Tag Archives: anthropology

What makes humans different to other animals?

You probably know the classic three answers to that one: humans are unique among animals because of tool use, symbolic behavious (e.g. language), and the domestication of other living things. Now, however, we may be able to add a fourth… although it might be better understood as the one that underlies and informs the other three, namely our long history of learning about and understanding the behaviour of other animals. Take it away, Ars Technica:

Shipman asserts that humans’ invention and use of stone tools about 2.6 million years ago helped them successfully hunt and quickly dispatch large carcasses, allowing them to become major players in the predatory guild. As a result, humans became much more in tune with animals for two reasons: the better they understood their prey, the more efficient hunters they would be, and the better they could evade and outcompete other carnivores. Thus, the animal connection began; because it enhanced survival, learning about animals’ anatomy and behavior became a very advantageous pursuit.

The animal connection is strongly evident in another trait that is considered unique to humans: symbolic behavior, specifically art. Animals were the main subject of prehistoric art. Incredibly specific details can be recognized from early cave drawings, including animals’ colors, particular behaviors, and dimorphism between the sexes.


Finally, Shipman claims that by domesticating animals, humans used them as “living tools.” Evidence shows that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated, suggesting that the first domesticates were not used as food sources. In early societies, animals served many purposes, such as carrying heavy loads, providing raw materials such as wool, producing fertilizer, protecting people, hunting game, and transporting goods. By using their accumulated knowledge and understanding of animals, humans were able to transform other species into “living tools” that enhanced their own fitness.

I think we may just have retrospectively uncovered the artistic statement embedded in the Tardigotchi

Maybe Neanderthals could speak after all

skullsAnthropologists have long disagreed on the timing of the emergence of language in our hominid ancestors, and the results of recent research may reignite that debate. CT scans of a 530,000-year-old Homo heidelbergensis skull show that its ear canals are sensitive at 2kHz to 4kHz – the same crucial information-rich frequency range that we modern humans are attuned to – suggesting a much earlier emergence of language than commonly accepted. [via SlashDot] [image by Orin Optiglot; no, they’re not Neanderthal skulls]

Of course, like a great deal of anthropological speculation, it’s educated guesswork:

The results don’t necessarily show that the ancient humans could speak, Quam says. “We’re saying that the ear changed for some reason and that those changes facilitated the possibility of language development…”

Researchers have long tried to determine whether Neandertals could speak by reconstructing their vocal tracts, Quam says. But soft tissue makes up most of the voice box, so few traces remain in the fossil record. The ear is a better candidate because the bony structure reveals more about hearing capacity.

Couple this with the recent discovery that Neanderthals also had a gene which governs the development of language and is only found in modern humans, and we start to get a picture of our distant ancestors that differs considerably from the grunting caveman stereotype.

Humans are evolving faster than ever

Evolution fairground sign Thanks to the magic of the wire services, this story is all over the web like a rash – you can read the abstract of the paper that’s caused the hoo-haa on the blog of John Hawks, one its authors.

But the nutshell quote is this one:

“The massive growth of human populations has led to far more genetic mutations, and every mutation that is advantageous to people has a chance of being selected and driven toward fixation. We are more different genetically from people living 5,000 years ago than they were different from Neanderthals.”

As an early commenter points out on the inevitable MetaFilter thread, faster evolution doesn’t mean we’re improving as a species, because evolution selects for ‘reproductive fitness’ rather than any quality that we might describe as being ‘better’ from a rational point of view.

But it’s an interesting story nonetheless; I’d always thought evolution was a glacially slow process. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the implications are … not to mention the spin that the ‘Young Earth’ folk will try to put on it. [Image by KevinDooley]

[tags]human, evolution, anthropology, biology[/tags]