The origins of science in the stone age?

Over the past decades, scientists have learned a lot about animal intelligence. Many species are able to use sticks and stones as the simplest tools, they have a system of communication similar to the human language , and large apes do learn sign language with proper training . However, only submitted the genus Homo embarked on the path of creating complex technologies. A fundamental role in this was played by a person’s ability to accumulate and apply knowledge. Apparently, this key feature of our species is deeply “sewn” into the human brain and is inextricably linked with speech and thinking.

Of course, the initial amount of this knowledge was small and basically boiled down to using some of the properties of fire and the simplest methods of processing stone. However, this provided our far ancestors with such advantages, which predetermined the direction of the whole subsequent human evolution. But besides the ability to create tools, the intellect gave us the ability to explore the world around us.

It is difficult for scientists to study this aspect of the human past, because only indirect archaeological data are available to them. At the same time, it is undoubted that from a certain period of time people began to more and more understand the peculiarities of animal behavior, observe the sky and the stars, comprehend the properties of plants. This turned them into trackers capable of perfectly navigating the terrain, taught them to make poisons and potions, gave paint for drawings in caves and body painting. And most importantly, with the help of their zoological knowledge, our ancestors became the most formidable sushi hunters.

While making wood products, some genius noticed that as a result of the friction of one wooden piece against another, wood began to smolder. Such observations of nature over many hundreds of centuries apparently formed those brain structures that later allowed us to perform physical experiments.

Over the past ten thousand years of intensive development of civilization, the structure of our brain has practically not changed. This is evidenced by the fact that the tribes, which until recently were isolated from the outside world, are able to quickly master the benefits of civilization, and the children of Aboriginal people can successfully graduate from school and enter the university. Obviously, neither chimpanzees nor any other animals are capable of it. It turns out an interesting paradox that the brain of primitive hunter-gatherers turned out to be suitable for practicing quantum mechanics, for designing cosmodromes, and for writing symphonic music, although evolution could not “sharpen” the brains of ancient people for these tasks. On the other hand, the same chimpanzees are incapable of mastering the human culture of the Stone Age. From here we can draw two conclusions.

Intellectual abyss

The first - in the course of evolution between humans and other animals, a real “intellectual abyss” arose. On one side were human-like monkeys, Australopithecus and other animals, on the other - Cro-Magnons, modern aborigines and the rest of humanity. Yes, animals turned out to be smarter than it was traditionally considered, but still their intelligence is far from the human level.

By itself, this fact does not look like a big scientific problem. The physiology of most animals is too specialized for an increase in brain size to be the most advantageous evolutionary strategy.

For example, remember the wolves. These smart hunters by the standards of the animal world have developed senses and outstanding physical abilities. But much would give them the development of human-type intelligence? With their body structure, stone age tools do not make much sense. According to modern scientists, one of the main functions of the earliest stone tools was the crushing of bones, as a result of which the great people could eat bone marrow. But evolution would rather give wolves powerful jaws to crack bones, rather than force them to use stones with their paws or mouth for the same purpose. For the sake of an even more successful hunt, wolves could use speech, but it needs an already well-developed brain and a radical reorganization of the mouth apparatus. Again, natural selection will not be easy to form talking wolves.

Another significant case is observed in dolphins. Dolphins have outstanding brain size, which on average weighs about 1,700 g, whereas in humans it is about 1,400 g. The brain weight of a dolphin is larger than the brain of a chimpanzee, and the number of convolutions on the cerebral cortex of a brain is twice that of a human. Dolphins also demonstrate complex social behavior, have their own language, and each dolphin has a name in the pack. But imagine how dolphins could go to the creation of a technical civilization is very difficult ...


We can remember more social insects. They are able to create communities that unite hundreds of thousands of individuals, and build complex structures like the termitary or hive. However, their social roles are hard-coded, and their overall intellectual abilities are too limited in body size.

Of course, the intelligence of animals is encouraged by natural selection, otherwise there would not be so many and eloquent testimonies of intellectual abilities in the animal world. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, intelligence is only one of the elements of survival, along with physical strength or sharpness of feelings. Moreover, the potential application of intelligence is almost always strongly limited by the characteristics of the structure of the limbs. In this regard, people look like a unique exception.

But if the “intellectual abyss” between humanity and animals seems simple enough to explain, then the question looks much more complicated when this “gap” appeared in the history of our species? Australopithecus, walking on two legs, was still a straight erect monkey. Also, the oldest representatives of the genus Homo, who began to use primitive stone tools, were monkeys, who only used stones to get food. In this regard, they are not very different from modern chimpanzees, who also sometimes use sticks and stones. But where to find the line between animal and human past in the history of our species?


Neanderthal Mystery

In the light of the above problem, the fundamental question is, on which side of the “intellectual abyss” were the Neanderthals? Would a Neanderthal child succeed in graduating from a regular high school, meaningfully adopting Christianity or becoming a programmer? The search for the answer brings us to a more fundamental problem: did this “abyss” jump in a row as a result of a random genetic mutation, or was the path to the heights of intelligence smooth and measured?

The first hypothesis is based on the concept of “cognitive revolution”, which is supported by a number of well-known authors, including the best-selling book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind” Yuval Noi Harari. According to her, about 70 thousand years ago there was a sharp jump in the cognitive abilities of our variety Homo sapiens, which caused a rapid development of speech, creativity and technology. The changes were so significant that in the period of this “big leap forward” a “behavioral modernity” arose, that is, people began to show human behavior with its complex social connections and abstract thinking.

This date almost coincides with the estimated time of the eruption of the super-volcano Toba. According to some estimates, after this catastrophe, the population of our direct ancestors fell dramatically, to about two thousand people. However, among the survivors were carriers of the happy combination of genes that led humanity to domination of the planet. This hypothesis divides “anatomically modern people”, which appeared about 150 thousand years ago and outwardly were almost indistinguishable from representatives of the present humanity, and “people with a modern type of behavior” that appeared 70 thousand years ago. They not only differed anatomically from us, but also thought like us. And if we had a time machine, then we could take and raise a child of a man “with a modern type of behavior” as a full-fledged member of our society,

At the same time, the concept of "cognitive revolution" is criticized by many scientists on all counts. Some indicate that the effect of the eruption of the supervolcano was not so catastrophic, others - that the characteristic features of the “cognitive revolution” such as burials, fishing and objects of art occur earlier than 70 thousand years ago. Some of these finds date back to 160 thousand years ago and even earlier. But this means that we see a smooth and progressive evolution instead of the “cognitive revolution”, which was supposed to be a sudden event by historical standards, which destroyed the previous unhurried course of the Stone Age. In this case, the development would be caused by the smooth evolution of culture and the gradual accumulation of experience, and was not initiated by abrupt genetic shifts.

In the light of these disputes, the disappearance of Neanderthals looks different. If in reality there was a “cognitive revolution”, then most likely the traditional picture of the past would be true. According to her, thin but clever Cro-Magnons crushed the stocky, but not too intelligent Neanderthals due to their biological superiority. However, if there was no “cognitive revolution”, then Cro-Magnon could not have a cardinal genetic advantage in intelligence.


Neanderthals could also follow the path of acquiring a “modern type of behavior”, having already had a languageand the beginnings of its Neanderthal culture. In this case, the conflict of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals would not be a war of different types, but just a clash of two cultures. Human history has known many examples of intercultural confrontations. Then the arrival of the Cro-Magnons in Neanderthals populated Europe and the Middle East would be comparable to the Bantu peoples of Central and South Africa.

About X century. BC the Bantu tribes began to migrate to these African areas from West Africa (modern Nigeria and Cameroon). The local inhabitants, the pygmies and the Bushmen, resisted the invaders, but they failed and were pushed aside into the most difficult areas for life, like the tropical jungle and deserts. Compared to the indigenous peoples, the Bantu had a more developed culture. In particular, they had iron weapons and agricultural crops such as yams, which led to the success of their expansion. In modern science, no one ascribes this victory to the biological superiority of the Bantu peoples over the Bushmen and pygmies, explaining what happened by cultural and social reasons. Similar trumps could be in Cro-Magnon. They could be more sophisticated hunting tools like bows and arrows, or even dogs as suggested by the American anthropologist Pat Shipman. And since separate groups of people in the Stone Age were quite isolated from each other, Cro-Magnon could, when confronted with Neanderthals, again and again use their cultural and technical advantages, whereas each individual group of Neanderthals faced unknown opponents each time. .

At the same time, the brain volume of Neanderthals was larger than that of the Cro-Magnons. However, if the theory of the “cognitive revolution” is correct, then this time the size did not play a fundamental role. More important would be the unique features of the brain structure, which turned out to be the main feature of our variety Homo sapiens. In this scenario, Neanderthals would be unable to have a developed speech, high art and advanced technology, and therefore were forced out by a more sophisticated look.

It is more difficult to explain their disappearance if there was no “cognitive revolution”, and the development of both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals did not have evolutionary leaps. Then the relationship between these varieties of people should be viewed more as a contact of different races, and not of different species. However, even in the case of a smooth evolution, the possibility remains that their brain development lines diverged too long and went in fundamentally different ways, one of which did not lead to a developed intellect. It is worth remembering that the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals lived about 600 thousand years ago.

Is science and mythology different?

SecondThe conclusion, or rather the question is, why could we create science at all? For most of our history, cultural development proceeded in parallel with the evolution of the brain. The increase in brain volume and changes in its structure led to changes in the way of life of ancient people. They began to better process the stone, create more intricate objects of art and explore new territories. But this process was very gradual. The way of life of the same “anatomical modern people”, which appeared at least 150 thousand years ago, has changed extremely slowly over many tens of thousands of years. Apparently, each new great cultural achievement required many millennia of evolutionary development of the intellect. But from a certain point, this trend has changed dramatically. At least since the time of the "Neolithic revolution", which occurred about 12 thousand years ago,

Why is that? The emergence of primitive forms of agriculture is explained by the accumulation of knowledge about nature over many previous thousands of years. But where do we have the ability to write? Why didn’t the agrarian culture stage last for many tens of thousands of years, during which the population would have to gradually develop the ability to write and advanced forms of abstract thinking? In such a scenario, there would be an insurmountable “intellectual abyss” between sedentary peoples with a history of thousands of years and primitive tribes. However, there is no gap. The children of all living human populations today are able to learn, learn the basics of science and master writing, even those peoples who had no contact with the outside world in the 20th century.

This means that the potential that allows us to get a modern education has a very ancient origin, common to all mankind. In this case, the outcome of the modern version of Homo from Africa began at least 60 thousand years ago.

A number of modern researchers indicate that different nations have genetically determined differences in intelligence. And in fact it would be strange if they were not. Indeed, among human populations there are differences in growth, eye color, body proportions, a tendency to a number of diseases, etc. It should be expected that the genetic factors that determine intelligence will also vary. However, these differences do not have the nature of the “abyss” and do not explain the twists and turns of modern history. Say, the ups and downs of China over the past century cannot be explained from the perspective of genetics.

But why the intellectual potential of our distant ancestors was so unexpectedly high? Perhaps the reason is that for many of the activities that determined the appearance of our civilization, mechanisms that were honed over many tens of thousands of years of the Stone Age turned out to be suitable. In this case, there is no fundamental difference between modern science and prehistoric mythology. And this is not about philosophical relativism. It seems that for our brain there is no fundamental difference between the story of the ancestor-bear from the Ice Age and the modern lecture on evolutionary biology. The only difference is that for the first story you need a good imagination, and for the second - a good imagination plus accurate observations. We learned to observe even sparks from under silicon, in attempts to get fire.


In this case, mythology and art did not simply perform the social and psychological functions traditionally attributed to them, such as group unification around common symbols. In the long term, these activities have allowed us to create and visualize the most unexpected images. Yesterday it was the world of spirits, magic and ghosts, today it is stories about the worlds of atoms and galaxies.

Abilities both to imagination and to observation originated in the distant past, therefore evolution had a lot of time to develop them. But only after the agrarian revolution, the opportunity arose for a complete synthesis of these two remarkable properties of our brain. Of course, this does not explain where we almost have the universal abilities for writing, and for a considerable part of people - in mathematics as well. But still we see that the foundation of scientific knowledge was laid in the prehistoric era.

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