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The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee

Madagascar 1,500 Australia 50,000

This map illustrates stages in the spread of our ancestors from their African origins to conquer the world. Numbers stand for estimated number of years before the present. Further discoveries of older archaeological sites may well show that some regions, such as Siberia or the Solomon Islands, were colonized earlier than the estimated dates shown here.

The evident aesthetic sense reflected in the Late Ice Age trade in ornaments relates to the achievements for which we most admire the Cro-Magnonstheir art. Best known, of course, are the rock paintings from caves like Lascaux, with stunning polychrome depictions of now-extinct animals, but equally impressive are the bas-reliefs, necklaces and pendants, fired-clay ceramic sculptures, Venus figurines of women with enormous breasts and buttocks, and musical instruments ranging from flutes to rattles.

Unlike Neanderthals, few of whom lived past the age of forty, some Cro-Magno" n skeletons indicate survival to sixty years of age. Many Cro-Magnons, but few Neanderthals, lived to enjoy their grandchildren. Those of us accustomed to getting our information from the printed page or television will find it hard to appreciate how important even just one or two elderly people are in a pre-literate society. In New Guinea villages it often happens that younger men lead me to the oldest person in the village when I stump them with a question about some uncommon bird or fruit. For example, when I visited Rennell Island in the Solomons in 1976, many islanders told me what wild fruits were good to eat, but only one old man could tell me.what other wild fruits could be eaten in an emergency to avoid starvation. He remembered that information from a cyclone that had hit Rennell in his childhood (around 1905), destroying gardens and reducing his people to a state of desperation. One such person in a pre-literate society can thus spell the difference between death and survival for the whole society. Hence the fact that some Cro-Magnons survived twenty years longer than any Neanderthal probably played a big role in Cro-Magnon success. As we shall see in Chapter Seven, living to an older age required not only improved survival skills but also some biological changes, possibly including the evolution of human female menopause.

I have described the Great Leap Forward as if all those advances in tools and art appeared simultaneously 40,000 years ago. In fact, different innovations appeared at different times. Spear-throwers appeared before harpoons or bows and arrows, while beads and pendants appeared before cave paintings. I have also described the changes as if they were the same everywhere, but they were not. 'Among Late Ice Age Africans, Ukrainians, and French, only the Africans made beads out of ostrich eggs, only the Ukrainians built houses out of mammoth bones, and only the French painted woolly rhinos on cave walls. These variations of culture in time and space are totally unlike the unchanging monolithic Neanderthal culture. They constitute the most important innovation that came with our rise to humanity: namely, the capacity for innovation itself. To us today, who cannot picture a world in which Nigerians and Latvians in 1991 have virtually the same possessions as each other and as the Romans in 50 BC, innovation is utterly natural. To Neanderthals, it was evidently unthinkable.

Despite our instant sympathy with Cro-Magnon art, their stone tools and hunter-gatherer lifestyle make it hard for us to view them as other than primitive. Stone tools evoke cartoons of club-waving cavemen uttering grunts as they drag a woman off to their cave. We can form a more accurate impression of Cro-Magnons if we imagine what future archaeologists will conclude after excavating a New Guinea village site from as recently as the 1950s. The archaeologists will find a few simple types of stone axes. Virtually all other material possessions were made of wood and will have perished. Nothing will remain of the multistorey houses, beautifully woven baskets, drums and flutes, outrigger canoes, and world-quality painted sculpture. There will be no trace of the village's complex language, songs, social relationships, and knowledge of the natural world.

New Guinea material culture was until recently 'primitive' (that is, stone-age) for historical reasons, but New Guineans are fully modern humans. New Guineans whose fathers lived in the Stone Age now pilot aeroplanes, operate computers, and govern a modern state. If we could carry ourselves back 40,000 years in a time machine, I expect that we Would find Cro-Magnons to be equally modern people, capable of learning to fly a jet plane. They made stone and bone tools only because no other tools had yet been invented; that is all that they had the opportunity to learn.

It used to be argued that Neanderthals evolved into Cro-Magnons within Europe. That possibility now seems increasingly unlikely. The last Neanderthal skeletons from around 40,000 years ago were still 'fullblown' Neanderthals, while the first Cro-Magnons appearing in Europe at the same time were already anatomically fully modern. Since anatomically modern people were already present in Africa and the Near East tens of thousands of years earlier, it seems much more likely that anatomically modern people invaded Europe from that direction than that they evolved within Europe.

What happened when invading Cro-Magnons met the resident Neanderthals? We can be certain only of the end result: within a short time, no more Neanderthals. The conclusion seems to me inescapable that Cro-Magnon arrival somehow caused Neanderthal extinction. Yet many archaeologists recoil at this conclusion and invoke environmental changes instead. For example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica's fifteenth edition concludes its entry for Neanderthals with the sentence, 'The disappearance of the Neanderthals, although it cannot yet be fixed in time, was probably the result of being creatures of an interglacial period unable to avoid the ravages of another Ice Age. In fact, Neanderthals thrived during the last Ice Age, and suddenly disappeared over 30,000 years after its start and an equal time before its end.

My guess is that events in Europe at the time of the Great Leap Forward were similar to events that have occurred repeatedly in the modern world, whenever a numerous people with more advanced technology invades the lands of a much less numerous people with less advanced technology. For instance, when European colonists invaded North America, most North American Indians proceeded to die of introduced epidemics; most of the survivors were killed outright or driven off their land (Chapter Sixteen); some of the survivors adopted European technology (horses and guns) and resisted for some time; and many of the remaining survivors were pushed on to lands that Europeans did not want, or else intermarried with Europeans (Chapter Fifteen). The displacement of Aboriginal Australians by European colonists, and of southern African San populations (Bushmen) by invading iron-age Bantu-speakers, followed a similar course. By analogy, I guess that Cro-Magnon diseases, murders, and dis-44-JUST ANOTHER SPECIES OF BIG MAMMAL placements did in the Neanderthals. If so, then the Cro-Magnon/ Neanderthal transition was a harbinger of what was to come, when the victors' descendants began squabbling among themselves. It may at first seem paradoxical that Cro-Magnons prevailed over the far more muscular Neanderthals, but weaponry rather than strength would have been decisive. Similarly, it's not gorillas that are now threatening to exterminate humans in Central Africa, but vice versa. People with huge muscles require lots of food, and they therefore gain no advantage if slimmer, smarter people can use tools to do the same work.

Like the Great Plains Indians of North America, some Neanderthals may have learned some Cro-Magnon ways and resisted for a while. This is the only sense I can make of a puzzling culture called the Chatel-perronian, which coexisted in Western Europe along with a typical Cro-Magnon culture (the so-called Aurignacian culture) for a short time after Cro-Magnons arrived. Chatelperronian stone tools are a mixture of typical Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon tools, but the bone tools and art typical of Cro-Magnons are usually lacking. The identity of the people who produced Chatelperronian culture was debated by archaeologists, until a skeleton unearthed with Chatelperronian artifacts at Saint-Cesaire in France proved to be Neanderthal. Perhaps, then, some Neanderthals managed to master some Cro-Magnon tools and hold out longer than their fellows. What remains unclear is the outcome of the interbreeding experiment posed in science-fiction novels. Did some invading Cro-Magnon men mate with some Neanderthal women? No skeletons that could reasonably be considered Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon hybrids are known. If Neanderthal behaviour was as relatively rudimentary, and Neanderthal anatomy as distinctive, as I suspect, few Cro-Magnons may have wanted to mate with Neanderthals. Similarly, although humans and chimps continue to coexist today, I am not aware of any matings. While Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals were not nearly as different, the differences may still have been a mutual turn-off. And if Neanderthal women were geared for a twelve-month pregnancy, a hybrid foetus might not have survived. My inclination is to take the negative evidence at face value, to accept that hybridization occurred rarely if ever, and to doubt that living people of European descent carry any Neanderthal genes.

So much for the Great Leap Forward in Western Europe. The replacement of Neanderthals by modern people occurred somewhat earlier in Eastern Europe, and still earlier in the Near East, where possession of the same area apparently shifted back and forth between Neanderthals and modern people from 90,000 to 60,000 years ago. The slowness of the transition in the Near East, compared to its speed in western Europe, suggests that the anatomically modern people living around the Near East before 60,000 years ago had not yet developed the modern behaviour that ultimately let them drive out the Neanderthals.

Thus, we have a tentative picture of anatomically modern people arising in Africa over 100,000 years ago, but initially making the same tools as Neanderthals and having no advantage over them. By perhaps 60,000 years ago, some magic twist of behaviour had been added to the modern anatomy. That twist (of which more in a moment) produced innovative, fully modern people who proceeded to spread westward into Europe, quickly supplanting Europe's Neanderthals. Presumably, those modern people also spread east into Asia and Indonesia, supplanting the earlier people there of whom we know little. Some anthropologists think that skull remains of those earlier Asians and Indonesians show traits recognizable in modern Asians and Aboriginal Australians. If so, the invading moderns may not have exterminated the original Asians without issue, as they did the Neanderthals, but instead interbred with them.

Two million years ago, several proto-human lineages had coexisted side by side until a shake-up left only one. It now appears that a similar shake-up occurred within the last 60,000 years, and that all of us alive in the world today are descended from the winner of that upheaval. What was the last missing ingredient whose acquisition helped our ancestor to win?

The identity of that ingredient poses an archaeological puz/le without an accepted answer. To help focus our speculations, let me recapitulate the pieces of the puzzle.

Some groups of humans who lived in Africa and the Near East over 60,000 years ago were quite modern in their anatomy, as far as can be judged from their skeletons, but they were not modern in their behaviour. They continued to make Neanderthal-like tools and to lack innovation..The ingredient that produced the Great Leap Forward does not show up in fossil skeletons. There is another way to restate that puzzle. We share ninety-eight per cent of our genes with chimpanzees (Chapter One). The Africans making Neanderthal-like tools just before our sudden rise to humanity had covered almost all of the remaining genetic distance between us and chimps, to judge from their skeletons. Perhaps they shared 99.9% of their genes with us. Their brains were as large as ours, and Neanderthals' brains were even slightly larger. The missing ingredient may have been a change in only 0.1% of our genes. What tiny change in genes could have had such enormous consequences?

Like some other scientists who have speculated about this question, I can think of only one plausible answer: the anatomical basis for spoken complex language. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and even monkeys are capable of symbolic communication not dependent on spoken words. Both chimpanzees and gorillas have been taught to communicate by means of sign language, and chimpanzees have learned to communicate via the keys of a large computer-controlled console. Individual apes have thus mastered 'vocabularies' of hundreds of symbols. While scientists argue over the extent to which such communication resembles human language, there is little doubt that it constitutes a form of symbolic communication. That is, a particular sign or computer key symbolizes a particular something else.

Primates can use not only signs and computer keys, but also sounds, as symbols. For instance, wild vervet monkeys have a natural form of symbolic communication based on grunts, with slightly different grunts to mean leopard', 'eagle', and 'snake'. A month-old chimpanzee named Viki, adopted by a psychologist and his wife and reared virtually as their daughter, learned to 'say' approximations of four words: 'papa', 'mama', 'cup', and 'up'. (The chimp breathed rather than spoke those words.) Given this capability for symbolic communication using sounds, why have apes not gone on to develop much more complex natural languages of their own? The answer seems to involve the structure of the larynx, tongue, and associated muscles that give us fine control over spoken sounds. Like a Swiss watch, all of whose many parts have to be well-designed for the watch to keep time at all, our vocal tract depends on the precise functioning of many structures and muscles. Chimps are thought to be physically incapable of producing several of the commonest human vowels. If we too were limited to just a few vowels and consonants, our own vocabulary would be greatly reduced. For example, take this paragraph, convert all vowels other than 'a' or 'i' to either of those two, convert all consonants other than 'd' or 'm' or V to one of those three, and then see how much of the paragraph you can still understand. Therefore, the missing ingredient may have been some modifications of the proto-human vocal tract to give us finer control and permit formation of a much greater variety of sounds. Such fine modifications of muscles need not be detectable in fossil skulls.

It is easy to appreciate how a tiny change in anatomy resulting in capacity for speech would produce a huge change in behaviour. With language, it takes only a few seconds to communicate the message, 'Turn sharp right at the fourth tree and drive the male antelope towards the reddish boulder, where I'll hide to spear it. Without language, that message could be communicated only with difficulty, if at all. Without language, two proto-humans could not brainstorm together about how to devise a better tool, or about what a cave painting might mean. Without language, even one proto-human would have had difficulty thinking out for himself or herself how to devise a better tool.

I do not suggest that the Great Leap Forward began as soon as the mutations for altered tongue and larynx anatomy arose. Given the right anatomy, it must have taken humans thousands of years to perfect the structure of language as we know itto arrive at the concepts of word order and case endings and tenses, and to develop vocabulary. In Chapter Eight I shall consider some possible stages by which our language might have become perfected. But if the missing ingredient did consist of changes in our vocal tract that permitted fine control of sounds, then the capacity for innovation would follow eventually. It was the spoken word that made us free. This interpretation seems to me to account for the lack of evidence for Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon hybrids. Speech is of overwhelming importance in the relations between men and women and their children. That is not to deny that mute or deaf people learn to function well in our culture, but they do so by learning to find alternatives for a spoken language that already exists. If Neanderthal language was much simpler than ours or non-existent, it is not surprising that Cro-Magnons did not choose to marry Neanderthals.

I have argued that we were fully modern in anatomy and behaviour and language by 40,000 years ago, and that a Cro-Magnon could have been taught to fly a jet aeroplane. If so, why did it take so long after the Great Leap Forward for us to invent writing and build the Parthenon? The answer may be similar to the explanation why the Romans, great engineers that they were, didn't build atomic bombs. To reach the point of building an A-bomb required two thousand years of technological advances beyond Roman levels, such as the invention of gunpowder and calculus, the development of atomic theory, and the isolation of uranium. Similarly, writing and the Parthenon depended on tens of thousands of years of cumulative developments after the arrival of Cro-Magnonsdevelopments that included the bow and arrow, pottery, domestication of plants and animals, and many others.

Until the Great Leap Forward, human culture had developed at a snail's pace for millions of years. That pace was dictated by the slow rate of genetic change. After the Leap, cultural development no longer depended on genetic change. Despite negligible changes in our anatomy, there has been far more cultural evolution in the past 40,000 years than in the millions of years before. Had a visitor from outer space come to the Earth in Neanderthal times, humans would not have stood out as unique among the world's species. At most, the visitor might have mentioned humans along with beavers, bowerbirds, and army ants as examples of species with curious behaviour. Would the visitor have foreseen the change that would soon make us the first species, in the history of life on Earth, capable of destroying all life?

THE HUMAN FAMILY TREE | The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee | PART TWO AN ANIMAL WITH A STRANGE LIFE-CYCLE