Human Nature in time




If mental illness is bad for our survival then it should have disappeared via natural selection. Yet mental illness is very high in the industrialised world.

Penny Spikins at York University, UK “By embracing the unique skills and tendencies that came with unusual ways of thinking, early humans became more inventive and adaptable, and eventually out competed all other hominids.

Tools were the same from 2.6 million years ago. These were crude and simple. Then from 100,000 years ago there was a sudden change with more precisely made technology and rapid change. At the same time there was an art revolution. You do not see either event in the longer history of the Neanderthals.

“Spikins argues that this technological tool revolution may have been triggered by a greater tolerance for people with traits on the autism spectrum. “I’m not saying that someone who isn’t autistic wouldn’t understand this technology, but that the innovation is more likely to have come from someone who is systematic and has that unique focus on precision,” she says.”

It has been suggested that shamans in modern hunter-gather societies have schizophrenia traits, but this is useful in creatively generating and maintaining myth/ritual that binds social group.

Catriona Pickard, University of Edinburgh’s work suggests, “mental illness is more likely to be an unfortunate by-product of evolving a highly developed brain. (Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol. 21, p357).”

Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, has found that in the City in Holland with hi-tech jobs has higher incidence of kids with autism than other cities of same size. He also found a link between schizophrenia and creative ability.

If we start selecting against the outer margins on any set of attributes, we may be losing something valuable to our culture. And yet the stories of pain and suffering of those who live out on those extremes are quite real too.” Robert Cook-Deegan, director of the Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy at University of North Carolina.

“Inherited mental illness is very rare among living primates.”

In the West, we continue to pathologise difference, and lose its potential adaptive advantage.

“We may need their different ways of thinking to see us through the next few thousand years. If the past teaches us anything. It’s that humanity thrives by being adaptable.

(Kate Ravilious ‘Different Minds’ p35-37 New Sci 5 Nov 2011)


“The idea that Homo Sapiens rose to dominance over other hominids because of a greater tolerance for psychiatric conditions that produce unorthodox ways of thinking [see above] is certainly intriguing. But given the inevitable lack of first-hand accounts, it is likely to remain contentious.”

“There is contemporary evidence that traits associated with particular conditions may sometimes confer benefits.”

(Editorial p3 New Sci 5 Nov 2011)


Why did we spread so far? “It may have begun with a big squeeze. All humans belong to one of four mitochondrial lineages (LO, L1, L2 and L3)) corresponding to four ancestral mothers, but only L3 is found outside Africa. Quentin Atkinson at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and colleagues have found that this lineage experienced a population explosion in the 10,000 years leading up to the exodus (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 276, p367). So overcrowding in the Horn of Africa may have pushed the group to cross the Red Sea and move along the southern cost of Asia.”

Population growth drove technology, economic, social and cognitive behaviour according to Paul Mellars at University of Cambridge (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 103, p9381).

“Genetic mutations could also have made us more adventurous. For example, the so-called novelty seeking gene, DRD4-7R, is more common in populations that migrated fastest and furthest from Africa (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol 145, p382).”

(Kate Douglas ‘RIDDLES OF OUR PAST: Why did we go global’ p40 New Sci 24 Mar 2012)


Across cultures humans have daily caring interactions with many different species. It seems such a counter productive use of effort, but it did evolve with us. Shipman links this human fundamental to the development of tool-making, language and domestication.

Stone tools allow our ancestors to add meat to their diet by a short-cut that avoided the need to evolve the bodies of carnivores. Thus leading to better nutrition, bigger brains and spending less time gathering food. However, they had to get smart about other animals so that the real carnivores didn’t eat them. They had to get an understanding and an ability to anticipate the behaviour of prey and competing predators. [This is the source of our empathy.]

Predators live at lower densities than prey and so early humans dispersed from Africa at about 6-7 million years ago. The importance of the knowledge they shared about animals can be seen from how much they dominant prehistoric art. Other subjects such as people, plants and places are rare. “There are no images showing how to build shelters, make fires or create tools. Animal information mattered more than all of these.” The sharing of this knowledge drove the development of language.

Domestication has been thought to be all about food, but Shipman doubts this. Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated (32,000-17,000 years ago), long before any ‘food’ animals were. “A domestic animal that is slaughtered for food yields little more meat than a wild one that has been hunted, yet requires more management and care. Such a system is not an improvement in food security.” Instead they are domesticated for many other reasons, transport, hauling, wool for clothes, milk, hunting assistance, protection, manure for fertiliser and building etc. But to achieve this humans must have had an already deep understanding of animals and been living closely and interacting with them, even affecting their breeding for a very long time.

The resource of animals that was mobile and could be multiplied, enabled humans to move to uninhabitable areas.

The fundamental importance of our relationship with animals explains why interacting with them offers various physical and mental health benefits – and why the annual expenditure on items related to pets and wild animals is so enormous.”

“If our species was born of a world rich with animals, can we continue to flourish in one where we have decimated biodiversity?”

(Pat Shipman ‘Creature contacts’ p33-36 New Sci 28 May 2011)

(Author of “The Animal Connection: A new perspective on what makes us human” W W Norton 2012)



HUMAN DNA IS HYBRID – all species definitions are ‘fuzzy’

“Comparing modern humans DNA with ancient hominin sequences has revealed that between 1 and 4 per cent of the genome of everyone of non-African descent is inherited from Neanderthals (Science, vol 328, p710). Melanesians also have 7 per cent derived from Denisovans (Nature, vol 468, p1053). “This is an unequivocal signal that humans mated with these other populations,” says Richard Green at the University of California, Santa Cruz).”

“Relatively infrequent and possibly confined to a single time and place for each species.”

“Martin Richards at Huddersfield University in the UK notes that the species concept is “very fuzzy”, making it difficult to draw neat lines between groups. One definition of species is a group that cannot mate and produce viable offspring with other species, so the genetic analysis calls into question whether Neanderthals and Denisovans were different species to humans at all. Indeed, Neanderthals are sometimes considered a subspecies of Homo sapiens.”

(Dan Jones ‘RIDDLES OF OUR PAST: Are some of us hybrids?’ p41 New Sci 24 Mar 2012)


MEDICINAL HERBS. Karen Hardy at ICREA, Barcelona, Spain studied a site at El Sidron in northern Spain, that revealed that one Neanderthal ate yarrow, an astringent and camomile, an anti-inflammatory. (Naturwissenschaften, DOI: 10.1007/s00114-012-0942-0).

“Chemical trapped in the tartar on Neanderthal teeth show they ate bitter-tasting plants with medicinal properties. The find is the earliest direct evidence of self-medication in prehistoric times, although a few modern non-human primates are also known to self-medicate. “

(In Brief ‘Neanderthals had herbal know-how’ p14 New Sci 28 July 2012)


SPEECH. “Speech pre-dates the divergence of the human and Neanderthal lines around 500,000 years ago.”

(David Robson ‘RIDDLES OF OUR PAST: Why did language evolve?’ p38 New Sci 24 Mar 2012)


BURIAL. Neanderthals protected corpses by covering with rocks, placing in pits “suggesting the kinds of intimate, embodied social and cognitive interaction typical of our own family life.”

(Thomas Wynn & Frederick L. Coolidge ‘The Inner Neanderthal’ p26-27 14 Jan 2012 New Sci)

HOW WE ARE DIFFERENT FROM NEANDERTHALS – longer dependency period and so different brains

CHILDHOOD “Through play children figure out how to interact socially, practice problem solving and learn to innovate, skills that will be indispensable to them as adults.”

The single biggest difference between Neanderthals and humans that we can see in the archaeological record, however, lies in both the quantity and nature of the artefacts they imbued with an obvious symbolic dimension.”

“Humans today live in what we call a symbolic culture. All the objects around us have a symbolic dimension.” [This may suggest why natural environments feel more restful.]

“A few Neanderthal sites dating from 50,000 to 30,000 years ago contain some beads, pigments, raptor talons and indirect evidence for feathers – all presumably for some kind of body decoration.”

“Even if we focus on just the period 50,000 to 30,000 years ago we find that early humans created bone flutes, the breath taking cave paintings of the Chauvet cave in France, imaginative personal ornaments such as ivory beads carved to look like shells, and figurines incised with geometric patterns.”

Tanya Smith and colleagues in 2010 in Harvard University. “Concluded that Neanderthals grew relatively rapidly and spent less time dependant on their parents.”

“In general, species like us, with longer dependency periods, tend to play more and engage in more types of play. This influences our minds, because play is an important part of the healthy cognitive development of many animals, not just humans, and being deprived of opportunities to play can be detrimental.”

Lack of play leads to damage to prefrontal cortex, “a region of the brain involved in social behaviour, abstract thinking and reasoning. In other words, play shapes the brain. But the kind of play we have also shapes the type of play we engage in.”

Humans are unique in that we engage in fantasy play, part of a package of symbol-based cognitive abilities that includes self-awareness, language and theory of mind. Its benefits include creativity, behavioural plasticity, imagination and the ability to plan. Being able to imagine novel solutions to problems and to work out their consequences before implementing them would have been an enormous advantage for our early ancestors – this is exactly what we are practising when we play “what if” games. From what we can tell, it is unlikely that Neanderthals were able to engage in fantasy play, and it is this level of imagination that underlies the difference in material culture between Neanderthals and early humans.”

They had accelerated brain growth, so “the environment had less impact on the connectivity of their developing brains. Taking a modern example, accelerated brain growth in children with autism lessens their ability to read social cues and engage in fantasy play.”

(April Nowell ‘All work and no play left little time for art’ p28-29 New Sci 23 Feb 2013)


THEY DID NOT TRAVEL. Their tools show that they almost never travelled outside of their small home territories, which were rarely over 1000 square km. They relied on knowledge of terrain for their hunting, and their groups of 5-10 would have had to come together with others for bigger hunts. The style of hunting lead to frequent injuries. There is also no indication of trade or contact with other groups. Though the small territories would have made marrying out of the groups essential.

“And they almost certainly lacked the cognitive abilities for dealing with strangers.

Modern humans traded and had “cheater detection” ability and ability to judge the value of one commodity against another “market pricing” ability. Both key reasoning skills for interacting with acquaintances and strangers.

(Thomas Wynn & Frederick L. Coolidge ‘The Inner Neanderthal’ p26-27 14 Jan 2012 New Sci)


THEY LEARN’T DIFFERENTLY AND INNOVATED LESS. “They relied on “expert” cognition, a form of observational learning and practice acquired through apprenticeship that relies heavily on long-term procedural memory. The only obvious difference between Neanderthal technical thinking and ours lay in innovation.

“Active invention relies on thinking by analogy and a good amount of working memory, implying they may have a reduced capacity in these respects.”

“They would have been better at well learned, expert cognition than modern humans, but not as good at the development of novel solutions. They were adept at intimate small scale social cognition, but lacked the cognitive tools to interact with acquaintances and strangers, including the extensive use of symbols.”

They may have had a wide variety of personality types like humans but the way of life would have selected for a different average profile; pragmatic, stoic, sympathy and empathy. Few would live past 35 years of age.

(Thomas Wynn & Frederick L. Coolidge ‘The Inner Neanderthal’ p26-27 14 Jan 2012 New Sci)


Did humans exterminate Neanderthals? “The case against us is not watertight. Neanderthals sites show little sign of direct contact with modern humans, let alone competition or warfare, says Clive Finlayson of the University of Toronto, Canada. Instead he blames the Neanderthals fall, and our rise, on climate change (The Humans Who Went Extinct, Oxford University Press, 2009).”

He says reduction in vegetation as it got colder meant Neanderthals hunting style at close range was more difficult. We had projectile weapons. And so they hung on where climate was more stable. We just had the edge and out competed them.

(David Robson ‘RIDDLES OF OUR PAST: Did we exterminate the Neanderthals?’ p42 New Sci 24 Mar 2012)




Beware of ‘palaeofantasies’. There never was a time when we were perfectly adapted. Our environment was forever changing and so were we. It is true that we are ill adapted for sitting for so long, but this is ‘palaeo-nostalgia, “the notion that we were all better off before agriculture, or civilisation or the industrial revolution. It’s not to say life has been unmitigatedly getting better.” “I’m not dismissing the idea that you need to look at our evolutionary heritage to think about what’s best for us health-wise”

For example, cancer has been shown to be just as common in ancient remains as in modern populations, with the exception of lung cancer.

We are evolving in different parts of the world to eat different foods. We have also altered those foods to suit us. “Our foods have changed so much that virtually every item in a supermarket is drastically genetically different from its prehistoric equivalent. This is what humans do: we modify foods so that they become more palatable and digestible.

“There is a lot of research on the “thrifty genotype” idea – that our ancestors evolved to deal with boom and bust food availability. If you’re always in boom, it’s going to have unexpected consequences for your health. That’s a good example of how we need to consider evolutionary heritage when we think about food and how it affects our physiology. But that’s different from saying we should eat exactly like our forebears.

“The point is to get inspired by the past, not constrained by it.”

(Alison George ‘The lure of the Stone Age’ p28-29 New Sci 23 Mar 2013. Interview with Marlene Zuk, University of California.)


Daniel Lieberman states that, “My argument, from an evolutionary perspective, would be that not having regular physical activity every day is pathological and abnormal.” However, “There was never any evolutionary selection pressure to make us like exercise.” As our environment demanded effort of use anyway. “On the contrary, there was probably, selection to help people avoid needless exercise when they could. Some hunter-gatherers had diets of about 2200 calories a day.” So we evolved to seek out high energy food.

Our current low physical activity affects nearly every disease we suffer from.

“If we want to practice preventative medicine, that means we have to eat foods that we might not prefer, and exercise when we don’t want to. The only way to do that is through some form of socially acceptable coercion.”

(Anil Ananthaswamy ‘The exercise paradox’ p28-29 New Sci 1 Jun 2013. Interview with Daniel Lieberman, Harvard University.)


Why are people more depressed now than in past? People in the past and the older generation did more physical work than we do now. They made greater efforts to survive and so were mentally healthier.

“By denying our brains the rewards that come from anticipating and executing complex tasks with our hands, the author argues, we undercut our mental well-being.”

Convenience technology has lead to soaring mental health issues. We lack the

“effort-driven-rewards” satisfaction and pleasure derived from when physical effort produces tangible and meaningful resources necessary for survival. This is nature’s way or we end up as “cave potatoes”. When we are involve this mechanism we experience increased sense of control, more positive emotions and enhanced resilience against depression.

“In fact, anticipating something pleasureable creates more activity in the pleasure centre of the brain than actually achieving the goal does.”

“Of course, you may feel a sense of accomplishment when you zip through your cognitive to-do list. The pleasure derived from just intellectualizing a problem is rewarding because it activates the prefrontal cortex. But effort-driven rewards activate the problem-solving prefrontal cortex plus the movement-controlling striatum and the reward/motivation center known as the accumbens, leaving you with a fuller brain experience that prepares you for life’s next challenge. The decreased brain activation associated with increasingly effortless-driven rewards may, over time, diminish your perception of control over your environment and increase your vulnerability to mental illness such as depression.”

“Anything that lets us see clear connection between effort and consequence – and that helps us feel in control of a challenging situation – is a kind of mental vitamin that helps build resilience and provides a buffer to depression.”

(Kelly Lambert ‘Depressingly Easy’ p31-37 Scientific American Mind Aug Sep 2008. An extract from ‘Rising Rates of Depression in Today’s Society: Consideration for the Roles of Effort-Based Rewards and Enhanced Resilience in Day-to-Day Functioning’ Kelly G. Lambert in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Vol.30, No.4 pages 497-510; 2006.)


Many years of research has built up a strong case for the healing effects of the natural world, but the actual processes are only now coming to light. These suggest that it is possible to ‘fake’ natural triggers for the immune system, making the natural effect more accessible for those who cannot get out in to nature.

20 minutes of playing in nature improves focusing for children with ADHD, equal to a dose of medication. Adults have improved reasoning skills after walking for several days in the wilderness. Also heart rates and stress levels fall, the immune and nervous systems also benefit (European Journal of Applied Physiology, vol 11, p 2845).

Patients also need less painkillers when they had a view of a garden, had less post-surgery complications, and healed on average a day faster (Science, vol 224, p 420).

Rita Berto at the University of Padua in Italy found in 2005 that cognitive functions such as attention were improved by viewing pictures of nature, rather than city scenes or abstracts. (Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol 25, p249) Natural sounds also have been shown to calm those in acute pain. And even smells have an effect, pine essential oil raises the level of blood cells that attack infections (Qing Li of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, Japan).

(Naomi Lubick ‘Green fix’ p42-45 New Sci 15 Jun 2013)


“The oldest vessel for storing alcohol found so far, 7000 years old, is contemporaneous with or may even predate the earliest evidence of farming in China.”

“Ethanol kills most bacteria, and bacteria like to feed on fruit, so producing alcohol allowed yeasts to kill off the competition.”

This had benefits for the start of farming. “Fermentation offered a way to sterilise liquids, since ethanol kills not only bacteria – including the one that causes cholera – but also other pathogens. Indeed, animals may medicate with it.”

“In the unsanitary conditions face by early settled communities, fermented drinks were both nutritious and potable – not entirely healthy, but better than unfermented alternatives.”

However, today alcohol is more of a health problem than a benefit. The balance is changing and people are acquiring genes that encourage them to drink less.

(Rob Dunn ‘The 10,000 year bender’ p38-41 New Sci 26 Jan 2013)


“In many ways we are stuck with the psychology and drives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We are not made for the world and institutions we have created for ourselves, including that of life-long marriage.”

“Throughout most of our history, people survived for a maximum of 35 years.”

“Given this lifespan, at least 50 per cent of mating alliances would have ended within 15 years. This figure is surprisingly close to the current global median duration of marriage, 11 years. It seems unlikely that natural selection equipped us to keep relationships lasting much more than a decade.”

“The other side of the coin, stable loving relationships are good for us, improving both parent and child welfare through the social support they provide. Most research confirms that successful marriages boost physical health, self-reported happiness and even longevity.”

“We argue we need all the help we can get to liberate ourselves from evolution. It has not created us to be happy, but offers enough transient happiness to keep us alive and reproducing. Yet from our human perspective, happiness and flourishing are primary goals. In a conflict between human values and evolution we might well ignore what evolution promotes. “Love drugs” are not a silver bullet, but in a regulated, professional environment and with an informed public, they could help overcome some of biology’s obstacles. Why not use all the strategies we can to give us the best chance of the best life?”

(Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg ‘Engineering love’ p28-29 New Sci 12 May



Chagnon claims in his book that the Yanomamo valued violence and warfare and that they mainly fought to secure mates. “Chagnon’s first thesis was controversial because it conflicted with the “noble savages”, a notion which dates back to the Enlightenment – and provides an ironic title for these memoirs. The second thesis contradicted an idea that was even more popular among intellectuals, that the cause of human conflict was the unequal distribution of goods, the Marxist underpinning of a good deal of social science.”

For him anthropology is a science associated with evolutionary psychology and socio-biology. “It is no coincidence that the books’ endorsements include glowing remarks from E O Wilson and Steven Pinker leading proponents of these views.”

“He is also opposed by those, perhaps the majority in Latin America, who believe that the principal function of the anthropologist is advocacy, not science.”

“Chagnon, as is his wont, will inflame critics with the title Noble Savage, and its reference to the idea that societies uncontaminated by cruel, over-civilised peoples of the Western world live a much more idyllic existence. Some do (See The Grammar of Happiness, a film about the Pirahas peoples I studied). Some don’t (see The Ax Fight a film by Chagnon and Tim Asch on the Yanomamo).

(Daniel L Everett ‘A noble scientist?’ p44-45 New Sci 2 Feb 2013

Review of ‘Noble Savages: My life among two dangerous tribes’ by Napoleon A Chagnon, Simon & Schuster 2013)


Curator Jill Cook. “thinks the explosion of art among Europeans 40,000 years ago may reflect changing social needs during the ice age.” “That may have reflected the need to communicate and develop ideas – a need pressing enough for people to spend hundreds of hours creating objects that seem to have had little quotidian function. “This is about planning, preconceiving, organising, collaborating and compromising,” says Cook, “and that is something art and music help us do.”

Almost every modern artistic tradition is shown to be already there. Ranging from the naturalistic to the minimal and abstract. “The first portrait, dating back 26,000 years, includes closely modelled details of its female subject’s physiognomy, with her twisted smile and injured eye. But nearby is a female figure of similar age whose visor-like face is blank apart from two slits. A third has a body whose angular shape anticipates Cubism by some 23,000 years: Picasso kept two copies of it in his studio.”

“The masterpieces in the later part of the show include and sometimes combine precisely observed, superbly rendered naturalism, with more abstract work that is also beautiful, but much more difficult to interpret.”

Cook says “We don’t just represent things with great realism, we like to break things down into patterns. That sparks your imagination, and makes you curious and questioning. What’s so spectacular about the modern brain, and the mind that it powers, is that it doesn’t just make everything simple, it pushes us to new ideas and new thoughts.”

(Sumit Paul-Choudhury ‘Icy birth of creativity’ p52-53 New Sci 16 Feb 2013. Review of the British Museum exhibition “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the modern mind”)


Jude Isabella, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. ‘Sex, sexuality and sexism in the study of Palaeolithic figurines’ co-authored with Melanie Chang.

“Having studied Upper Palaeolithic figurines closely, what did you find?”

They are incredibly varied beyond the few figurines seen over and over again: the Venus of Hohle Fels, the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Dolni Vestonice. Some are male, some are female; some are human, some are animals or fantastical creatures; some wear items of clothing, others do not. A recent study by my doctoral student Allison Tripp and her colleague Naomi Schmidt demonstrated that the body shapes of female figurines from around 25,000 years ago correspond to women at many different stages of life; they’re a variety of shapes and sizes. All of this suggests that there are multiple interpretations.”

We project sexual roles back in time with the figurines seen as ““earth mother or pin up girl” (as if no other roles for women could have existed in prehistory)” but when done by academics or journalists then it can “legitimise and naturalise contemporary western values and behaviours by tracing them back to the ‘mists of prehistory’.”

“We may never have the knowledge to say, “This painting of a bison meant this,” but I am confident that a detailed study of the corpus of ice age imagery, including the figurines, will give us a window on the ‘lived life’ in the Palaeolithic.”

(Jude Isabella ‘One minute with April Nowell’ p29 New Sci 10 Nov 2012)


In the El Castillo cave in Northern Spain there is what Roberto Ontanon Peredo calls “the world’s oldest shadow theatre.” In recent years, small number of prehistorians “According to their analyses, our ancestors told intricate stories with their narratives to life. More impressive still, they may even have invented animation, using discs of bone to create the illusion of motion, much like a modern flip book.”

Work in the 1990s by Marc Azema, PhD student at Aix-Marseille University, France, showed that over lapped images of an animal, when picked apart and run in sequence resulted in the animal moving naturally. The assumption had been that this image was symbolic.

Also lighting the images with a flickering dull light, brought images in to motion, and showed them one at a time, not in their entirety as they are photographed. [This is the same issue with viewing buildings as a ground plan, when they are experienced in 3D from within, and sequentially room by room. The movement is missing.]

Flickering light might make the 3D paintings appear to breathe.

At El Castillo, Northern Spain, the “shaman dressed in a bison’s hide” “The head is bowed, the nose square, and as the lamp moves, so does the creature. It walks across the ceiling and, when Roberto casts the light from the opposite side of the stalagmite, it seems to turn the opposite direction.”

In 2007 Florent Rivere, an artist who works in New York was reproducing prehistoric artefacts, including “a reproduced small disc of bone, carved out of a cow’s shoulder blade. Discovered in the Pyrenees in the 1940s, the original disc is roughly 15,000 years old and the size of a large coin. On one side, a doe lies with limbs folded, while on the other it is standing.”

“When we ran a piece of string made of tendon through the central hole, and spun the coin, the effect was exactly the same as a modern-day flip book: the doe fell and rose within a fraction of a second.”

Azema says “What is clear is that the animal changes position.” “To achieve this effect, the original artist must have aligned his drawings so that both images matched perfectly, ensuring that only the legs move when the disc spins.” The theory has been successfully tested on other discs from this period.

See the animations at

(Catherine Brahic ‘Caveflix’ p44-46 New Sci 22/29 Dec 2012)


Ignored for over a century, small symbols around the impressive rock art from 30,000-40,000 years ago have been revealed to have all the hallmarks of a written language. This remarkable discovery was made by a masters student, April Nowell at the University of Victoria. The signs appear in repeated pairs and groups typical of a language combining to represent new concepts. The 26 signs make up this ‘writing system’, with most of them originating in the Rhone and Dordogne valleys in France. The symbols spread and get added to over time.

Previously writing had been assumed to appear 5000 years ago. However, this symbol set appears largely as a complete group by 30,000 ago suggesting that it was already in use on objects or locations that do not survive. Some of the symbols are globally distributed and must have been a mix of independent and shared origins.

(Kate Ravilious ‘Messages from the Stone Age’ p30-34 New Sci 20 Feb 2010)


“Pansy died peacefully one winter’s afternoon, her daughter Rosie and her friends Blossom and Chippy by her side. As she lay dying her companions stroked and comforted her; after she stopped breathing they moved her limbs and examined her mouth to confirm she was dead. Chippy tried twice to revive her by beating on her chest. That night Rosie kept vigil by her mother’s side. Pansy’s death, in December 2008, sounds peaceful and relatively routine, but in fact it was highly unusual. Captive chimpanzees are rarely allowed to die at “home”..” Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park in Stirling, UK.

“At what point in human evolution did our ancestors develop a modern understanding of death, including awareness of their own morality?”

“As far as most animals are concerned, a dead body is just an inanimate object.”

Primatologists Alexander Piel of the University of California, San Diego, and Fiona Stewart of the University of Cambridge witnessed a similar event. “According to Piel, the chimps’ behaviour can be classified into three categories: morbidity, or intense interest in the body, mourning and ‘social theatre’.” This is very much like ourselves, but we go a stage further. “Our treatment of the dead clearly falls into the category of ‘symbolic activity’, akin to language, art and the other things that make modern humans unique. These were all thought to have emerged around 40,000 years ago, but recent discoveries have tentatively pushed this back to 100,000 years or more.”

Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France. “Most archaeologists now accept that modern humans, Neanderthals and possibly other archaic hominins were engaged in mortuary practices well before 40,000 years ago.”

It was not until about 14,000 years ago that most people were buried in what we would recognise as cemeteries. Around the same time people were settling in one place and inventing agriculture and religion – it is probably no coincidence that the world’s oldest ceremonial building. Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, was built at that time.”

“According to calculations by demographer Carl Haub, about 107 billion people have been born up until now” (since 50,000 BC) and so 6.5% are alive now.

(Graham Lawton “Death” p33-36 New Sci 20 Oct 2012)


Today we are so much longer lived than our ancient ancestors that “even an 80-year-old has a more than 90% chance of living at least another year.” (Shelly Kagan ‘Don’t fear the reaper’ p42-43 New Sci 20 Oct 2012)


The Neolithic in Britain was a period of enormous changes of cultural practice as the transition was made from hunter-gather societies of the Mesolithic to the full agricultural landscapes of the late Bronze Age. Amongst those changes were the “recently discovery of large rectilinear timber buildings in both the UK and Ireland.”

Bayesian analysis has shown that the 20 large timber houses studied in Ireland all built with 55-85 years. “In the UK, the large halls seem to have been constructed a generation or two after the appearance of Neolithic artefacts. The buildings in Scotland are considerably later than those in southern England.”

“The buildings were not replaced, and were often used for only a short while before being burned by their occupants, a common practice across Europe. As the process moved north, the houses became more elaborate and monumental, and less obviously suitable as conventional dwellings – although they may have been occupied for some or all of the time.”

Levi-Strauss observed with groups not held together by bonds of family or kin that the “house” was both the word for the group and the family.

’Housiness’ appears to emerge at times of deep socio-economic transformation. For all these groups, the construction of the physical house is of great symbolic importance, for it represents the material manifestation of the group’s foundation. Two widespread features reflect this: an emphasis on the insertion of posts into the ground as a moment of initiation, and the incorporation of the remains of the founding ancestors of the household into the building, whether buried beneath the floor or displayed as relics.” [This may also apply to buildings being named or dedicated to ancestors.]

“For most hunter-gatherers, sharing food and aid represents a means of coping with risk and scarcity. The formation of exclusive house societies allowed for such groups to throw off these imperatives and begin to accumulate property, which both ensured their survival and let them garner prestige through feasting and gift-giving. Yet the practice of house-building was short-lived.”

These houses were replaced by timber and earth long barrows. There is not agreement about whether these were used by a group or an elite. “The new dating suggest the funerary use of many of the long mounds and cairns of southern England may have been limited to one or two generations, or even decades, and that they didn’t bury their dead there over generations. Only the founding ancestors were required to give a monument legitimacy. For years, archaeologists have pointed to the similarity between these long mounds and the timber houses, with their trapezoidal form, entrances at one end and flanking ditches.”

(Julian Thomas ‘In the house of the living’ p32-33 New Sci 2 Jun 2012)


The earliest known building dates to 11,500 years ago, and so pre dates agriculture. It is the large complex and highly decorated structure at Gobekli Tepe. (Documenta Praehistorica, vol 37, p239).

(Ara Nornzayan ‘The idea that launched a thousand civilisations’ p42-44 New Sci 17 Jun 2012)


At an excavation at one site the skulls of young men had been dug up their faces smashed in and then they were reburied. Were they seen as a threat to the world of the living? And was this a way to destroy their individuality? This is what Juan Jose Ibanez (Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona) has suggested. Veneration is not the only way bones were treated in prehistory. (American Journal of Physical Anthropology DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22111).

(Jessica Hamzelou ‘The Stone Age face-smashers’ p10 New Sci 18 Aug 2012)




“My next book [The Stuff of Thought] will be on the decline of violence and its implications. Rates of murder, warfare, genocide, torture and deadly riots are lower now than at any moment in human history. Assuming that we haven’t changed biologically, then what has changed in our psychology and society to make that possible?”

“One hypothesis is that the development of a judicial system can mitigate people’s thirst for vengeance:…. Another hypothesis is that trade diminishes violence. If you want what someone else has, you buy it from them rather than kill him.”

(Jo Marchant, “A way with words” p45 New Sci 5 Jul 2008. Interview with Steven Pinker.)


“You are living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence. Today, you are less likely to die at the hands of another person than at any time in human history. So argues Steven Pinker in his monumental history of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Drawing on a mountain of statistics, Pinker shows that deaths attributable to violent conflicts – from revenge killing and blood feuds to genocides and wars – have been declining for at least the past 6000 years.

“Human nature has been modified by shifts in culture – changes in politics, law, trade and morality, and an increased cosmopolitanism that has allowed people to vicariously experience and empathise with the suffering of others around the globe.”

Other species do take part in collective acts of aggression against other groups, but with humans it is made more complicated to understand because of conflicts based on ideas or identity. Yet culture itself is also a break on the violent behaviour.

Experiments by Henri Tajfel and others over many years have revealed how the flimsiest badges of cultural identity can create hostility towards outsiders – even the colour of randomly assigned shirts can do it.

Bizarrely hostility towards outsiders may be intimately linked to “our unparalleled capacity for large-scale cooperation and altruistic self-sacrifice.”

“Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, argues that love for one’s own group could easily have co-evolved with hostility towards outsiders, creating an unusual mix of kindness and violence.” “Bowles estimates that, on average [in tribal societies], 14 per cent of all deaths stemmed from inter-group violence – more than sufficient to promote the evolution of this coalitional psychology (Science, vol 324, p1293).”

“One thing that seems particularly relevant is whether a society is individualist or collectivist. This is likely to influence how willing its members are to sacrifice themselves for the group, because in collective societies people’s sense of self is more intimately tied up with their group, encouraging them to draw sharp distinctions between those who belong and those who do not.” (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol 367, p 692). It’s natural in these cultures to see other members of your group as extensions of yourself.” says Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland in College Park. “A deep commitment to defending group honour is an example of what psychologists call a sacred value.”

These are values regarded as non-negotiable and absolute, whether they are religious ideas or not.

Atran and Jeremy Ginges (at The New School, New York) recently found evidence that we think about sacred values in a fundamentally different way to regular preferences. Working with neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the researchers used fMRI scans to see what happens in the brain as people consider rejecting trivial values and sacred ones. The idea of being bribed to disavow a statement such as “I am a Pepsi drinker” produced activity in the brain regions involved in calculating costs and benefits. In contrast, the prospect of selling out on statements such as “I believe in god” or “I am not willing to kill an innocent human being” activated areas that play a role in retrieving rules. This supports the idea that sacred values are processed in the brain as absolute and binding moral commandments (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol 367, p754).”

“Rituals fuse our sense of self with the group membership, says anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse at the University of Oxford.…….One way this happens is through synchronised activities from liturgical recitation to the goose-stepping of military units. Synchronised physical movements even seem to make people more likely to follow orders to be aggressive to others (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 48, p453).

“We are more likely to harbour negative attitudes towards other groups when we believe them incapable of change.” The opposite is also the case.

(Dan Jones ‘Much ado about fighting’ p40-43 New Sci 22 Sep 2012)


Jared Diamond has studied in New Guinea for 48 years, he says “Outside observers are universally struck by the precocious social skills of children in tribal societies. In most tribal cultures, kids have the right to make their own decisions. Sometimes this horrifies us because a 2 year old can decide to play next to a fire and burn itself. But the attitude is that children have got to learn from their own experience.”

“They live in multi-age playgroups, so, by the time they are teenagers, they have spent 10 years bringing up little siblings.”

“Some things that they do, to us, seem terrible – like occasionally killing their old people or infants, or persistently making war.”

They consider most of us freeloaders. “We are not growing our own food. We are parasites on the 2 per cent of Americans and British who produce food. In our complex society, 2 per cent of the people can produce all the food; in places like New Guinea everyone has to be a food producer.” [Not producing food is un-natural.]

“There is a feeling among the general public – and some anthropologists – that traditional people are peaceful. But the reality is that the great majority are not. To have peace requires a central government.”

“Why can’t societies without strong leaders be peaceful? In a band or tribe of people it’s fairly democratic – the number of people is so small that you reach decisions face to face. But if you get 100 people who agree a peace trusty with neighbouring tribe, there will always be some hot-headed young men who still have a grievance, break the armistice and kill someone, which starts the whole cycle again. Restraining these hotheads requires a centralised force. Tribal societies, without a strong leader, can’t enforce peace. The reason a state society spreads – and why the farmers tolerate ‘parasites’ – is that a state society maintains peace, it settles disputes.”

“So nation states circumvent direct vengeance? ……..That’s why people from traditional societies move into the state society, but you don’t see the flow the other way. Together societies recognise the benefits of state power.”

“They love all the material goods…The love the fact that our children usually don’t die. But they are appalled at how we bring up our children – that kids aren’t running in and out of houses. When they get to know our society, they are appalled at our loneliness, at our spareness of personal relationships. And they are disgusted that our old age is often miserable. [But we live longer.]”

(Alison George ‘The way we were’ p26-27 New Sci 12 Jan 2013

Interview with Jared Diamond author of ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ Pulitzer-prizewinning book.)


Humans more than any other animal inflict systematic hatred, discrimination and genocide against our own species. Research has lead Hodson and Costello to propose that it has its roots in two aspects. “The first is that the perception of a divide between humans and animals fuels prejudice toward human outgroups, such as immigrants or racial minorities. The second is that this animal-human divide effect is explained by heightened dehumanisation of the outgroups, itself the direct result of undervaluing animals relative to humans.”

Experiments have shown that the more adults or children believe in human superiority to animals, the more inclined they are to dehumanise others. This effect is as strong as seeing other groups as a threat or cultural stereotypes.

However, these attitudes can be shifted. “In several experiments, we found framing animals as similar to humans (elevating animals ‘up’ to human level) stops dehumanisation in its tracks, significantly reduces prejudice and extends moral concern to marginalised groups. Conversely, consistent with the reasoning in our model, emphasising human similarity to animals – psychologically “demoting” humans to the “inferior” status of animals – exacerbates negativity as much as emphasising the human-animal divide.” (Gordon Hodson and Kimberly Costello ‘The human cost of devaluing animals’ p34 New Sci 15 Dec 2012)


“With Corey Fincher, also at the University of New Mexico, [Randy] Thornhill [of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque] has now found a link between disease and violence. The pair compared murder and disease rates from 48 states and found that high disease rates correlated with high murder rates. The pattern held even when they took into account economic inequality within the society, which also increases the murder rate (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0052).”

This also seems to tally for other countries too. “Thornhill has pretty convincingly established a link between parasite stress and violence,” says Carlos David Navarrete of Michigan State University in East Lansing.”

(Michael Marshall “Disease and violence an unholy alliance” p9 New Sci 12 Nov 2011)


The number of US gun deaths a year consist of 11,000 homicides and 19,000 suicides. However, no research has been allowed to be done on where the suicides get the guns from.

“It is well established that playing violent video games causes a short-term rise in aggression – measured, for example, by testing volunteers’ willingness to subject others to unpleasant blasts of sound. What is unclear is whether prolonged exposure to violent games translates into an increased risk of real-world violence. Getting a definitive answer would mean following the behaviour of children into adulthood so that any link between gaming and crime can be identified, says Craig Anderson, who heads the Centre for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University in Ames.”

(Peter Aldnous ‘Gun violence in Obama’s sights’ p6-7 New Sci 26 Jan 2013 )




“We tend to think of technological evolution as an exponential curve that starts out more or less flat in the early Stone Age and accelerates towards the present. But the idea that we are becoming ever more inventive may be an illusion. Looked at under the magnifying glass, the apparently smooth curve breaks up into a frenetic series of advances, retreats and new advances – what Peter Richerson, who studies cultural evolution at the University of California, Davis, describes as evolution “noodling about”. In fact, over the whole of human history, we have probably lost more innovations than we now possess, says anthropologist Luke Premo at Washington State University in Pullman.”

Early hominids had limited cognitive abilities, learning everything from scratch rather than from knowledge handed down and cumulating over the generations

“Generally considered to be what separates humans from other primates, cumulative culture rests on two key skills: social learning, which is the transmission of knowledge to new members of a group, and over-imitation – the high-fidelity copying of behaviour.” [Mirror neurons.]

An extensive study by , Charles Perrault at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico looking at rates of change in artefacts showed that these vary depending on what scale you view them at. The rapid improvements and set backs of development cancel out over a longer view long term, giving the illusion of nothing much happening. A similar phenomenon has been seen with fossils. This leaded to the realisation that many ideas and technologies will have been lost in this process, just as many species have become extinct.

Innovations are vulnerable. “Low population density and fragile networks for knowledge transfer were the main reasons for this loss, according to Stephen Shennan, director of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology.” So patents and guild restrictions on knowledge can also make it vulnerable.

“We have unwittingly introduced other brakes on progress. According to Alex Mesoudi, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Durham, UK, technological progress – as measured by indicators such as the rate of scientific publication and patents filed – has indeed been accelerating exponentially over the past few centuries, but is now showing signs of slowing. The trouble, he says, is that we accumulated so much knowledge, that young people now spend proportionately more time learning from previous generations and less time innovating…. For example, physics undergraduates are tested on their grasp of pre-1900 discoveries. “Only at master’s level do they start learning 20th century stuff,” he says. And that lag is having an impact. In a paper published last year, Mesoudi pointed out that the mean age at which Nobel prizewinners made their prizewinning discovery, or inventors came up with inventions that were considered worthy of entry in prominent technological almanacs, increased from 32 in 1900 to 38 a century later. It is in this period that he found a decrease in the overall rates of innovation (PLoS One, vol 6, p e18239). “There is some evidence that fields are slowing down,” he says.”

(Laura Spinney ‘The Progress illusion…’ p31-33 New Sci 29 Sep 2012)


“Human nature renders even the shiniest technology a mere tool. The real question is which aspects of human nature we should use our tools to amplify.”

“His final point – that technology, used in the right way, makes us more who we are now than we have ever been – is both a promise and a threat.”

(Sally Adee ‘Amplifying ourselves’ p49 New Sci 12 May 2012 review of “The Blind Giant: Being human in a digital world” By Nick Harkaway, John Murray 2012)


Human beings die just like any other form of life (as far as we know) however the awareness of this fact may be a prime driver in much of human behaviour. “To cope with this, Cave maintains that humanity has created four narratives, consistently used in one form or another in all societies across time.”

“Plan A is to stay alive by battling biological ageing and disease.” Which leads to magic, medicine and enhancing reproduction.

“Plan B is resurrection.” Either through religious rituals or cryogenics.

“Plan C is the soul.”  The belief that a bit of you will carry on whatever.

“Plan D is legacy.” Leaving your name or face anywhere; on walls, buildings, the web, books or art. This has created a vast cultural heritage for human beings.

“All humans who live long enough to contemplate their own demise, construct such narratives in one form or another.”

(S Jay Olshansky ‘To live forever’ p47 New Sci 7 Apr 2012  review of “Immortality: The quest to live forever and how it drives civilisation” by Stephen Cave, Backbite/Crown 2012.)


“At the heart of this theory is a simple idea: the invention of weapons that could kill at a distance meant  that power became uncoupled from physical strength. Even the puniest subordinate could now kill and alpha male, with the right weapon  and a reasonable aim. Those who wanted power were forced to obtain it by other means – persuasion, cunning charm  – and so began the drive for the cognitive attributes that make us human. “In short, 400,000 years of evolution in the presence of lethal weapons gave rise to Homo sapiens,” says Herbert Gintis, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who studies the evolution of social complexity and cooperation.”

“Gintis believes there is no room for complacency. Torn as humans are between hierarchical and anti-hierarchical instincts, open societies will always be threatened by the forces of despotism.” Christopher Boehm, University of Southern California  agrees, “It boils down to whether a government can establish fear, rather than consensus, as its base,” he says. “And with humans, this will always be up for grabs.”

As our ancestors were closely related to chimps who have a hierarchical alpha male in their social structure (though they do hunt together and care for the sick) how did we end up moving away from it? We have a totally different body which allows for accurate throwing over a distance, enabling us to take out individuals. So other ways to bond the group were needed, and hence the development of strong social rules that punish freeloaders in egalitarian societies. It was very successful and lasted 100,000 years to about 10,000 years ago. Then with farming and increased trade came the ‘Big Man’ who could employ a small number of armed individuals to protect his wealth and maintain the hierarchy. So the Age of Despotism began. The system remained stable by your local despot promising protection from neighbouring despots, and also enslaving some of the lower ranks and demanding taxes from the others. Though it did not protect despot who would often by replaced violently, but the system continued.

It changed again around 1000BC with the arrival of nomad archers on horseback, which Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, describes as “the first weapon of mass destruction”. The threat of this pushed to create larger groups to provide stronger defence. “Turchin even suggests that today’s major religions emerged at around this time, in response to the need to create social cohesion between disparate groups. “These religions allowed sociality to break through the barriers of ethnicity,” he said. The nation state was born, and its weapon of choice was the cavalryman.”

Samuel Bowles economist at Santa Fe Institute. “His calculations, based on archaeological and ethnographic data, suggest that even in the 20th century – “the century of total war”, as it has been called – warfare accounted for about 5% of mortality in Europe, just half that for Stone Age Europeans and today’s hunter-gatherer societies (Science, vol 324, p1293). The nation state proved particularly good at winning wars and protecting people, he concludes, and that explains why it has been the dominant social model for the past 500 years.”

So how did democracy manage to get the ‘Big Man’ to relinquish some of his power? Guns.  Bingham says, “Democratisation tends to go hand in hand with the citizens of a country gaining access to weapons, usually handguns, and thereby breaking the state’s monopoly on coercive threat..” (Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza of Stony Brook University in New York, Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe 2009).

(Laura Spinney “Force for change” p46-49 New Sci 13 Oct 2012)


“Collective violence in Europe in the early 17th century and in pre-revolutionary Russia was closely correlated with an oversupply of graduates.”

(Bob Holmes “Revolutionary Cycles” p45-49 New Sci 18 Aug 2012)


Study in 2000, by climatologist Peter de Menocal of Columbia University in New York. (Science, vol. 288, p2198)

“It soon became clear that major changes in the climate coincided with the untimely ends of several other civilisations.”

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, anthropologists argued that a society’s environment shaped its character, an idea known as environmental determinism. They claimed that the warm, predictable climates of the tropics bred indolence, while cold European climates produced intelligence and a strong work ethic. These ideas were often used to justify racism and exploitation.”

“No one today is claiming that climate determines people’s characters, only that it sets limits on what is feasible.”

“It is the way societies handle crises that decides their fate.”

“He  then did a statistical analysis known as a Granger causality test, which showed that the proposed causes consistently occurred before the proposed effects, and that each cause was followed by the same effect. The Granger test isn’t conclusive proof of causality, but short of rerunning history under different climes, it is about the best evidence there can be (Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, vol 108, p17296).

It was often cooling that hurt past civilisations. What’s more, studies of the past century have found little or no link between conflict and climate change. “Industrialised societies have been more robust against changing climatic conditions,” says Jurgen Scheffran of the University of Hamburg, who studies the effects of climate change.”

(Michael Marshall ‘Ruined’ p33-36 New Sci 4 Aug 2012)