Friday, August 27, 2010

New Scientist Interviews Timothy Taylor on Early Hominid Culture

Anthropologist Timothy Taylor is convinced it was the earliest stone tools that were the impetus for human evolution. Amanda Gefter of the New Scientist interviews him about this and other ideas. She writes:

So you are saying that technology came before humans?

The archaeological record shows chipped stone tool technologies earlier than 2.5 million years ago. That's the smoking gun. The oldest fossil specimen of the genus Homo is at most 2.2 million years old. That's a gap of more than 300,000 years - more than the total length of time that Homo sapiens has been on the planet. This suggests that earlier hominins called australopithecines were responsible for the stone tools.

Is it possible that we just don't have a genus Homo fossil, but they really were around?

Some researchers are holding out for an earlier specimen of genus Homo. I'm trying to free us to think that we had stone tools first and that those tools created a significant part of our intelligence. The tools caused the genus Homo to emerge.

This is backward from the usual assumption that it was the brain increase in early hominids that spurred the cognitive development necessary to produce the tools that initially allowed them to modify their environment and, later, to hunt. The other assumption here is that early hominid females were able to fashion "slings" for their infants:
Once you have slings to carry babies, you have broken a glass ceiling - it doesn't matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year. You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo. We used technology to turn ourselves into kangaroos. Our children are born more and more underdeveloped because they can continue to develop outside the womb - they become an extra-uterine fetus in the sling. This means their heads can continue to grow after birth, solving the smart biped paradox. In that sense technology comes before the ascent to Homo. Our brain expansion only really took off half a million years after the first stone tools. And they continued to develop within an increasingly technological environment.
As Taylor notes, however, there is a rather serious problem with this idea. As Mr. Spock would note: "We have no evidence, only a theory which happens to fit the facts." Nor is it clear that there would ever be evidence found for such things, given their consistency. Still, it is an interesting idea, especially given that we now know that stone tools were in use almost a million years earlier than we thought—strongly suggesting that australopithecine cognitive development was greater than we thought.

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