The Long Count

They’ve managed to sequence a bit of autosomal DNA from the Atapuerca skeletons, about 430,000 years old, confirming that they are on the Neanderthal branch.

Among other things, this supports the slow mutation rate, one compatible with what we see in modern family trios, but also with the fossil record.

This means that the Pygmies, and probably the Bushmen also, split off from the rest of the human race about 300,000 years ago. Call them Paleoafricans.

They are anatomically modern: they have chins, etc. Behaviorally modern? There have been only a few attempts to measure their intelligence: what has been done indicates that they have very low IQs. They definitely talk, tell stories, sing songs: does that imply that they could, given the right environment, have developed the Antikythera mechanism or a clipper ship?

This means that language is older than some had thought, a good deal older. It also means that people with language are quite capable of going a quarter of a million years without generating much technological advance – without developing the ability to push aside archaic humans, for example. Of course, people with Williams syndrome have language, and you can’t send them into the kitchen and rely on them to bring back a fork. Is the sophistication of Bushman language – this means the concepts they can and do convey, not the complexity of the grammar – comparable with that of other populations? I don’t know. As far as I can see, one of the major goals of modern anthropology is to make sure that nobody knows. Or that they know things that aren’t so.

The minimal definition of behavioral modernity – that set of traits that exists in all of humanity, including those that are most divergent, and that are probably ancestral in anatomically modern humans – may not include much technological creativity.

Next: since we now know that generic Neanderthal and Denisovan alleles don’t fit too well with anatomically modern humans, and AMH alleles didn’t fit too well with Altai Neanderthals, it seem likely that you see the beginning of such functional divergence between Paleoafricans and everyone else. I know of one example of a European haplotype that’s a heart disease risk on a mostly-African genetic background, but not on a European background, but most such incompatibilities are probably very mild, hard to detect. It would probably take thousands of generations for a Pygmy population to lose a significant fraction of its Bantu introgression. You might be able to detect this on a few alleles, but for the most part it just hasn’t been long enough.

Culture gets forgotten, inventions get lost: any populations with a sufficiently low innovation rate probably does not advance at all, culturally. They could respond to natural selection, change in a way that increased their innovation rate… So people could continue to make Acheulean handaxes for a million years: they had to change before there could be further technological progress. Neanderthals had more sophisticated technology, but that technology changed very, very slowly compared to, say , that of humans in the upper Paleolithic. Biology keeps culture on a leash, and you can get to the end of the leash.

Some have suggested that the key to technological development is higher population: that produces more intellects past a high threshold, sure. I don’t think that’s the main factor. Eskimos have a pretty advanced technology, but there were never very many of them. On the other hand, they have the highest IQ of any existing hunter-gatherer population: that’s got to help. Populations must have gone up the Eemian, the previous interglacial period, but nothing much got invented back then. It would seem that agriculture would have been possible in the Eemian, but as far as we know it didn’t happen. Except for Valusia of course. With AMH going back at least 300,000 years, we have to start thinking about even earlier interglacial peiods, like Mindel-Riss (424-374 k years ago)

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40 Responses to The Long Count

  1. Peter Lund says:

    “Antikthera” and “a a”.

  2. Jim says:

    The Bushmen languages appear to be pretty complex both in phonology and morphology. Wikipedia describes the language Jul’hoan as having “48 click consonants, among nearly as many non-click consonants, strident and pharynegialized vowels, and four tones.” It mentions other Bushmen languages with even more phonological complexities.

    From what I’ve read about these languages they also tend to have complex morphology.

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  4. Patrick Boyle says:

    The Eemian interglacial seems to be one of those areas which we are not supposed to discuss. The evidence is that it was a bit warmer then but this does not sit well with anthropogenic global warming theory. Who ever there was running around back then, they weren’t burning much gas.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Milankovitch cycles.

    • Dale says:

      As Cochran says, the basic geological cycle was at its warmest point then.

      I read one article (in Scientific American, for whatever that’s worth) that claimed that a careful reconstruction of the Milankovitch cycle shows that the earth should have been cooling for the last 6,000 years by several degrees C, but hasn’t. The authors hypothesized that methane generated by wet-rice cultivation had coincidentally counterbalanced the cyclic cooling with the result that the last 10,000 years had a lot more climatic constancy than is natural for the earth.

      Of course, at the rate we’re pumping out CO2, that’s going to change, if not in the next couple of decades, in the next couple of centuries. The devil is figuring out what the least-cost course of action is.

      • gcochran9 says:

        An Eemian climate, or for that matter a Miocene climate, would probably allow for greater agricultural production than we see today, and thus a larger population. Good for Canada and Siberia. A sudden transition is the problem, especially if you live in Bangladesh.

        A glacial climate would be bad: one like the last glacial maximum would be awful.

  5. deuce says:

    “Except for Valusia, of course.” Of course. Nice REH shout-out.

  6. garr says:

    What are chins useful for? (Of course, people with chins are more Objectively Beautiful than people without … maybe once animals become intelligent they’re able to perceive the Forms and then quickly develop chins as a result of sexual selection?)

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      getting punched

      do chimps punch or slap?

      • Erik Sieven says:

        where does punching with the fist come from anyway? isn´t it a bit to complicated to be intuitive like wrestling or slapping? still it seems to be quite widespread as the number one mode of fighting, at least in the west, in some other regions not so much. Actually I cannot think of any old picture showing somebody throwing a boxing-style punch

    • Andrew Neather says:

      They are the result of the general recession of the dental arcade and the upper/ lower jaw complex, the evolutionary shrinkage of the mouth from the primitive ‘muzzle’ type condition.
      The mouth has ‘shrunk in’ as it were, but the muscle attachment, chin, remains as a reminder of where the jaws used to be.

      Look at a chimp’s mouth and jaws, and compare to a human’s.

  7. Abelard Lindsey says:

    It also means that people with language are quite capable of going a quarter of a million years without generating much technological advance.

    It also suggests that the ability to learn a language, in and of itself, is not an indicator of high intelligence. Razib just wrote a piece about how bi-lingualism is not necessarily an indicator or a driver of high intelligence.

    • Dale says:

      Quite true, and that’s a consequence of the line that Chomsky and Pinker pitch: Language is generated by a special-purpose neurological system in the brain (which is constructed directly by the genes).

      But it is impressive that full human language is at least 300k years old.

      • garr says:

        Language-use doesn’t have to be as old as the oldest presently-language-using group, does it? The language-angel might have descended upon the Pygmies only 10,000 (or 1000) years ago. Maybe that’s when they were given chins as well.

  8. Dale says:

    If Paleoafricans are truly separate by 300k years, then their cognitive skills aren’t just a consequence of their initial genetic endowment but also by the selective pressures between then and now. After all, the rest of us probably came from the same source population, and supposedly the Han Chinese have an average IQ of well over 100. But if you select your ruling class by the ability to pass a literary classics test for 2,000 years, that’s what you’d expect.

  9. Dale says:

    You write, “Is the sophistication of Bushman language – this means the concepts they can and do convey, not the complexity of the grammar – comparable with that of other populations?”

    I think the modern terminology would be “Is the sophistication of Bushman language usage …”.

    One way to test it that would be relatively unbiased is to look at the stories they tell and examine the level of political complexity involved. Yeah, humans 10,000 years ago didn’t make locomotives, but they did have interpersonal politics, and it was vital to being adaptive. Then again, you might argue that political acumen and technological acumen are unrelated behaviors…

  10. Anonymous says:

    Why does language have to be that old? Couldn’t it have introgressed into the neopaleoafricans later?

    • Fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      Well, in the case of these guys, I could believe the introgression story:

      BTW, when are browsers going to understand that introgression is a real word?

  11. Matt says:

    On the subject of population size and culture – – Population size fails to explain evolution of complex culture

  12. Fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    I think it must have been the Pak.

  13. The Z Blog says:

    It seems to me that the key to technological development is environmental pressure, including pressure from other human groups. Two populations of humans competing for food and mates will seek advantage, pushing their technological development. If there is plenty of food and mates for both, a natural equilibrium would set in. Over a long enough time, this will show up in the distribution of cognitive skills.

    Just a hunch.

  14. Capra Internetensis says:

    Um, aren’t they mostly modern human even given an ultra-old split?

    Under the 2nd-best model with a more recent split at ~90 kya (or around twice that with a slower rate) and a single pulse of admixture ~7 kya, the pygmies had 68% farmer ancestry.
    Using the best-fitting model with the older split (~155 kya or twice that), continuous gene flow between farmers and pygmies began ~40 kya (or 80 kya), with ~9x10E-4 migrants per generation from farmers to pygmies and a tenth the gene flow in the other direction. My math isn’t too hot these days but I guess that comes out to a pretty similar proportion.

    This seems to agree pretty well with uniparental lineages, which are old but not that old – the typical paternal lineage being B2b (also frequent in click-language groups) and the typical maternal ones L1c (in the west), L0a, L5, and L2. The only really divergent one I know of is Y haplogroup A0, found among the BaKola of W Cameroon – not too far from where the even older A00 is found among farming populations.

  15. DDeden says:

    Cochran: “They have chins..”
    Yes, and no protruding foreheads
    Pound for pound, inch for inch, Pygmy ladies have the highest IQ’s on earth of anyone.
    Pygmies in coracles reached Bali, Queensland (Barrinean), Papua(Yali); without clipper ships, and first domesticated the dog on Phu Quoc island.
    The Antikthera mechanism measures time, the tropical rainforest is nearly timeless.

    • TWS says:

      Not African pygmies but negritos. IIRC Dr Cochran said that we have more in common with Andaman islanders than African pygmies do.

      • DDeden says:

        TWS: “Not African pygmies but negritos.”
        Specifically, what is this in reference to? Negritos are variably-admixed Asian Pygmies, whose ancestors came from East African rainforests during a wet period. Most EurAsians have more in common with Andaman islanders than with Congo Pygmies, as would be expected.

        • TWS says:

          I believe that the OP is about African pygmies. Negritos are not African pygmies. So simply saying Pygmies did this or that implies that you are speaking about African pygmies. Which of course African pygmies did no such thing. It appears they have done nothing but roam the jungle and get enslaved by the Bantus.

  16. DDeden says:

    correction: Yes, and no protruding brow ridge.

  17. DDeden says:

    Andrew Neather: “The mouth has ‘shrunk in’ as it were, but the muscle attachment, chin, remains as a reminder of where the jaws used to be”

    That might explain how the siamang’s chin developed from a macaque-like muzzle.

  18. spandrell says:

    Pygmies in central Africa appear to have taken up Banta languages without much problem, so it doesn’t appear they have an issue with normal language use.

    Or soy say anthropologists. It may all be bollocks.

    • Rick says:

      “Normal language”

      I don’t think this is a thing. If you taught a kid to speak only R2-D2 and Klingon from birth, they could do it. If it was allowed, you could make up seriously crazy languages.

      Hell, you could probably even teach kids to talk with hands!

      If you didn’t teach deaf kids anything at all, they might make up their very own hand talking language. And actually. This has happened already.

  19. DDeden says:

    I think Baka (or Efe?) is only 30% original, the rest is (agricultural society) Bantu (or Lese?).

  20. BB753 says:

    Strange that Pygmies everywhere have adopted the language of Bantus. Perhaps they took up both the ability to speak and the languages themselves from them. The former by introgression, the latter by language learning.

    • Capra Internetensis says:

      Using a continuous gene flow model and the slow mutation rate the introgression into Pygmies began about 80 000 years ago and they would have been majority ‘Neo-African’ by ~35 000 years ago. Using the pulse admixture model it would have been ~14 000 years ago. Why would the capacity for language be so recent as the acquisition of Bantu languages?

      Pygmies variously speak Bantu, Ubangian, and Central Sudanic languages as native tongues, as well as various neighbouring languages as second languages. The first language may be the same as the farmers they live among (as with the Efe and the Great Lakes Twa) or it may be unrelated (as with the Baka).

      According to Bahuchet (as DDeden alluded to above), Aka and Baka (which belong to different language families) share a substrate vocabulary (constituting somewhat over 20% of the lexicon), the majority of which is focussed on forest knowledge (names of flora and fauna, animal behaviour, hunting and gathering tools and techniques, etc), a minority to do with society, ritual, and religion. A few of these substrate words have been loaned into neighbouring farmer languages as well. A couple of them may have Mbuti cognates.

  21. DDeden says:

    Capra… You actually seem to know something. Respect for that.

  22. I mean, dogs bark and dolphins chatter, but Homo erectus doesn’t even have hand signals or anything? I always assumed that language was pretty old. It just got a lot fancier in the last few hundred thousand years.

    It’s difficult to imagine Grog the Caveman and all his friends being mute, and his son magically having THE ALLELE which makes him magically invent language. A trait that complex is probably going to be gradual, like modern flight feathers or the eyes of a hawk.

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