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«EARLY HUMANS AND THEIR WORLD This book presents a breadth of scholarship not found in previous books on the evolution of early hominids. This ...»

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This book presents a breadth of scholarship not found in previous books on the

evolution of early hominids. This wide-ranging account creates an accessible

introduction to the development of humankind, suitable for students at all

levels and the interested non-specialist. The re-evaluation of existing conventions and their replacement with convincing alternatives provide the basis for

the study of early hominid evolution for years to come.

The author combines biological and humanistic perspectives to provide a synthesis of the latest palaeo-anthropological and biological research on early human origins and evolution, from the split with the apes some six million years ago to the rise of early modern humans. He focuses on how early humans evolved, lived and organised themselves, whilst signifying the relevance of that advancement for the understanding of modern social life.

The deconstruction of current thought on early hominid evolution continues as the author applies critical scrutiny to the biological theory of kin selection and its relevance for the evolution of human morality and the behaviours of inbreeding avoidance and infanticide. He also examines other key issues such as the origin of cognition, spoken language, morality and typical human sexuality, as well as diet and population density.

In a discussion on the present lack of a coherent evolutionary explanation of bipedalism, the author also draws our attention back to the idea of a possible semi-aquatic environment for our early ancestors that is otherwise seldom given a fair account. He gives further consideration to the evolutionary instruments used in creating bipedalism, as well as the modern human skull and face and the special human traits of curiosity and creativity.

The author accesses research by the world’s leading scholars of early hominid evolution and primate behaviour to create a landmark exploration of human origins.

Bo Gräslund is Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Uppsala University, Sweden. Among his many research areas are biological-cultural evolution and ecology in prehistory.


THEIR WORLD Bo Gräslund First published 2005 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge 270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005.

“To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of thousands of eBooks please go to www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk.” © 2005 Bo Gräslund Translated by Nei

–  –  –

Imagine how different it would have been if human beings had been delivered ready-made with an instruction book, well thought through, simple and uncomplicated. In reality the opposite occurred, and we must write the manual ourselves. We are only able to do this if we follow the strands of our biology and culture back into the most distant past. It was with this in mind that I began this book.

In the first instance the book deals with humankind’s origins as a species, and with our biological, social and cultural development at and after the ‘creation’. I have tried to bring together recent results from a broad range of research fields, and to combine them in an over-arching interpretation. There can be no question of an exhaustive survey. I have primarily worked with issues that I myself find exciting, important or unjustly neglected.

In recent years several scholars have brought great insight to the difficult and sensitive matter of innate and culturally acquired elements of human behaviour. It is my hope that this book on human origins can contribute to a continued discussion of these and other questions of our evolutionary inheritance. I have time and again gone off at tangents of this kind, only to rein myself in in order to return to the main theme of the book.

A critical chapter is devoted to the dominant biological theory on the evolution of elementary social order, and its maintenance among the higher animals – a question of decisive importance for our perspectives on both early and modern humans.

I am conscious of the problems inherent in attempting to combine and interpret the findings of a range of different disciplines in which one lacks direct research experience. If any reader should find their blood pressure rising as a result of this book, I offer my apologies. In my defence I would say that multi-disciplinary syntheses would never be written by a single individual if scholars always kept to their own narrow specialisms. The alternative, a number of researchers working together across a broad front, appears more secure but often loses out through lack of co-ordination and an appreciation of the whole.

The immediate source material for the study of early humans consists first of the more-or-less fragmentary remains of their bones, of the environmental


data that illuminate the world in which they lived, and the simple objects that they made. This material has deficiencies that make it hard to interpret, and in the light of this we can note that the frequent disagreements between researchers are in fact a healthy sign. We should remember that the sources will remain mute until we ask questions of them. When some kind of answer is received, it is more often than not in the form of an obscure pronouncement that differs according to who is asking and how the question is phrased. This is, in turn, linked to the fact that we cannot come to an understanding about anything in the past – whether it be a matter of culture, nature, human or animal – unless we can relate it first to something that we believe ourselves to understand already. In this way, all interpretation is coloured by the researcher’s frames of reference and prejudices, so that even the most serious research receives an intravenous dose of subjectivity, limitations and circumstance. This general dilemma of theoretical knowledge rarely emerges more clearly than in research into the origins of the human race and its earliest development. This, naturally, is true of the present book.

The necessary background information on important finds, find-spots, dating, research histories and similar matters has been collected in a single chapter.

Wherever practicable, professional jargon has been avoided, even if this has only been possible to a certain extent. Hopefully whatever remains is adequately explained. For the guidance of interested readers, I have provided a bibliography of selected books and journals at the end of the book.

To conclude, it is perhaps unnecessary to point it out, but I shall do so anyway, the term ‘evolution’ is used here in neither a positive nor negative sense, but only as a synonym for biological change. There is likewise no value judgement implied in the expressions ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ animals that I have sometimes rather lightly employed to distinguish mammals and birds from other creatures.

Bo Gräslund


This book is an English version of my Swedish original, De första stegen:

Urmänniskan och hennes värld, that was published in 2001 by Atlantis Press in Stockholm. For the English edition I have made a few minor changes and additions.

The book has been translated by Dr Neil Price, my colleague at Uppsala.

Neil has also made valuable comments on the content and supported me with good advice. The same applies to a large number of colleagues, friends and associates – none named but none forgotten. I owe them all many thanks.

I am also grateful to Routledge’s two anonymous referees for their constructive comments on the text. One of them also expressed some mild surprise at the occasional colloquialisms in this book, and I feel I should point out that these are faithful renditions of my Swedish.

That we know so much about the earliest origins of humankind is due to the dedicated efforts of numerous researchers working with great care in the field and in the laboratory, within the various specialist fields that shelter under the broad umbrella of palaeoanthropology. Here I can mention only a few: Berhane Asfaw, Robert Broom, Michel Brunet, Ronald Clarke, Yves Coppens, Raymond Dart, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, F. Clark Howell, Glyn Isaac, Donald Johansson, Kimoya Kimeu, Louis Leakey, Mary Leakey, Meave Leakey, Richard Leakey, David Pilbeam, Martin Pickford, Brigitte Senut, Gen Suwa, Phillip Tobias, Alan Walker, Tim White and Bernhard Wood. Of great importance for this book, and for me personally, has been the contribution of modern primatology with its systematic studies of wild apes and monkeys. This especially applies to our closest relatives among the former.

Here too I can mention only a select handful of scholars: Christophe Boesch, Hedwige Boesch-Ammermann, Richard Byrne, Diane Fossey, Biruté Galdikas, Jane Goodall, T. Hasegawa, M. Hiraiwai-Hasegawa, William McGrew, Takayoshi Kano, Linda Merchant, Toshisada Nishida, Vernon Reynolds, Susanne Savage-Rumbaugh, Carel van Schaik, George Schaller, Craig Stanford, Yukimaru Suguyama, Randall Susman, Geza Teleki, Michael Tomasello, Caroline Tutin, Frands de Waal, Francis White, Andrew Whiten and Richard Wrangham. The work for this book has also required a number of


excursions into several other disciplines, including evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. I owe a debt of thanks to all the researchers, whether named above or not, whose findings and discoveries I have been able to employ for this volume.

The translation has been funded by The Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, Stockholm and Dagmar och Sven Saléns Stiftelse, Stockholm, to whom I wish to express my gratitude.


Time perspectives Every breath we draw, every step we take, every emotion we experience reflects our past. As the youngest link in an evolutionary chain many hundreds of millions of years old, every person is a wandering exhibition of her or his biological history.

This insight presses itself upon us unlooked for when we study a subject such as the evolution of the human race. This prompts me to begin this book with a few reflections on humanity’s evolutionary background.

To make an open-minded journey through the past is an exhilarating experience, worth any amount of effort. But there are also other reasons to listen to what has gone before. All over the world those in power demonstrate their ignorance of history. To the extent that they have a historical perspective at all, it is often so narrow that it mostly tempts them to abuse the past. Unless we take a long view of the past, then we will never be able to think more than a few years into the future – at best a few generations, rarely the necessary centuries, millennia and millions of years. Never before has it been so important to place the present and future in a larger temporal context.

Our ancestors living in more traditional social patterns had close emotional and cultural relationships to their past. Now those connections are mostly passive in the sense that they are maintained by a few experts on behalf of the majority. For most people today, the past appears to them as an abyss.

During the long period when the human brain evolved to what it is today, there was hardly any evolutionary need for reflection on a broad spatial, social and temporal scale. Humanity’s natural understanding of time and social space has thereby become ever more confined to the narrow horizon of the individual’s own lifetime. To this we can add our difficulty in imagining that which we cannot relate to our own experience. The ability to think farsightedly into the future does not seem prominent among our gifts.

Many people experience the time reckoning of history books – years, millennia and millions of years – as abstractions, almost as difficult to grasp as the distances of inter-stellar space. With this in mind, let us try to find a more concrete measurement of time. Human beings generally produce about three


generations every hundred years. Instead of placing Genghis Khan about 800 years ago, we can say that he lived about 24 generations before the present.

Twenty-four people: about the size of a school class. So we can use the timescale of parents plus children, or parents plus children and grandchildren, family units with which most people are well familiar. At once the distance shrinks to 12 two-generation or 8 three-generation families in straight descent. It doesn’t sound very much, and the point is that it isn’t.

Consider the fact that only 60 or so generations of people or 20 threegeneration families separates us from the time of Jesus Christ; that the Stone Age in northern Europe lasted until 135 generations or 45 three-generation families ago; that my home country of Sweden has not even been populated for more than 400 generations or 133 three-generation families; and that what we call civilisation began as late as 350 generations ago.

On the other hand, biologically modern humans have more than 6,000 generations behind them, and our ancestors have been walking upright for something approaching 250,000 generations.

Talking about time in this way brings the past closer, and the present into focus. It lets us understand that our history and culture are not very old at all, and that in some sense the threads that bind us to the past are very short.

Ever since we began to till the soil, keep domestic animals and live in settled communities, some 350 generations ago, we can see how population pressure and economic growth have been instrumental in the drive for technological, cultural and social development. Today the global society is as dependent on growth as an addict on a drug. As long as the growth mechanisms function then most things eventually get sorted out, but as soon as expansion stagnates or is reversed then society is shaken to its foundations. In this way the concept of growth has come to stand for progress and positive development to the point at which it has superseded all other ideologies, including those of religion.

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