The Guardian of All Things
The Epic Story of Human Memory
By Michael S. Malone
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Michael S. Malone
All rights reserved.
Finding a Voice
Memory as Word
When did hominids become human?
When we used our memories to do more than remember.
When did that occur? That's not any easy question to answer — certainly not as easy as it might seem from those charts of the "Ascent of Man" we first encountered as children and have seen parodied ever since.
There, the answer was obvious: in the long parade from the knuckle-dragging Ardipithecus ramidus to the upright Australopithecus to Homo habilis carrying his stone scraper, to Homo erectus with his flint knife. Next, depending upon the complexity of the chart came Neanderthal Man, carrying a spear on his sturdy shoulders.
Finally, and you can tell this was the culmination of human evolution because the figure was standing upright, his hair combed, looking European, and in some posters even clothed to protect our same-species modesty, stood Homo sapiens in all of his mid-twentieth-century glory. He always looked about to shake your hand and introduce himself as the Southeastern regional sales manager.
Implicit in the chart was the notion that man became Man somewhere in midstride between heavy-browed Neanderthal and shiny new Brussels bureaucrat. Older charts made things a little more complicated, because, unexpectedly, there was a new guy (also covered in skins because he looked a little too much like one of your neighbors) slipped in between Mr. Forehead and ourselves. This was Cro-Magnon Man, who — until he was judged to be just modern man in mufti — presented the depressing paradox of apparently being a more impressive specimen than modern man.
Still, missing links (real or imagined) or not, the Ascent of Man seemed a neat and straight parade across the course of a couple million years. And the threshold between early man (simple tools, hunting parties, small family groups) and modern man (computers, cities, nation-states) lay somewhere in that blank space just in front of Mr. Neanderthal's mighty forehead.
Part of the appeal of limited knowledge is that it often makes organizational schemes and taxonomies really easy. But eventually you dig up enough bones and fossils that you have to put a new head — and a new name (Apatosaurus) — on everyone's beloved Brontosaurus. And so, in the four decades since the discovery of "Lucy," the little female Australopithecus afarensis who lived more than three million years ago, the Ascent of Man has changed from a single-file march through history into something closer to the crowd at the end of a hockey game milling around in the plaza and slowly making its way to a single exit turnstile.
Every year, archaeologists, armed with ever more powerful investigative tools, find new bits of bone and other artifacts that alter — sometimes radically — our understanding of hominid history. And it is only going to get worse: Thanks to phenomena such as "genetic drift" (in which rare genes can come to dominate isolated populations) the closer we look, the more alternative evolutionary pathways, breakthroughs, and dead ends we are likely to find.
A case in point was the controversial discovery in 2004 on the Indonesian island of Flores of the tiny bones of "Hobbit people" (Homo floresiensis), most of them less than three feet tall. Remarkably, some of these skeletons are only about 13,000 years old, making them contemporaneous with modern man. Whether the Hobbit people were a distinct species or merely the bones of Homo sapiens with genetic diseases (such as lack of a thyroid gland) is still being debated.
But perhaps the most interesting recent discovery comes from the spot just behind Neanderthal Man's huge head on our old chart. His name is Homo heidelbergensis (named after the university) and though first identified at the beginning of the twentieth century, his importance wasn't really understood until the 1990s — which is why he is all but unknown to the general public. H. heidelbergensis both answers and complicates an important question in human evolution: What happened during that apparent transformation from Neanderthal to modern man 50,000 years ago in Asia (30,000 years ago in Europe)?
The answer, scientists now believe, begins with H. heidelbergensis, who appeared about 600,000 years ago. H. heidelbergensis was an impressive figure: heavily muscled, six feet tall (there may even have been some seven-footers), and with a brain about the size of modern man's. He knew how to use simple tools. And, most remarkably, he also appears to be the ancestor of both Neanderthal and modern man.
That helps to explain why, at least toward the end of the former's existence, Neanderthal and modern man appear to have existed side by side. Neanderthal Man got most of Heidelberg Man's looks — the heavy bones, beadle brow, and the comparatively large brain. But modern man got the height and added a uniquely flat face and a lanky frame. And if modern man didn't inherit quite the cranial size of his Neanderthal cousin, he instead got something even more important: language, and a brain to process and store it.
As anyone who watches science documentaries knows, chimpanzees and apes, for all of their brainpower (our appreciation of which also seems to grow by the day), have limited ability to speak because of a weak larynx due to a narrow cervical vertebra. What most people don't know is that, as with deaf-mutes, this inability to verbalize is further constrained by an inability to hear — in the ape's case, a lack of capacity to differentiate between certain vocal sounds.
Of all of the points of divergence between man and apes, this is a big one — a fact made clear when researchers first taught apes to use sign language and were stunned by their facility. Historically, this divergence appears to have taken place with Heidelberg Man's immediate predecessor, Homo ergaster, a southern African hominid who should also stand on the chart between H. habilis and Neanderthal Man.
Like Heidelberg Man, Homo ergaster is a very interesting character. Huge — he may have averaged a couple inches taller than six feet, and the females were nearly as tall — Homo ergaster appears to have used his comparatively larger brain not only to gain mastery over fire but to take hominids out of Africa for the first time. As earthshaking as those achievements were, H. ergaster's greatest achievement was to evolve both a wider cervical vertebra — which gave him the first "human voice" — but also a new middle- and outer-ear configuration that enabled him to hear the voices of others.
This was hardly a coincidence. The competitive advantage of a more facile voice was amplified by the improved hearing of that voice — and vice versa. H. ergaster probably never had a true speaking voice, much less developed a spoken language; his brain was still too small for that. But as with fire and tools, H. ergaster was, if not the ultimate owner of spoken language, certainly its pioneer.
The task of turning this capability into a defining human characteristic fell to H. heidelbergensis, with his larger and nimbler brain. Certainly he had the physical tools to do so. And there is a wealth of circumstantial evidence — for example, he was the first to honor and bury his dead, he developed relatively precise tools, and may have collected red ochre for painting and body adornment — that suggests a level of cultural sophistication that seems impossible without some kind of complex form of communication.
But was it a spoken language? We may never know the answer to that. There are no known Heidelberg Man drawings or carvings to suggest pictogram-based communication. And as anyone who has ever been in a hunting party or a reconnaissance team knows, it is possible to convey a considerable amount of information — even without a formal grammar — via a very small repertoire of hand signals. Indeed, being prodigious hunters operating in small family units, Heidelberg Man may well have created a kind of sign language like that found in later hunter-gatherer societies (such as American Indians) to create a kind of lingua franca for those rare intertribal encounters.
But that larynx and inner ear weren't evolving without a competitive advantage. So, we can assume that Heidelberg men and women were communicating with one another with an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary of sounds, if not yet a true language. Further, we can also assume that these sounds were taught to thousands of generations of progeny, who slowly but surely added to the common repertoire. And, given the flexibility with which these sounds could be made by the evolving voice box — and the fact that verbal communication didn't have to be line-of-sight — it seems pretty likely that, had you been walking in the Bavarian woods a half-million years ago, you would have heard proto-humans calling out to one another across the valleys and through the forests.
Spoken language might not have conferred much of an additional advantage during the hunt, but it certainly did before with strategy and after with the distribution of the spoils. And in a world of terrors and dangers, shouted warnings would be especially useful — especially to warn people looking the wrong way, or to assemble the tribe quickly in an emergency.
But this is as far as Heidelberg Man got, even in the most optimistic analysis. He could convey information (look out!) in the present — and perhaps reference physical objects in the past (the wooly mammoth with the crooked tusk we killed) — but not much more; and even the latter was probably better expressed with sign language.
More sophisticated spoken language would have to wait for Heidelberg's descendant, Neanderthal Man. This may come as a surprise to many readers, who were taught in school, movies, and television that Mr. Neanderthal, the stereotypical "caveman" only managed to communicate with an array of grunts and gutturals. But anthropologists have challenged that notion ever since 1983, when an Israeli dig of Neanderthal skeletons uncovered a hyoid bone. The hyoid bone is a c-shaped structure that acts like a roof truss, tying together the tongue and the larynx and enabling them to brace off each other to produce a wider spectrum of sounds.
Hyoid bones have been around a very long time — they evolved from the second gill of early fishes — but the particular shape of these Neanderthal hyoids was thought to be unique to humans, creating a "descended" larynx that enables Homo sapiens to not only wrap their voices around an endless array of sounds but also to sing notes across multiple octaves. Now, it was found, Neanderthal had the same hyoid bone. Genetic research also found that Neanderthal shared with modern man the FOXP2 (Forkhead Box Protein P2) gene form equated with language capability. These discoveries have led some researchers to speculate that Neanderthal men and women, like their modern counterparts, may have verbally communicated in two forms: speech and music.
A SIMIAN SONG
A singing Neanderthal is a long ways from the classic image of the slope-headed caveman in a bearskin dragging a club. But for all of his heavy features and brute strength, Neanderthal man was a very sophisticated, even artistic, creature, with a brain larger than (if not as advanced as) modern man's. He built shelters and fabricated fine bone and antler tools, buried his dead, lived in extended communities, and organized some of the bravest and most sophisticated hunts in hominid history. Given all of that, it would not be surprising that Neanderthal Man, in some limited way, actually talked.
One archaeologist, Steven Mithen of the University of Reading, has argued that Neanderthal Man used a "protolinguistic" mode that reflected the fact that spoken language and music had not yet split and taken their separate paths. This simple, singing language he calls hmmmm — meaning that it was holistic, manipulative, multimodal, musical, and mimetic. But at the moment, Mithen's a lonely voice: The current scientific consensus is that a language of even this little sophistication was still probably too much for Neanderthal Man.
Temporarily leaving the disturbing image of heavy-browed Neanderthal hunters serenading one another with song as they maneuver through the snow around a trapped wooly mammoth, let's pause to consider what was going on inside the brain of one of those hunters.
First of all, put aside any old stereotype about our Neanderthal Man being stupid. He had a very powerful brain; in some ways — pattern recognition, multisensory processing, and comprehensive visual field analysis — it was likely more powerful than our own. But a modern human being would find inhabiting such a mind an enthralling — and terrifying — experience indeed.
What would be exciting about sharing Neanderthal Man's mind is that it would exist in the present with an intensity few of us have ever known. The world around us would explode with so much information — sounds, colors, movements, shapes, textures, and smells — that it would almost be overwhelming. We modern humans consume drugs, watch movies, seek out adventures, and take dangerous risks just to feel for a few moments an eternal here-and-now that Neanderthal Man likely felt almost every second of the day.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the cost of so completely owning the present is to lose all of the future and much of the past. Finding yourself inside a Neanderthal brain would be, in those intervals when you weren't absorbed in the moment, a desperately lonely place. For one thing, that voice — of consciousness and conscience — that we hear in our heads would be gone. So would all of the stories and anecdotes that we've ever heard, and every memorable conversation we've ever had. What things we did learn — almost always by observing someone else — would be learned by rote and, because we lacked any ability to analogize, would be difficult to adapt to changed circumstances. Instead we would just ritually do things over and over, not understanding why it no longer worked.
Without a real language, our ability to interact with others would be severely limited. Certainly a lot can be accomplished nonverbally: hunting, child-rearing, sex, food preparation, and so on. But the inability to share fading memories of the past, or dreams of the future, of one's hopes and fears, of new ideas and useful experiences ... that would be devastating to anyone who had ever known such things.
But ultimately, what might be the most frustrating thing about finding ourselves in a Neanderthal brain would be that despite our new hyperacute sensory experience of the world around us, something profound and vital would be missing from our ability to enjoy those experiences. Not only would it be difficult to share those experiences with others but, just as important, we would have almost no capacity to contextualize them to ourselves. Without language, we lack a capacity for analogy and metaphor — perhaps the most important traits distinguishing human beings from all other living things on Earth. Without those two, our capacity to learn and grow intellectually would be profoundly impeded.
Neanderthal memory was likely a powerful engine, capable of remembering an almost infinite number of warnings of impending weather change, animal patterns and behaviors, precise geological and biological features along long migratory paths, and the tracks, spoor, and calls of hundreds of species and varieties. But without the ability to extrapolate from limited data to larger explanations, or to tie together disparate subjects in order to increase understanding — and, most of all, to tie the trends of the present into scenarios for the future — Neanderthal Man was doomed to be forever trapped in the "now," in his short and brutal lifetime having to learn almost everything from experience.
Neanderthal Man had a human brain, but without language — or even with a protolinguistic like hmmmm — he couldn't operate it efficiently. Most of all, without language, he couldn't properly fill, organize, expand, or access his memory beyond a direct correlation between past experience and current stimulation. And without such a memory, Neanderthal Man couldn't be fully human. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Guardian of All Things by Michael S. Malone. Copyright © 2012 Michael S. Malone. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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