In Part 1, I concluded that the relationship of >power = >possessions =>intelligence = >human leads many of those with numerous possessions and great power to view those with neither as somehow sub-human. This attitude applies not only to the present, but to the past.
Archaeology is the study of the material culture (possessions) of past peoples. While many archaeologists are primarily interested in finding out how the average person lived, others are more concerned with the elites. This is to be expected when one considers what the general public prefers to view in museums. Commonly, one does not wait long hours in line to see how the workers who built Tut’s tomb lived, but rather the material possessions of Tut. One does not brave crowds to look at the few possessions of the sailors who crewed a ship that sank, but rather the cargo of that ship. How many tourists travel to France to tour 17th century slums rather than Versailles? In our view of the past, the wealthy are more real, more intelligent, more human because they are the ones with the most material culture to be found by archaeologists.
If material possessions carry great weight in our view of the past, then it is no surprise that the further back in time we go and the less material culture we find, the less intelligent we think our ancestors were. Of course, this ignores the fact that much of material culture decays. Therefore, the further back into the past we delve, the less material culture there is that would be, could be, preserved. Somehow, we manage to ignore this and assume that what we find is all our ancestors had. When we travel back to the ‘dawn’ of material culture around 2.5 mya we find only stone tools and a few fossilized bones with signs of cut marks. We think: ‘They had so little, they clearly weren’t very intelligent. They probably couldn’t even speak.’ This ignores the fact that by this point our ancestors had been bipeds for over 2 million years and that bipedality is related to language ability.
This also ignores the fact that much of culture is immaterial, intangible. As I said in Part 1, the focus on possessions has led many to assume and treat modern foragers who necessarily, due to their lifestyle, have few possessions, as sub-human, even as animals that can be killed with impunity. If modern foragers are viewed this way, how much less human must our ancient ancestors be?
It seems to be a given by the general public, and even by many anthropologists, that ‘modern’ humans came into existence around 100,000 years ago. That is, there was a speciation event. However, I have yet to read anywhere what caused this speciation event. There is no real evidence. It makes no sense. And yet, it is believed to be true. The date of 100,000 ya appears to have been chosen because the site of Klasies River Mouth in South Africa dates to about 100,000 ya and has a few skeletal pieces that some paleoanthropologists believe look ‘modern.’ By ‘modern’ they mean more gracile. Also, the Klasies people ate a lot of shellfish, which is considered a more modern behavior. However, the earliest bipeds have been found in what would have been a marshy environment, so it is probable that our ancestors have been eating shellfish for millions of years. The earliest non-lithic material culture is also found in sub-Saharan Africa and dates to about 80,000 ya. This is viewed as more evidence of modernity. Add in other gracile skeletal material of about the right age and voila! Modern humans popped into existence. The idea that no one used bones and shells for tools and decoration until around 80,000 ya is ludicrous. These materials will decay rapidly in most environments, so it is not surprising that they do not show up until later in human ancestry.
Now, why is the date of 100,000 years so important? Because if ‘modern’ humans did pop into existence around that date, that would mean that Neanderthals were not human. For some reason, it is critically important to a lot of people, many anthropologists included, that Neanderthals not be ‘us.’ They would rather make the unsupported claim that a speciation event occurred and that Neanderthals are a different species than to accept the more logical deduction that there was no speciation event and that Neanderthals are simply a population of modern humans.
Years of effort and reams of paper have been devoted to ‘proving’ that Neanderthals were subhuman. One of the methods used was to point out that Neanderthals had a very limited material culture compared to so-called ‘modern’ humans. But, surprise! More and more research is showing that Neanderthal material culture and ‘modern’ material culture were very similar. In fact, it may turn out that Neanderthals were the first European artists, not the ‘moderns.’
Will we finally admit that Neanderthals were fully as modern as any other group alive at that time? Does it take clear evidence of plenty of material culture to admit a population to full humanity? Or could we at last realize that material culture is only one limited aspect of being human, and one that is easily lost to time. Having more possessions does not make a person more intelligent or more human.