Hominin origins and evolution
We turn now to speculation on the origins and evolution of humanity. In this section, we relied on a few recent publications, the motive being that archeological and primatological investigations, using ever more sophisticated technologies, have been able to produce ever more precise datings and ever more evidence-backed scenarios of and hypotheses regarding primate life and human prehistory. We’ll also see, however, that signs of the anthropological counterrevolution discussed in a previous installment remain.
The datings for the initial appearance of “hominins” are clearly rough estimates but also a good reminder of the difficulty in pinpointing events over the incredibly long length of time our evolution unfolded. (Here we should note that while in many of the works we consulted the word “hominin” is used to refer to all the species of the family Hominidae, including all species in the genera Australopithecus and Homo, our use of it will be limited to references to the species predating the appearance of Homo sapiens.)
Colin Renfrew, in his “Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind” (New York: Modern Library, 2007), estimates that the hominin lineage began between 8 and 6 million years ago. (p. 48) Chris Scarre, editor of “The Human Past” (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2nd ed., 2009), puts the date of emergence of bipedal hominins in Africa at 6 million years ago. (p. 47)
As with the emergence of the first hominins, the important developments that eventually led to modern humans can only be roughly dated. Before the beginnings of hominin brain expansion (approximately 2.5 million years ago) or even before the first use of fire (estimated at somewhere between 1.5 million and 700,000 years ago), it’s highly likely that hominin life mirrored closely some of the patterns of life of the great ape relatives.
What anthropologists and archeologists have concerning the living patterns of ancient hominins are hypotheses — Chris Knight, a Marxist anthropologist, calls them “stories” — based in part on examination of the few uncovered hominin bones and teeth that have survived the millennia, pieces of flint and other stones that appear to have been worked by hominins, climatic and botanical residue in ancient soils that would have impacted hominin life, and very sophisticated, radiometric techniques for dating these ancient materials.
Living patterns and beliefs of foraging and hunting groups still in existence during the most recent millennia — as described by observers as far back in time as Herodotus up to present-day archeologists and anthropologists — are also used to try to reconstruct the long process of hominin and human evolution.
The most commonly told story is that tree-dwelling, fruit-eating primates spent more and more time on the ground as the rainforests of East Africa slowly disappeared some 5 or so million years ago. The gradual disappearance of their former arboreal habitats forced dramatic adaptations, including bipedalism (standing and walking upright), plant foraging, scavenging and/or hunting animals, and a new emphasis on communalism and communication.
Group survival, it is said, necessitated cooperation, food sharing and organizing defense against predatory animals. An auspicious physiological change, the evolution of larger brains, may have been prompted by the challenges of this new physical environment, dramatic climate changes and the accompanying intensified sociality, which itself would have required a greater emphasis on communication.
But our increasingly large brains created problems for the fetus’ intrauterine development. Brains are also metabolically “expensive,” their increasing size heightening the need for high-energy nutrition.
Successful births had to come sooner, while the neonate’s head was still small enough to pass through the narrower pelvis produced by bipedalism. The result was the birth of totally helpless infants, unlike the babies of our primate ancestors. Prolonged post-natal care was required for their survival, but it also offered new, lengthier opportunities for the transmission of culture.
The control of fire and the development of language were further important advances that occurred at some point or span of time over this vast period of prehistory.
Scientists debate the timing, significance and details of these and other changes in the various hominin species. But the central role of females as the producers of new life, as technological innovators, inventors of language, and organizing agents of social life, is acknowledged by most.
The pivotal role of mothers to hominin society would of itself have bestowed great authority on them. But, in addition, the foraging skills of women were undoubtedly crucial to the band’s continuing existence. Whether scavenging, fishing or hunting provided meat for the band, foraging for plant food would have been the more reliable source of nutrition in most situations and under most conditions. Small, usually nomadic hominin groups based on matrilineality would be the inevitable result.
So originally, in the remote past were tree-dwelling primates, then hunting, fishing and foraging bands of hominins. These hominins evolved, most likely, with gradual anatomical and behavioral changes based on natural selection and occasionally with dramatic, qualitative leaps. Eventually, perhaps somewhat more than 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens — modern humans — appeared.
Debate is fierce in professional circles concerning when and how language and other nonmaterial or nondurable manifestations of human culture first appeared. In the most recent tens of thousands of years, though, these foraging, fishing and hunting groups, along with other modern humans engaged in early pastoralist and horticultural activities, are more clearly apparent in the archeological record.
Persistence of ‘Malinowski’ counterrevolution
Did “traditional marriage” appear at some point in the matrilineal hominin bands that had their origin and lived out their many generations in Africa? Or among the ones who, beginning more than 1 million years ago, began spreading out from Africa into Eurasia in several waves?
Many contemporary writers on the subject describe the hominin species’ and the Homo sapiens’ foraging and hunting bands that followed as composed of monogamous heterosexual pairs and their children. These writers accept as good science the view of monogamous pairing marriage as an eternal verity, more or less as articulated by Bronislaw Malinowski and other 20th-century anthropologists of his ilk.
In Chapter 3 of “The Human Past,” paleoanthropologist Richard Klein writes that during the time span between 1.8 million and 600,000 to 500,000 years ago, brain volume was increasing rapidly “to an average firmly within the modern range. … [And] the sexes did not exhibit any major dimorphism, differing no more in size than they do in living people. … In ape species that exhibit a similar degree of sexual dimorphism, males compete intensely for sexually receptive females, and male-female relationships tend to be transitory and non-cooperative. The reduced size difference in H[omo] ergaster may signal the onset of a more typically human pattern, in which male-male competition was more muted and male-female relationships were more lasting and mutually supportive.” (pp. 91-92)
Klein concludes, “The emergence of Homo ergaster 1.8-1.7 million years ago marked a watershed, for H. ergaster was the first hominin species whose anatomy and behavior fully justify the label human. … The evidence suggests that H. ergaster was the first hominin species to resemble historic hunter-gatherers not only in a fully terrestrial lifestyle, but also in a social organization that featured economic cooperation between males and females and perhaps between semipermanent male-female units.” (p. 121)
Frans de Waal, perhaps surprisingly given his fascination with ribald bonobos (see Part 5 of this series), is quite adamant on the question of an original and uninterrupted human pattern of a male-dominated, “nuclear” family: “Human social organization is characterized by a unique combination of (1) male bonding, (2) female bonding, and (3) nuclear families. We share the first with chimpanzees, the second with bonobos, and the third is ours alone. It’s no accident that people everywhere fall in love, are sexually jealous, know shame, seek privacy, look for father-figures in addition to mother-figures, and value stable partnerships. The intimate male-female relationship implied in all of this, which zoologists have dubbed a ‘pair-bond,’ is bred into our bones.”
“The size difference between the sexes,” De Waal continues, “combined with excellent cooperation among males makes it likely that male dominance has always characterized our lineage, and so inheritance likely followed paternal lines.” (“Our Inner Ape.” New York: Riverhead Books, 2005, pp. 113-114)
Richard Leakey in “The Origin of Humankind” (New York: Basic Books, 1994), while not directly addressing the question of a male-dominated, “nuclear” family, does endorse the idea of original patrilineal descent: “Very probably, early Homo males remained in their natal groups with their brothers and half brothers, while the females transferred to other groups.” (p. 54)
Jared Diamond traces a Homo social/sexual evolution, but with the males continuing to remain dominant through the transition from hunter-gatherer societies into the last few thousand years of societies divided into classes of rich and poor — societies that, in his well-known book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), he imaginatively labels “kleptocracies”: “At least officially, human pairing is more or less monogamous in most modern political states, but is ‘mildly polygynous’ [men having multiple wives] among most surviving hunter-gatherer bands, which are better models for how mankind lived over the last million years.” (p. 71)
These authors, and many other contemporary writers, accept much of the tableau of patriarchal “nuclear” families painted by the dominant, bourgeois school of 20th-century anthropology that we discussed at the beginning of this series. In the next installment of this series, we’ll focus in some detail on what some of the dissenters to “perpetual patriarchy” have to say.