Early Societies: Britain and the Ancient World

Human Origins

Why is evolution important?

In your induction session it was suggested knowing about our evolution can help explain the way we behave. It was shown that learning is always related to survival, though survival is now a much more complex business (eg getting to lectures on time, completing assignments, passing Maths audits). We put you in a situation where you had to make fundamental choices of a practical, social and political nature and which demonstrated the close relationship between berhaviour and circumstances but also the importance of the agendas we carry in our head, which - for example - predisposed the groups to unite, even though it may not have been in the interests of the second group to do so.

This begs the question: what kind of creature are we? Are there older instincts that have to be suppressed or eternal values that apply in every situation? The answer to this question is not trivial: it tends to determine whether you're a liberal or a conservative! Both sides tend to talk about human nature: whether certain traits are acquired or inherited. The answer, as Charles Darwin first suggested, depends on where you think we've come from.

NB human evolution hardly figures in the National Curriculum (in Science at Key Stage 4). It remains a controversial issue, but for me it's simply a question of evidence.

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How do we know that 'old' is old?

Looking at me, you can tell that I've been affected by changes that haven't yet occurred to you, but hopefully they're not happening very fast. Some changes happen much more quickly and others follow a regular pattern so we can use them as a way of measuring time, eg sundial, water- clock. Changes that happen very slowly are difficult to measure, but if we can detect even the slightest degree of alteration we may be able guess how far back the process began. A good example are the stalactites in caves like Kents Cavern whose slow but perceptible rate of growth tells us that they are thousands of years old.

Geology works on the same principle. Beneath the earth's surface are successive layers of rock laid down by sedimentation or volcanic activity. When these are exposed by the action of rivers or the sea, or by subsequent upheavals of the earth's crust, we can work out the order in which they occurred and guess at the time scale involved. By comparing rock types and sequences in different parts of the globe we can see how the earth's climate and landscape have changed over millions of years.

Layering can also occur in living things: a tree puts on a ring each year, thicker when the weather is good, thinner when it bad. Matching tree ring patterns gives us kind of bar code stretching back 4-5000 years. So we know the timbers in the roof of Exeter Cathedral came from trees felled about 1300 which fits the documentary evidence. Similar data can be got by taking cores out of the polar ice caps (in some years a lot of snow fell, others less). They tell us that there were catastrophic weather events around 1500 BC and 540 AD.

Probably the best known indicator of the age of organic matter is Carbon-14. We take in radioactive carbon from the atmosphere via carbon dioxide photosynthesised by the plants we eat. After we die the radioactive carbon gradually decays into non-radioactive carbon 12. In 4000 years half of it's gone; in another 4000 another half and so on. Will it ever all go? No. If we have sensitive enough detectors we should be able to date any organic remains; in fact with present equipment we can go back about 100,000 years.

Another way of establishing that something old is old is to look at its structure. Comparing human anatomy with that of a fish or a reptile we find that we have their primitive brains embedded deep within our more complex structures, suggesting that a) we share a common ancestry and b) the split took place a very long time ago.

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One million years BC

Which brings us back to Darwin. Darwin developed his theories as a result of a visit to the Galapagos Islands where he noted that certain species of small birds appeared to have developed in isolation. This led him to the conclusion that over many generations animals better fitted to their environment would produce more offspring than those less so, so that gradually the whole population would take on their characteristics. If the process went on long enough then a new species (ie a group of anmals that can't interbreed with another) would evolve. More controversially Darwin put forward the idea that species which resemble one another (eg the primates) must be closely related. Consequently he was accused of saying that we were all descended from monkeys, a fact that seemed confirmed when cave explorers started turning up with bits of skull belonging to a creature with a fierce ape-like look, the so-called Neanderthal Man.

The search was now on for the so-called 'missing link' - a creature or line of creatures which would bridge the gap between true apes like the chimpanzee and Neanderthal Man. It led modern palaeontologists like Richard Leakey to the great rift valleys in Africa where continuing erosion by rivers has revealed layers of rich fossil-bearing sediments. To understand what he was looking for let's compare the skulls of a chimp, a gorilla, and a modern human being. What are the most obvious differences? Now let's look at a Neanderthal skull. Clearly an intermediate creature but very much closer to a modern human being than a gorilla.

Recent discoveries notwithstanding, the first creature to show recognisably human tendencies is australopithecus, or southern ape. The most famous and only reasonably complete australopithecus specimen was found at Afar in Ethiopia and nicknamed 'Lucy' by Richard Leakey. It dates from about 3.5 million years BC. Lucy was only three feet tall and her head was much more like a chimpanzee's than ours, but her pelvis clearly belongs to a creature that walked on two legs. Next comes a larger and robust development of australopithecus called homo habilis from the fact that pebble tools have been found alongside its fossils.

Illustration: Australopithecus Afarensis (Lucy)

Australopithecus Afarensis (Lucy)

Found by the palaeontologist Richard Leakey at Afar in Ethiopia in 1974. Lucy is the most complete specimen of a species of bipedal ape so far found. It roamed Africa about four million years ago, suggesting that changes in the climate made it advantageous for some tree-dwelling primates to live on the ground.

Lucy was about four feet tall; later versions of the australopithicus seem to have been taller and more robust and it is assumed that they are our earliest ancestors.

Next in line comes a creature called homo erectus, whose remains have been found as far apart as Britain and China and who lived about a million years ago. One more or less complete specimen has been found, called Nakriotome Boy. He was physically identical to a modern 11 year-old except that his brain was about two thirds the size. Could he talk? Probably not: his brain was too small and his larynx seems to have been the wrong shape (see below).

Illustration: Nakriatome Boy

Nakriatome Boy

Found by Alan Walker in Kenya in 1984, Nakriatome boy was 5' 5" tall and about 12 years old. Modern in every way below the neck he had a brain capacity about two thirds that of present day homo sapiens.

Date: about one and a half million years ago.

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Modern man

Most scientists now think that homo erectus is the ancestor of homo sapiens - us. So what about the neanderthals? It seems that homo erectus is their ancestor too: they are the cold-adapted version (thick, stocky, probably hairy) and we are the warm one. They lived in Europe, we lived in Africa. About 100,000 years ago the African version began spreading out throughout the world and about 30,000 years ago Neanderthal Man died out. In other words, whatever minor racial characteristics have become common in different parts of the world we are all members of the same family and quite possibly all have the same ancestral mother.

Illustration: Neanderthal Man

Neanderthal Man

These powerfully-built hardy individuals seem to have been a sub-species that evolved from homo erectus in Europe and the Middle East, half a million years ago.

Traditionally pictured as hairy and brutish, they had brains as large as those of modern human beings. Did they have language? Almost certainly since the development of language seems to have been one of the causes of brain-growth.

Let's compare the homo erectus skull with that of homo sapiens. What is the major difference? There has been a huge expansion in the front of the brain: the part that stores memories, that learns. This would not have happened unless the ability to learn was an asset in survival terms and this can only be because learning alters behaviour, because it makes a creature more flexible and adaptable, able to use experience. In other words to have choice.

At some stage in the last million years our ancestors ceased simply to respond to events and started to consider, in other words to have a dialogue with themselves. They saw themselves as objects for the first time, something to be shaped like tools and they began constructing stories for their lives, both as they were and as they wanted them to be, and of course they became interested in the stories of other people's lives. This led them to ask why things happened and to invent explanations.

When did this happen? Abstract thought is impossible without language and language is impossible without speech. Only homo sapiens seems to possess the kind of throat needed to articulate complex sounds, so thought as we know it can't have existed until about 100,000 years ago. And what about belief, the notion that there might be more to human existence than just a physical body? Perhaps no more than 50,000 years ago. That's when the first signs of it appear in cave art e.g Lascaux, Altamira.

What do the cave paintings mean? Some experts think they were made by 'shamans' to provide a setting for rituals designed to ensure the success of the hunt. It's also possible that the pictures tell a story because that's what we tend to use pictures for when we're very young and these people were in the infancy of human mental development. That doesn't make them infants, it means that we have built on their achievements so that a human child growing up effectively experiences the whole history of the human race so far.

We can illustrate this process by the way we acquire language. It begins with simple sounds, then single words eg mummy, daddy, dog; next come simple sentences, then location in space and time and descriptions of objects and actions (prepositions, adjectives, adverbs). With the use of 'if' it becomes possible to hypothesise and make one action or belief conditional upon another. Surely these are the steps by which language itself developed.

Illustration: Modern Man (Otzi)

Modern Man (Otzi)

Homo sapiens arrived in Europe from Africa about 100,000 years ago. Although taller and slimmer than Neanderthal Man he rapidly adapted to life in a colder climate.

'Otzi' the Alpine shepherd had dark, shoulder length hair and probably a short, trimmed beard. His well-made leather clothes and complete survival kit show him to have been a member of a farming community which retained links with its hunting past.

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Hunters and gatherers

By 30,000 years ago there was only one type of human left on the planet - homo sapiens, or modern man. In Europe and the Middle East groups migrating from Africa had displaced the existing population of Neanderthals (see above). They had also reached Australia and were spreading down through America, having crossed to Alaska via a land bridge (sea-levels were low due to glaciation).

All these people survived by hunting and gathering, their life-style depending upon the terrain and the wildlife it supported. In the Western desert of Australia the hunter-gatherer way of life was continued by the Australian Aborigines until recent times, and it still survives amongst some 'Indian' tribes deep in the Amazon rain forests. The Aborigines have a rich and complex mythology called the Dreaming which not only regulates their social relationships but also fills their surroundings with stories and meanings. It is celebrated in their art, whose distinctive style and imagery may be amongst the oldest on the planet.

In the film Desert People (made in the 1960's) we see two Aborigine families finding food in what seems to be a very barren landscape. During a typical day each family member brings in just about enough to feed themselves. There is no surplus and the preparation of a grass-seed loaf takes a considerable amount of time and effort. Nevertheless the processes involved are the same as those carried out on a hugely bigger scale by Sainsbury's today i.e. gathering or harvesting of the seed, separating it from the husk (threshing and winnowing), grinding or milling, mixing with water, kneading and baking. Other foods include small lizards, berries, bandacute and kangaroo.

We see that Aborigine children are not weaned until they are three or four years old which ensures a balanced population and we also see that they learn naturally by imitation and experiment, being both cheerfully independent and part of the family food-gathering team at the same time. A sequence with two boys hunting is particularly valuable for comparison with modern childhood and raises many questions about advantages and disadvantages of modern life.

Illustration: Aborigine Art

Aborigine Art

The mythologised landscape of the Aborigine Dreamtime tells how the world was brought into being by the ancestral spirits who still give it shape and meaning. The Dreamtime stories suggest that art developed to give form to the common imagination which bound early communities together. The importance that modern Aborigines attach to their traditional art reminds us that their paintings are much more than illustrations. Like the frescoes in an Egyptian tomb they have the power to 'become' what they represent: the earliest artists were magicians as well as craftsmen.

The Aborigines do not make shelters but regularly move from campsite to campsite in search of new sources of food and water. In Britain and northern Europe hunter-gatherer groups made their homes in caves and it is in caves that evidence of their existence is generally found. Kents Cavern in Torquay is one such cave complex. From there has come what is believed to be the earliest evidence of modern man living in the British Isles - a fragment of jawbone.

Because they used flint for making tools and had no metal technology, the Aborigines are sometimes referred to as a Stone Age people. The names Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age were first coined by a Danish scholar called Thomsen in the early 19th Century. It was then that interest began to focus on prehistoric antiquities for the first time. Thomsen noticed that objects made from stone were always to be found in deeper layers on a site than objects in bronze and iron. He also noticed that bronze objects were always associated with the remains of more elaborate structures and more sophisticated artefacts. On the other hand iron objects were occasionally found with material which was clearly Greek or Roman in origin, bringing them into the era of recorded history.

When referring to developments in Northern Europe scholars now divide the Stone Age into three phases: palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and neolithic (New Stone Age). The palaeolthic phase was by far the longest, continuing from the arrival of modern man in Europe to about 10,000 years ago when the last ice age ended. Palaeolithic axes look crude and heavy, and were hand-held, but in the mesolithic era (ends about 7000 years ago) bows and arrows and harpoons were used with tips and blades which were slender and finely- made. The term neolithic refers to the age of the first farmers (see below) when tools were still made of stone, but were increasingly superseded by copper and bronze.

Illustration: Palaeolithic Art

Palaeolithic Art

The cave painting above, from the Niaux Cave in southern France was created by Stone Age hunters about 20,000 years ago. The artist was 'vivifying' an ancestral myth, not merely to tell a story but to celebrate the gift of language through which we come to know the world, other people and ourselves.

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The First Farmers

For the last quarter of a million years the earth has been going through a cold 'spell' in its four billion year history. However, there have also been several periods of comparative warmth, the most recent of which began about 12,000 years ago. In Britain forest replaced ice as temperatures rose, but further south what had been lush grassland turned into desert, forcing people into restricted areas like the Nile valley, where water and wild-life were still abundant. By planting seeds in the fertile river mud they vastly increased their food supply and with it their numbers grew. Before long permanent settlements were established and the land divided up, creating boundaries and bringing about class division as some farmers prospered and others met with ill-fortune and had nothing but their labour to exchange for a share in the harvest. The new elite led their communities in peace and war, ascribing their good fortune to the favour of the gods who they took care to honour in settings and rituals which became increasingly more elaborate as communities combined and greater leaders emerged.

It is in this context that structures like Stonehenge must be seen. The first Stonehenge may have been no more than a clearing in the forest where groups of hunter-gatherers met at certain times of the year (similar to the sacred sites where Aborigine men from a particular area meet). When farming became widespread and the forest was cleared, these clearings may have been left as ancestral sacred places, surrounded by tree trunks which were later replaced with stones. Stonehenge was certainly the grandest of these, its construction probably reflecting the appearance of a previous timber structure. However there were many smaller henges scattered throughout the landscape, each representing the 'church' of its particular community.

Associated with them are two types of burial mound. The earlier 'long' barrows (like that at West Kennet shown in the Looking at Prehistoric Sites film) were communal burial places and date from the neolithic period (see above). They were used for over a thousand years in some cases. The later, 'round', barrows seem to have been intended for the burials of single individuals and belong to the Bronze Age (circa 1500 BC). The largest of these is Silbury Hill near Avebury, over 40 metres high and comparable in size to one of the smaller pyramids of Egypt.

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The 'Iceman'

The world's oldest fully preserved body was found in September 1991 near a glacier in the Austrian Alps. Carbon-dating has shown that he died about 5000 years ago, probably from exposure. He was a clean-shaven, dark-skinned male aged between 25 and 40, not much more than five feet tall, whose DNA shows him to have been related to the people of Northern Europe. When found he was bald, but hundreds of black human hairs were found in the vicinity of his body, suggesting that his hair was cut fairly short.

From his fingernails scientists can tell that he worked with his hands and that he had probably been ill recently. He seems to have suffered from arthritis: there were short parallel lines tattooed on both sides of his lower spine which may have been intended to relieve pain in some way. Most of his clothes were made of deerskin, stitched together with strips of the same material. They included a pouch worn round his waist which contained his fire-making kit, a loin cloth, leggings and a well made tunic. His size 6 shoes showed many signs of repair and were stuffed with grass against the cold. Over his tunic he wore a grass cape and on his back a kind of ruck-sack. His equipment was extensive and showed that he was resourceful and self-sufficient. It consisted of a flint dagger, a copper-bladed axe, a long bow and a sheaf full of arrows, most of which were in the process of repair. In his pouch he also carried what is called a retoucheur - a pencil-shaped object with a hard-tip. It was designed to easy tiny flakes off a flint blade, so keeping it sharp.

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A prehistoric murder victim?

The iceman belongs to a period when farming had only recently been adopted by the Neolithic people of northern and western Europe. He probably came from a village sited in the Venosta valley, which lies below the mountain range where he died. Here the people grew cereal crops and kept a variety of livestock which they probably grazed up the mountains the during the summer.

From traces of food remaining in his intestines it appears that the iceman died during the Spring. At that time the area where he was found would have still deep in snow and it seems probable that he had fallen, ending up in a rocky trench with all his possessions scattered about him. Here, after a summer in which his body was immersed in slushy water, he was freeze dried by Alpine winds before being buried under fresh falls of snow.

Why was he up in the mountains at such a dangerous time? Within the last two years x-rays have revealed a flint arrow head deep inside the ice-man's back. It seems he died from exhaustion and loss of blood whilst fleeing from some enemy. Nor was he unique. At Talheim in South Germany a mass grave has been found near the site of a Neolithic village. The 34 occupants, some of them children, had all been killed by stone axes or arrows. Moreover a skeleton found at Stonehenge and dated to about 2500 BC had an arrow head embedded in his spine and several others were found amongst his ribs.

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