Today’s selection — from This Fleeting World
by David Christian. We have always grasped to define what characteristic it is, if anything, that distinguishes humans so markedly from other species. Attempted answers to this question have included our use of tools, our brain size, our bipedalism, but as our study of other species has become more sophisticated, those answers have proven inadequate. Our current answer is our use of symbolic language. The first evidence of this characteristic is from 200,000 to 300,000 years ago — which may be the point at which the species of humans as we know them began to emerge:
“At the moment, the most powerful marker, the feature that distinguishes our species most decisively from closely related species, appears to be symbolic language. Many animals can communicate with each other and share information in rudimentary ways. But humans are the only creatures who can communicate using symbolic language: a system of arbitrary symbols that can be linked by formal grammars to create a nearly limitless variety of precise utterances. Symbolic language greatly enhanced the precision of human communication and the range of ideas that humans can exchange. Symbolic language allowed people for the first time to talk about entities that were not immediately present (including experiences and events in the past and future) as well as entities whose existence was not certain (such as souls, demons, and dreams).
“The result of this sudden increase in the precision, efficiency, and range of human communication systems was that people could share much more of what they learned with others; thus, knowledge began to accumulate more rapidly than it was lost. Instead of dying with each person or generation, the insights of individuals could be preserved for future generations.
“As a result, each generation inherited the accumulated knowledge of previous generations, and, as this store of knowledge grew, later generations could use it to adapt to their environment in new ways. Unlike all other living species on Earth, whose behaviors change in significant ways only when the genetic makeup of the entire species changes, humans can change their behaviors significantly without waiting for their genes to change. This cumulative process of ‘collective learning’ explains the exceptional ability of humans to adapt to changing environments and changing circumstances. It also explains the unique dynamism of human history. In human history culture has overtaken natural selection as the primary motor of change.
The ‘Florisbad Skull’ classified as Homo helmei
“These conclusions suggest that we should seek the beginnings of human history not only in the anatomical details of early human remains, but also in any evidence that hints at the presence of symbolic language and the accumulation of technical skills. [Archeological] findings … link the earliest evidence of symbolic activity (including hints of the grinding of pigments for use in body painting) and of significant changes in stone tool technologies with the appearance of a new species known as ‘Homo helmei,’ The remains of this species are so close to those of modern women and men that we may eventually have to classify them with our own species, Homo sapiens. The earliest anatomical, technological, and cultural evidence for these changes appears in Africa between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago.”