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Life of the Long Ago Man: A Look Into an Ancestor of Humanity

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David has had a life-long interest in the ancient past and has delved into the study of historic and prehistoric man.

life-of-the-long-ago-man-a-look-into-an-ancestor-of-humanity

The Origin of Joe, or Who Is My Daddy, Really?

Did you ever wake up and wonder where you came from? Not just in the immediate sense; most of us are familiar with Mom and Dad, coitus, and biological reproduction. But in the most mysterious, far-reaching sense; Where did I and all of my fellow comrades in my species, in the big picture, in the vast stretches of history, all the things that make me human, where did it all begin? This level of rumination takes us much further back than Ma and Pa, further than Grandma and Grandpa, even further back than any genealogical research service could take you in your family’s ancestral tree. Much, much further indeed. At some point, even the most prosaic of us, your average Joe, will eventually wonder about how he as a human being happened to get here. It is a question not of just who birthed you, but of the vanishing line of generations, thousands of them, stretching back long, long ago into your deepest past. So, Joe asks, who is my Daddy, really?

life-of-the-long-ago-man-a-look-into-an-ancestor-of-humanity

He Who Walks; Homo Erectus

Where to begin? Let’s begin with what makes us human. Not many animals walk on two legs. But we do. I’ve seen cats hop up onto their haunches and stagger around on their back two paws. Bears do the same thing. Groundhogs can sit up, then stand up to peer over the fields. But any of these animals that go up on two legs soon come back down. They can’t maintain a two-legged posture for very long and it is rare that they do so. Their main mode of locomotion is walking on all four legs. Not so with people. We’re the only animal that walks around on two legs and do so regularly. (One could argue that birds also regularly walk on two legs. But one could also argue that birds don’t have any other limbs and most of them would rather be flying.)

So, who was the first human with fully developed walking? That would be the species Homo erectus, which means “upright man”. And he is upright because he stands on two legs. And standing on two legs, he walks on two legs, upright, not on four and hunched down. This is a major defining characteristic from other animals. It is the upright posture of Homo erectus that put his field of vision above the swaying grasses of the savannah and allowed him to see predators at a much farther distance than being down on all fours. His upright posture also freed up his hands to manipulate the environment, use tools and weapons, and to carry things.

life-of-the-long-ago-man-a-look-into-an-ancestor-of-humanity

When and Where

The species Homo erectus descended from the earlier hominid species, Homo habilis, a predecessor who was smaller in stature, smaller of brain, used extremely simple tools, and did not stand pronouncedly upright. From Homo erectus descended the species Homo heidelbergensis, and then Homo sapiens, modern humans. A species called Homo ergaster is present as well alongside erectus, which can be seen as our descendent, but Homo erectus is considered an overall classification which includes Homo ergaster, so it is still proper to say erectus is our ancestor regardless of the ergaster nomenclature. At any rate, Homo erectus existed from 1.89 million years ago to 110,000 years ago, and these various species existed alongside each other for long periods of time during their existence.

Homo erectus lived in Northern, Eastern, and Southern Africa; Western Asia (Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia); and East Asia (China and Indonesia). The species had irradiated outward quite far from its ancestors, Homo habilis, who lived exclusively in sub-Saharan Africa. It was quite the achievement, as this exodus brought the hominid species into a much vaster world than it had ever previously occupied.

life-of-the-long-ago-man-a-look-into-an-ancestor-of-humanity

The Keeper of the Flame

Fire – just the sound of the word brings images to the mind of dancing flames and a flickering glow that brings comfort and warmth. Indeed, fire has brought these things to ancient man as well. It was quite a feat in a world that had little comfort and in places where warmth was rare. It allowed our ancestors to move to colder regions of the earth. It also made cooking possible. With cooking came the preparing and storing of food for longer periods of time, which saw ancient man through times of scant game. Cooking changed the meat in a way that allowed them to more easily digest it, increasing the amount of the kind of meat already eaten and allowing them to eat what was previously inedible. This vastly increased their protein intake, which aided in thought and imagination, since brain activity requires twenty times the energy of muscle activity. Also, by heat-treating plants, they could then eat a greater variety of vegetables that had previously been indigestible. Fire gave light during the dark nights and it kept predators at bay. Fire was also a technological catalyst, making numerous processes easier. Wooden objects could be shaped and flint could be heated so that it flaked more easily. Fire is so rooted in culture that it has a symbolic significance; religion has its fire-gods and innumerable habits and rites connected with fire have been recorded, revealing its deep spiritual importance.

There are several instances where control of fire by man may have occurred in the early stages of Homo erectus’ existence. Some researchers inspected remains from Africa, Asia and Europe and claim that human fire control originated as early as 1.5 million years ago. These studies, however, rely on evidence from open-air sites where wildfires could have been started naturally. And while scorched objects were found and analyzed, the deposits surrounding them were not, meaning the burning could have taken place elsewhere and moved.

Homo erectus is the first human being proven to master fire, about 400,000 years ago. The oldest unequivocal evidence, found at Israel’s Qesem Cave, dates back 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. Also, archaeologists have discovered traces of campfires that burned 1 million years ago. Charred animal bones and ashes of plant remains were found in South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave, a site of human and early hominin habitation for 2 million years.

So, the question remains: Did Homo erectus know how to start fire on his own, or did he only use fire that happened naturally? Fire can start from the heat of decaying matted vegetation, and lightning strikes and lava flows causing bush and forest fires. Such fires could be harvested by man, carried off and kept burning elsewhere without the knowledge of how to start a fire.

Fire is not an easy subject for the archaeologist to investigate, because of the nature of the evidence. One must find certain evidence of burning, then link it with human activity. If you light a small camp-fire, different traces will be left after it has burnt down; ashes and charcoal from the wood, or other fuel; perhaps a ring of stones which you might have set up to contain the fire; perhaps soil baked by the heat of the fire; and any objects of food remains – such as broken stone cutting tools and animal bones - which you might discard. If all these were preserved, there would not be much doubt that there had been a fire, but usually only a fraction, if any, of this evidence passes into the archaeological record. Fine wood ash is easily removed by wind and rain, wood rots, bone breaks up and stones may be moved. This means that the chances of finding direct evidence of fire in archaeological excavations are quite low, especially in the case of open sites.

From explorers’ accounts of the past few centuries, it would seem that fire was universal among all primitive peoples regardless of their technological level. However, it is less certain that all peoples knew how to kindle fire, for some kept a small fire burning continuously, watched over by a person whose duty was to maintain it. Perhaps this is how it was with Homo erectus. At some point in their 1.8 million years of existence, they had learned how to kindle fire without having to wait for Nature to set something ablaze. They would have done this by grinding stones or wood together to generate the heat to set dry, thin grass and bark burning. And certainly, some sectors of human populations learned fire building before others, leaving those isolated tribes without the knowledge for thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands of years before cultural transmittance or their own ingenuity caught up. For those ancient humans who had not yet discovered how to start fire, they would have to harness the fire started by lightning strikes, rotting vegetation, and lava flows, carry it back to their settlement, and charge a single person to watch over the fire and make sure it never died out, for then the tribe would be without fire again, possibly forever. One can easily imagine that for failure of such an important task, the punishment would be death. Such a person would be a true Keeper of the Flame.

life-of-the-long-ago-man-a-look-into-an-ancestor-of-humanity

The Tools to Get the Job Done

Tools are requisite to getting some very basic tasks in life done. Homo habilis, Homo erectus’ ancestor species, could make very basic tools with their half ape-like smaller brains, but it was Homo erectus who developed the first tools that could accomplish much more essential tasks with finer, more elaborate, more task-oriented construction.

The most notorious of Early Stone Age tools is the Acheulean handaxe. Acheulean handaxes are large, chipped stone objects usually made from flint or chert. The earliest Acheulean handaxe yet found is from the Rift valley of Kenya, dating back 1.76 million years ago – relatively early in the existence of Homo erectus, which started at 1.89 million years ago. The handaxe was in use as a tool for over one and a half million years. That is quite a long time for any one tool to be used. In fact, it is the one tool that was used the longest in all of human history, which attests to how versatile and useful it was. They were used well into the beginning of the Middle Stone Age period, about 300,000–200,000 years ago. There is no consensus on their use, although its shape – stones about the size of a hand chipped and sharpened to an edge on one or both sides and a point at the end – gives itself to many functions. It has been called the Swiss Army Knife of the Stone Age. They could have been used for tasks such as digging, cutting, scraping, chopping, piercing and hammering. They could also be used to cut up a carcass and expose bone marrow, making scavenging much more efficient. It is generally thought that the crafting of the handaxe was culturally transmitted – that is, it was taught from generation to generation. But some experts believe making handaxes might actually be part of the genetic makeup of early humans, that their brains were hardwired to chip away at a rock until it takes a certain shape and to use it as a tool. An example of “genetic artifacts” is evident in birds which create species-specific nests that appear to be cultural but are actually genetic-driven (instinct).

In addition to handaxes, early humans made a wide variety of stone tools that were used for processing various plant and animal materials. They made choppers, cleavers, and hammers. They chipped flakes off rocks and used them as knives and scrapers. Homo erectus probably also made implements out of more perishable materials such as wood, bark, and even grass, which can be easily twisted together to make string and rope, but these items did not survive in the archaeological record.

life-of-the-long-ago-man-a-look-into-an-ancestor-of-humanity

What’s for Dinner?

Homo erectus individuals had taller bodies and larger brains than their Homo habilis predecessors, which required much more consistent energy to function. Eating meat and other types of protein that could be quickly digested made it possible to absorb nutrients with a shorter digestive tract, making more energy available faster. Honey and underground tubers may also have been food sources.

Homo erectus were probably advanced scavengers who augmented their diet with some predation rather than sophisticated big game hunters. Small game hunting and large animal carcass scavenging were common. They would wait until whatever predators had taken the game down had departed, then cut the remaining meat from the carcass, break the bones and skull open with their handaxes, and eat the marrow and brains. Think about that the next time you’re having your caviar and fillet mignon.

The evidence comes from late Homo erectus sites such as Zhoukoudian Cave in China where tens of thousands of fragmentary food refuse bones were found. The bones were of pigs, sheep, rhinoceros, buffalo, and deer. Other bones included those of small animals such as birds, turtles, rabbits, rodents, and fish as well as the shells of oysters, limpets, and mussels. Although some of the bones in the cave at Zhoukoudian were likely brought there by large carnivorous animals, evidence suggests that Homo erectus was using virtually every animal for food by half a million years ago, as well as harvesting wild plants. The diet of the Long Ago Man was certainly diverse.

life-of-the-long-ago-man-a-look-into-an-ancestor-of-humanity

A Place to Call Home

Homo erectus is believed to have been a primarily nomadic species. Such hunter-gatherer peoples follow the food, which means following the movement patterns of game animals. They had no agriculture, and since they did not cultivate crops, they would have to move to new areas once the food provided by the local vegetation ran out.

That being said, there is no certainty as to how long a tribe would remain at one location before venturing off for another. There may have occasions where more successful areas allowed a longer encampment, and possibly a few times when an area was so plentiful in resources that a tribe could stay there permanently. The iconic image of the caveman living in a cave comes to mind. Homo erectus did dwell in caves as evidenced by dated artifacts found in caves, but most likely they were used as a convenient shelter until the tribe had to move on. In any case, Homo erectus built temporary shelters in the open to stay in while they camped in a particular region. Such shelters included simple lean-to’s, a single angled wall propped up against a raised horizontal support, made of branches and leaves. They also built huts of various sizes.

Although the materials – wood, grass and leaves – would have deteriorated from the archaeological record long ago, the holes where the supporting posts (post holes) were lain in the ground can survive millennia. In Japan on a hillside at Chichibu, north of Tokyo, 10 post holes were discovered, forming two irregular pentagons which may be the remains of two huts. Thirty stone tools were also found scattered around the site. The site has been dated to half a million years ago and the shelter would have been built by Homo erectus. The site is the first substantial evidence from 500,000 years ago of a hut built by hominids. The building of these huts represents ancient man’s first conceptions of “inside” and “outside”, of a place to sleep, of safety from the elements. They were a place to call home for the Long Ago Man.

The Keeper of the Flame - a novel by David Halk

Comments

David Halk (author) from Pennsylvania on February 14, 2020:

Umesh, thank you very much for your kind comments.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 14, 2020:

A good sketch of the past primitive times. Excellent work. Good reading.