Ancestors didn’t blame their tools, they made new ones
Our instinct to shop, mix paint and improve our home gadgets is something we’ve had for, well, ages
If you’re a member of the 21st-century Homo sapiens club, your Saturday morning might begin with a trip to the bright lights of the shopping mall to spend your hard-earned money on some fine clothes.
With that box ticked, you head down to the paint store where you stress over the 5,000 different shades of blue with names like Turquoise Dream and Celestial Milk.
Those cashless transactions might leave you in the red, but there’s just enough over for that all-in-one can-opener-milk-frother device that you buy online the minute you get home.
Thoroughly post-modern creature habits … or so we might think.Three new studies just published – and in fact just three of many undertaken during the epoch in which we’ve stood upright and used technology to uncover our own past – show that our instinct to shop, mix paint and improve our home gadgets is something we’ve had for, well, ages.
What we now know from the latest studies is that we have had that instinct for much longer than we thought – by tens of thousands of years – and the discovery has thrown our entire evolutionary timeline out of whack.
We suddenly have to look at the family tree and what we thought our ancestors were doing, and ask ourselves the hardest question of all for our highly self-assured species: have we been wrong?
According to the evidence just published in the journal Science, early humans in East Africa had already begun trading with faraway groups, mixing pigments and manufacturing relatively sophisticated tools as long as 320,000 years ago.
“These newly discovered activities approximately date to the oldest known fossil record of Homo sapiens and occur tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown in eastern Africa,” say the researchers, who picked their way through the Olorgesailie Basin in southern Kenya.This basin is so rich in evidence that it can help us piece together more than a million years of early human life. And what the resulting puzzle tells us is that necessity was the mother of invention – or in this case, evolution.
Several cataclysmic earthquakes rocked the area, changing the fundamental shape of the landscape and causing havoc with the weather.
“Climate [now] fluctuated between wet and dry conditions,” say the researchers, explaining that in a bid to survive there was a flurry of “technological innovation, social exchange networks and early symbolic communication”, all of which would have helped these early humans survive and “obtain the resources they needed despite unpredictable conditions”.
Perhaps this was the turning point that separated the wheat from the chaff.Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Programme at the National Museum of Natural History in the US, who has been working in the Olorgesailie Basin for three decades, said: “This change to a very sophisticated set of behaviours that involved greater mental abilities and more complex social lives may have been the leading edge that distinguished our lineage from other early humans.”
If a bad workman always blames his tools, we can thank our early ancestors for not wanting to fall into that trap.
Another of the three papers published details of “a variety of smaller, more carefully shaped tools” that were found in the region.
They were found to be “carefully crafted and more specialised than the large, all-purpose handaxes” from days of yore, and isotopic dating put them at between 320,000 and 305,000 years old.
With trading and reliable tools now sorted, these early humans needed some colour in their lives. Enter the processing of rocks to procure pigment for that very purpose.
One of the crucial pieces of evidence was a lump of red ochre pigment with two holes punched into it – one of the oldest ochre artifacts yet found.
Said Potts: “We don’t know what the colouring was used on, but colouring is often taken by archaeologists as the root of complex symbolic communication.”
Just as colour is used today in clothing or flags to express identity, these pigments may have helped people “communicate membership in alliances and maintain ties with distant groups”.
That sounds quite a lot like Facebook, actually.