Ancestral Portrait

It is tempting to suppose that our ancestors were just like us except where there is evidence to the contrary. This is a hazardous assumption. The ancestral human population is separated from people today by some 2,000 generations. In evolutionary time, that is not so long, yet is still time enough for very substantial evolutionary change to have taken place.

Consider that the anatomically modern humans of 100,000 years ago showed no signs of modern behavior. They had no apparent capacity for innovation and may have lacked the faculty of speech. Very significant evolutionary change seems to have occurred in the 50,000-year span that separates them from the behaviorally modern humans of the ancestral population. Yet that is the same span of time that separates the ancestral population from people today, allowing for an equally decisive evolutionary change. And the pace of human evolution may well have accelerated in the last 50,000 years, given the unparalleled changes in environment experienced by the ancestral people as they left their homeland, colonized strange lands and cold climates, and converted from foraging to settled life. Indeed specific evidence has now emerged suggesting that the human brain has continued to evolve over the last 50,000 years. The evidence, as described in the next chapter, rests on the finding that two new versions of genes that determine the size of the human brain emerged only recently, one around 37,000 years ago and a second at 6,000 years ago. Given the brain's continued development, the people of 50,000 years ago, despite archaeologists' tag for them as "behaviorally modern," may have been less cognitively capable than people today. The ancestral human population would have lived by hunting and gathering, and its way of life was perhaps not so different from that of foragers like the !Kung San. In its homeland in northeast Africa, the ancestral people were doubtless as skilled at exploiting the plants and animals of their local environment as the San are in theirs. They would have possessed a carefully thought-out suite of tools for hunting, food preparation, and carrying things. To judge by the journey of those who were to leave Africa, they probably knew how to build boats and how to fish.

But their technology would have been considerably less sophisticated than that of the !Kung. The !Kung's lightweight bows and poisoned arrows represent a high degree of mechanical and biological knowledge. There is no clear evidence that the bow was invented until some 20,000 years ago. It never reached Australia, suggesting it was not known to the ancestral human population. Without projectile technology, male hunting success in early human societies would have been considerably less spectacular. Large animals would have been hard to kill, so hunters perhaps concentrated on small game that they could run down and spear. "Before effective hunting, males could have focused more on honey and plant foods, so their daily hauls of food did not have to be lower but must have been different," writes the evolutionary anthropologist Frank Marlowe. But women's foraging, for plant foods and tubers excavated with digging sticks, may have been much the same as in contemporary foraging societies.^5

In appearance, the ancestral human population would certainly have had dark skin as protection against the African sun. They had stronger bones and were thicker set than contemporary people. They would have cut and decorated their hair. From the date assigned to the evolution of the human body louse, which lives only in clothing, the ancestral people must have worn clothes that were sewn to fit the contours of the body tightly enough for the lice to feed. It is tempting to suppose the ancestral people looked like the San, with their lightish skin and slightly Asian cast of features, or perhaps like the aboriginal tribes of Australia, who have dark skin and wavy hair. But these two groups have been evolving independently for 50,000 years and their appearance is unlikely to have remained unchanged. The ancestral people may have been similar to both but would also have possessed their own distinctive appearance, which cannot at present be reconstructed.

The ancestral people spoke a fully articulate language, which may well have included the click sounds still used by their Khoisan-speaking descendants.

As hunters and gatherers, the ancestral people probably lived in small egalitarian societies, without property or leaders or differences of rank. These groups engaged in constant warfare, defending their own territory or raiding that of neighbors. When they grew beyond a certain size, of 150 or so people, disputes became more frequent, and with no chiefs or system of adjudication, a group would break up into smaller ones along lines of kinship.

Yet these quarrelsome little societies would have contained in embryo the principal institutions of the large modern societies of today. They had some form of religion, a practice that seems as old as language and may have coevolved with it. Religion may have served as an extra cohesive force, besides the bonds of kinship, to hold societies together for such purposes as punishing freeloaders and miscreants or uniting in war.

A sense of fairness and reciprocity governed exchange and social relationships. Much later, the idea of reciprocity would be extended to non-kin, allowing strangers to be treated as honorary relatives and creating the framework for societies that transcended the kin-bonded tribe.

Warfare may have been a dominant factor in the ancestral population's existence. A group could attain respite from conflict by finding new territory. Yet it could not have been easy to travel far from the ancestral homeland. Foragers are adapted to surviving in their local environment by their intimate knowledge of its plants and animals. Only one group of people, a little band maybe only a few hundred strong, succeeded in overcoming the daunting odds and leaving the homeland altogether. But by daring so much, they gained the whole world.

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