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The Most Important Event In History (Big Brains Require An Explanation, Part VII)
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May 16, 2012
4:34 am
First-Eater
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We're taught, as schoolchildren (usually around sixth grade) that the invention of agriculture is not only the most important event in human history...it's when history began! Leaving aside for the moment the awkward facts that its effects on human health and lifespan were so catastrophic as to move Jared Diamond to call agriculture "The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race"—and that the invention of agriculture apparently coincides with the invention of organized warfare, among other "inhuman" practices—we need to ask ourselves which milestone is more important...…

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May 16, 2012
4:46 am
Joel Zaslofsky
Guest

I'm really loving all these installments. You'll get no argument from me about the most important event in our history although I'm going to have to think about this one a bit.

Let's just say that with a headline of "The Most Important Event In History" you didn't let us down with some useless drivel. Thanks again for great stuff!

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May 16, 2012
5:59 am
Daniel
Guest

Great article, JS.

I for one am not disappointed about your silence on the drama.

This and MDA are the only sites I refer beginners to. For many reasons.

It would seem only logical to me that we've been hunters since leaving the trees. Maybe there was a period of scavenging, but bc the apex predators of the day were bigger, stronger, and had claws and large teeth (you know), we would have had to rely on our brains to develope hunting strategies. Like the sneak attack. Gorrilla warfare type.

In all likelihood our brains got bigger and we got smarter bc we had to to survive. As stated in the previous installments, there wasn't just one factor in this. Primates aren't big cats; perhaps our brains have been all we ever had? I think it's a matter of what we are, combined with what we are not, combined with survival pressures that forced bigger brain development.

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May 16, 2012
7:36 am
Howard
Guest

I would bet that the making of sharp rocks also roughly coincides with the production of fire-on-demand, especially since one of the best substrates for the creation of sharp rock happens to be flint.

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May 16, 2012
7:45 am
Lauren
Guest

@Daniel, I like the (unintended?) pun on guerilla warfare :)

J.S. I appreciate that you've nominated the *lateral transmission of knowledge*, specifically related to sharp rocks, as the turning point; one without the other is nothing.

Whenever I read about the development of stone tools I recall the ground south of Addis (nowhere near the Afar region, but archeologically rich nonetheless), which is littered with obsidian flakes. You cannot leave the road without risking your tires, feet, shoes. Once you've seen the ground glitter with natural knives it makes way more sense, this jump to tool use - even a very basic intellect can extrapolate 'this cuts me' to 'I can use this to cut something else'. It's the deliberate shaping of those tools for your own purposes, and doing so for and with others away from areas in which the landscape does most of the work for you, that is key to our development.

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May 16, 2012
7:59 am
tess
Guest

this series gets better all the time -- thanks, J!

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May 16, 2012
9:34 am
Cameron, Tx
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@lauren: that was a joke for JS. ;)

Not sure why that comment was posted as guest tho….I switch my iOS devices too much.

Also @lauren: I read a legend that after Bowie had broken his first "Bowie" knife he had a second one made from a meteorite that his master blacksmith (forgot the name) had found. How awesome a knife would that have been?

I love obsidian and had my wedding ring made from it and titanium. Yes, it's black…. ;)

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May 16, 2012
10:47 am
Neal Matheson
Guest

I have to agree that the idea of early hominids making a meaty living by scavenging has never really made sense to me. To my knowledge there are no scavenging apes beyond very occasional opportunism.
I made most of my points in this post; (link)

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May 16, 2012
12:48 pm
First-Eater
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Joel:

I believe the invention of technology was a more important milestone than any specific application of it...especially when the archaeological record indicates that things started changing rapidly (in relative terms) soon afterward.

Daniel:

I'll be putting the pieces together both as I go and in the conclusion, but yes, those are important elements.  You're getting a bit ahead of me, which is good because it means I've clearly presented the information so far.

Howard:

So far the earliest evidence for use of fire is perhaps 1 MYA -- and it's sparse until much later, meaning that it's unlikely we depended on it for cooking or had the ability to create it at will, vs. using it when we came across it.  Grass and brush fires are reasonably common in grassland Africa.

Making fire with percussion is a much more complicated problem than making a sharp rock.  It's quite difficult, as anyone who's ever tried it can attest, and that's with a pre-chipped flint -- and steel (and where would one get steel?  In the wild one would require some sort of pyrite...another rare type of rock), not to mention things like tinderboxes full of charred cloth.  There's a reason survival kits contain magnesium or mischmetal instead.

Remember, the pace of progress was slow back then.  Tt took nearly a million years for our ancestors to figure out how to sharpen both sides of a rock (Oldowan vs. Acheulean industry -- this is a bit of an oversimplification, but not much.)    

I'll discuss this subject at length in the future.

Lauren:

Absolutely.  The population genetics from the previous chapter shows us that almost all beneficial individual mutations will be lost.

tess:

Glad you enjoy it!  This is when things start getting interesting.

Daniel:

An obsidian/titanium ring would be beautiful!

Neal:

As the series continues and wraps up, I'll present what I believe to be the most likely timing for the scavenging/hunting transition.  There's actually some good evidence for it...and while nothing is certain, I believe one "most parsimonious explanation" stands out.

JS

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May 16, 2012
5:17 pm
Fmgd
Guest

Nice article, and we've finally hit the paleolithic, I was looking forward to this.

Also, I appreciate your posture. I don't really know what all the arguing is about, but the civil yet objective air here is pretty good.

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May 16, 2012
5:20 pm
Leslie
Guest

I think of early humans being much more pragmatic than modern man spoiled by what we consider the most elementary inventions such as fire and cutting tools. More like Gricka's 'people' for whom survival demanded the sensibility to consider every second of every day, where to source food, protect from injury, and care for young. When I read comments from clueless people that early humans were incapable of hunting an auroch or mastadon, or whatever, I wonder if they've considered if it were possible given a knowledge passed through generations and hunting since childhood, and level of fitness only realized by someone who lives off the land. Sure, dump some citykid in a bush and he/she might last 3 hours, but what about a person raised from infancy for survival? Necessity truly is the mother of invention ... need to develop a way to do something that means life or death? Lots of necessity there for invention.

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May 16, 2012
5:57 pm
Txomin
Guest

A progress from blunt to sharp rock is not the most likely possibility. It does not seem this was an eureka moment (as opposed to, say, a true artifact such as the invention of wheel).

Sharp rocks (as found) were used for a very very long time. Sharp rocks lost their sharpness, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly, by being continuously stricken against hard objects... which was after all their purpose.

There were times, however, when a lucky strike made the rock sharper, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly. Multiply this by a gazillion times and you have a more likely possibility, namely, the sharpening of rocks began as attempts at very small repair. Most failed.

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May 17, 2012
2:55 pm
First-Eater
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February 22, 2010
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Fmgd:

Now that the evidence is much less sparse, I won't have to go into so many individual fossil examples!

And I understand what the drama is about, but I feel no need to participate in it or contribute to it.  There's plenty of science to explore.

Leslie:

The examples of modern hunter-gatherers should be more than sufficient to disabuse people of that notion.  African Bushmen are perfectly capable of taking down elephants without guns...in fact, the bigger and slower the animal, the easier it would have been for our ancestors to kill.  But we'll get into that discussion later.

It's instructive to remember that intelligence must be for something or it never would have arisen!  In other words, intelligence must have had survival value...

...and that is the reason this series exists.  If we didn't need intelligence to survive, we never would have become intelligent!  Therefore, it's important to figure out what intelligence is for.  

I'm glad Gryka's story resonated with you.

Txomin:

We'll never know the exact thought process that led to tool-making.  However, we must keep in mind that it had to have been very difficult for our small-brained ancestors, and understandable only to the smartest few -- otherwise they would have come up with it long before!  

Here's an analogy: a physical simulation of a motorcycle wheel on smooth pavement involves no less than the solution to five simultaneous linear equations.  (And this is a simplified model: a realistic model involves more.)  The percentage of humans who can comprehend the physics and mathematics required to understand that simulation is extremely low...let alone the percentage who could envision and write it in the first place!

Inventing and comprehending stone tool manufacture with a 400cc brain would have been a similar problem.  Only the smartest australopithecines would have been able to make the connection.  

With the benefit of hindsight, a brain over 3x as large, and thousands of years of cultural knowledge, it's easy to say how we would have solved the problem...but that doesn't tell us anything about how our ancestors did it.

JS

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May 17, 2012
5:07 pm
Txomin
Guest

That's actually my point. The manufacture of sharp rocks is unlikely to have happened all at once and as the result of searching for a "solution".

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May 17, 2012
10:35 pm
js290
Guest

re: Aggressive scavenging...

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May 18, 2012
1:48 am
First-Eater
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Txomin:

Great!  I wasn't quite sure what you were getting at.  AFAIK, most important discoveries throughout human history have been made by accident.

js290:

I knew what that video was going to be even before clicking the link -- but for those who haven't seen it, it's a great reminder that humans with stone-tipped projectile weapons are enough to scare off even the biggest, most deadly predators.  Thanks for posting.

JS

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May 18, 2012
7:18 am
Neal Matheson
Guest

With reference to that video, Lions have been hunted/killed by H.sapiens for a very long time. No animal on planet earth doesn't know we are extremely bad news. Modern H.sapiens pushing a lion off a kill doesn't say much about what happened in prehistory.
J; I don't really like the hunting or scavenging split. There are no terrestrial scavengers, not a one a scavenging ape would be a unique mammal let alone primate. I know there is evidence for the behaviour but even modern HG people scavenge. I have scavenged if you want to see collecting road kill that way. I was watching the Frank Forencich talk from AHS 11 when he said "we weren't hunter we were hunted" again this split. Take a walk through bear country or lion country and yep you are back to being in the hunted category.

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May 20, 2012
3:39 am
vizeet
Guest

"I believe that hunting is more likely than aggressive scavenging"

I think there is a problem with this also because our ancestor's weapons were very crude that time and may not be good enough to kill large animals. I think we may be using techniques like trapping and scaring instead of direct hunting.

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May 20, 2012
3:45 am
vizeet
Guest

@js290
The video is nice but it does not prove anything because it is recent and these carnivores have gone through massive killings after invention of guns. So they fear humans and the tribe is just using their fear.
In India there is a place called Sunderban, lions there don't fear humans because they are in advantage over us because of geography of the location.

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May 20, 2012
3:56 am
vizeet
Guest

I remember in one of the episode in Discovery channel a animal behavior researcher was explaining that 150 years back there was no such thing as non-maneater lion/tigers. This behavior is consequence of recent massive killings.

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