Finally, first of all...

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

In The Origin Of The Family, Private Property And The State, Engels, talking about the "childhood of man", nearly hits the nail on the head, but misses it completely; he says (Chapter 1, stage 1): "Man still lived in his original habitat, in tropical or subtropical forests and was partially at least a tree-dweller, for otherwise his survival among huge beast of prey cannot be explained.". But there came a point, a definite point, where our ancestors could not climb back up into the trees, or if they could they could only do so clumsily, totally exposed to the faster, bigger, more ferocious big cats who were perfectly capable of leaping and clawing their way up a tree. These puny hominins would have been lucky to lose a leg; infants would have had no chance. The point came when we couldn't go back up the trees, so, in the face of the "huge beasts of prey" there must be another explanation for our survival. What could possibly have saved this puny, defenceless species stuck on the ground for any amount of millennia before the use of controlled fire and in the face of ferocious predators and the extremes of the elements? In my opinion the answer can only be a stronger society, a society of unprecedented solidarity and cooperation between the male and female of the species, particularly in the protection, care and raising of infants. The ape/ homo transition was a move to a completely new social organisation way above and beyond anything remotely achieved in the animal kingdom.

Engels fully appreciated this and if he overlooks it in The Origin..., he outlines it in The Part Played By Labour In The Transition From Ape To Man. Again, we don't have to dump the Old Masters here at a whim. In fact as far as the anatomical details are concerned we can fill in some elements of Engel's ape/homo transition to a fully bipedal species: apart from the great advantage of the better opposability of the fingers and thumbs , the foot with 22 bones in it had to rearrange itself. The pelvis, spine, shoulder, arms, ribcage, neck and chest also had to be modified. Even here at this early stage - especially here at this early stage - there is more than simple adaptations to environment and circumstances. These too are "history-making" humans. There's no other way to describe their survival and persistence against all the odds. Chris Knight's stone head-bangers - Homo Numbskullensis - would have rapidly bit the dust leaving behind only a few bone fragments and nothing else. The peoples of Jen's description, the females showing their own solidarity over here, and the males likewise over there, would have rapidly followed them into oblivion. There were probably many unsuitable and unsuited lines that died out. Only those that practiced cooperation, that had the basis for morality and the solidarity of the species could have possibly overcome the enormous obstacles to survival. This was, in my opinion, the hallmark of a successful transition carrying with it the conscious and unconscious instincts of the animal kingdom. As far as I can see genetics has done nothing to contradict this but seems to reinforce the idea of a fundamental cooperation.

The real missed opportunity of Engels and Marx, was not to see the revolutionary developments of the works of Alfred Russel Wallace (The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of 'Natural Selection') and Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex). Both of which explain the fundamental morality and solidarity of society and, through these means, the overturning, the reverse effect of natural selection at an early stage. But again, this is another area where we are in a position to join the dots. If Patrick Tort ( see the ICC’s review of The Darwin Effect1,) doesn't take into account the inestimable contribution of Wallace, who writes specifically of how humanity "escapes" from the influence of natural selection, then the ICC has done a great service in tying Tort's analysis of Darwin's work into the marxist framework in order to strengthen it. And within this framework, from the animal kingdom, came the development of maternal instincts and the defence of infants which could only have been effected through the solidarity of the male and female of the species. This was a "history-making" society in which controlled fire, and thus protection and the basis for further advances, would have been an outcome. Sexual selection, with the female choosing the male on the basis of the care and protection of infants - however long the association lasted, as Darwin said - would have further reinforced society. Against the view of Chris Knight and others I think that the elements of the beginnings of culture, society and morality are here from the outset.

A word on controlled fire because this innovation itself is quite obviously beyond simple adaptation and is rather the work of "history-makers". I think that this is the case for three reasons:

  1. Protection and security.
  2. Cooking.
  3. Social.

The most accepted oldest use of controlled fire by Homo Erectus is at Bnot Ya'akove Bridge in Israel 800,000 years ago, and Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, one million years ago, where stone artefacts also show evidence of having been heated up. There is inconclusive evidence of the use of controlled fire at several East Africa sites even earlier. The protection afforded by fire against both predators and the elements can't be overestimated. This gave the hominins that used it an almost guaranteed security for the longer term. As Darwin said in Descent of Man..., "The art of making fire... is probably the greatest discovery, excepting language, ever made by man". It doesn't get much more history-making than that. And as Darwin went on to note, the discovery of the "art of making fire, by which hard and stringy roots can be rendered digestible and poisonous roots or herbs innocuous" further reinforces the major advance made at this early stage. As well as limiting the effects of harmful pathogens and toxins - many of the parasites, bacteria and viruses in tubers and raw meat would have been destroyed by fire - the time and energy to chew and digest was also reduced, as well as providing a wider diet and fuel for the growing brain. The third aspect from controlled fire is the reinforcement and development of society. Fire brings the community together by cooking for each other and visitors perhaps and possibly promoting or accelerating the use of language and communication through the easily imaginable social gatherings around the fire. The social aspect of the communal fire could fit in with the "Grandmother hypothesis" of Prof. Kristen Hawkes, though her models have been questioned by F. Kachel of the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Anthropology. Also, looking at the low life expectancy of early Homo Erectus, one can wonder just how long grandmothers would have been actively involved rathr than needing looking after themselves by other members of society. However, it does seem intuitively reasonable that the grandmother could be a positive force and it doesn't take much of a leap of the imagination to take this further with wider members of the group extending care towards the infants (and towards the grandmothers) and thus building up greater empathy in both the short and longer (genetic) term. Of course, nothing in this precludes other females and males of different ages in the sharing of child care. For me this is very likely.

A point reached, a name, a being, a signpost from whence we came and where we were to go in the development of our species is Nariokotome Boy; one of the Homo Erectus species, he was found by Lake Turkana by Kamoya Kimeu, a member of the Leakey team, in Kenya in 1984. The nearly complete skeleton is about 1.6 to 1.8 million years old andhad the 8 to 13 year old male of the genus Homo:grown to his full height, he would have reached over six foot tall. There are differences with the skeletons of modern humans but the Smithsonian Institute sees him growing at a similar rate to modern humans with an adolescent growth spurt. His brain size indicates that it would have needed calories and protein to sustain it and, as an infant, he would have needed extended care. Close relatives of Nariokotome Boy rapidly spread finding their way from Africa to Dmanisi in Georgia some 1.8 million years ago2. Within the Acheulean stone tool-making tradition it would have taken this young lad some time to take in and develop the appropriate lithic technology, including knapping skills. The production of bifaces in particular implies analogical reasoning with long-term and working memory, i.e., these tools were conceptualised, a "mental template" was needed (Sophie A de Beaume, 2009). Even the preceding Oldowan tools required a number of steps for their production that's more complex than picking up a stone. There's a whole cognitive development within and from the Acheulean. This deliberate practice could only have been based on a level of conscious awareness and a society that is non-existent in the animal kingdom.

Nearly two million years on from Nariokotome Boy (and what preceded him), over a million years of really slow development, a step at a time (but a few steps a decade would take Erectus and his technology out of Africa and well into Asia and Europe); then hundreds of thousands of years of developments at many levels; Homo Sapiens, probably descended from the Homo species Heidelbergensis, left Africa between a hundred thousand and sixty thousand years ago and made a near global expansion; then tens of millennia through the Upper Palaeolithic and its visible depictions; then sedentism with mankind's remarkable achievement of the barbarian gentes into the Neolithic and the accelerated and complex movement into civilisation and class society. Many of the specifics of the Old Masters, Marx, Engels, Darwin, Wallace, Morgan, are wildly out of time and some just plain wrong. But I think we can say, in general, that all the major archaeological discoveries and all the positive anthropological research since, as well as those of genetics, have reinforced their positions and definitely their perspectives, as well as demonstrating the great antiquity of the beginnings of "culture" from the transition of ape to man.

Baboon. 1.3.13


2 Whatever the details of the Homo Erectus "out of Africa" move, the move itself shows an incredible journey that took place earlier and quicker than previously thought. Without controlled fire (or possibly with it) this expansion, even considering the enormous distances that could be covered by just a few miles a year in the Acheulean timescale, shows the emancipatory nature of these hominins as well as their adaptability and the efficacy of their tool-kit. This was also, literally, a social movement involving the males, females and infants of the species. If it was made without controlled fire, or the sporadic use of fire, it makes the journey even more incredible.