In the past couple of years there have been some very remarkable findings concerning the capacities of early humans.
These discoveries have reinforced and even considerably deepened some aspects of the general paradigm shift underway in recent decades. The work of Thomas Wynn and others has shown that Homo around one million years ago had an intelligence equal to our own. Anthropological orthodoxy now also views Paleolithic humans essentially peaceful, egalitarian, and healthy, with considerable leisure time and gender equality.
The most recent material has to do with mental achievements and has radical implications similar to those in the other areas of pre-civilized life.
In late August, 1999 University of Minnesota and Harvard anthropologists disclosed a narrowing of the size differential between men and women that begun about 1.9 million years ago. The key factor was not so much the use of fire, which began then, but cooking of tuberous vegetables. Cooking reduced the need for bigger teeth, which predominated in males, and the sexes began to equalize in size. The fact of cooking, so long ago, is a considerable datum in terms of the capacities of early Homo. An upcoming issue of Current Anthropology will discuss this research in depth.
M. J. Morwood et al., in the March 12, 1998 issue of Nature, revealed evidence that humans used seagoing vessels 800,000 years ago in the western Pacific. This enormous revision of how long ago humans were able to construct vessels and guide them over miles of ocean actually elicits, according to the authors, a complete reappraisal of the cognitive capacity of early humanity.
In a related vein, a one-million-year-old skull found in Eritrea that possesses Homo sapiens features pushes back such an occurrence by 300,000 to 400,000 years. The September 1998 Discovery magazine called this find a “breakthrough in human origins,” noting that prior to this discovery the earliest fossils with H. sapiens features dated to only 700,000 to 600,000 years ago.
The February 27, 1997 issue of Nature recounts the discovery of the world’s oldest hunting weapons, a trio of 400,000-year-old wooden spears found in German coal mine. It is not clear whether this repudiates the prevailing view that Homo engaged almost entirely in foraging or scavenging until about 100,000 years ago, but the find does clearly demonstrate high intelligence. The 6 to 7-foot long spears “required careful planning”, utilizing the hardest ends of young spruce trees, with the thickest and heaviest part of the carved shaft about one-third of the distance from the spear point for optimal balance.
What these reports establish is that humans were cooking, traveling over seas, and skillfully making tools at generally much earlier times than previously suspected, and very much prior to any known existence of symbolic culture.
We are trained to equate intelligence with symbolic culture, though clearly this assumption is at variance with the record of human existence. Like wise, we tend to measure intelligence in terms of division of labor and domestication, those benchmarks of basic alienation. We are finding out a bit more about an intelligence that we know lived with nature instead of dominating it, and lived without hierarchy or organized violence. (Head-hunting, cannibalism, slavery, war all appear only with the onset of agriculture)
On one level or another it seems, humans so very long ago and for so many millennia understood what a good thing they had. Healthy and free, they many have sensed that division of labor erodes wholeness and fragments the individual, leading to social stratification, imbalance and conflict. They resisted it for more than a million or two million years, succumbing to civilization only quite recently, along with its consolation, symbolic culture.