Paper 1: The Study of Ancient Man

The most daunting issue faced today in any discussion about the relationship between early humans, technology, and their environment is the scarcity of evidence. The majority of the knowledge in this field is derived from the results of archaeological studies. Building a complete picture of prehistoric man from archaeological findings is extremely difficult. Despite the best attempts, we are only able to unearth what few artifacts have managed to survive the passage of time. From this evidence alone, it becomes nearly impossible to characterize a complex relationship such as that of prehistoric man and technology.

On top of the scarcity in physical artifacts, another issue with our knowledge on prehistoric man is the rate at which we discover information. Oftentimes the study of prehistoric man feels like a science. One theory may be widely accepted until evidence to the contrary is unearthed. Then academics scramble to put together another theory incorporating the new evidence. But unlike a science, archaeologists have no control over what they find in a dig. For instance, scientists can experiment with aspirin to discover if it will reduce the chances of a heart attack. But an archaeologist cannot experiment and discover whether humans originated out of Africa or out of multiple regions. That particular debate exemplifies this issue of the haphazard image of early man pained by archaeological evidence. Theories regarding the origination of man out of Africa were in widespread acceptance until older fossils were discovered in parts of Asia. Since then even older fossils have been discovered in Africa leading the academic community to lean back towards the origination out of Africa theory. Building any academic theory is much like connecting the dots between different points of evidence. However in the study of early humans, the dots few and far between and new dots are discovered both randomly and rarely, leaving any theory on early humans to be mostly conjecture.

Eric Williams falls into this pitfall in his characterization of early man and fire (Williams, 14). His theories are based on linking pre-historic environmental changes with early human behavior. Although his evidence for the pre-historic environmental changes maybe scientifically grounded, his characterization of early human behavior seems flawed. In particular, Williams’s evidence for his theories on the behavior of early humans relies upon drawing parallels between later hunter-gatherer societies with those of prehistoric humans. One of William’s primary arguments is partially attributing the widespread extinction of large fauna during the late Paleolithic to over hunting by humans (Williams, 20). His evidence for this type of destructive behavior by early humans is the similar impact had by Polynesians on the Pacific Islands during between 100 and 1,000 AD. “Even the most primitive of aboriginal peoples seemed to grasp intuitively the idea that deliberate burning improved vegetation by promoting and maintaining the growth of favored plants such as grasses, forbs, tubers, wild fruits, wild rice, hazelnuts, sunflowers, cama, bracken, cassava, and blueberries.” (Williams, 16) Although tempting to explain the behavior of prehistoric man by drawing parallels with later humans, the conclusions are biased. Early man is a very different creature from who we are today. The Polynesians are separated by millenniums from Paleolithic man. They had completely mastered the slash and burn farming technique and were intimately familiar with the effects of fire on their environment through centuries of use. To assume that prehistoric man held the same degree of knowledge is untenable without archaeological evidence. The widespread extinction of large mammals during the late Paleolithic period cannot be attributed to the use of fire by ancient humans without archaeological evidence of the burnings. Widespread deliberate burning of areas would imply a shift in the environment from forest to grassland. However the climate changes during the time show a re-advancement of the forest. If early humans were as intimately aware of the effects of fire as the Polynesians then the environmental record should reflect a similar decline in forested areas.

The trouble with archaeological evidence is that it tells us very little about the behavior of prehistoric man. For instance, the earliest known use of fire was discovered in 1988 in Africa and dates between 1 and 1.5 million years before present. This was deduced from a scattering of charred bones which under chemical tests revealed that they “had been heated to a range of temperatures consistent with a campfire” (Brain, 464). Very little can be said as to the manner in which the fire was procured, maintained, and used. Our earliest evidence of what is arguably man’s most important technological breakthrough will always be clouded in secrecy because of the limited evidence available. This highlights the dangers of an overly ambitious theory regarding early humans; there simply isn’t enough evidence out there to support it.

Some of the most interesting evidence in the field of prehistoric man has been spawned from genetics instead of archaeology. Population genetics studies the transmissions of various genetic mutations through generations to uncover information on human migration patterns. Research in this field traces the genetic ancestry of modern humans to a single point in Africa. Successful human migration to other parts of the world can be traced to specific genetic offspring of the genetic origin point. Whereas archaeology provides a detailed snapshot of prehistoric man limited in time and location, population genetics provides a broad picture of migration patterns throughout history. However, population genetics alone does not provide enough evidence to support a theory regarding early humans, nature, and technology. But when combined with archaeology, population genetics can uncover not only which genetic mutations helped prehistoric man survive in particular climates but also the technology that prehistoric man had available to him at the time. For example, population genetics has uncovered that human migration to areas of Greece and Southern Italy occurred roughly 20,000 years BP and stemmed from the Middle East where the migrants developed genetic marker M-35 (National Geographic Atlas of the Human Journey). Using this information, archaeologists could link technologies in use at the time to the specific migration of ancient man into that area of the Mediterranean by contrasting the technological artifacts found in a dig with the genetic markers of its ancient inhabitants. For instance, the discovery of fur clothing among human remains containing genetic marker M-35 would indicate that the use of clothing developed somewhere during human migration into the Mediterranean from the Middle East as a response to the colder climates. This allows the construction of not only a timeline of human technological progress but also provides insights into which technological advancements allowed migrations into increasingly remote and unforgiving environments.

Combined with archaeology, population genetics tells which technological advancements were in use by which subset of ancient man at a given place and time. Innovations in the study of ancient man should not be limited to population genetics. Archaeology alone cannot provide enough data to really understand ancient human’s complex relationship between the environment and technology. The lack of data creates the temptation to substitute modern behavior for prehistoric behavior. However this substitution, even for modern hunter-gatherer societies, ignores millenniums of evolution. Utilizing information from different fields, such as population genetics, provides a much more complete image of the habits and behaviors of prehistoric humans. 

Bilbiography and Links

  1. Brain C.K. and A. Sillen, "Evidence from the Swartkrans cave for the earliest use of fire," Nature, 336, Dece. 1, 1988, p. 464-465.
  2. Williams. Michael, "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" University of Chicago Press: 2003.
  3. National Geographic Atlas of the Human Journey