Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Chimps at the Water Hole

Last night’s (June 23, 2009) NOVA, “Ape Genius,” opened with a group of chimps having a “pool party” (their words) in the wilds of Africa. There they were, dropping from branches into the water, splashing everywhere, behaving like, well, kids at the beach having a grand old time.

You won’t, of course, find much about that in print, because it hasn’t reached the general knowledge base yet, but it’s there in living color. Chimps like to play in the water. At least some of them do.

NOVA went on to show chimps making and sharpening spears to hunt bush babies, a small arboreal primate, as well as understanding and following fairly complicated English instructions. The gist of the show was that we share more traits than we’d like to admit with the other apes.

It began by explaining the human bias towards thinking that many characteristics, such as tool making, are uniquely human as coming from a feeling that people have been blessed by the hand of God, so to speak, making them a separate beast from the other apes, which, the narrator promulgated, was not the truth. Easy for him to say, yet the show continued to speak of the differences between humans and apes rather than between humans and the other apes: a small but significant distinction. For even the most humble of observers it’s difficult to say “other apes,” because couched within that phrase is the admission that we, too, are one of them. (Something, frankly, which bothers me when I see us all driving cars down the road: should apes be doing this, I wonder?)

The show questioned why people ended up the way we did versus how the other apes ended up, but it didn’t look at the broader implications of these discoveries towards evolution in general; it only looked at the relationships between humans and chimps and bonobos. Certainly, chimps and bonobos inhabit different strata of the forest and eat probably slightly different, if similar, diets; and it’s well known that the two species have quite different social structures and behaviors. “Ape Genius” tried to make a case for humans developing differently than other apes because of certain social traits which we have, such as being able to squelch our emotions, rather than seeing those social traits as part of a larger complex of behaviors. Significantly, they didn’t discuss the implications of chimp behavior at the water hole, which is frivolous and interactive, nor did they make any connection between bipedalism and human behavior. It could well be that the forces which inclined us to be bipedal were the same forces that inclined us to be socially cooperative. And it’s plausible that both those traits were picked up at the water hole. (If I were you, I’d keep watching those chimps at the water hole. If they start liking frogs and tubers, who knows how far it could go. Couple million years, they might stand up and sing.)

NOVA also failed to stress the ubiquity of tool-making beyond humans, chimps, and bonobos; but if we have three extant primates making tools, the implications for primates of the past is enlightening. For one thing, it means that tool-making is not a uniquely human characteristic; so that any tool-making fossil from the past is not necessarily in our line any more than is your local bonobo.

But watching those spear-chucking chimps made me rethink early hunting strategies and what sort of weapons would be effective in the open country; and I’m starting to think that a pack of Austrolopithicines armed with sharpened spears might be a formidable foe. They might not be fast of foot out there in the open, but they were clever and, probably, cooperative. This hunting with the dogs thing is starting to make a lot of sense. One thing us “higher” apes are good at is learning from observation. I can see our ancestors watching how pack carnivores work and imitating their cooperative methods. I can see how, when they found themselves hunting the same prey, that the primates would start mimicking and running along with the dogs, as it were. I can picture the dogs looking to each other and asking, “Who let the people out”? And I can see after a successful hunt, right from the get-go the tiny little A-piths tossing the dogs their share: A) it avoids a nasty fight; and B) it insures cooperation next time they find themselves hunting together.

We might have been tough guys out there on the veld. Provided, of course, we had enough to drink.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mr. Wrangham’s Excellent Conjecture

Richard Wrangham is about to publish a book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, where (according to New York Times author Claudia Dreifus) he suggests that cooking was an essential ingredient in our rise above our fellow primates, largely by reducing the amount of time spend chewing our food up. He compared our primal diet to that of chimps which, he says in an interview with Ms Dreifus, they’d have to “masticate for a full hour.” By cooking one could cram the same food down ones gullet in a few minutes, leaving one, presumably, more time to work on ones sonnets and Pythagorean theorems.


I haven’t read Wrangham’s manuscript, but I have read the NY Times interview plus another article on his proposal and am prepared to make a few observations.

The first of which being it is an excellent observation and undoubtedly one with a lot of merit. Unquestionably, cooking took hold for some reason. Whether or not cooked food is “more nutritious” and “healthier,” than uncooked food is certainly open to debate and shouldn’t be accepted prima facie (although cooking definitely makes some foods palatable, which could otherwise be deadly), but that cooking makes food quicker to eat is undoubtedly true, although that may not have played as great a role in its adoption as flavor. If Wrangham displays any major fault with his theory, it’s that he’s too much in love with it, a common problem with theories; I suffer it myself.

Another fault is comparing us to chimps too keenly. Unquestionably, we’re closely related to them and their cousins the bonobos, but we’re likewise a lot different. No one would confuse the two of us walking down the street. And while we may share a distant ancestor, we long ago took different paths; occupied different parts of the forest; and, evidently, ate a different diet; something Wrangham has yet to fully grasp, even after trying to mimic the chimp diet when he was living in Tanzania in 1972. It’s true, we’re both omnivores, but that doesn’t mean we eat the same things; and trying to figure out what a chimp eats won’t necessarily lead you to what proto-people ate two or three million years ago. Especially if you don’t know where those proto-people lived, an issue about which Wrangham is confused. (We won’t get into Wrangham’s being primarily a vegetarian, which casts serious doubt on his understanding of both nutrition and evolution. I should mention here that I had a wife once who tried to emulate the diet of her goats, under reasoning not too different from Wrangham’s, but was dissuaded after the first mouthful of barbed grass heads stuck in her throat for hours.)

Wrangham bases much of his argument on assumptions about human fire use from 1.8 million years ago, a somewhat earlier date for fire use than is generally agreed upon, but not so early as to be improbable. What becomes questionable is to what uses fire was put at that early time and how often was it available. The only sources I’ve found estimating when people were first capable of “making” fire pegs that date between 9,000 and 15,000 years ago, which seems impossibly recent to me. It’s hard for me to believe lightning could be a reliable source of fire, particularly for people traversing the northern reaches at the edge of glaciers, but it’s certainly likely that people were able to control fire long before they could create it. Still, it’s hard to imagine that accidental fire would ever be common or ubiquitous. One can only imagine that for eons people clustered around fires when they had one, but that for most people most of the time there was no artificial warmth; and when someone decided to try cooking something other than a hunk of meat is not determined. In any event, people were upright creatures millions of years before they captured fire, and they were, apparently, already on a superior road to the chimps by the time they stood up for good, long before they started cooking anything. Cooking was a great technological leap and a great time-saver, but it probably didn’t affect our basic nutritional intake, at least at first. Certainly, as some products lend themselves more conveniently to cooking, they tend to become emphasized, but I can only presume that cooking didn’t initially affect food choice. The bottom line, though, is that we have and had our own dietary preferences which are distinguished from what other apes eat and most likely always have been. It’s likely that those early dietary differentials are part of what propelled us on the path we found ourselves; not to mention that those diety preferences probably caused us to becaome upright, as well.

Wrangham drops other bon mots into his conversation which are clearly either inaccurate or unknown. When he states that “the austrolopithicines, the predecessors of our prehuman ancestors, lived in savannahs with dry uplands,” he’s making both errors and assumptions. When the austrolopithicines first descended from the branches, there were no savannas where they were. True, they showed up by the time fire was captured, but they certainly weren’t where any prehumans lived. The austrolopithicines weren’t able to change their habitat, just because their world was drying out around them. Fortunately for them, they lived in a micro-environment along river banks and around marshes and swamps that may have been reduced in size, but never disappeared. When the savannas appeared they could forage, scavenge, and hunt them without actually living in them; provided, of course, that they’d developed weapons and a way to carry water.

Wrangham, likewise, makes several assumptions about how having fires changed our socialization, such as fires providing a stabilizing hearth around which people would then cluster. “This was clearly a very different system from wandering around chimpanzee-style, sleeping wherever you wanted, always able to leave a group if there was any kind of social conflict,” he claims; ignoring that most animals, I’ll bet chimps included, have regular bedding spots (not to mention birthing spots) that aren’t chosen so devil-may-carefully as Wrangham would suggest. Offhand, despite a myth of wandering animals and people, everything has a home territory, every bird has its branch. Even albatrosses.

And while it may be a minor point, there’s no guarantee that austrolopithicines were our ancestors any more than the species h. habilis was, which he also claims as a “distant ancestor.” If an ancestor is a person in ones direct line, then there is no assurance that either austrolopithicines or habilis were our ancestors. We may all have shared another as yet undiscovered ancestor. Someday we might have tests that can determine the relationship of those old fossils to ourselves, but in the meantime we’re going to have to go on the assumption that those old species were relatives, but not necessarily ancestors. We can safely assume that the majority of fossil primate species, bipedal ones included, have yet to be discovered and may never be. Just because a species that shares many of our traits was common at an earlier time doesn’t mean that it is in our direct line.

One also has to wonder about Wrangham’s general life experiences when he makes a statement like, “They [h. habilis] certainly made hammers from stones, which they may have used to tenderize [meat]. We know that sparks fly when you hammer stone. It’s reasonable to imagine that our ancestors ate food warmed by the fires they ignited when they prepared their meat.”

No it’s not. It’s not reasonable at all. It’s a prime example of being in love with ones own theory; once you’re in love, anything is possible. Even if it’s not. Nobody whacking away at a wet piece of meat with a rock is going to send off sparks that are going to catch that meat on fire. Or anything else laying nearby, either. Ain’t gonna happen. If it happened once in the entire history of humanity, I’d be amazed, but to depend on it as a way to get ones cooking fire going? The danger of stretching ones argument like that is that it casts doubt on the rest of ones propositions.

Such as trying to emulate chimps’ eating patterns. He wanted to eat just like a chimp but “in the end… never did the full experiment.” He did allow, though, that “there were times when I went off without eating in the mornings and tried living off whatever I found. It left me extremely hungry.” He relays this, as if it was a valid contribution to the discussion; that it was a valid experiment from which he got a significant result: he was hungry. Aside from the aforementioned problem that we don’t share a diet with chimps, here was an untrained, naive city boy trying to live off what he could find to eat, despite not knowing beans about what’s edible or not in the landscape. And then he has the balls to imply that his hunger was akin to what all “prehumans” would have experienced.

Not likely. And remind me not to go hunting with this guy.

A couple other suppositions surrounding fire test the credulity of the most humble among us:

One was that early cooks would place carcasses in front of advancing wildfires in order to have them cooked as the fire passed over; which surely explains the high hazardous duty pay that habilis cooks earned. Not to mention an attrition rate higher than kamikaze pilots. This supposition, even though burned bones can be analyzed to see whether it was a cooking or a wildfire that charred them, as cooking fires reach much higher temperatures than wildfires. In other words, not only would such a method of cooking be absurdly dangerous, it wouldn’t provide a superior, or necessarily even adequate, result. Trust me, our ancestors survived to become us because they were clever, not foolhardy.

Another amazing suggestion is that people lost their fur/hair in front of the fire, the hair being no longer necessary to keep one warm. It immediately makes me picture the cowboys coming in from the range after riding herd, gathering round the camp fire, taking off their clothes… Sure, we’ve all seen Brokeback Mountain. We know all about campfires and long, lonely nights. Heck, every campfire I’ve ever been at, everyone has taken off their clothes. Your fires, too, I imagine. All that notwithstanding, wouldn’t we expect people who’d lost their hair from sitting in front of a fire to have gotten bald chests and hairy backs? Why hair on the tops of ones heads, for God’s sake? How about to keep from getting sunburned?

That’s what’s meant about the dangers of falling in love with ones own theory. The seduction to explain everything is too great.

It’s too bad, because the origins of cooking are obscure, yet obviously crucial to human development. The relationship between cooking and farming has yet to be explored in any detail. Did we cook anything other than meat prior to the adoption of farming? Was cooking a catalyst for farming? It’s an intriguing question which Wrangham is right to approach. Hopefully, the next person to look at the subject will be more grounded.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Follow the Bottle Gourd

The Web is aptly named; the strands are infinite and one can get lost in there. Things appear and disappear; move or are gone forever. I recently ran across a Dec. 14, 2005 article from Science Daily, “Ancient Humans Brought Bottle Gourds To The Americas From Asia.” Thank God, because it’s the only work I’ve seen on the subject since Charles B. Heiser’s 1979 seminal tome, “The Gourd Book.” Heiser’s book doesn’t touch on the subject of human evolution (at least I don’t remember it doing so), focusing instead on the use of gourds in human history. Undoubtedly, the most fun part of the book is the stuff on gourds as penis display extensions, but the statement that caught my eye was that gourds were most likely the first domesticated plant, predating any foodstuffs.


I was already convinced of the aquatic side of human evolution, but a finding like this, if true, was a powerful piece of evidence in its favor. Now, a quarter of a century later I find a confirmation of Heiser’s statement. The Science Daily article purports that “This lightweight ‘container crop’ would have been particularly useful to human societies before the advent of pottery and settled village life, and was apparently domesticated thousands of years before any plant was domesticated for food purposes.” (Emphasis mine.)


But let me back up a second. This is, after all, post No. 1 for Ape Shit. An introduction is in order.

Simply put, I advocate a demographic approach to the question of human evolution. I believe that a study of the demographics of known human populations can allow us to reconstruct the primal habitat in which we evolved. To my knowledge, this approach is unique and hasn’t been posited elsewhere. There are too many ramifications and elements of the theory to cover it thoroughly in one post, so it will all have to come out in the wash, so to speak.

The guiding principle of the demographic theory is Occam’s Razor. The demographic theory is quantum leaps simpler than anything else proposed, which allows it the luxury of not having to prove aberrations. The various complexities proposed by the savanna school and its offspring, such as standing up to be in the cooling breezes or to carry food to ones mate, verge on the absurd and would generate ridicule were they not proposed by stalwarts of the academic community. That they continue to be put forth makes one shake ones head in amazement.

The only way the academic community has avoided capitulation to a variant of the AAT is by refusing to engage in a discussion with AAT supporters. If you don’t debate them, you can’t lose the debate. Duh!

Because there’s no way anyone can stand in front of an audience and claim that our ancestors’ response to the savanna was go out and behave in ways that no other animal in the history of the world ever behaved and in ways that would surely have gotten them killed, had they done so. You can only pull stuff like that for so long before some fresh-faced kid yells, “Hey, that penguin’s got no clothes.”

But I promised…

Back to the gourds.

Why gourds? Why domesticate gourds thousands of years before foodstuffs? In fact, some people question why start farming, at all? Apparently, if the record of gourds is correct, we knew how to farm thousands of years before we chose to farm something to eat. Why raise gourds and not food?

The demographic theory says, everyone lives by the water hole. We do now; we always have. We know that we all live by the water hole now; it is part of the human condition to have access to water wherever we are and at all times (more or less). To not have that access is to risk death. This is not necessarily true of other animals, and certainly not true of any other primate. We are unique in that regard. The water hole, bar, coffee klutch, is still, along with the hearth, the center of human socialization. Chimps don’t go hang out down at the water hole, but we always do. We consume far more water than any similar animal or other primate and likewise evacuate a unique and very dilute urine stream. The demographic theory assumes that the human condition as such is primordial. Nothing has changed since the beginning. We have always lived at the water hole.

Which means that for millions of years — well, ever since time began, really — we were stuck at the water hole, as much as a kingfisher is. We couldn’t leave; we had to have too much water too much of the time to get away from a freshwater source for any length of time.

Which was, truth to tell, not as bad as it sounds. For one thing, all the best food is down at the water’s edge, if not in the water itself. It seems, for instance, that we’ve always been fond of turtles and frogs and clams, as well as roots and nuts and berries; and they’re a lot easier to catch than squirrels or rabbits, not to mention monkeys.

Furthermore, being slow of foot, not good climbers, and plodding swimmers, we were safest down where the brush was thickest and the trees easiest to climb; or, if need be, we could jump in the water to avoid some predators. We weren’t great swimmers, but we were better than lions.

Good food, safe environment. Where do you think the smartest monkey on the block would set up camp? Don’t forget, for millions of years we were bipedal, small, slow, and completely unarmed, but clever. Not to mention that for those millions of early years there weren’t many savannas, anyway, but if we were caught out in the open, we were known as “lunch.” Given that food and safety were down on the bank and that we were a prime entrĂ©e out in the open, little wonder we stayed down by the water.

Or so the theory goes.

Living down by the water meant that food was rarely our great concern. We’ve always lived in the lush part of the environment. Which is why we could know about farming for thousands of years without being pressured into adopting it: we didn’t have to. We always lived among (relative) abundance.

But for good or ill, we were stuck there, as well, until…

Until we figured out how to carry water with us.

Bingo! Gourds!

Once we had gourds, we could escape the banks. We could travel. We could stay overnight somewhere. We could survive. Food we could find anywhere, but water was, and still is, precious. It makes perfect sense that the bottle gourd was the first domesticated plant, if everyone was stuck at the fountain. If we were living on the savanna, of course, raising bottle gourds wouldn’t make much sense, at all. Why drag around something you don’t need? And surely, if you’re a savanna resident, you don’t need a water bottle. You don’t see lions or gazelles with water bottles, do you? But if you didn’t really live on the savanna but rather lived down by the water hole and only hunted the savanna once you’d acquired weapons, then a water carrying device would have been a huge technological advance. You could see where people right away would start growing bottle gourds, the hell with rice and wheat and corn. You want to get up and get out of there, not sit down and grind grain for the rest of your life.

You can, by the way, think of bottle gourds at the gateway plant, much as marijuana was the gateway plant to the modern organic farming movement. It’s not well known outside the organic farming community, but many of them began their farming careers back in the 1960s and 70s as pot farmers; and only after they’d spent the effort learning how to grow quality marijuana did they turn their attention to the larder. Likewise, evidently, people grew bottle gourds for thousands of years before finally deciding that, if they were going to all that effort, they might as well try growing something else, at the same time. Indeed, it’s been known for some time that people were knowledgeable about food farming long before they took it up; which has generated the nagging question of why? What took people so long? If they’d known how to grow crops for thousands of years yet didn’t, what made them change their mind?

There is another side to the Science Daily article, though, that expands considerably on Heiser’s hypothesis. The gourd was brought to America from Asia, the researchers contend, “some 10,000 years ago.” Bruce Smith, co-author of the research paper says the these early immigrants “did not arrive here empty-handed; they brought a domesticated plant and dogs with them.” He doesn’t say “plants,” plural. Just “a domesticated plant.” The review article doesn’t cover cultivation requirements for the bottle gourd, but a University of Florida Web site does and adds the information that the bottle gourd “is the only crop known to have been cultivated in pre-Columbian times in both the Old and New World.” (A conclusion that is open to debate.) What I was interested in, though, was what kind of climate was required for growing bottle gourds, and the same site says they’re grown “from warm parts of the temperate zone throughout the dry and wet tropics.” The importance of that information is that implies that the gourd didn’t slowly travel up the Siberian and down the Alaskan coasts as people pushed into the Americas, but rather that it was most likely transported from one temperate zone to another an ocean away in one fell swoop. Quite what all that implies, boggles the mind. Essentially, what they’re saying is that 10,000 years ago someone deliberately schlepped some bottle gourd seeds from China to California (or thereabouts) for the purpose of planting them. Hmm? At the very least, it means that by 10,000 BPE the immigrants to the Americas were not just hunters and gatherers, but were already farmers. That’s a pretty big “at the very least.”

Furthermore, you can bet the farm that the 10,000 year old date is by no means a record of the earliest bottle gourd cultivation. That’s only the earliest date we currently have for its cultivation in the Americas. God only knows how long before that it was first cultivated in Africa before spreading to Asia and only then on to the Americas.

Well anyway, that’s how the demographic theory sees it. You have any better guesses? The savannistas won’t touch the issue with a ten-foot pipe. Why do you think the bottle gourd was so important?