Contrary to the popular narrative, human evolution likely did not center around life in caves.
Both interesting articles are posted below.
For the past 20 years, Margaret Conkey and her team have been conducting open-air field research in the Ariège region, in the Central Pyrénées foothills of France. Her project, titled “Between the Caves,” concentrated on the Paleolithic era, also known as the Stone Age, before humans became sedentary. Challenging the status quo, she found that the Paleolithic people were much more than cavemen.
When did the savanna give way to the crash pad?By Ian Tattersall | Illustration by Jon Han December 5, 2013
What is home? This is a deceptively simple question. Is it the place where you were born? Is it where you happen to live right now? Does it have to be a dwelling, or can it be a spot on the landscape, or even a state of mind?
For archaeologists tracing human origins, these are challenging questions. Yet answering them provides key insights into our evolution from hominids at the mercy of our surroundings to humans in control of them. Having a sense of home, as we understand it today, is a product of symbolic thinking, a capacity that makes us unique among animals, including our own ancestors.
Intimations of home likely began in early hominids’ need for shelter. Australopithecus species, to which the famous 3-million-year-old Lucy belonged, often sheltered in trees, where they may have sought cover under dense clumps of leaves in the way in which great apes do today when it rains. Much later, about 400,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers, probably belonging to the species Homo heidelbergensis, constructed a camp on a beach at Terra Amata, now a suburb of the French city Nice. One large hut was about 30 feet long, and consisted of an oval palisade of saplings stuck in the ground, reinforced with a ring of stones, and presumably brought together to form a roof. Just inside a break in the ring where the doorway was, a campfire had burned in a hearth.
It is hard to not think that these early humans felt at home in this basic structure. Some might even argue that the crucial element was not the shelter itself but the hearth, where the flames would have formed a center of attention and social activity. In this limited sense, feelings of home were evidently there from the very beginning.
Archaeologists begin to see proto-houses during the Ice Age, some 15,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers at the Ukrainian site of Mezhirich built four oval-to-circular huts that ranged from 120 to 240 square feet in area, and were clad in tons of mammoth bones. Out there on the treeless tundra, their occupants would have cooperated in hunting reindeer and other grazers that migrated seasonally through the area. The Mezhirich people dug pits in the permafrost that acted as natural “freezers” to preserve their meat and let them spend several months at a time in the “village.” With so much labor invested in the construction of their houses, it is hard to imagine that the Mezhirich folk did not somehow feel “at home” there.
But if an archaeologist had to pick an example of the earliest structures that most resembled our modern idea of home, it would probably be the round houses built by the semi-sedentary Natufians, an ancient people who lived around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea (Israel, Syria, and environs) at the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago. A typical Natufian village consisted of several circular huts each measuring about 10 to 20 feet in diameter; these villages testify to a revolutionary change in human living arrangements. Finally, people were regularly living in semi-permanent settlements, in which the houses were clearly much more than simple shelters against the elements. The Natufians were almost certainly witness to a dramatic change in society.
The end of the Ice Age was a time of transition from a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence to an agricultural way of life. But it also involved a Faustian bargain. Adopting a fixed residence went hand-in-hand with cultivating fields and domesticating animals. It allowed families to grow, providing additional labor to till the fields. But becoming dependent on the crops they grew meant that people found themselves in opposition to the environment: The rain didn’t fall and the sun didn’t shine at the farmers’ convenience. They locked themselves into a lifestyle, and to make the field continuously productive to feed their growing families, they had to modify their landscape. Today, we carry out such modifications on a huge scale, and nature occasionally bites back, sometimes with a vengeance. Back in Natufian times, we catch a glimpse of this process in its embryonic stage.
The decision to stay in one place, at least part of the year, entailed a transfer of individual loyalty from the mobile social group to a particular place. The Natufians lived by foraging and hunting in the oak-and-pistachio woodlands in the region and probably tended wild stands of the wheat and rye that grew naturally there. They harvested these cereals with sickles made out of sharp flint blades embedded into animal bones, and stored them in pits dug into the floors of their round, single-room houses. The houses themselves were sunk into the ground, and often had central fire pits for cooking. Archaeologists have also found a scattering of domestic paraphernalia within, including stone mortars for grinding grain, and devices to straighten arrow shafts for use in the hunt.
Archeologists can tell a lot about lifestyles from these artifacts. The Natufians were biologically modern people. Interments of the dead with grave goods, both in presumably abandoned houses and nearby caves, hint at ritual and spiritual beliefs. Pendants and beads made of shell, bone, and deer teeth additionally testify to a Natufian love of personal adornment.
We don’t know if the single-room houses were occupied by nuclear families or some other kind of kin group, or whether size disparities among the houses reflected varying social status or family sizes. What we do know is that dwellings of this kind were generally grouped into “villages” that would have housed about 150 inhabitants. They would almost certainly have felt like “home” to those who occupied them. It is clear that these people were pioneering a successful transition between the nomadic hunting-and-gathering lifestyles of their predecessors and the permanently settled existences of the Neolithic peoples who succeeded them around 10 thousand years ago.
So even before early people settled down to permanent agriculture and animal husbandry, the Natufians had laid a huge amount of the physical and social groundwork necessary for a fateful economic development that literally changed the world. And in a busy Natufian village, buzzing with life, we can readily imagine that everyone had a sense of belonging, both to the village itself, and to the individual homes that sheltered them. It seems that the formation of a community was an important turning point in the evolution of human society.
The famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson, a master of verbal precision, defined the word “home” in his great Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 very concretely as “his own house … the private dwelling,” but he also included an adjectival phrase: “close to one’s own breast or affairs.” In doing so, he was reflecting what we can see as the many-layered meanings of the Natufian village, which tied the notion of place to the more abstract feeling of belonging to a social group that had anchored individual human identities in earlier times.
This abstract sense of place is part of the cognitive equipment that we bring to bear on our notions of home. Modern human beings are cognitively peculiar. Uniquely, we resolve our surroundings into a vocabulary of mental symbols. We can then reshuffle the symbols to produce abstractions that we add to the concrete world around us. We are blessed with manipulative hands that enable us to put these ideas into action. But our powers of symbolic reasoning are a newly acquired capacity, dating back to no more than about 100,000 years ago. By this reckoning, the Natufians and the inhabitants of Mezhirich would have been able to nurture complex notions of home that Lucy and the Terra Amata folks could not. However deep in human history their emotional or economic underpinnings may run, the complex and nuanced ideas about home that we cherish today are the invention of our Homo sapiens species alone.
~ Ian Tattersall is a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. An acknowledged leader in the study of the human fossil record and the lemurs of Madagascar, Tattersall is the author of many books about human evolution, including, most recently, Masters of the Planet and (with Rob DeSalle) The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs.
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Our picture of man’s early home has been skewed by modern preconceptions.By Jude Isabella | Illustration by Chris Buzelli December 5, 2013
It was the 18th-century scientist Carolus Linnaeus that laid the foundations for modern biological taxonomy. It was also Linnaeus who argued for the existence of Homo troglodytes, a primitive people said to inhabit the caves of an Indonesian archipelago. Although troglodyte has since been proven to be an invalid taxon, archaeological doctrine continued to describe our ancestors as cavemen. The idea fits with a particular narrative of human evolution, one that describes a steady march from the primitive to the complex: Humans descended from the trees, stumbled about the land, made homes in caves, and finally found glory in high-rises. In this narrative, progress includes living inside confined physical spaces. This thinking was especially prevalent in Western Europe, where caves yielded so much in the way of art and artifacts that archaeologists became convinced that a cave was also a home, in the modern sense of the word.
By the 1980s, archaeologists understood that this picture was incomplete: Our ancestors were not confined to dark cavernous spaces, and their activity outside of the cave was an important part of their life. But archaeologists continued excavating caves, both because it was habitual and the techniques involved were well understood.
Then along came the American anthropological archaeologist, Margaret Conkey. Today a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, she had asked a simple question: What did cave people do all day? What if she looked at the archaeological record from the perspective of a mobile culture, like the Inuit? She decided to look outside of caves.
For the past 20 years, Conkey and her team have been conducting open-air field research in the Ariège region, in the Central Pyrénées foothills of France. Her project, titled “Between the Caves,” concentrated on the Paleolithic era, also known as the Stone Age, before humans became sedentary. Challenging the status quo, she found that the Paleolithic people were much more than cavemen.
The California-based Conkey spoke to Nautilus from Seattle, where she was, coincidently, helping her daughter re-organize her home.
Why did you launch the “Between the Caves” project? Were cave sites too crowded with other archaeologists?
Well, one might say that! In the early 1970s I was thinking about a new project. At the time, American archaeologists were developing an open-air survey methodology, where we’re out on the landscape looking for archaeological artifacts. The method wasn’t yet used in France or Spain, or other European countries. So I proposed to my French colleagues a project looking for materials out on the landscape. For Paleolithic research, those materials would be stone tools. They said, “You won’t find anything.” I said, “Why won’t I find anything?” They said, “Nobody’s really found anything or reported anything.” I said, “Has anybody looked systematically?” They said, “Well, no.” They thought I was nuts.
I don’t blame anyone for focusing on caves. Caves are constrained spatially, preservation is excellent because they’re usually limestone and very alkaline, which helps preserve bone and other materials that don’t often preserve in the open air. But caves are an unrepresentative sample of where people were and what they did. People were clearly inside caves—painting, drawing, and doing other kinds of artistic and cultural activities. But they weren’t hunting in a cave, they weren’t collecting raw materials in a cave, they weren’t collecting firewood or other things. So where were they the rest of the time, and what were they doing?
What tells an archaeologist that Paleolithic people spent less time in caves than we imagined in the past?
One big clue is seasonal occupation evidence, something archaeologists infer based on things like animal bones. For example, by looking at found animal teeth, we can tell you at what season of the year the animals were killed. Also, certain animals are only available at certain times—fish that spawn at certain seasons of the year, for example. Almost all caves are described by archaeologists as seasonal, namely as autumn or winter occupations. It’s clear that people were in caves for maybe a couple of months a year at the most.
How did you look for evidence on the landscape and what did you find?
We looked at plowed fields, because when plows churn up dirt, they expose artifacts. We surveyed 360 plowed fields—cornfields, vineyards, sunflower, soybean, sorghum, and other crops in the Central Pyrenees, Ariège region in France. We walked between rows of crops in a systematic way, looking for flint artifacts. Ideally a crop is low enough that you can walk down one row and look to the left and to the right at the same time. Right away we started finding a lot of artifacts.
Then we discovered what we think is an open-air habitation site in Peyre Blanque, also in the Ariège region, on a ridge that’s never been plowed. We found artifacts eroding out of a muddy horseback-riding trail in the woods. The horses had stirred up the mud, and exposed some stone tools; now the site has yielded hundreds of them. We started excavating and found stone slabs, which we believe is a habitation structure in the open-air, probably from the Upper Paleolithic, about 17,000 years ago. We also found yellow, black, and red pigments, meaning ochre—powdered hydrated iron oxide—that early humans used for art and body art.
We also found pieces of flint that came from sometimes 200 or more kilometers away. In some fields there were no flint sources anywhere nearby, so finding pieces of flint that are flakes, or otherwise worked, suggested that people carried flint from somewhere, used it for tools, and left it. That means that people were on the move; they were making long treks, or passing these materials to each other as they met somewhere on the landscape. The number of artifacts we found suggests a long-time use of the landscape—people were coming to this area probably 80,000 years ago and even into the Neolithic.
We found many Paleolithic sites, but we can’t determine exactly what period because we just don’t have any datable, organic materials. We’re using a typological classification system that the French perfected—we look at how the people made their tools. Neanderthals, for example, have a very distinctive technique of removing a flake from a core, called the Levallois technique. We found more Neanderthal tools than anybody ever imagined were in this area!
How would you define home?
Home is a place or places on the landscape that you are somehow connected to. It’s also a conceptual and symbolic notion as to where people are from, where they relate to, and where certain important aspects of their lives take place. Home is a place where you reconnect with people or memories. We found that some of our sites were revisited for thousands of years, again and again. On the same sites, we found artifacts that are characteristic of Neanderthal populations of the Middle Paleolithic era, and artifacts that are characteristic of modern humans from the later, Upper Paleolithic era. We call these sites “Places of Many Generations.”
Interestingly, not all these locations are next to a source of flint, so people intentionally chose to use, and re-use, a location with clear evidence of previous generations, previous peoples, and maybe even previous kinds of peoples. People would recognize the stone tools of other groups, similarly to how we’d recognize this funny thing from the 1800s. We see some tools that were possibly made earlier and then reworked much later with different techniques. I think people of the landscape had social memories of the uses of the landscape, and they understood that people before them used those places too. These Places of Many Generations actually could be places of memory and memory-making. So people of the landscape created memories and, in doing so, created a home.
Would an archaeologist from a mobile culture have a different view of what home is compared to an archaeologist from a sedentary culture?
I think so. Archaeologists are influenced by their culture, not surprisingly. We can’t be totally neutral—we’d be like a blob—but it’s important to recognize what biases we bring to our work. My colleagues and I are suggesting that we have certain biases about what constitutes a “home” and that mobile people didn’t think of home as a stationary physical structure. A “homeless” archaeologist would have a different perspective. Only instead of using the term “homeless,” which in our culture has a negative connotation, I use the term “spatially ambitious.” Clearly, based on what we found, our ancestors were way more spatially ambitious than the cavemen we had thought them to be. Accepting that fact can help us recognize our modern spatially ambitious behavior—immigration, emigration, globalization—and understand what the concept of home means for modern humans
1. The Levallois technique is a distinctive type of stone knapping developed during the Palaeolithic period. It was more sophisticated than earlier methods and involving shaping a tool by flaking off pieces. Using this technique, early humans made different kinds of tools, such as blade-like flakes and triangular points. Archaeologists first discovered such tools in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret.
~ Jude Isabella is a science writer based in Victoria, British Columbia. Her new book, Salmon, A Scientific Memoir, will be released next year.