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This is taken from my book The Emergence and Nature of Human History, Volume One. The section of the book from which this is taken is a chronology of the emergence of consciousness. The chronology employs Carl Sagan's device of condensing the Universe's age down to one year, with the Big Bang occurring on 1 January. The section also measures time through the use of an imaginary timeline one million meters in length. In this scale of time, all of the events here began about 2 and one-half minutes ago and within 4 meters of the end of the line.

The chapter is very lengthy, so I published Part One in the middle of last night. You can find it here.

I had always wondered how modern humans came to populate the surface of the Earth. This is what I found out.

Modern Humans Settle Europe

On the other side of the eastern hemisphere anatomically modern humans pushed their way northward into Europe, once again encountering, as they had in western Asia, the Neanderthals. It was this population, Homo neanderthalensis, with whom some of the Homo sapiens would interbreed, and it was the Neanderthals whom sapiens would ultimately replace.


The correct classification of the Neanderthals continues to be a difficult issue. Since there are Neanderthal genes in the modern human genome (largely in the non-African population), the traditional definition of a species as a reproductively distinct, self-contained breeding population may need modification, as we noted. Nonetheless, the amount of Neanderthal DNA in the sapiens genome is not, according to some observers, a very significant one, and is indicative of a very low rate of interbreeding.

Many misconceptions surround the Neanderthals. In the imagination of many people, the word Neanderthal is associated with brutishness, low intelligence, and a low level of cultural achievement and social organization. This picture is unfair in many ways. The Neanderthals were a successful form of human that survived for perhaps 200,000 years in Europe, and many tens of thousands of years in the Middle East. They also may have been more culturally sophisticated than is generally known.

The average endocranial capacity of the Neanderthals was probably greater than that of sapiens, and the highest endocranial volume of any fossil human ever discovered was from a Neanderthal—1750cc. In fact, the Neanderthals may have had as large a brain capacity as any humans who have ever lived.61 Of course, sheer volume of brain tissue is not the only factor in determining intelligence, and the internal organization of the Neanderthals’ brains may have made them mentally less capable in certain ways than those of sapiens. A team of researchers examining Neanderthal brains (based on a study of the remains of both Neanderthals and sapiens representing different phases of life) has concluded that the process of brain development after birth in Neanderthals differed from that of AMH, and that AMH brains develop a characteristic shape in their developmental phase that Neanderthal brains seemed to have lacked. This developmental pattern may be indicative of AMH cognitive abilities superior to those of Neanderthals.62

Ever since the first Neanderthal specimen was identified as such in 1856, there has been extraordinary interest in their physical traits compared to ours. A German researcher has concluded on the basis of his studies that Neanderthal males averaged from 164 to 168 cm in height, and females averaged from 152 to 156 cm. While shorter than the average European adult of the 21st century, this height would have fallen into the normal range just a century ago. Further, despite the stereotype of the Neanderthal as a human with a hulking physique, this scientist contends that the Body Mass Index of Neanderthals was apparently not much different from that of modern North Americans. The Neanderthals seem to have evolved in a such a way that they were well-adapted to cold weather.63

Other researchers contend that Neanderthals indeed exhibited a “barrel-chested” physique, and that they were probably more muscular than AMH. Some of the features of the feet suggest adaptation to long migratory excursions. Neanderthal legs and arms may have been shorter than AMH, and their noses may have been prominent. The most obvious differences between Neanderthals and AMH are found in the skull, which differed in both size and shape from ours. [Neanderthal skulls, for example, possessed a very prominent occipital bun, a protrusion at the back of the skull.] Neanderthals also had notably larger incisors than AMH.64

Naturally, we cannot know the internal consciousness of the Neanderthals, but there are perhaps aspects of their intellectual abilities we can infer. A crucial question concerns the ability of Neanderthals to speak. The major physical prerequisites of speech are:

1.  Possession of the FOXP2 gene, a transcription factor (regulatory gene) that appears to express itself in brain regions involved in spoken language,65 and the specific brain regions themselves, which function as a synergistic system. [We will discuss this much more in a subsequent volume.]

2. Possession of a hyoid bone of the right configuration. The hyoid bone anchors the tongue and enables the tongue to work in conjunction with the larynx. (It is the only bone not connected to any other bones.) Anatomically, its position in humans is indispensable to our ability to speak.

Did Neanderthals possess the FOXP2 gene? A team of researchers who examined DNA extracted from two Neanderthal specimens found in Spain has concluded that

…the current results show that the Neandertals carried a FOXP2 protein that was identical to that of present-day humans in the only two positions that differ between human and chimpanzee. Leaving out the unlikely scenario of gene flow, [perhaps not unlikely in light of recent genome analysis] this establishes that these changes were present in the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals. The date of the emergence of these genetic changes therefore must be older than that estimated with only extant human diversity data, thus demonstrating the utility of direct evidence from Neandertal DNA sequences for understanding recent modern human evolution.66
However, other investigators argue that the results of the research indicating Neanderthal FOXP2 genes are not conclusive, since contamination by modern mtDNA during the assessment of the Neanderthal DNA cannot be ruled out.67

In regard to the possession of a hyoid bone, a major discovery was made at Kebara Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel, in 1983 and announced in 1989. It was a hyoid bone from a Neanderthal skeleton, 60,000 years in age, and indistinguishable from that of an AMH. The team of researchers announcing the find stated it could be inferred, on the basis of this hyoid bone, that the Neanderthals of that era possessed the same kind of larynx typical of AMH, and that therefore Neanderthals were capable of spoken language.68 The issue has not been conclusively settled, but there is a real possibility that the Neanderthals possessed spoken language, and hence the ability to communicate in such a way that complex cultural transmission was possible.

It also appears that Neanderthals may have displayed abilities in the symbolic/artistic realm as well. What may have been the first known Neanderthal cave paintings have been discovered at Malaga, Spain. The artwork has been tentatively dated at between 43,500-42,300 ybp. If the pigments used are of the same age, it would tend to confirm that the images were indeed the work of Neanderthals. This would indicate that the Neanderthals may have possessed symbolic capabilities, something that has previously been thought highly unlikely.69

Neanderthals are generally associated with the Mousterian tool-making tradition of the Middle Paleolithic Era, specifically with the use of the Levallois technique for making sharp-edged flake tools. A pair of researchers investigating this phenomenon has concluded that the size and weight of these tools was calculated and engineered (their term) ahead of time by Neanderthals, indicative of an effective long-term working memory. If this research is borne out, it may demonstrate that Neanderthals had greater cognitive abilities than once believed.70 Neanderthals were effective hunters, apparently with some knowledge of how to preserve meat, had command of fire, and seemed to have clothing sufficient for survival in European winters (although it may not have been adequate in the increasingly frigid conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum’s early stages.)71 Neanderthals adorned themselves with shells, and may even have conceived of the existence of an afterlife. (See below.) The picture that emerges is not one of a group of crude, ignorant savages without culture or the capacity for learning. It is rather one of a capable species that survived for many millennia in often-trying conditions. The Neanderthals were a different breed of human, not a markedly inferior one.

There appear to have been three distinct Neanderthal groups: a west European population, a southern European population, and a western Asia population. Neanderthals are believed to have lived as far east as south central Siberia. They are thought to have lived at various times throughout the mainland of Europe [including parts of Britain and Scandinavia]. Their populations were small, sometimes very much so. There are no reliable numbers on Neanderthal populations, but some regions might have had just a few thousand at any given time, and it seems doubtful that there were more than 200,000 alive in total during any period of their existence.72

The extinction of the Neanderthals was abrupt (in geological terms). They seem to have been completely gone from the European landscape by 30,000 ybp, [although relict populations may have survived in marginal ecological niches]. There are no shortages of hypotheses concerning their demise. They may have been out-reproduced by sapiens. AMH might have had superior forms of social organization. Interestingly, it is thought by some scientists that the Neanderthals disappeared during a period of climatic stress, done in by the superior ability of sapiens to gather scarce resources. Or they may even have vanished in most areas before AMH became widespread.73 Whatever the cause of their demise, their successors were now ready to claim possession of the European continent.


Both genetic and archeological evidence have been used to trace the routes of modern humans into Europe. In 2004 an archaeologist at Cambridge University established a chronology of the earliest sapiens settlements on the continent. (All dates are in radiocarbon years, which may understate the number of actual calendar years.) In his view, AMH was in the Balkans by 43-40,000 ybp, into what is now southern Ukraine by 37,000 ybp, in northern and central Italy by 37-38,000 ybp, into the area that is now northern France/the Low Countries by 38,000 ybp, and into southern France and northern Spain by 36,000 ybp. He based his assessment on the kinds of tools found at various sites, namely the Aurignacian technologies not possessed by Neanderthals.74

But this chronology may need some revision. In 2011 it was announced that fragmentary AMH remains from the Kent’s Cavern site in the UK had been dated at about 44-41,000 ybp. Further, at the same time, it was announced that molars found in southern Italy’s Grotta del Cavallo and originally classified as Neanderthal were, upon further analysis, found to be AMH and dated from 45-43,000 ybp, the oldest AMH remains yet discovered in Europe.75

Although modern humans might have been few in number during their initial colonization of Europe, their command of symbols and spoken language were probably strong advantages. They seemed to have had the ability to create increasingly innovative technology. Their command of symbolism may have been crucial in the formation of complex social relationships as well, and their ability to organize activities because of this command probably helped their rapid spread throughout the continent. (See below.) Further, they had the ability to exploit a wide range of animal life in their hunting activities.76

Most of the sapiens (perhaps all) who lived in those areas of Europe most severely affected by the increasingly harsh cold of the Last Glacial Maximum were forced out. Certainly no humans could have live in the glaciated zones themselves. But a remnant of European sapiens survived in Spain, southern France, parts of Ukraine, and perhaps other regions of southern Europe. With the recession of the glaciers, the repopulation of central and northern Europe began. It was chiefly from its refuges in southwestern Europe that sapiens began its second wave of settlement. A sweeping genetic study has revealed that the major repopulation of the continent had begun by 16,000 ybp.77 (By the way, the term Cro-Magnon was used for many years to describe the European sapiens population, but it is no longer employed by paleoanthropologists. Cro-Magnons were simply AMH.)

Modern Humans Reach Japan

Although researchers use the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic in regard to Japan, a somewhat different periodization scheme is often used for the prehistory of that archipelago. The earliest time is called the Pre-ceramic era, literally the time before pottery was invented, a period that goes back more than 30,000 years. Next was the Jomon period, the culture that saw the rise of pottery making in Japan (see below), a time that goes back more than 13,000 years, and an era marked by dependence on hunting, gathering, and fishing. Then came the Yayoi period, marked by the beginning of extensive agriculture and metal tools. Finally, there arose the Kofun period, which was marked by distinctive forms of burial mounds.78

The genetic origin of the people who shaped these cultures has been a subject of intense research and debate. A study published in 2006 presented evidence that the Japanese population comes from two different sources. The first was a group of hunter-gatherers from central Asia that must, according to the study’s authors,  have come to Japan before the last of the land bridges with the mainland of Asia was submerged by the recession of the last glacial maximum. It was these people, they contend, who ultimately gave rise to the Jomon culture. The second, much more recent (within historical times in the West) was a group of rice cultivators, originating in southeast Asia, that spread to the Korean peninsula and Japan. It was this group, the study’s authors contend, that established the Yayoi culture.79  

But in 2009 another study of the Japanese genome contradicted this dual-origin hypothesis. Based on mitochondrial, Y chromosomal, and autosomal DNA analysis, the researcher behind this study argues that the modern Japanese are all descended from a group of humans that lived in the region of Lake Baikal in what is now eastern Russia. According to this research, all of the chief Japanese populations (the dominant Japanese of the four main islands, the Ainu, and the Okinawans) share this common descent, and the argument that there is a dual origin of the Japanese cannot be supported.80

Recently, archeological research has put the chronology of AMH occupation of Japan on a firmer footing. The evidence, in the form of tools, seems to indicate that the earliest Homo sapiens settlement in Japan was established around 38,000 ybp. Numerous Upper Paleolithic sites have been discovered, primarily on the island of Honshu. The earliest AMH settlers in the Japanese islands evidently developed a stone tool industry that produced a distinctive style of edge-ground axes. These axes apparently were used to fell trees and do general wood working. This axe-making industry may have lasted until 32,000 ybp. The first Japanese also learned to work with obsidian, which could only be obtained on an island lying off the coast of central Honshu. Coupled with the fact that there was no land bridge between Japan and mainland Asia 38,000 years ago, this means that the first settlers must have known how to construct watercraft.81 These first settlers may have been the Ainu, believed to have been Japan’s first AMH inhabitants.

The most important fossil specimens of AMH in the Japanese islands are known as the Minatogawa hominins, discovered on Okinawa. Representing at least five individuals, they have been dated at between 18,000 and 16,000 ybp. Fragmentary hominin specimens from Hamakita City, on Honshu, are the oldest AMH remains on the four main islands, dated at about 14,000 ybp.  Further, there appears to have been an extensive stone tool industry in the central region of Honshu, and on the island of Kyushu, dated at between 30,000 and 35,000 ybp. A very important site in northeastern Honshu, Kanedori, is the oldest repository of tools in Japan. It is marked by six distinct levels, the oldest of which may be 50,000 years old. Its tools range from simple flakes to Jomon pottery. The site clearly demonstrates the cultural evolution of the ancient Japanese. [The first tools there were almost certainly manufactured by pre-modern hominins.] The oldest tools are strongly similar to those manufactured at the time in northeastern China.82

Finally, the Japanese of the Jomon period are associated with an enormously significant cultural development: the use of pottery. The spread of pottery follows the spread of cultivation, and was a phenomenon that was associated with the last glacial recession period. At one time it was thought that the Japanese were the first people to have made pottery, but now it appears that pottery making was widespread in Upper Paleolithic northeastern Asia. The oldest Jomon pots are at least 13,500 years old, and there may be examples more than 16,000 years old. Pottery making in Japan appears to have begun in Kyushu and worked its way north.83

Modern Humans in the Western Hemisphere

Humans have never adapted to a harsher and more challenging environment than that of northeastern Siberia. By no later than 30,000 ybp, there appear to have been sapiens groups scattered in various parts of that forbidding land. Surprisingly, most of Siberia was not glaciated during the Last Glacial Maximum (perhaps because of the relative lack of snow mass compared to other regions). The reduction in sea level during the LGM exposed a great deal of land that would ordinarily be submerged, creating a physical connection between far northeastern Asia and far northwestern North America, one that was often passable. The region that was created by these unusual conditions is called Beringia by those who study it. It was from the population of Beringia that the migration of sapiens into the Americas originated.

Recent genetic studies suggest the size of the breeding population that produced the native sapiens of the western hemisphere—the Amerind peoples, as paleontologists often refer to them—was not large. The native Americans may have derived from an Asian breeding population as small as 70 individuals, although this is certainly not a hard and fast number. Further, the genetic data do not tell us the exact era in which this founding population lived.84 The best information we have points to a single population in central Asia as having been ancestral to the Native Americans, and it is significant that every native population that has been sampled, from the far north to Brazil, shares an allele not found in any population in the eastern hemisphere except two tribes in far eastern Siberia. Most estimates of the date around which the migration from western to eastern Beringia occurred fall between 20,000 and 15,000 ybp.85

The earliest hard evidence we have  of human occupation in eastern Beringia dates from about 14,000 to about 12,000 ybp, from what is known as the Swan Point cultural zone of Alaska. After that come the specimens recovered from an Alaskan region given the overall name of the Nenana Complex, a number of different sites that appear to be from the same cultural tradition. The Nenana Complex dates to around 12,000 ybp. Animal remains found at these sites indicate that these Paleoindians  were effective hunters of big game (especially bison and reindeer) and very capable fishermen. Tools made out of a variety of local stone materials have been uncovered. The tool most commonly found is a bifacial, triangular-shaped spear point. Knives, scrapers, choppers, and microblades (very small, narrow stone blades) are present at these sites as well, among many other types of lithic technology. Additionally, needles and spear points made out of bone have been recovered. Slightly younger Alaskan sites are part of what is called the Denali Complex (the most recent of which is dated to 9000 ybp) and a wide variety of tools, including microblades, has been recovered from them.86

A massive database has been constructed that gives the radiocarbon age of more than 1200 Native American archeological sites/specimens in North America, primarily in what is now the United States. Sites more than 10,000 years old have been found in Wyoming, Montana, North Carolina, Missouri, Texas, and Ohio, among others.87 The technology that was used by such Amerind groups is usually labeled with the term Clovis (after a place in New Mexico where tools characteristic of it were first found),  and we speak of the Clovis tool-making and hunting traditions. At one time the Clovis cultures were considered the first ones in the Americas, but discoveries in recent years have cast doubt on this proposition. There is also evidence that many Paleoindians may have inflicted fatal damage to their tribal groups through the over-hunting of the big game found in North America.

Starting from Alaska, Paleoindians appear to have spread southward both through the enormously wide center of North America and along the Pacific coast. They fanned out into Mexico, where some of the earliest signs of habitation are from Pueblo and Valsequillo. There is also evidence of big game hunters in Mesoamerica, perhaps as early as 13,000 ybp, and they may have caused the extinction of the horse in the western hemisphere by 9000 ybp.88 From Mexico and Central America some Paleoindians continued to push southward. In South America, there is strong evidence of human habitation in northeast Venezuela by 7000 ybp.89 Human remains from Sao Paulo state in Brazil have been reliably dated at almost 10,000 ybp.90 There may also have been humans in northern Patagonia as early as 10,000 ybp, but the evidence is somewhat tenuous. Evidence of humans capable of exploiting marine animal resources has been found in Tierra del Fuego and dated to perhaps 7000 ybp, although there is some evidence of earlier human habitation in the region, perhaps as early as 10,000 ybp.91

The picture has been complicated by the controversy surrounding the Pedra Furada site in eastern Brazil. Claims of human habitation dating back close to 50,000 years have been made for this site. It should be noted that the sole evidence supporting the claim of human habitation of great antiquity rests on charcoal recovered from the site, as well as stone cobbles purported to be of human manufacture (but which are quite possibly natural). The oldest reliable evidence of human habitation in the area is about 10,000 years old, but certain researchers claim the charcoal and cobble evidence is solid. As of this writing (2012), the issue is not settled, but Pedra Furada could re-write the history of pre-Columbian America.92

So the journey that had begun in the caves of South Africa and the plains of Ethiopia had finally brought sapiens to every landmass outside of Antarctica and the islands of the central Pacific. We now need to turn to the factor that had given sapiens perhaps its greatest advantage during this journey: an unrivaled command of symbolism.

Symbolism and the Significance of Language

In order to survive in the world, an animal needs information about both the environment around it and its internal status. Humans tend to define information as something spoken or written, but the term is actually much broader than that. As we saw earlier, the evolution of the nervous system came about because living things needed some way of sensing their surroundings, and those that could do so survived better than those that couldn’t. As the primates evolved, and as primates with more and more elaborate nervous systems came to be in the world, the definition of information grew broader and deeper. The gestural repertoire of primates allowed them to form hierarchies and social groupings more elaborate than those of any other animals. The evolution of the advanced prefrontal cortex and centers of the brain increasingly capable of categorizing various external phenomena, and the evolution of a vocal apparatus that permitted unprecedented flexibility in the making of sounds, tended to reinforce each other in a synergistic way. There now existed an animal capable of true language. Language is a conscious act. In language, sounds have specific meanings and perform specific functions (such as naming things). In a language these sounds are arranged in a particular way in order to effect communication. The emergence of true language, perhaps first in the late forms of erectus, but most highly in the advanced forms of sapiens, would revolutionize the world.

We will look at the emergence of language in much greater detail in a subsequent volume, but we cannot pass over the subject when examining the nature of Upper Paleolithic culture. When we speak of a culture, a way of life handed down through time and space, we are discussing a phenomenon that rests overwhelmingly on language. The essence of culture is the ability to not only perceive the world but to A. communicate one’s response to that perception to others and B. be exposed to others’ response to their perception. (I say “response to perception” because we cannot truly convey the fullness of our internal perception to another human—a crucially important point.) As we noted in the first section of this book, the sole factor that prevents the complete existential isolation of a human is the ability to communicate. The inability to communicate, as in the case of individuals suffering from aphasia, cuts a human off from others in a way nothing else can. In a sense, it is worse than banishment or forced physical isolation. In such a situation one can be surrounded by other humans and be just as out of touch with them as if one were in solitary confinement. It can be argued that the greatest consequence of the emergence of human consciousness was the increasing ability to break the bounds of existential isolation.

The non-human animals, of course, have their own ways of communicating with each other, such as scent, color, or threat display. We must imagine that the primates of the late Oligocene Epoch or the early Miocene Epoch that ultimately gave rise to the genus Homo were able to convey meaning to each other, but the methods by which meaning was conveyed must have been very basic and very broad—loud, simian vocalizations, the baring of teeth, spontaneous displays of physical affection and so on. Natural selection favored those primates who were able to survive more effectively because of their use of these methods, but the evolution of complex interpersonal communication was apparently agonizingly slow.

Increasingly large, internally complex brains were the product of both the continuous, unconscious “trial-and-error” processes of genetics and the ability of such brains to interact with the outside world in such a way that this genetic tendency was reinforced. The interactivity of the advanced hominid brain with the physical world in which it was located, mediated by the senses, established a complicated web of feedback loops that “rewarded” certain tendencies, “punished” others, and “ignored” many more. The centers of the brain involved with the ability to generate and understand symbolism were among those “rewarded”. What do we mean by symbolism?

Symbolism is a way of representing some aspect of reality in concrete form, a representation that communicates, or expresses a response to, some aspect of that reality.  In itself, in its raw, experienced form, human-perceived reality is tremendously diverse in its manifestations, overwhelming in the thoroughness with which it engulfs human consciousness, and oftentimes mysterious in its origins and ultimate nature. This raw experience elicits emotional responses in most humans, the nature of which they do not usually fully understand (in my view). This raw experience of reality also raises in most AMH brains the desire to—

1.  simply say something about it or
2.  explain it or
3.  convey information about it to someone else or
4.  ask or demand to have an object on the basis of that perceived reality or
5.  suggest or demand a course of action to others on the basis of that perceived reality or
6.  put a human need into some form that others can understand.

In short, most AMH brains seem to need some way of grabbing a piece of reality and holding on to it. The AMH brain generates this need. The AMH brain also attempts to meet the very need it has generated. In my view, both the generation of the need and the means by which this need is met are not well understood by the brain that is doing both of these things, often simultaneously.

In its earliest form, the use of symbolism was probably meant as an expression of sheer feeling, or a celebration of something in the external environment that humans found to be beautiful and stirring, or a simple visual representation of some object or event in the external environment, or—most significantly—an expression of something which the human had imagined, something in his or her own brain that they needed to show to others. But the AMH brain made possible another way in which to grab and express reality: words. Words are a particularly important form of symbol. What do we mean by symbol in this context? We mean--

-- sounds, pictures, or various abstract lines and curves used to refer to an object, even if that object is not physically present. The persistent use of the same sounds to refer to particular objects causes those sounds to become symbols, and those spoken symbols and the object to which they are referring come to be associated with each other. It is by this means that nouns come into existence. When writing evolves, the written symbol represents the sound associated with the noun. (Of course, this association of written symbol and sound is true with every part of speech.)

-- sounds, pictures, or various abstract lines and curves used to suggest, demand, or implore others to take a physical action of some sort, or to refer to a physical action that others have taken or which has occurred in the natural environment even if that action is not occurring at the present moment. Again, the regular use of certain sounds to refer to such actions causes them to be associated with each other. In this way verbs come into existence. (It is my assumption that nouns and verbs were the first parts of speech to emerge.)

-- sounds, pictures, or various abstract lines and curves used to describe objects or actions, or make a judgment about their desirability, usefulness, effectiveness, causation, or lack thereof. Objects have shape, number, dimensions, weight, color(s), effects on other objects, effects on sentient beings, and proportions in relationship to other objects. They exist (or existed) in a specific place and during a specific time. They have a physical relationship to other objects (they are on them, near them, under them, between them, and so on). Symbols can describe such qualities and relationships, or be used to react to them in some way. Actions take place in space and time. They have effects, ranging from negligible to profound, on the objects or sentient beings either in proximity to them at the time of their occurrence, or after their occurrence. They exist in relation to other actions. They are caused by specific events, either volitional or unintended. These actions can be described, assessed, and judged through the use of symbols. In this way, by the assessment of objects and actions, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions come into existence.

-- sounds, pictures, or various abstract lines and curves that are used to refer to one’s self (I) or other individuals (he, she) by something other than a personal designation (such as a name), or to refer to a group of persons of which the individual may be a part (we, us) or to refer to a group of persons of which the individual is not a part (they, them). These symbols can also be used to refer to an inanimate object or to actions of various kinds (it). The use of symbols for these purposes establishes a sort of “shorthand” that allows humans to refer to themselves, others, objects, actions, or to groups of various sizes in such a way so as to obviate the need to designate all these individuals, objects, or actions by name. Such symbols are enormously significant. They are used to convey the deeply felt human emotions of us vs. them, or to allow humans to sweepingly (and often misleadingly) lump every member of a human group into a common category. They permit humans to pose questions in which people, objects, or actions are referred to by such terms as which or who. They permit humans to express possession of an object or responsibility for an action (my, mine, ours, theirs).  It is by the use of symbols in such ways that pronouns come to exist.

The ways in which nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, and pronouns can be used are extremely variable. Further, symbols can be used to link other symbols together (conjunctions), or designate particular objects or actions (articles), although there are languages that lack articles, or have no way of expressing the present tense of the verb to be, or which lack certain kinds of descriptors.  But it was the emergence of words, first as spoken symbols and later as ones drawn or written on a surface of some sort, that gave rise to the sentence, a compact expression of communication.

Sentences in turn rest on syntax—the arrangement of words within a sentence, an arrangement that in itself communicates in a certain way. It is through the use of sentences that larger bodies of meaning can be communicated. Sentences used in conjunction with other sentences allow the emergence of narratives, fictional or non-fictional accounts of reality. Sentences are the basis of paragraphs, which in turn are elements of longer forms of communication. As humans gained more and more ability to use and understand spoken symbols, their ability to survive in an often terrifying and dangerous world was enormously enhanced. Facility with words was a selective advantage. Language also altered the internal life of the mind as well: it was now possible to think in words and reflect on the self in verbal terms.

It is through the use of symbols that humans can communicate a state of being experienced within their brains, or a state of being that once existed, or a reaction to the outside world, or a desire or a complaint or an emotional expression or an idea or a statement of fact or opinion. Symbols allow humans to give other humans a way of understanding what is going on in the mind of the human initiating the communication. Primates have a general tendency to stick together in groups. Spoken language allowed a level of interpersonal communication within groups that was without precedent in the primate world. It made possible greater specificity and precision of communication. Many primates exhibit social behaviors. Spoken language now permitted forms of social behavior far more complicated than any ape or monkey could possibly experience. Reality could now be discussed. The conversation became possible. Spoken language established interpersonal relationships of great complexity. It allowed a level of organization to emerge that had hitherto been unknown in the animal kingdom. It permitted the formulation and expression of rules governing human conduct or setting the terms of interpersonal interaction. It was truly the basis of human culture, that which made possible the ability to learn from the experience of others, beyond that learning gleaned from personal observation or imitation. Any chimpanzee, gorilla, or baboon can imitate that which it sees. Only humans can learn from people they have never met.

Spoken language allowed humans to absorb the customs and traditions particular to their group. It allowed humans to know something about the humans who had lived before them. It would, eventually, help humans create the concept of history, an account of the world as it had once been, an account which became possible only when the events of the past could be remembered  and expressed through language. The evolution of the sapiens brain gave rise to the ability to use complex language. In turn, it was through spoken language that the modern human social-cultural world came to exist.

But spoken language carried its own pitfalls. Words can mean different things to different people. Some people are less adept than others at conveying meaning clearly or accurately. Language can be misunderstood. Different groups evolve their own languages, a phenomenon that can divide people from each other deeply. Language can be used to deceive, deliberately confuse, or trick other humans. Language can cause emotional reactions or resentments entirely unintended by the persons using it. Some feelings or ideas cannot be expressed very well (or even at all) in language. In my view, many of our problems can be traced to the fact that all language is approximate. It is never an exact expression of meaning. Even the simplest act of communication can be surrounded by ambiguity. Language was an enormously important human advantage—but it was also a phenomenon the disruptive power of which was not very well understood at first. It wasn’t simply a method of communication—it was a way of communicating error.

The Culture of the Upper Paleolithic World

By 30,000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens, true modern humans, were now the only variety of human left in existence, save for some possible relict populations. Their cultural achievements in the period 40,000 to 10,000 ybp are sometimes called The Upper Paleolithic Revolution, but like most uses of the term “revolution” to describe changes in the human world, the term is misleading. By the standards of the deep human past, when changes took tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years to unfold, human progress during this time was indeed rapid. But by our standards, it was incredibly slow. Anthropologists speak of changes during the Upper Paleolithic as having happened in “only” a few thousand or “only “ a few hundred years. Few people in the modern world would see a change that began in the year 1000 BCE and was completed today as “only” having taken 3,000 years. So the terms “revolution” or “rapid” are highly relative ones.

The materials in the human tool kit now included wood, stone, animal bone, and antlers, and one marvels today at the hooks, needles, burins (chisels), spear points, and other tools humans fashioned from these materials. In fact, it is the high degree of standardization in tool making that impresses so many of those doing research on the Upper Paleolithic. Moreover, there is evidence of the earliest long-distance trade in this era, as materials were often exchanged over hundreds of kilometers. In the Upper Paleolithic we see the first evidence of deliberate storage (such as underground freezing in cold climates to preserve food). Hearths used for both cooking and warmth were now commonplace. There is evidence that sapiens now understood how to organize space with a degree of efficiency hitherto unknown, and many sites with specialized areas for sleeping, butchering, and other functions have been uncovered. Humans were effective at obtaining the nutrients and calories they needed to fuel their metabolic processes, facilitated by the efficient hunting tools they commanded. They not only could make clothing to shield themselves from the elements, but they decorated themselves in distinctive ways. In short, the humans of the Upper Paleolithic were beginning to show “modern” forms of social organization, and even group identity.93  

In the Upper Paleolithic, key synergies were now operating throughout the world. Human achievements set the stage for greater human achievements. Humans brought seemingly disparate elements  together to form new kinds of objects and carry out new kinds of actions Advanced brains filled with significant amounts of culturally acquired information and skill sets were able to take advantage of the biological inheritances of upright posture, excellent, three-dimensional, chromatic vision, and highly agile hands to a degree that had never been experienced before. As a result, cultural innovations reached a state of critical mass. Symbolic expression was firmly established. Truly effective technologies now made possible a level of mastery over the world that no Homo erectus or Homo ergaster could have commanded. Ways of organizing human work more effectively than ever before had been devised. There were now sufficient numbers of sophisticated, linguistically capable brains interacting with each other to allow for the emergence of societies and cultures that exhibited unprecedented features. Ways of life  that could never have existed before were now a reality. The power of humans working together in organized groups now acted to allow Homo sapiens to survive in almost every  type of physical setting. It was a watershed in the history of the tiny little world orbiting the above-average size star. The energy-matter that had become self-aware now had an effective set of means by which to perpetuate its own existence.

The Emergence of Group Identity and Normative Thinking

Modern humans were now ensconced all over the world, in some cases more than 10,000 kilometers from their point of origin in southern and eastern Africa. Their journey had taken at least 600 centuries, perhaps more. Most importantly, from the standpoint of human development, the scattered groups of sapiens were often physically isolated from each other in a way difficult for modern humans to grasp. Travel across the surface of the planet was arduous, to say the least, and horses were not fully domesticated until about 5,500 years ago. Humans traveled by foot or by boat. What we would call a routine trip they rightly considered an epic journey.

The world ocean was an enormous, seemingly insuperable barrier to most of the humans who knew of it, cutting whole continents off from each other. In Africa, the northern region, which at times was verdant from rainfall, went through one of its periodic episodes of desiccation, and by 5,000 ybp had become the Sahara Desert, effectively separating the people of central and southern Africa from the outside world. In east Asia, the Himalayas stood like a fortress between that region and south Asia, if not quite an impenetrable one, still one formidable enough to hold back all but the most intrepid. Huge swaths of jungle in central Africa, southeast Asia, Central America, and Amazonia created different kinds of barriers, ones guarded by disease as well as dense vegetation. Throughout Europe, multiple spines of mountains cut through the continent. A huge, open plains region swept from central Siberia to the Atlantic Ocean, but its vastness was itself a barrier, and it was interlaced with countless rivers. Desert land isolated China to the north and northwest. The immense mountain chains in the western regions of the Americas divided continents and sheltered groups of humans. Everywhere humans occupied valleys, forest clearings, natural harbors, mountain sides, and oases. Cut off by distance, disease, and geographical barriers from other humans, they everywhere came to believe that the whole world looked like whatever place they happened to live in.

Deeply affected by the distribution of ultraviolet rays across the Earth’s latitudes, and adapted to a variety of climates, humans had varied skin and eye and hair colors, varied facial features, and varied physical statures. And, unfamiliar with the full scope of this variety, humans everywhere came to believe that everyone looked the way they did.

Wherever they lived, humans learned to eat whatever was available. They developed sounds to describe objects and actions, sounds that were their own invention or sounds taken from neighboring groups and modified. They conceived of ghosts, ancestor spirits, and other occupants of the unseen world, spirits unique to their group and concerned only with that group. They developed rules to govern the behavior of the group’s members, established taboos, demanded conformity. They responded to the world around them in distinct art, and they established their own aesthetic standards. They came to believe that everyone ate what they ate, spoke in the way they spoke, believed what they believed, thought of right and wrong in the same way, and defined beauty in the same manner. In short, each of the groups in the already-diverse human community had developed norms, and they came to see their way of life as “normal”, the standard by which any way of life should be judged. I do not wish to speak too generally; there may have been people who suspected that others, different from themselves, were “out there” somewhere, or that other lands sheltered different kinds of humans. But the evidence is powerful and persuasive: humans by 5,000 ybp had developed distinct cultures which they generally believed to be the “right” way to live. Humans had no concept of the Earth’s true size or its diverse physical features. They came largely to define the world as “us and our neighbors”. The establishment of normative thinking in the latter part of the prehistoric era set the stage for much of the human conflict that was to engulf so many in the centuries to come. The very flexibility and inventiveness made possible by the AMH brain also made possible the barriers that humans were to set between their own groups and all others.

The Last Minute Before the Historical Era

On our time scale, which condenses the Universe’s history into one year, a single minute is about 26,000 years long. In that minute, from about 31,000 to 5,000 ybp, Homo sapiens sapiens became the sole possessor of advanced consciousness on the planet Earth. The AMH brain created new realities and explored new possibilities. We will, in the volumes to come, examine how what was created in this minute laid the basis for the world we inherited. We will examine how humans brought a variety of other animals under human control. We will see how the grasses of the Middle East, eastern Asia, and elsewhere were systematically cultivated, and the immense changes in human life this brought about. We will look at the pre-agricultural settlements that sprouted up in scattered areas, and then watch as the commitment to farming tied humans to specific places. Then we will note the increasing, synergistically-driven technological breakthroughs—metallurgy, irrigation, and in some places, the wheel—and witness how each one both expanded the realm of human possibility and initiated multitudinous chains of unintended consequences. We will see humans learn the ways of war. We will see the first true cities beginning to take shape in Mesopotamia, in south Asia, in northern China, and elsewhere as humanity began its transition from rural to urban life. We will see the rise of the gods, the temples, the priests, and the faiths. And finally, we will witness the transition from the oral tradition to one of the most profoundly important developments in our entire experience—the advent of ways to store information outside of our heads. With those ways was born the external brain—the written record.

By 5,000 years before the present, the primates whose ancestors had arisen uncounted millions of years before in southern, central, and eastern Africa now stood on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, on the banks of the Ganges River, and in the Ituri rain forest. They were cultivating rice in the Yangtze River valley, forging metal in the Balkans, and hunting the herds of animals that roamed through the open land in the middle of North America. They were carving out ways of life in the Amazon basin, learning to survive in the Australian outback, and beginning to build elaborate tombs in northern Egypt. Crucial synergies continued to gather momentum, unnoticed by those immersed in them. Not every area of the planet had been reached by Homo sapiens sapiens by the time some humans were beginning to use written expressions. The Hawaiian islands, to cite one example, still lay undiscovered in the middle of the Pacific, as they would for several thousand more years. Nor was every region of the great continental landmasses, by any means, yet the scene of the expanding human drama.

But advanced consciousness was now widely established on the little world. Each of its possessors was, in effect, carrying an entire universe inside of their heads, a universe constructed out of nerve cells, blood, and neurotransmitters. Probably none of them knew its true dimensions. And there was no way the bearers of consciousness could have foreseen the fantastically complex, convoluted, utterly unpredictable story that consciousness was about to help write in the next 50 centuries.

In terms of our condensed 365 day history of the Universe, it had taken unconscious energy-matter and space-time 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 49 seconds to produce this outcome.  


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Originally posted to Yosef 52 on Fri Jun 21, 2013 at 11:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Extraterrestrial Anthropologists.

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