The Start Towards Our Society

A number of people seem to think there is a distinct difference between humans and animals. Now there are obviously differences in quantity, thus chimpanzees have more hair, they are stronger, their feet work well as hands, etc, but is there a difference in fundamental quality. I think no; we just have more of some things and less of others than most mammals, but some people think there are fundamental differences between us and them.

One of the many things that have fascinated me in an amateurish sort of way is how did humans evolve from being simple animals to having a society? What were the intermediate steps? The usual answers are that somewhere about 30,000 years ago humans started to tame wolves to help them hunt, and about 10,000 years ago, they started to grow grain and tame sheep and cows, which led to permanent farm settlements as opposed to roving hunting and gathering, or maybe hunting and gathering from desirable sites with their own “range”. Leaving aside the dates, which may be somewhat inaccurate, that will have happened, but now it seems that was not the beginning.

A recent paper [Brooks et al., Science 360, 90–94 (2018)] puts the date for early progress far back. This was based on studies from the Olorgesaille basin in southern Kenya, where artifacts were found dating back to between 295,000 – 320,000 years ago, which predates Homo sapiens. Apparently the site was reasonably rich in fine-grained volcanic rock, which was used to make certain tools. However, also present were a number of obsidian artifacts, and greater than 46,000 small pieces of obsidian. There was no local source of obsidian, and the people may have had to walk 50 km as the crow flies to get any. The terrain is so rough that the actual distance would be significantly greater. Nevertheless, they brought the obsidian back to “home base” and made their artifacts there. Interestingly, over the period of time, it was found that innovation led to finer quality objects, and more standardization of them. Also found were the bones of what are presumably prey, including from small mammals and fish, that would have to have been caught by humans to be left there. (Major carnivores would eat everything from small prey.)

Also present were rocks in which attempts had been made to drill holes, sometimes successfully, and rocks that had been used for grinding ochre and rocks containing manganese dioxide (which can give brown or black colours). Neither of these rocks were available locally. The use of these is unknown but it strongly suggests the use to express status through self-decoration.

Thus it appears that innovation, standardization and the development of cognitive abilities were well underway 300,000 years ago. Further, the presence of large amounts of materials only available from distant sources suggests either procurement or trade over quite extended distances. Further, there were at least six of these distant sources. Extended social networks are common amongst hunter-gatherer societies, as they are a useful adaptation to unpredictable environments, and the new ability to stone-tip their hunting weapons would make larger-scale social relationships desirable. It would also help to ensure genetic diversity when finding mates.

Accordingly, we might now consider that the start towards technology was made at least 300,000 years ago. The idea of making fine stone flakes and securing them to the tip of a spear may not seem a great advance to us, but then it was because it permitted far more efficient hunting. Interestingly, the fossil evidence is also that it was around this time that brain size started to increase. It was a long road, but every journey has to start with the first step, and while this would not be the first such step, it was probably the start of more decisive steps.