Three million years before the first homo sapiens appeared our ancestors were making stone tools with multiple uses. These were not just opportunistic broken flints but tools which had been knapped for the purpose. A recent find pushes back the record of such tools by some 700,000 years. It challenges us to consider the characteristics of the earlier members of our line.
Strictly speaking, Kenyanthropus, the possible toolmaker, may not have been an ancestor. It has only been in recent years that the experts have realised that there were many different members of the hominin group, the majority of whom must be regarded as cousins rather than ancestors. It would appear that evolution was exploring a wide range of progressive types before one of them survived to lead eventually to our own species.
Kenyanthropus platyops was a small brained hominin, with a mixture of modern and primitive features, in some ways less advanced than the famous “Lucy”. The skill needed to construct tools with sharp edges had previously been dated to a much later development in the hominin line, and represents a step change in human cognition.
Palaeoanthropologists have a difficult task. While they have developed sophisticated methods of measuring, dating and identifying, they can only work with the fossils and other evidence which happen to be available. Consequently new finds bring change – sometimes, major change — and many conclusions should be regarded as both provisional and arguable.
Our interest here is to consider whether there is earlier evidence of the characteristics which we are accustomed to regarding as unique to our own species. I think of a capacity for abstract reason and free will. Both are necessary to create a moral person. Free will may not help for we are unable demonstrate freedom in terms of hard evidence even in modern man. So we must look to abstract reasoning, and perhaps the possibility of art.
A clue may come from brain capacity which doubles, and doubles again, in the evolution of hominins. And size not only increases brain cells, it allows for increased connections between them. It is probable that living in society enabled humans to develop the first expressions of a modern mind, though it may have taken 100,000 years to achieve this. Sharing skills with our peers and building on accumulated knowledge enabled us to develop and refine our neural capacity. We had started to ask questions and to develop ways, in concert with others, to find the answers.
And this requires speech. Here, it appears, we have continuous development from the sophisticated but restricted communication of the chimpanzee to our full scale of settled syntax and vocabulary. The immediate predecessors of sapiens — habilis and erectus – may well have developed a rudimentary “proto-language”. We, too, may have started with proto-language, which developed into modern speech by perhaps 70,000 years ago in tandem with our social progress.
And speech is important for our purpose. It requires abstraction. We must abstract from the particular and convert it to a concept both to talk about it and to think about it. Adam could not talk about the animals until he had named them. Nor could we. Speech, I would argue, is clear evidence of abstract reasoning. Did any other hominin use speech? The best candidate is the Neanderthal. It appears about 100,000 years before we arrived. Could Neanderthals speak?
We have no direct evidence. But both sapiens and neanderthalensis inherited from their immediate common ancestor the gene FOXP2 which is specific to speech. And the experts generally agree that both had the detailed anatomy required. If we grant to the Neanderthal a brain as large as ours, burial of their dead – possibly with grave goods, care for the sick and injured, decorative shells and ornaments, control of fire and small family groups, we are looking at a primitive, but undoubtedly human, culture, not essentially different from early sapiens. A strong case may be made that neanderthalensis was equipped, as we are, with reason and reflective consciousness. And this would imply the presence of morality.
Would we regard decorative shells and ornaments as art? They certainly approach it. But another clue, recently recognised, may be helpful. It is a deliberately engraved zigzag on a mussel shell. It is dated to 450,000 years ago, and was the work of our ancestor H. erectus. Whatever the scriber had in mind, he or she worked with meticulous care and proportion. We do not need to accept, as many do, that this qualifies as art, but we may agree with an expert from the archaeological team who reflected on “the growing realization that abilities such as abstract thinking, once ascribed to only H. sapiens, were present in other archaic humans, including, now, their ancestors.” If and how this relates to the history of salvation I leave you to speculate.
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