Primitive Future: Problems in Understanding Early Man

Greg Nelson

The ways in which we attempt to determine the history of early man say much more about who we are today, and who we will be tomorrow, and who we want to be today, and who we want to be tomorrow, than they do about who we were in the past. This statement comes from a person who knows little about science, and less about the specific scientific techniques used in archeological excavation and analysis. But it seems to me that much of the observations that are made in the study of early man are predicated as much on new theory as they are on old observation, and much of the old observation seems to be based on how humans act now, rather than in the past.

For instance, an entire new field of study known as "Evolutionary Psychology" is based on the premise that we can understand who we are today based on how we have evolved, and what we have evolved from. Evolution, is more or less a proven fact, analogous to gravity, it is a theory that we have used to understand countless other phenomena in the world around us. But there is no theory about how early man behaved, how he evolved, or even, what he looked like, that comes even close to being as widely accepted. In other words, this new field of study is based on science that does not yet exist, and might not ever exist, and the thinking behind it is similar to thinking behind the study of early man. Evolutionary psychologists use things we don't know about who we were then to try and understand who we are now, and anthropologists use things we don't know about who we are now to try and understand who we were then.

Our debates about these early human ancestors echo our debates about our present and our modern history to such a degree, that in some ways, this echo seems to cast doubts on the entire process of examination.A great debate in history departments around the world who study the Twentieth Century concerns what is known as the "Great Man Theory." This theory supposes that the major events, and major social changes, of the past century were due more to the actions of a handful of men and women (usually those in positions of great power, or those who made important scientific discoveries) rather than to the actions of the majority. It is a difficult theory to swallow among those of us who count themselves among the less exceptional majority. It is also not necessarily true. One can make an equally persuasive argument that what was done by these so-called great men were either reactions to changes that would have occurred anyway, or that if these great men had never been, other people, who history does not now consider "great" would have taken their place. It seems impossible that this question could ever be settled through objective reasoning. One believes it one way or the other or somewhere in between because of what one wants to believe, because of one's own concerns about the direction their world is taking.

The same debate appears in the study of early man, and his relationship to technology, accept in this field it is called the "Genius Hypothesis" Did one exceptionally intelligent person start planting, growing, and harvesting and then pass his skill onto the others, or did agriculture develop gradually? Did one man learn how to start his own fires and teach the others who passed it on, or did many people all over the planet discover they could bang rocks together, and catch the spark, when their brains were all starting to grow a little bigger?

The debate in the study of our primitive history is the same as the study of our primitive history. Until more time is spent on physical, scientific discovery, and less time on emotionally driven hypothesis, these questions will never be answered.

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last updated 2/6/03