• Your life and health are your own responsibility.
• Your decisions to act (or not act) based on information or advice anyone provides you—including me—are your own responsibility.


Big Brains Require An Explanation, Part II: Sexual Selection, and What Does “Paleolithic” Mean, Anyway?

Upon writing Part I of this article, it expanded to two parts…and now it’s expanded to three parts! So if an issue you were hoping to learn about hasn’t yet been covered, rest assured I’ll get to it.

(Or, go back to Part I.)

Let’s Get Oriented In Time: What Does “Paleolithic” Mean?

Since we’ve talking about the "paleo diet" for years, and this series explores the increased brain size and behavioral complexity that took place during the Paleolithic, I think it’s important to understand exactly what the term “Paleolithic” means. Yes, everyone knows that it happened a long time ago—but how long? And how is the Paleolithic different from the Pleistocene? What do all these terms mean, anyway?

First, Some Common Archaeology Terms And Abbreviations

BP = years Before Present. “The artifact was dated to 6200 BP.”
KYA (or ka) = thousands of years Before Present. “The bones were dated to 70 KYA.”
MYA (or ma) = millions of years Before Present. “The Permo-Triassic extinction occurred 250 MYA.”
industry = a technique that produced distinct and consistent tools throughout a span of archaeological time. Examples: the Acheulean industry, the Mousterian industry.

Oldowan choppers

They don't look like much—but they were much better than fingernails or teeth at scraping meat off of bones.

The word itself is a straightforward derivation from Greek. “Paleo-” means “ancient”, and “-lithic” means “of or relating to stone”, so “Paleolithic” is just a sophisticated way to say “old rocks”. Its beginning is defined by the first stone tools known to be made by hominids, dated to approximately 2.6 MYA—the Oldowan industry—and it ends between 20,000 and 5,000 BP, with technology generally agreed to be transitional towards agriculture (the “Mesolithic” industries).

The Paleolithic age is further divided:

  • Lower Paleolithic: 2.6 MYA – 300 KYA. Defined by the Oldowan and Acheulean industries.
  • Middle Paleolithic: 300 KYA – 30 KYA. Defined primarily by the Mousterian and Aterian industries.
  • Upper Paleolithic: 50 KYA – between 20 and 5 KYA. Defined by a host of complex industries.
  • (Click here for more information, including links to all the above terms.)

The reason for the imprecise ending of the Upper Paleolithic (and the overlap between Paleolithic stages) is not because there is doubt about the dates of such recent artifacts…it is because the Paleolithic is a technological boundary, not a temporal boundary, and is defined by the suite of tools in use. So for the first cultures to transition towards agriculture, the Paleolithic ended approximately 20 KYA (and was succeeded by the Mesolithic), whereas other cultures used Paleolithic technology until perhaps 5000 BP.

It’s also important to keep in mind that there are continuing definitional squabbles, particularly with the Mesolithic and Neolithic. What constitutes a Mesolithic culture vs. an Epipaleolithic culture? If a culture never takes up farming, is it still Neolithic if it uses similar tools and technology?

I don’t like to spend too much time in this morass, because it’s not an interesting argument—it’s just a failure to agree on definitions. However, it is always true that Paleolithic cultures were hunter-gatherers. Furthermore, it is almost always true that Neolithic cultures were farmers. (There are a few cases where nomadic cultures adopted Neolithic technology, such as pottery.)

So when we are speaking of a “Paleolithic diet”, we are speaking of a diet nutritionally analogous to the diet we ate during the Paleolithic age—the age during which selection pressure caused our ancestors to evolve from 3’6″, 65# australopithecines with 400cc brains into tall, gracile, big-brained, anatomically modern humans with 1400cc brains. (A figure which has decreased by roughly 10% during the last 5000 years.)

No, we can’t just ‘eat like a caveman’: the animals are mostly extinct and the plants have been bred into different forms. I discuss the issue at length in this article: The Paleo Identity Crisis: What Is The Paleo Diet, Anyway?

Now Let’s Orient Ourselves In Geological Time

In contrast to archaeological ages, the Pleistocene is a geological term (an “epoch”), defined precisely in time as beginning 2.588 MYA and ending 11,700 BP. It’s preceded by the Pliocene epoch (5.332 to 2.588 MYA) and followed by the Holocene epoch (11,700 BP – present).

You’ll see a lot of sources that claim the Pleistocene began 1.6 or 1.8 MYA. This is because the definition was changed in 2009 to its present date of 2.588 MYA, so as to include all of the glaciations to which I referred in Part I.

(More specifically, geological time divisions are defined by a “type section”, which is a specific place in a specific rock formation, and which is dated as precisely as possible given available technology.)

Remember, these are all just names…changing the name doesn’t alter the events of the past.

To give some idea of the time scales involved, our last common ancestor with chimps and bonobos lived perhaps 6.5 MYA, the dinosaurs died out 65.5 MYA, and Pangaea broke up 200 MYA.

Note that the middle timeline of the illustration below zooms in on the end of the top timeline, and the bottom timeline zooms in on the end of the middle timeline. Also note that the time period we’re exploring takes up one tiny box in the lower right, so small that the word “Pleistocene” doesn’t even fit inside it!

Geological timeline of the Earth, from The Economist

Click the image for a larger and more legible version, and an interesting article from The Economist.

For a slightly deeper look into the significance of each geological period, I highly recommend you click here for a graphical, interactive timeline. And here’s a long explanation of the terminology: ages, epochs, eons, and so on.

Summary: Paleolithic or Pleistocene?

The Paleolithic began approximately 2.6 MYA, with the first known stone tools, and ended between 20 KYA and 5 KYA, depending on when the local culture adopted a Mesolithic or Neolithic industry. Since it’s defined by our knowledge of hominid tool use, these dates could change in the future.

The Pleistocene began exactly 2.588 MYA and ended 11,700 BP. These dates are defined by our best estimates of the age of two specific pieces of rock (or ice) somewhere on the Earth.

So though the two terms are measuring nearly identical spans of time, they’re defined by two completely different phenomena…and since we’re speaking of human development, it is appropriate to use the term defined by human artifacts—the Paleolithic age.

Did Sexual Selection Drive The Australopithecus -> Homo Transition?

Evolutionary psychology is great fun to read about…but the problem with extrapolating it back into the Lower and Middle Paleolithic is that it’s pure speculation. The entire fossil record of this era of hominids can be itemized on one Wikipedia page, and I think it’s extremely risky to draw behavioral conclusions so far beyond the physical evidence.

More importantly, though, it’s unnecessary to invoke sexual selection in order to explain the growth in human brain size.

“Even if the survivalist theory could take us from the world of natural history to our capacities for invention, commerce, and knowledge, it cannot account for the more ornamental and enjoyable aspects of human culture: art, music, sports, drama, comedy, and political ideals.”
-Geoffrey Miller, “The Mating Mind”

While this may very well be true, the first known archaeological evidence of art (blocks of ocher engraved with abstract designs) is dated to just 75,000 years ago, at Blombos Cave in South Africa—long after our ancestors first became anatomically modern c. 200,000 years ago. (Venus figurines are much more recent: the earliest is dated to 35 KYA.)

The first known art: carved red ocher

Click the image for more information about Blombos Cave.

The term “anatomically modern humans” refers to ancestral humans whose remains fall within the range of variations exhibited by humans today. We refer to such humans as the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.

Note that as with all fossil classifications, “anatomically modern” is a judgment call. There was no instant transition: a beetle-browed, heavy-limbed, archaic Homo sapien did not suddenly gave birth to Salma Hayek, and there are indeed many transitional fossils with a mix of archaic and modern features, usually known as “Early Modern Humans”.

Furthermore, the behavior of the few remaining African hunter-gatherer tribes, such as the Hadza and the Ju/wasi, supports the interpretation that sexual selection simply reinforced the same selection pressures as natural selection:

Human Nature 15:364-375.
Mate Preferences Among Hadza Hunter-Gatherers
Frank W. Marlowe

“Women placed more value on men being good foragers (85% of those women said “good hunter”) than on any other trait.”

National Geographic, December 2009
“The Hadza”
Michael Finkel

“Onwas joked to me that a Hadza man cannot marry until he has killed five baboons. […] Ngaola is quiet and introspective and a really poor hunter. He’s about 30 years old and still unmarried; bedeviled, perhaps, by the five-­baboon rule.

The Old Way: A Story Of The First People
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

“A young man may not marry until he has killed a big game animal (preferably a large antelope, although a duiker or a steenbok will also suffice) and proved himself a hunter.”
“His [/Gunda’s] victim had been only a duiker, but a duiker is plenty big enough to qualify a boy for marriage.
“He [≠Toma] had few living relatives and no close ones, and thus could offer her no in-laws who could help her if the need arose, but he was an excellent hunter. This would appeal to any girl. So !U nagged her parents until they consented to the marriage.

In conclusion: the evidence is that sexual selection, if it was an important force, was providing the same selection pressure as natural selection—and that the behaviors most attributed to sexual selection postdate our evolutionary transformation into anatomically modern humans. Furthermore, it seems prudent not to invoke a factor for which our evidence is entirely speculative when there are other factors sufficient to explain our ancestors’ transformation.

Therefore, while sexual selection is a fascinating subject worthy of discussion, I don’t see a need to invoke it as a separate force to explain the increase in hominid brain size and behavioral complexity from the beginning of the Paleolithic (2.6 MYA) to the time of anatomically modern humans (200-100 KYA).

Live in freedom, live in beauty.


Continue to Part III, in which we explain Optimal Foraging Theory and begin the story of our ancestors.

(Or, go back to Part I.)

To my US readers: may I request that you make your Amazon.com purchases through this link (or the link in the sidebar)? It costs you nothing, and the small extra spiff helps me keep gnolls.org updated and ad-free. Thank you!

And yes, you can buy anything you want after you click on the link—not just The Gnoll Credo.

Freedom, Possessions, and Materialism, As Perceived By A Modern Urban Hunter-Gatherer

I’m proud to have a diverse and erudite collection of fans and regular commenters. This essay (and the discussion it spawned) was originally posted in the Talk forum. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of someone who’s lived a foraging existence in the modern urban world.

Shedding And Rejecting Material In A Material(istic) World

Rob Fusco
@Luminancestry, RobFusco@gmail.com

A strong point of commonality between my way of thinking and the way of the Gnoll is outlined flawlessly by “If you can’t eat it, wear it, wield it or carry it, leave it behind.” This phrase caught my eye upon reading the teaser online. The idea strongly resonated with me. It echoed the way I had lived my life, and continue to live it even to this day.

From my sixteenth year well into my thirties, I lived out of a bag.

I toured the world incessantly. My tongue has tried to speak every language. I gazed with awe at Mt. Fuji, marveled at the summertime thunderstorms in northern Italy, held clumps of black volcanic ash sand in my young hands in New Zealand, stared into the eyes of a white rhino in South Africa, felt Moscow’s snow chill my face, walked the streets of São Paulo during Carnaval, spent hours playing speed chess in Germany, hugged drowsy koala in Australia, got snowed in on the Swiss Alps, watched countless desert sunrises and mountain sunsets and swam in the waters of almost every ocean. The winds from every direction pressed against my body on every continent…

I found peace in freedom from material concerns, and also developed a very clear idea of what a person “needs” versus what a person wants. Nothing was a worry because I owned nothing and thus didn’t fear for its loss. My focus was on finding food and shelter, making connections with others of like mind and like pack, and recording the lessons I learned along the way. I punched no clock. I answered to no man. I was lean, often hungry, sometimes miserable but always, always my own person and free to do as I would at any time. If I was tired, I slept. If I was hungry, I “hunted.” I found mates where they were to be found. I thought freely, wrote consistently, collected nothing, held on to nothing and gave just about everything that my hands could hold away to others. What was worth hanging on to was already in my head anyway.

I can honestly say that I lived “in freedom” and “in beauty.” How rare. Not a day goes by where I don’t appreciate my good fortune to be bold enough to reject what all others around me were quick to digest and become—common life for common thinkers. I compare my life now with the life of my “peers” who elected the way of comfort and certainty and I haven’t seen one person who I’d rather be than myself. What contrast! I’m still lean, still sharp, still hungry. I stand proud with fire in my eyes, strength in my spine and springs in my legs. Most everyone else who chose the submissive life are now weak, fattened, gray, miserable, without desire, without drive and absolutely devoid of the spirit of the hunt. They’ve submitted.

They’ve laden themselves with countless items of useless trash in a “home” too big for their budget but far too small for their ego and their want of appearances. They collect keepsakes for the memories they trigger because they’ve forgotten how to remember things on their own—or their experiences are so shallow and insignificant that they’re hardly worth remembering at all. They pack their refrigerator and cupboard with colorful, odd-colored boxes full of what can only be called food in the academic sense—material that poisons their heavy bodies rather than nourishing them. They buy things they can’t afford on a whim because they’ve been fooled into believing they’ll will make them happy, fill the void in their lives. They buy books not for the love of the printed word, but because they think they’re buying the time to read them. The keepsakes crowd the dusty surfaces, the boxes of poison pack the shelves, books cramp each other in the study, yet their owners are none the richer for having collected them and remain lonely, frustrated and confused as they persistently stare at a computer screen for hours on end, oblivious to the beautiful daylight burning away outside.

They’ve fallen prey to their own materialism, imprisoned by their possessions—slow, easy targets.

Better them than me.

Sounds callous and harsh, but from a simplistic perspective, so is nature itself. Are we, bipedal animals, really that divorced from it? Perhaps some more so than others.

Nowadays I’m slightly more settled, outposted in one city or the next in the Northeast United States, working for myself in an instructional capacity. I still punch no clock. I make my own hours. I still travel often, and when I do it’s light and fast. For me, it’s the only way. Have I tried doing the standard 9 to 5 “normal” routine? Sure. I’m open to all things. Was it for me? Decidedly not.

I suppose I owe J.S. a debt of gratitude for translating into succinct text the lessons Gryka* and her pack have to teach us—even the ones who live a lot like Gnolls to begin with.

Do I keep anything at all? Sure. The memory of those I love, the places I’ve been, the feelings I got from the lessons I’ve learned along the way so far…I keep them in the head and in the heart where they belong. To try to trap these moments with photography and frame them for display betrays their beauty.

Some of the greatest moments of my life cannot be proven to have existed.

Does it matter? Decidedly not.

Hazrah nachti.**

*: Gryka is the protagonist of The Gnoll Credo.
**: “Hazrah nachti” is a Gnollish phrase which is difficult to translate succinctly. I’ve done my best in the book.

As these are not my words, I hope Rob will choose to answer your questions about them!

Yes, I’m still on hiatus. I’m working on other projects and enjoying the time off. Meanwhile, I tip my hat to Asclepius (of Natural Messiah) for his excellent review of The Gnoll Credo. (Many more reviews here.)

Live in freedom, live in beauty.


The Civilized Savage and the Uncivilized Civilization

Many of my articles and essays are inspired by offhand comments which I’m inspired to expand on or debunk, like this one:

> But the nurture side is the whole point of the history of
> civilization, i.e. trying to control the animal instincts of humans to
> build a better life.

This common view takes many forms: “We’re all just a bunch of monkeys” is popular, as is the cynical invocation of “human nature”. Even Richard Dawkins falls prey to it when he writes about our supposedly unique ability—and, in his mind, imperative—to transcend our genetic heritage.

The unspoken assumption, of couse, is that humans are intrinsically foul, selfish, short-sighted creatures, and only with the blessings of civilization can we begin to transcend our bestial nature.

This common view is exactly backwards.

These “animal instincts of humans” are not something civilization can ever overcome, because they are not our instincts at all. These behaviors are caused by living in what we call “civilization”.

Ardipithecus ramidus, ~4.5 MYA. What sort of selection pressure would turn him into us? Hint: not the ability to digest grass seeds.

Note that when we say “civilization”, we actually mean “agriculture”—as if nothing at all happened during the millions of years before people were forced to start planting and eating nutritionally inferior grains due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion. These are the same millions of years that shaped small-brained, tree-dwelling, quadrupedal apes into Homo sapiens; the effects of a few thousand years of agriculture are trivial by comparison.

Here’s Robin Hanson on the characteristics of foraging societies. (Note that this means “every human and proto-human that has ever lived, including your ancestors and mine, up until a few thousand years ago.”)

“Using an existing dataset aggregated from diverse ethnographies, we collect statistics on the social environment of the studied cultures which most closely resemble our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Such foragers have neither formal class stratification nor slavery. While private property is usually present, most forager societies have no rich, and none have any poor or dispossessed.

Food sharing is always common. Compared to the most “modern” societies in the larger sample (which are different from us today), disease stress is similar, suicide and murder are rare, conflict casualty rates are lower, and fewer believe in an evil eye. Violence is never over resources, and when enemies are driven from a territory no one uses that territory.

A person wronged always directly punishes the guilty; they never use a third party. If there is a substantial dispute, one side will likely leave the community. Leaders carefully cultivate support before acting, and none have a formal leadership position. Polygamy is always allowed and usually socially preferred. Co-wives either live together or one lives with a husband while the rest live in entirely different bands. On average, about 35% of men have more than one wife, and 50% of women are in a polygamous marriage (vs. 3% and 7% in modern societies).

People are expected to have premarital sex, which is usually common. Extramarital sex is also usually common, though it is usually not acceptable for women. Adults talk about sex openly. While wife-beating exists, divorce is easy. Boys and girls are equally preferred, and women are considered equals of men.

Mothers are usually the main, but not only caregiver of kids. Relative to modern societies, kids are taught more to be generous, trusting, and honest. Parents more emphasize their love for kids, and kids are never punished physically. Adolescents sleep away from their parents.”

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

It seems that “uncivilized” people act far more “civilized” than we do! Presumably using their “animal instincts”, which are the same as ours—because those instincts have been selected for by millions of years of living as hunter-foragers.

(For anyone tempted to dismiss Robin Hanson as a hippie or Luddite: go visit his webpage. He’s a tenured professor of economics at George Mason University, a research associate at Oxford, and the chief scientist at Consensus Point. Did I mention the masters degree in physics?)

Additionally, war is essentially nonexistent in the historical record before the advent of agriculture. Robin Hanson again, with “Farmers War”:

The hunting and gathering adaptation, especially in its mobile form, does not appear to promote large-scale warfare, not only because groups are small, but because incentives are largely absent. Monogamy is the most common marital form (probably because women depend on men’s meat contribution and it is difficult to support two wives), so there is less incentive for bride-capture warfare. There can be territorial conflicts, but nothing in comparison to the conflicts that occur over precious lands when agriculture becomes the dominant way of life.

The scope for warfare has changed considerably as human economic systems have changed. Once people settle and the value of land varies from place to place, large-scale warfare becomes a persistent feature of human behavior, almost exclusively practiced among men. The riches to be had from control over productive river valleys (such as the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile) not only led to large-scale warfare but also to extreme differences in power and status, harems, and rape of women during and after war.

Make sure to follow the link at the bottom, or here, to the print article “Birth of War” (Natural History magazine, 7/03):

“In sum, if warfare were prevalent in early prehistoric times, the abundant materials in the archaeological record would be rich with the evidence of warfare. But the signs are not there.

In other words: the moment we settled down and became dependent on the accrued labor we invested into a specific plot of land and group of animals, someone came along and said “Do what I say or I burn your house and crops, kill your animals.” Then someone else came along and said “We’ll protect you from the barbarians…IF you give us half of what you grow and your youngest daughter,” and suddenly we had governments, taxation, slavery, armies, a privileged elite class—and war.

To summarize: the behaviors we call “uncivilized” are, in reality, entirely caused by what we call “civilization”. Until we understand that, all our efforts to “civilize” ourselves, to “control our animal instincts”, are doomed to dismal failure—

—because they create the very behaviors we hope to prevent.

It is no longer polite to state this truth so boldly: previous generations were much more frank. Here’s Alexander Ross, a European, writing about the Métis buffalo hunters of Manitoba in the late 1700s:

“These people are all politicians, but of a peculiar creed, favouring a barbarous state of society and self-will; for they cordially detest all the laws and restraints of civilized life, believing all men were born to be free. In their own estimation they are all great men, and wonderfully wise; and so long as they wander about on these wild and lawless expeditions, they will never become a thoroughly civilized people, nor orderly subjects in a civilized community. Feeling their own strength, from being constantly armed, and free from control, they despise all others; but above all, they are marvellously tenacious of their own original habits. They cherish freedom as they cherish life. The writer in vain rebuked them for this state of things, and endeavoured to turn the current of their thoughts into a civilized channel. They are all republicans in principle, and a licentious freedom is their besetting sin.”

A strong, capable, well-armed, and consequently free people? “The writer in vain rebuked them for this state of things, and endeavoured to turn the current of their thoughts into a civilized channel.”

And for anyone who believes Hanson’s summary to be rose-tinted, this National Geographic documentary on the Hadza shows it to be essentially correct:

The Hadza do not engage in warfare. They’ve never lived densely enough to be seriously threatened by an infectious outbreak. They have no known history of famine; rather, there is evidence of people from a farming group coming to live with them during a time of crop failure. The Hadza diet remains even today more stable and varied than that of most of the world’s citizens. They enjoy an extraordinary amount of leisure time. Anthropologists have estimated that they “work”—actively pursue food—four to six hours a day.

The Hadza recognize no official leaders. Camps are tra­ditionally named after a senior male (hence, Onwas’s camp), but this honor does not confer any particular power. Individual autonomy is the hallmark of the Hadza. No Hadza adult has authority over any other.

Gender roles are distinct, but for women there is none of the forced subservience knit into many other cultures. A significant number of Hadza women who marry out of the group soon return, unwilling to accept bullying treatment. Among the Hadza, women are frequently the ones who initiate a breakup—woe to the man who proves himself an incompetent hunter or treats his wife poorly.

I don’t care if this sounds maudlin: My time with the Hadza made me happier. It made me wish there was some way to prolong the reign of the hunter-gatherers, though I know it’s almost certainly too late.

Of course it made the author happy: for the millions of years that shaped us from apes into humans, we have been continually selected for our ability to live like the Hadza! Hunting and gathering on the African savanna is, quite literally, what humans are for. Everything we’ve done in the few thousand years since agriculture is a hack, a makeshift repurposing of that basic machinery of survival. It’s like using a Formula 1 car to pull a plow.

We have forced proud, fierce, meat-eating, pack-hunting, ruthlessly egalitarian predators to sow and weed and reap, head down, hands to the plow and computer desk and cash register. We eat the birdseed we harvest, instead of the animal flesh that made us human. We give up our hard-earned surplus to the government or the corporatocracy or the King, and we obey every whim of their agents of authority on pain of imprisonment or death. And since authority claims every inch of the Earth, we can no longer leave tyranny, stupidity, or blind tradition behind to risk a new way of living—the act that separated us from the chimpanzees and made us human. We must fight its power or submit.

And we wonder why being clean and fed and comfortable doesn’t make us happy.

Once again: the behaviors we call “uncivilized” are, in reality, entirely caused by what we call “civilization”. Until we understand that, all our efforts to “civilize” ourselves, to “control our animal instincts”, are doomed to dismal failure—

—because they create the very behaviors we hope to prevent.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.


Does the world look different to you now? Want to argue? (Please cite Richard Wrangham: I double-dog-dare you.) Spread the word with the buttons below, and leave a comment!

Did this article resonate with you? My novel The Gnoll Credo is available from Amazon and my publisher in the USA, and from this list of international sellers. You can also make your other Amazon purchases through this link: it’ll cost you nothing, and I’ll get a small spiff. Thanks!