testing shows that Neanderthal may have had pale skin, red hair and even, perhaps, freckles, possibly an adaptation to let in more sunlight to manufacture vitamin D in northern environments (pigmentation MICR gene).

Some 250,000 years ago a new stone tool developed in Europe and elsewhere, which involved careful preparation of stone nodules, or cores, before a single flake was struck off them. This was the cornerstone of Neanderthal tool kit. Then another form of prepared disklike core allowing the toolmaker to produce standardized artifacts: this is the Mousterian. Neanderthal depended heavily on wood and stones, but not on bones or antlers. They did not unlock the technological potential of the antlers and bones of animals they hunted.

Some Neanderthals also consumed human flesh routinely, perhaps as part of death rituals. They were the first to bury their dead, possibly simply to protect them from predators… One reason for the apparent lack of burying ritual may be that Neanderthals lacked completely articulate speech.

Mithen calls the Neanderthal communication system Hmmmmm (holistic, manipulative, multimodal, musical and mimetic. IN short they were singing. Their song lacked words but were emotional.  This is not more than an intelligent speculation.

Neanderthals lack large gathering, long distance trade relationship and specialized activities such as sewing tailored garments, found among their successor.  They had not artifact that would have been intentionally modified and classified as art with symbolic meaning.

The most powerful argument against language is the long term stability of Neanderthal culture.

They had a “domain specific intelligence”, with vast stores of knowledge related to the natural world but did not use their technological skills to mediate their social relationship (clothing, jewelry).  They could not bring together at the same time the different thoughts needed to innovate.  They must have expressed feeling and emotion though singing and dancing, because they lacked the neural circuits to connect all their skills together.

Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa from an ancestral population around 170,000 years ago. Mitochondrial DNA shows that the most common ancestor to about 170,000 (+/-50,000) the earliest branch that includes Africans and non-Africans is 52,000 (+/- 27,500) years old.

African Adam lived only 59,000 years ago. African Eve, 150,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens originated in tropical Africa some 150,000 year ago and had spread into the near east by about 100,000 years before present.

Homo sapiens probably hunted and foraged in almost the same way as their Neanderthal contemporaries. The cognitive revolution that ultimately turned premodern into moderns had not yet occurred. Skulls found in Ethiopia from 195,000 shows that anatomical development of Homo Sapiens had run its course.

A major split in the human mtDNA tree occurred between 140 and 210,000 years ago, perhaps caused by genetic drift resulting from persistent isolation of small human populations at the time. At this point, small population in east Africa and southern Africa became isolated for about 70,000 years, until 70,000 years ago. The cause must have been climatic. Lake Malawi virtually dried up 70,000 year ago.

Mount Toba exploded 73,500 years ago in one of the greatest eruption of all times. Perhaps as few as 10,000 people survived the short and long term consequences of the cataclysm, most of them in cooler environment. People from African origin were probably unable to cope with drastically lower temperatures. African population decline to a total of between 4,000 and 10,000 females of reproductive age.

The lack of genetic diversity among humans results from a series of bottlenecks over the past million years, the last of which is believed to have happened 70,000 years ago. We have little diversity compared to our closest relatives – chimpanzees. Indeed there is more diversity among chimps in West Africa than among all living humans on earth. The bottleneck lasted some 20,000 years. It was during this time that Homo Sapiens acquired their full cognitive powers. Once the bottleneck ended and rainfall increased, Africa’s population grew rapidly. They moved out of the tropics again. This time they possessed all the mental abilities of modern human.

Technology remained in use for thousands of years. Then 70,000 years ago, during the cold dry interval coinciding with Mont Toba eruption, south African hunter-gatherers developed more refined stone artifacts.  The size was smaller showing a fundamental change in hunting methods. They became more selective about toolmaking rocks. Much Africa was dry and cool, shrunken forest and human populations isolated in sheltered enclaves. Each hunting band had to depend on information acquired from neighbors moving across nearby lands. Sharing information may have stimulated the development of fluent speech. (The San spend hours idle in the shade talking: this is vital for survival as they share information on food and water.). Complex links between people develop, between people and prey and new collaboration. New realm of symbolic meanings, which thrived in the world of partnership between humans and their surroundings, expressed verbally and for the first time in artistic impression (striated red ocher in Bombos cave). It is those people, the ancestor of Cro-magnon who moved out of Africa to Europe.

Most late ice age human settlement are along the flank of Jordan rift valley. The wooded terrain provided rich nut harvests, a variety of game, relatively reliable water supplies. The terrain boasted numerous cave and rock shelters, which both Neanderthals and modern humans visited over long period of time. The number could not have been high (max 6,400).

The first groups between 75-70,000 dwindle to extinction. After wetter, warmer conditions were there but no homo sapiens moved out. Neanderthal instead reoccupied the land. We don’t know how many Neanderthals lived there when Homo Sapiens arrived and if they were in contact.  Most landscape could support only few people per square mile. The flexibility of hunting and gathering in dry environments saw people covering long distances in short period of times. They entered a seemingly empty world, where Neanderthals population were rarely encountered. Many newcomer may never have seen their elusive neighbors. But there is no trace of Neanderthals after 45,000 years ago. And within 10,000 years or so after moving out from Africa, small numbers of moderns settled throughout much of southern Eurasia and Europe.

The great Campanian (around Naples) eruption of 39,000 year ago may have been a deciding event in history at a time when Homo Sapiens numbered no more than a few thousand people in small isolated bands.  The cold event that followed changed the dynamic of human life. Food shortages and the cold may have made contact with others of prime importance. Isolation broke down, contact increased, innovation flowered. The same toolkit, body ornaments and social institutions flourished from the Don Valley to the Atlantic, a tradition known as Aurignacian. No such technological, and  presumably cultural, uniformity ever occurred again during the late Ice Age. It last some 10,000 until 29,000. Modern human were there before the Campanian eruption and after it Aurignacian culture flourished over an enormous area.

Chatelperronian, combine features of Neanderthal and Aurignacian. Articfacts may have been received by Neanderthal in exchanges with adjacent Aurignacian group. Aurignacian settled in Spain and only  later, after 39,000, in the south of France as it was already populated by Neanderthals.

Extinction was a slow death, no dramatic event. Although they may have been violent event, as demonstrated by Neanderthal bones with butchery marks in some sites.  Aurignacians had fully articulate speech and cognitive abilities of homo sapiens. They could innovate, have original thought. Unlike Neanderthal, Aurigancian (Cro-Magnon) acquired their toolmaking stone from afar, often from 80km or more away.

The Lion Man (35,000) is the oldest known example of an imaginary being and the practice of sculpting women with exaggerated sexual features was part of Aurignacian art from very early times. Figurines were made from bones/ivory from carnivores such as lions, mammoths and wolves.  This may be no coincidence that bones from formidable beasts be used for sculptures that would be on social display. Such nuances would have been far beyond the mental imagery of Neanderthals.

There is a good chance that the Lion Man represented a person of power in his society, someone who maintained good relationships between the living and the forces of the supernatural world.

This permeable continuum between the living and the supernatural (passage from one to the other by shamans, no boundaries between humans and the environment, between people and their ancestors) is common to hunter gatherer and agricultural society today. It was the same continuum at the time of the Lion Man.

There is no reason to believe that Cro-Magnon didn’t nurture their own people to power.

Grotte chauvet: many of its paintings were the work of Aurignacian painters. But there is no Aurignacian sites near Chauvet. The cave is an isolated masterpiece.  You can argue that people traveled to the cave from long distances away

In many San painting, a human or animal enters or leaves through a crack, climbs an uneven rock face, or emerges from a shelter wall. Perhaps shelters were entrances to the spirit world, the wall being a kind of curtain between the living and the supernatural realms.

By 20,000 years ago, sea levels were lower by 100 meter. Much of the nort sea was dry land. Britain was part of European continent,  an extensive continental shelf extended west of what is now france.

Why did Cro-Magnon succeed under circumstances where the Neanderthals retreated. Superior cognitive skills, fluent speech, ability to cooperate, rich spiritual life, but there were in place thousands of years earlier with the Aurignacian. What really came to play with the onset of the cold were the qualities of restless innovation.

The genetic ability to fatten rapidly is an adaptative response to scarce times of the year. People put on weight by eating large quantities of fat as they acquired it so that they, like animals, could survive the lean months ahead.

I make no apologies for extrapolating his analyses of Eskimo behavior back into the Cro-Magnon culture. There are few other ways of surviving in a sub-zero world. No one worked alone, for cooperating when hunting, plant gathering, or traveling was fundamental to Cro-Magnon life, just as it has been in every artic society…t

their encyclopedic knowledge of their world was their most powerful weapons for survival.

Gravettians : at the height of the Ice Age, they carved out oval hollows, then roof them with the only available raw materials: mammoth bones, hides and sod. Developed out of Aurignacians in central Europe where the climate deteriorated more rapidly. It was there that the most important innovation took place. They had an obsession with mammoths. and There was no rock shelter. They had burial as well – from 27,600 –  Dolni Vestonice is one of their many settlements.  There were extensive exchanges with amber coming from 100km away, marin shells from 500 or 650 km away.

Sungir graves leave an impression of wealth and prestige, and certainly elaborately decorated clothing. Such decoration may have reflected social status, kin affiliations and even personal skills.

A constant gravettians’ artistic presence: voluptuous female figurines (evoking reproductive qualities). They may symbolize erotic potency, the period of optimal sexual desirability when they carried weight: after the growth spurt of puberty and when babies have been weaned. Some of the doodles may just reflect teenage hormones operating at full bore.

Life of the Gravettians changed little over the span of more than 7,000 years.

Lascaux 21-17,000 : 600 paintings, 1500 engravings….Norbert Ajoulat believes the artists painted the horses as they would appear at winter’s end and in early spring, the aurochs in their summer coats and the stags in autumn finery, the very season at which each mate.

Solutrean hunters – who may have painted the Lascaux Grotte – used feuille de laurier until about 17,000 years ago. Then vanished.

6000 years after Lascaux. Magdalenians continued to trap fur animals and birds. They may also have developed new weaponry: the bow and arrow. No one has found a wooden bow in any late Ice age cro-magnon site. The earliest bows were used about 19500 years ago and was widespread immediately after the Ice age. Magdalenians to personal decoration to a new level, on object of everyday use. Example is the baton de commandement (strange term implying there were powerful authority figures, even kings, not a reasonable assumption.)

Close study of the footprint in the caves tells that people of both sexes and of all ages went into remote chambers belowground. Even babies (in Bédeilhac cave)

By 13,000 year, the region was no more a polar desert. Painting may have become irrelevant, people in Altamira relied heavily on wild seeds and tubers for much of their diet.

Claude Courand tried in vain to decipher the meanings of the dot combinations: were these numbers or record of lunar phases? We will never know.

Cro-magnon 15,000 years ago: archeologist John Enloe match up the right forelimb of a reindeer at one hearth to the left forelimb of the same beast at another. This is one of the first documented examples of food sharing in history, but a routine practice n Cro-magnon.

Agriculture was never a dramatic invention, but surprisingly few generations, the people of the near east and southeastern Turkey were entirely dependent on farming. Distinctive clay pots shows their descendant expanded across Europe within a few century.

85% of our MtDNA could be attributed to indigenous population we can loosely call Cro-magnons. The rest comes from the first migrants from Turkey and near east.