This is an excerpt of a paper I have in review, so don't steal it. Thought it might be discussion-worthy.
"Even if “archaic” hominids didn’t have archaeologically visible “art” as we conceive of
it they had bipedalism and fire and so a capacity to vacate and/or to reorder their natural
surroundings in ways unavailable to most other organisms. This essay explores some
disciplinary places we can look to “see” archaeological evidence of contemporary and
virtual retro-ethnocentrism and prejudice based upon a perceived absence of evidence
for aethereal symbolic cognition.
Students often say and ask the darnedest things. A question from a student in a
Human Origins course I taught has long stuck with me, regarding the means by which
natural selection operates on organic populations. The question was, “So is Natural
Selection just a question of random chance in selective pressures or is fitness even
involved?” The answer I gave, as with so many things we often say to our students, was
of course, “It depends, and it depends what we mean by fitness”. In this case, I intoned
that stochastic, random selective pressures such as adverse and pervasive climatic events
tend to operate much more against small and specialized, low-mobility microfauna like
insects or mice that normally subsist completely within the level of their particular
ecological niche, as opposed to larger, high-mobility generalist species like elephants that
can reach out and modify their environmental circumstances or simply leave if the going
gets too tough in any one place. “Oh, so the mice couldn’t get away from a flood and
elephants could wade through a flood, just reach higher or knock over trees for food, I get
it,” she said. This was apparently one of those “whoa” moments for other students, too,
and numerous, suddenly illuminated faces indicated that I had reached many of them, if
only for a moment regarding a few simple thoughts. It wasn’t exactly what I meant, but
sometimes we need to know how not to disrupt our teachable moments. To use a football
metaphor, we have to avoid trying too hard, knowing not to outkick our downfield
I think we can learn from my student above, for this anecdote potentially carries
some hefty epistemological baggage for any of us who would wish to impugn the Ancient
Other, in this case “archaic” or otherwise premodern, morphologically robust Middle to
Late Pleistocene, Lower and Middle Paleolithic (or lithic-technologically Mode 1, Mode
2, and Mode 3, which amount to the same thing) hominins as being somehow cognitively
or socially inferior (to we moderns, of course) as well as for those who wish to praise
“anatomically modern humans” for presumptions of varying degrees of uniqueness.
There are two primary reasons for this, both of which have had extreme and novel
evolutionary implications for hominins: locomotive bipedalism and the use of fire. With
respect to bipedalism, in fact, it is virtually what defines the hominin primate subfamily.
It is hardly “unique” when we look at the morphological range of extinct hominins. It
seems, however, that some of the louder voices in archaeology and paleoanthropology are
now obsessed with “behavioral modernity”, precisely because traditional emphases on
“anatomical modernity” have proven untenable. Yet, in harnessing fire, our ancestors
(and they very likely were at least some our ancestors) also possessed a singularly
powerful technology that also happens to be a geomorphic and biological agent solitarily
capable of reordering entire landscapes and biotic communities.
In some ways, the relatively recent and noisome fixation upon “behavioral
modernity” in the literature appears also to be a case of missing the forest by looking at
individual trees. For while we have a figurative forest composed of multiple fossil
hominin species and genera and all their possible behavioral ranges, it is common to
worry ourselves over and focus in on individual (highly subjective) trees like “art” or
“syntactic language”, which reduce our field of vision. For in possessing high bipedal
mobility, and in at least allegorically carrying such a powerful cultural, technological,
ecological, and geomorphic agent as fire, any organism would present a formidable actor
on a past landscape, to say nothing of creatures combining those qualities with the
apparent “dark sides” of many higher primates, given such intentional behaviors as
calculated lying (or ‘tactical deception’) (Byrne and Whiten 1992), cannibalism (Gibbons
1997), institutional inequality, slavery, warfare, and speculative investment.
Contemporary human theorists should be very careful in assuming that they know which
behaviors among our behavioral repertoire can be held up and inspected in isolation from
the others, especially among hominins whose behaviors we cannot directly observe.
Consumers of such theories should likewise be even more careful in absorbing the
conclusions theorists offer regarding speculative isolated traits from extinct organisms.
Have we forgotten those early lessons about discrete and continuous genetic and
behavioral traits? Have we forgotten that even strong statistical correlation can never BE