Category Archive for: ‘Go See’

The Dawn of Human Culture — Book Review

The Dawn of Human Culture:  A Bold New Theory on what sparked the “Big Bang” of Human Consciousness.  By Richard G.  Klein and Blake Edgar.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons.  2002.




This is the best overview of the archeological perspective on human evolution that I have seen.  I have not seen them all, but I have followed developments in this field for at least forty years.  Reading about the different fossils and different archeological finds and different human ancestors in isolation can be confusing.  It is hard to tell the relationships between one ancient ancestor and another.  It is hard to keep the chronology in mind.  It is not clear what came from what or how and when developments took place.  This book straightens a lot of that out.  It is a clearly written, readable, interesting, well organized presentation, well illustrated with many drawings, charts, and maps that powerfully enhance the text.

The dawn of culture doesn’t really break until the last chapter.  Most of the book is just setting the stage for the dawn of culture.  But that is very OK, because it underlines how long it took to get to the place where what we think of as human culture could appear, and it emphasizes through most of human evolution there was no “culture” as we think of it.  People have been making tools out of stone for about 2.5 million years, but if culture means representing ideas to one’s fellow creatures, thinking beyond day to day survival, that did not exist until very recently, say about 50,000 years ago.

It appears to have been a quantum behavioral and psychological leap.  There was no gradual evolution toward “culture.”  It seems to have exploded with modern humans after about 50-60,000 years ago, and within a relatively short time spread to the far corners of the earth.  This seems to call out for an explanation since the ways of life, technology, economy, social organization, and relationship to the natural world remained relatively stable in human ancestor populations for eons prior.  Human anatomy has been stable for about 200,000 years.  Brian Sykes tells us that all living humans can be traced to a single woman living in East Africa about 150,000, years ago, and all non-African modern humans can be traced through another East African woman about 50,000 years later.  (Sykes, 2001, pp. 276-78)  So modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, have been established as a species for at least 150,000 years.  But culture did not appear until about 100,000 years into that span.  What took so long?  And when it did appear, it came in a flood.  It was around that time that modern humans began to migrate out of Africa and displace all of the proto-human ancestor populations like the Neanderthals, homo erectus, and perhaps others in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.  Technology dramatically changed.  Stone tools developed much greater variety and sophistication.  Beads and jewelry appeared.  The first sculptures and figurines were made.  Cave painters began painting magnificent murals on the walls of caves starting at least 32,000 years ago.  What was the spark that lit this fire?

Klein and Edgar think it had to do with a genetic mutation that altered brain function and/or anatomy.  They cite a 2001 paper by Lai, et al.  (Lai, et al, 2001) that claims to have discovered a gene that plays a role in language development.  Were such a gene to be missing or mutated in non-human hominids, it could explain why humans have spoken languages and non-human hominids didn’t.  If that were a gene that mutated in a small human population 50,000 or so years ago and allowed people to develop spoken languages, it could have been the point at which modern humans leaped into the Late Stone Age.   The problem with it is that it is putting a lot on one gene.  This kind of theory is going to be hard to validate from fossils.  The human brain reached nearly its full size by 600,000 years ago.  The Neanderthals actually had larger brains that we do.  So size isn’t everything.  Klein and Edgar think that a genetic modification altered the organization of the brain that allowed for the development of spoken languages.  Spoken languages are considered to be closely linked to the development of “culture.”  Spoken languages powerfully change social relations between people, facilitate organization, enable human beings to develop ideas, modify behaviors, make corrections, improve things, “advance.”  The Neanderthals lived in Europe and the Middle East for at least 200,000 years.  But their technology and way of life did not change very much over that vast time period.  Once modern humans set the cultural snowball rolling it has been growing and accelerating at an increasing pace ever since, to the point where we now completely dominate the globe and are on the verge of destroying it, ourselves, and everything else.  Human intelligence and human culture may turn out to be a failed evolutionary experiment.

I don’t have an opinion on what sparked the advent of human culture.  Klein and Edgar’s hypothesis is speculative.  It could have some plausibility, but the arguments are inconclusive.  The real value of this book, aside from wrestling with the issue of how human culture originated, is its clear, comprehensive, well organized, well illustrated exposition of the evolution of the human species from the fossil record, how that record was assembled, and the issues and controversies that accompanied its growth.  This book makes it all much more comprehensible than anything else I have seen to date.





Lai, Cecelia S. L.; Fisher, Simon E.; Hurst, Jane A.; Vargha-Khadem, Faraneh; Monaco, Anthony P. (2001)  A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder.  Nature 413: 519-23.

Sykes, Brian (2001)  The Seven Daughters of Eve:  The Science that Reveals our Genetic Ancestry.  New York & London:  W.W. Norton.