Blood Relations

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In his text Jens says that "There's a tendency to think of culture solely in material terms (stone tools, etc.)". Jens then goes on to say that culture is much more than this and I agree with his inclusion of other elements in that definition and possibly more besides. Engels called his pamphlet The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man, and in it he said "labour begins with the making of tools". Even with the very limited contemporary knowledge of timescales, Engels surmised that this transitional period took place over many thousands of years. "... the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of joint activity to each individual". Engels here, and Pannekoek who followed this line of thought through the development of tools and the brain in his 1953 work, Anthropogenesis, is not talking about sixtythousand years ago, nor the descent of anatomically modern humans (AMH), nor ancient Homo Sapiens - because there was a transition within the Sapiens species here - but the earliest homo, the earliest of our species, and both relate the development of tools and production to the development of society from very early on. As the Harvard anthropologist Terrence Deacon put it more recently: "The introduction of stone tools and the ecological adaptation they indicate also mark the presence of a socio-ecological predicament that demands a symbolic solution; stone tools and symbols must both, then, be the architects of the Australopithecus-Homo transition and not its consequences. The large brain, stone tools, reduction in dentition, better opposability of thumbs and fingers and more complex bipedality found in post-australopithecine hominids are the physical echoes of a threshold already crossed" (T. Deacon, 1997, 348). And Pannekoek in Anthropogenesis: the "skill of handling tools is not congenital (but) acquired from older to younger generations... (the) development of the use of tools is only possible in a community".

Chris Knight doesn't like talking about tools deep in prehistory. Or rather, he doesn't like talking about them in any positive sense. When I raised this question with him in a meeting he acted as though his analysis was being sullied by such basic and ignorant questions. In relation to the earliest tools, one of the questions posed by Knight in his book is that "every male simply 'had' to be the owner of a hand-axe or other weapon, as much for reasons of personal and sexual security as to facilitate hunting or foraging?". The general gist of his argument here is that in early man there is no great advance from apes or chimpanzees regarding the earliest tools - which is a fair point regarding the very first percussion-like instruments lost in the mists of time. He does see the Acheulean hand-axe - the oldest now dated to 1.65 million (possibly 1.8) years ago in West Turkana, northern Kenya - as an advance and he does point to the survival of hominids over the period of this technology as "no small achievement". But, as well as seeing these tools as the coveted property of individuals, he calls them "monotonous" and "unimaginative" and strongly suggests that they were individual weapons (amongst other things); "fighting axes" for "settling scores". My position is that they were much more than this. I draw no conclusions from the persistence and widespread existence of these particular tools in relation to language and "home bases" - that's for another discussion. But these tools were not only very effective methods of production, they changed and practically developed, and also developed into things of beauty. Some razor sharp, too big for practical use, cubist designed, delicate with a central "feature", so-called "hand-axes" suggest that these did develop into fully symbolic pieces that, in my opinion, could well have been used in rituals. This would of course contradict Knight's view that "rituals and myths (of human symbolic behaviour were) signals for thwarting exploitation by males". Rather than being tools or weapons carried and coveted by individual males, the fact is that heaps of them, hundreds at a time, have been found in different parts of Africa (Melka Kunture in Ethiopia, Olorgesailie in Kenya, Isimila in Tanzania and Kalambo Falls in Zambia) and Swanscombe in England, crowded close together with no obvious sign of use. There's certainly no danger here, if there are hundreds of these tools lying around in great heaps on the top of the ground, in the open air, that anyone is worrying that these "valuable tools will be appropriated by some competitor or rival" as Blood Relations suggests with its social Darwinist theme of rivalry and competition in early man, "settling scores" and the like, from the males of the species. Against Knight's idea of the "monotony" of these implements there is a development of these tools. Early and late Acheulean tools do differ in very important respects (R.J. Mason, 1962). Later tools (up to around 600,000 years ago) are thinner and the flaking more shallow and while early tools are struck with hard (stone) hammers, later ones are struck with "soft" hammers of wood, bone, or antler (Chris Scarre, 2005), showing a major advance in technology. Also these more refined expressions of the Acheulean, where the core is prepared (in different ways by different individuals) in order to produce a predetermined size and shaped flake (especially the case with "soft" hammers), foreshadow the technological developments of the Middle Stone Age and eventually the Levallois technique (Thomas Volman, 1984), which takes us up to 250-500,000 years ago. It may be "slow" but there's a definite development and continuity here from the first Acheulean "hand-axes", and not the discontinuity implied in the book. And just as the "Levallois" technique grew out of the Acheulean, so did the latter grow out of the early Oldowan period, where, even at this early stage, percussion tools weren't just tools in themselves but were used to produce flakes and included hammerstones, unifacial choppers, bifacial choppers, polyhedrons, heavy-duty and light-duty scrapers, awls, discoids and flakes (Scarre, 2005). Though relatively crude, they were made out of various materials, quartz, chert, lava, quartzite, etc., (Isaac G. and Isaac B., 1997) across Africa, and some had been retouched, i.e., re-adapted. These developed from earlier, more fundamental forms that have been dated to between 2.5 to 1.5 million years ago where there were possibly around 8 species of hominin in Africa at the same time.

Blood Relations approvingly uses the archaeologist Lewis Binfords' views about the animal-like behaviour of early man - scavenger, beastly and so on. Chris Scarre (2005), editor of the Cambridge Archaeological Review, calls Binfords' views "impoverished". And this idea of early man as a "bonehead" is contested by many archaeologists: H.T. Bunn and E.M. Kroll, 1986, M. Dominguez-Rodrigo, 2002, Dominguez-Rodrigo, 2003, who all suggest from looking at hunting in this period or early access to animal carcasses and the ability to fight off or hold off other predators, that is an organised society not relying on the "hit and run" grabbing of meat.. As new sites are located this will become clearer. Binford (1984) takes an equally negative and restrictive view of hunting in the later Middle Stone Age. In his book he concludes that meat produced from the Klasies River Mouth, in South Africa in the Middle Stone Age (about 130,000 years ago), came from scavenging rather than hunting: But "his analysis ignored however, many remains that were probably removed from the site by carnivores, and many scholars would now see the remains as reflecting hunted meat that, like the shellfish at the site, was shared. There are other indications from Klasies River that suggest that hunting was probably practiced" (Scarre, 2005). Other criticisms of Binford's work is that carnivore gnaw marks are rare on the remains at Klasies and patterns of human-induced damage is very suggestive of hunting. At any rate, Binford's views of early (and later) man seem to chime with those of Blood Relations in that early man was little better than a beast (or worse in some cases)1. Another point to insist on against the book (which Jens seems to support in his text) is the large difference in male and female size, i.e., sexual dimorphism. But the evidence I've seen is that from 1.9 to 1.4 million years ago to now, sexual dimorphism, the size of early male against early female in the time scale specified, the Acheulean, has hardly changed. As Jens says, this "is generally indicative of a greater equality between the sexes". Stanford. edu puts the respective male and female height of Erectus at 1.8 and 1.55 - not much different from today. According to Christopher Ruff, 2002, 211-232, making the comparison in body mass in fossil hominins, reveals that general levels of dimorphism have likely remained more or less the same for most of the evolution of Homo over the last 2 million years to the present. Homo Erectus, who emerged 1.8 to 1.7 million years ago, achieved essentially - with significant anatomical differences - modern form and proportions; and evidence suggests the species also achieved "a social organisation that featured economic co-operation between male and female and perhaps between semi-permanent male and female units" (Scarre, 2005). This would be fully in line with the position of Engels and marxism on the general development of production going along with the general development of society. L. Hager (1989) suggests the reduction in sexual dimorphism in Homo Erectus came from the growth of females as an adaption for childbirth. As Jens says, reduced sexual dimorphism generally indicates "a greater equality between the sexes". But I think that he's wrong when he says that it's a "good deal less" in Sapiens than Erectus. The evidence seems to at least point to an equalisation that began with erectus and is virtually unchanged today. More finds as always will reveal more evidence.

The book creates puzzles where there are none and reinforces my view that it is a source of confusion rather than clarification. For example, the "monotonous uniformity" that it puts forward in relation to the Acheulean hand-axe just doesn't exist (see above) and to say that this tool is "replicated unimaginatively all over the world - from southern Africa to northern England, from Spain to India" is not entirely true either. Knight says that it might be expected that localised conditions would have given rise to specialised tool kits for foraging whereas, in Knight's view, the Acheulean axe was also used as a digging tool (both he and Binford can't accept that there would have been hunting in this period because that would imply society). Firstly I think that tools made for the digging aspect of foraging would have generally been made of wood, bone or antler (possibly shaped by stone tools). Digging hard ground with a stone tool would only result in torn and cut hands, and antler picks, plus a stout, sharpened stick, must have been the tools of choice for digging (the male megalocerus, the giant prehistoric deer, also known as the Irish Elk, had antlers that could measure 3.5 metres from tip to tip). Discarded, shed antlers would have been plentiful and they are a very sensuous and effective tool - much better than cutting your hands to pieces trying to dig up tubers with a lump of stone! And secondly, the Acheulean hand-axe wasn't an "axe" at all and can't be reduced to a digging instrument or weapon, but was rather the prehistoric equivalent of the Swiss Army Penknife, with all-purpose, different-sized adaptable blades struck from the core. And surely the widespread use of this tool is evidence of it being fit for purpose within a community of interests over a large part of the world. The Acheulean "hand-axe" is a very effective tool-kit in itself. It's certainly a lot more than an individually-owned and closely-guarded weapon related to 'male behaviour' as Knight suggests. Even in its very beginnings the Acheulean hand-axe wasn't a single expression but variable, and has been classified into "axe", cleaver, and bifacial, i.e., several types of tools. The other point to make is that, contrary to the book, there were regional variations away from the Acheulean as long ago as 1.7 million years ago. This regional delineation goes along the "Movious Line” (H. L. Movious, 1948) which has stood up to the test of new finds since. There's a strong non-Acheulean tradition in eastern and south-eastern Asia (and some parts of Europe around modern day Germany and Romania, Greece and Turkey and parts of the now ex-Russian republics). There are no perishable artefacts, scarce by definition, but bamboo makes edges that rival or exceed those of stone for sharpness and durability. There is also evidence in east China for entirely different types of stone tools from the Acheulean tradition, "choppers", flakes and various others going back possibly 1.3 million years ago (Jianfeng Zhu et al, 2004), some two-hundred-thousand or more years after an out of Africa move. The "Zhoukoudian" (east Asia) tool kit is quite distinct from the Acheulean and includes a whole variety of tools made from sandstone, quartz and other materials. So this idea of the "boring uniformity" of Acheulean stone tools is a red herring that was contradicted well before Blood Relations was written. What we see, and what is confirmed clearly on the basis of a plethora of evidence, in variable respects throughout the global Lower Palaeolithic (the African Early Stone Age), is the development of tools and a diversity of tools that are excellent for butchery on small and large beasts and the extraction of the most nutritious parts. That's the least we can say for sure. The animal protein extraction accomplished through the use of adapted tools must provide for the evolutionary expansion of the brain. Chemical evidence supports the idea that a significant amount of animal protein in hominin diets, accomplished through the use of tools, may have provided a critical impulse to the rapid evolutionary expansion of brain size in the hominin lineage (Scarre, 2005). I think that there was hunting here (see below) but also scavenging (a tradition which continues today even in the countryside of the UK), but amounts of food were processed way in excess of the ratio of sizes to prey in relation to chimps and baboons for example. Homo erectus, 1.8/1.7 million years ago, before moving out of Africa to Asia over 1.5 million years ago, had a small braincase compared to today but it was large enough to motivate and subsequently increase it and this fed into the variation and development of new tools. From this period we move to the evidence from Boxgrove in the UK, around 400,000 years ago, showing apparently modern attributes in sophisticated hunting and butchery techniques for large mammals as well as the organisation of society that presupposes such attributes. These are confirmed with the skilful butchery at Schoningen in Germany where wooden spears have also been found and the site dated to 350,000 to 400,000 years ago (in fact recent evidence has put back the use of hafted, stone spears back to half-a-million years ago - see below). Similar spears dated to around the same time have been found elsewhere in Germany and Clacton in the UK. Apart from these two areas, wooden tools have been found in two others; Kalambo Falls (Zambia) and Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (Israel) all of them dated between 300,000 and 790,000 years ago.

I don't think that I'm courting controversy when I say that Jens is something of an admirer of Chris Knight's work. But Jens has to point out the obvious. If the first signs of symbolic culture according to Blood Relations are expressed 60,000 years ago, what about the previous 140,000 years ago of Homo Sapiens history? And, if we're going to be radical in looking at the development of humanity's history, if we are going to the root of things, what about the previous nearly two-million years of clear hominin development?

But just sticking with sapiens for the moment, who themselves went through a transition from archaic to modern forms, archaeologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks are firmly against the various ideas around the 50/60,000 year-old "cultural revolutions". Even if these models are transferred back to Africa, there's a certain danger of them being "Eurocentric", i.e., that this "revolution" enabled the exit from Africa leaving the latter a backwater. I'm not saying that anyone is suggesting this idea here, but it's a danger. Much more important than this is their analysis that in such models of this or that "revolution", and there are a variety of them, there's an underestimation of the depth and breadth of the advances of the African Middle Stone Age, about a 100,000 to 200,000 years before these supposed "revolutions" occurred McBrearty and Brooks see "modern" advanced technologies already present during the period in Africa 200,000 years ago: advances in lithics, increased geographical range, specialised hunting and developing hunting strategies, fishing and shell-fishing, long-distance trade and the symbolic use of pigments (Chris Stringer, 2011, 124/5). And I think that from the bits of evidence above, these technological and cultural advances were themselves linked to previous species of homo, though obviously developed from them. I'm not proposing a simple linear, "upward" development of humanity; clearly species have come to a dead-end, died out, gone backwards or moved forward at a snail's pace only. Just in homo sapien's own development there have bright sparks of sudden, dramatic technological advances that have disappeared just as quickly: Omo Kibish and Herto in Ethiopia for example 160,000 years ago; Pinnacle Point in South Africa around the same time . But that lines of human - and that for me includes homo - progress are discernible from early on is evidential. In relation to ideas around the "60,000 year-old revolution" McBrearty has said that this "quest for the 'eureka' moment... obscures rather than illuminates events in the past".

I don't find the idea of a cultural revolution from a 60,000 year old sex-strike at all credible and the only scientific validation that Jens can give to it is the earlier expression at Blombus, around 80,000 years ago, of the use of red ochre. This evidence seems to me to contradict Knight's idea especially given the much earlier antiquity of the use of pigments and this even earlier use of them also contradicts Blood Relations. At Terra Amata in the south of France, pigments were being prepared and rounded for what could likely be body decoration for a whole range of colours, including purple (purple!) 300,000 years ago. Similar finds of the use of prepared ochre among Neanderthals around a similar time scale have been found in Becov in the Czech Republic and Ambrona in Spain. Ochre can be used for many things such as an adhesive, a tanning agent, insect repellent and it even has a medical use. But the preparations of it above suggest a symbolic value a good while prior to the appearance of Sapiens. This is the case in Terra Amata particularly where it was found in a shelter that had been cut, shaped and fitted, along with a hearth. Apart from no scientific evidence for it, the tale of Blood Relation is as good or as bad a story as any other that's made up. But for me it's a source of confusion. There's obviously a lot of interesting things in the book and Jens brings many of these out. But, along with its social Darwinist leanings, I also think that the conclusion that a "cultural revolution", a real leap forward for humanity, can come about on the basis of lies, deceit, division and the woman staying at home plotting and scheming against the absent males is a repugnant one. As Joan M. Gero says, quoted by Jens: "... exploitative women are assumed always to have wanted to trap men by one means or another, and indeed their conspiring to do so serves as the very basis for our species' development" and that for men "... only good sex, coyly metered out by calculating women, can keep them at home and interested in their offspring". Jens says in his first text that Knight's work "is precisely this effort to bring together genetic, archaeological and anthropological data in a 'theory of everything' for human evolution...". My opinion of his work is different from that.


1 I'm sure that Binford wrote a lot of good stuff, but his "impoverished" and negative views of early hominins extends to Neanderthals who he said were just scavengers. Chris Stringer's own work in Gibraltar (2011), shows that this species was perfectly aware of the nutritional value of shellfish, marine mammals, rabbits, nuts and seeds. The old and tired "that wasn't known at the time" defence can't be applied here. Binford takes clear, dogmatic positions many times on the basis of what appears to be very restricted research. Binford’s (and Kent Flannery's) idea of a human "broad spectrum revolution" was similarly based upon the restricted idea that a "revolution" began around 20,000 years ago in the Middle East due to climate change and increasing population density. and he backs this up with research into an increase in diet. But C.J. Stiner and Steven L. Kuhn studies, covering a much wider space and time, have compared site data and concluded that all the main elements of a varied diet existed back to earlier sapiens and Neanderthals. See below on Neanderthal diet.