Engines of Change
Lord of the Hrungs
Editor Simon Denison
Like all archaeologists, those studying the 5 million years before the last Ice Age have to extrapolate their ideas from the rather unpromising evidence of what has survived - in their case basically bones and tools.
But there's one big difference in that early-period archaeologists don't appear to need any research aims since they only have the one question - How did Homo erectus become Homo sapiens, and how did Homo sapiens get like us? If this focus on our becoming rather than our being was applied to recent archaeology it would mean going through prehistory looking for evidence of the toga, the Roman period looking for ship-burials, or the Middle Ages looking for the development of the pop-up toaster.
But back in million-year archaeology it's all a question of evolution: How did we get on our legs, how did we get into banqueting on meat, how did we start the travel business? The emphasis is on inventions and on the expansion of our brains so that we can make better inventions. The million years between 2.5 and 1.5 million years ago is dismissed because nothing happened, ie, there were no new tools or different shaped skulls - a depressing rejection of the period if you happen to have lived in it.
The basic structure is that the last 5 million years have been spent in making a journey from our being animals to being humans. But there's something wrong with the definitions of the two termini here. The animals we come from are made out to have been a dire lot - wholly occupied with eating each other. Yet anyone who has a pet must be aware that there's more to them than that (OK, omit goldfish), while the apes from which we have descended have all sorts of social traits in the wild that don't seem to figure in the archaeologist's view.
At the other end of the journey each one of us must have a little trouble identifying ourselves with the fully human person Homo erectus was aiming for. Studying the ascent of man makes me feel I'm a poor representative of all that hard work by my predecessors, since I'm uncertain, indecisive, cowardly, and poor at solving problems like how to open sandwich packs in service stations. It seems that the person all those apes, ape/humans, and then humans were intent on becoming wasn't me - was it you?
This supposed journey from thick to intelligent, from stupid to inventive, from fearful to brave, from staying timidly put to booking those continental breaks, is really very unconvincing when seen from the point of view of the fascination of animal life compared with the tedious awfulness of human life - look at bird migration and contrast it with the morning journey on the Underground.
There are a couple of other problems. The first one is that early-period archaeologists seem rather eager to go beyond the evidence of bones and tools. For example, on the basis of a few crushed skulls they speculate that we got where we are now by developing a spirit of competition (ie, hate) - an idea given graphic form in the film 2001:A Space Odyssey. But isn't it just as possible that over all those years we were developing the ability to love as much as hate? Early prehistory is basically seen very much as a man's world which is only half the story.
The second one is that there's surely more going on in our brains than problem-solving. The rational human being that early archaeologists are using as a model was disposed of in the late 19th century by Freud, who suggested that most head space was taken up with the unconscious. Now, we realise, we are a species that ought to be defined by its unconscious rather than its usually dull and uninteresting self-awareness (read most autobiographies).
The thing is that at the end of the Great Ascent of Man, our dreams are usually not about how we are going to leap off into the cosmos, but about something much more mundane and neurotic - such as suddenly finding ourselves making an impromptu speech to a vast crowd on the subject of early man, and finding that there is really nothing very interesting to say.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005