Speechless Cannibals and Speculations on the Mind of Homo erectus

From a variety of investigative approaches, we have concluded in this chapter that two of the most popular, time-honored, and long-held conceptions about early humans—inability to speak and cannibalism—were true of Homo erectus. Indeed, the lack of speech was part of the first name proposed for a primitive human, "Pithecanthropus alalus" (meaning "ape-man without language"), coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1868.17 Eugene Dubois borrowed Haeckel's term to name his fossil skullcap and femur from the Javan Pithecanthropus erectus 25 years later. As it turns out, Haeckel's hypothetical species name still seems apropos for Homo erectus. This speechless hominid, however, could make and use stone tools. Judging from the evidence of stone tool cut marks on Homo erectus fossils from Longgushan, we can state that some hominids defleshed other hominids. We deduce that they did this for the same purpose that they cut meat from other animal remains, to eat it. We know from the sequence of cut marks overlying carnivore bite marks at Longgushan and elsewhere that most of this meat was scavenged, having been brought down by the carnivores and not Homo erectus.

A human species that can only communicate by grunts or gestures, that scavenges half-rotten kills and eats its own kind, and that habitually bashes others over the head, is one that we might find almost comical. But Homo erectus was also a species that periodically unleashed a powerful elemental force, fire, that forced all other species to flee before or yield to it, and one that was resourceful enough to disperse and live successfully in habitats ranging from tropical heat to Ice-Age cold. Homo erectus, a successful species that lived a million years, presents a fascinating and unique picture of an alternative humanness. What other deductions can we make about its life?

A Homo erectus fossil from Kenya (ER 1808) showed bony evidence of a painful and eventually fatal overdose of vitamin A.18 This was probably from eating too much carnivore liver. Theorists have noted that a person with hypervitaminosis A takes weeks or months to die, and they suggest that 1808's survival during this time must have meant that members of her group cared for her. If this deduction is correct19 it is the first evidence

Carnivore and Homo erectus damage on the same bone. SEM photograph of an impression of the surface of a fossil jawbone of one of the common deer at Dragon Bone Hill, Locality 1. A large circular impression on the bone records the puncture of a hyena's canine tooth. Immediately above it is the fine, linear incision made by a stone tool wielded by Homo erectus. Magnification is about 17x.

Carnivore and Homo erectus damage on the same bone. SEM photograph of an impression of the surface of a fossil jawbone of one of the common deer at Dragon Bone Hill, Locality 1. A large circular impression on the bone records the puncture of a hyena's canine tooth. Immediately above it is the fine, linear incision made by a stone tool wielded by Homo erectus. Magnification is about 17x.

for humanlike compassion in the fossil record. Group cohesiveness and cooperation may have been a major element in the species's ability to survive in difficult circumstances.

Eating a carnivore with a liver large enough to give one too much vitamin A, or alternatively, eating an excessive number of livers of small carnivores, might imply successful or systematic hunting by Homo erectus. The last generation of paleoanthropologists would have accepted this deduction readily, but today there is a more skeptical climate of opinion surrounding hunting, especially big-game hunting.20 Abundant archaeological evidence exists to show systematic butchering of large animal carcasses by Homo erectus—elephantine creatures like deinotheres in Kenya and mammoths in Spain—but precious little can substantiate the assumption that it was hominids who killed these beasts in the first place. Our early Homo ancestors may have been adept at collecting small, relatively defenseless game but incapable of dispatching powerful animals larger than themselves. Brash-ness, a higher primate character, likely played an important part in displacing ecological competitors and taking their abandoned kills. Fire would have been the ultimate backup to the bluff, and even if the hominids could not summon it as readily as can modern humans, carnivores would need only one bad experience of hominids with fire to learn to be wary.

Cannibalism is a set of behaviors culturally embellished by modern humans. Societies that practice cannibalism have rituals and strong belief systems that govern when and how they eat people. "Human" is not just another item on the menu for Homo sapiens. But it may have been for Homo erectus. Cut marks on the bones of hominids look just like the cut

Homo Erectus Cannibalism

Imagining Homo erectus. Lucille Swan (right) was an American sculptor living in Beijing in the 1930s. In 1937 she created, under the scientific direction of Franz Weidenreich (left), a soft-part reconstruction ofWeidenreich's composite skull reconstruction of Homo erectus, nicknamed "Nellie" because it was thought to represent a female. Weidenreich first learned of the disappearance of the Peking Man fossils from his Chinese colleagues after World War II, when they sent him a card with the cryptic query, "Where is Nellie?"

Imagining Homo erectus. Lucille Swan (right) was an American sculptor living in Beijing in the 1930s. In 1937 she created, under the scientific direction of Franz Weidenreich (left), a soft-part reconstruction ofWeidenreich's composite skull reconstruction of Homo erectus, nicknamed "Nellie" because it was thought to represent a female. Weidenreich first learned of the disappearance of the Peking Man fossils from his Chinese colleagues after World War II, when they sent him a card with the cryptic query, "Where is Nellie?"

marks on the bones of other animals, and hominid bones at Longgushan and other sites are scattered about just the same as other animal bones. Homo sapiens usually deal with the remains of cannibalized humans differently than those of animals because human remains carry a symbolism and importance above and beyond their value as food. Evidence of a sense of ritual and symbolism, and evidence of burial of human remains, are first seen among the Neandertals. Human attitudes about cannibalism may be what is unusual here; Homo erectus cannibalism may be much more in line with what other mammalian meat-eating species do. Most species that habitually eat meat will eat members of their own species if they die.21 For species that scavenge a significant portion of their food, like pigs, hyaenids, and Homo erectus, this behavior may be even more common. There is no evidence or expectation that the Homo erectus individual defleshing Skull V at Longgushan recognized the humanness of the meat that he (or she) was collecting.

Imagining how Homo erectus may have viewed the world is as fascinating as it is difficult. Archaeologist Thomas Wynn attempted to integrate the types of stone tools made by Homo erectus with concepts borrowed from developmental psychology in order to divine something of the "mind of Homo erectus."22 Wynn maintains that earliest Homo made stone tools that were conceptually only as sophisticated as those of an ape—sharp, haphazardly formed flakes of rock that could cut. With Homo erectus and its signature tool, the bifacial "hand ax," Wynn suggests that cognitive evolution had progressed to a new level. There was now a conceptualization of overall tool shape—symmetry and bulk ("spatial amount")—that Homo habilis and apes lack. Wynn believes that the evidence indicates that the mind of Homo erectus was able to "construct a more complex external world" and that a Homo erectus individual could "coordinate a greater number of and variety of concepts at the same time." We agree that some sort of cognitive advance had occurred in Homo erectus. But equally intriguing is the fact that whatever that advance represented, it seems to have stayed virtually static for some one million years, the length of time that bifaces and similar chopping tools dominated Homo erectus lithic culture. Perhaps that stasis is related as well to a relative lack of hand-eye coordination in Homo erectus, if the small upper spinal cord of the Turkana Boy from Kenya was characteristic of the species. Although many of the details remain blurry, we can agree with Thomas Wynn when he says "Homo erectus appears to have been neither ape nor human in a behavioral sense and it is this intermediate status that makes its understanding so important."23

CHAPTER 8

Alpha and Omega: Resolving the Ultimate Questions of the Beginnings and Endings of Homo erectus, the Species

China has one of the longest recorded histories in the world, a venerable prehistory with many important archaeological sites (in addition to Dragon Bone Hill), and numerous important fossil discoveries that document human evolution through time. China, however, does not seem to preserve evidence of the origins of the hominids.1 More primitive hominid ancestors, earlier absolute dates for their sites, and molecular-evolution data all point to Africa as the birthplace of the human lineage. It is true that higher primates not ancestral to hominids were present in China and the Far East prior to the appearance of the genus Homo, but at least two major population movements out of Africa during the last 20 million years account for these species. One such early population expansion accounts for the presence in China of Old World monkey-apes ("catarrhines") with names like Dionysopithecus, Laccopithecus, and Platodontopithecus. These small-bodied primates have at times been considered ancestors of modern gibbons or even humans, but recent studies have shown that their anatomy is too primitive for them to be classified as hominoids (the superfamily that includes apes and humans). Their similarities to living species have to be chalked up to parallel evolution. Later expansions of true hominoids out of Africa must have brought to Asia the ancestors of the lesser apes (the gibbon and siamang), as well as the ancestors of Sivapithecus, dated in Indo-Pakistan to about 12 million years ago, and possibly ancestral in turn to the Asian great ape, the extant orangutan.2

Hominids, our two-legged ("bipedal") variety of hominoid, last shared ancestors with the Eurasian apes about 15 million years ago, perhaps in the form of a species like Kenyapithecus. Africa was considered by Charles Darwin the continent on which the evolutionary split of the hominids from the gorilla and then the chimpanzee, our closest living ape relatives, first took place. So far, the fossils documenting this evolutionary divergence have eluded us. A more recent idea is that western Eurasian apes, such as the Greek Ouranopithecus or Turkish Ankarapithecus, may have been ancestral to African apes, but how they might have traversed the proto-Saharan savannas to arrive in their tropical forest habitats of today remains a mystery. By five to six million years ago, however, hominid ancestors had appeared in Kenya and Chad, and fossil discoveries in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa dating from five to two million years ago document the continuing divergence of the hominids as a uniquely African phenomenon. No fossil evidence of direct hominid ancestors from this time span has been discovered in Eurasia.

From evidence of paleontology and geology it now appears that the wooded and even forested corridors that allowed hominoid populations to move back and forth between Africa and Eurasia were severed beginning in the latter part of the Miocene Epoch. This cutting off of Africa from Asia for a period of some ten million years has a lot to do with the spread of the vast and inhospitable Sahara Desert. Arid conditions over the northern third of the African continent may have been caused by a massive rain shadow extending west from the uplifting Himalayas and by large-scale changes in monsoonal rain patterns.3 For these reasons, the only homi-noids evolving in Asia were apes. There is a conspicuous absence of direct human ancestors in the Asian fossil record in the Miocene and most of the Pliocene Epochs.

Until recently, Homo erectus from Dragon Bone Hill was the earliest firm evidence of hominids in mainland Eurasia. Early attempts at interpreting the evolutionary significance of the fossils were hampered by lack of knowledge of the time scale, the geographical extent of the species, and the overall context of anatomical change characterizing human evolution. We are fortunate to have much better answers to these questions today. We now know where Homo erectus came from and when it evolved.

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Responses

  • severino
    Did Homo erectus die from overdoes of vitamin A?
    9 years ago

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