Saturday, 10 September 2011

Review: The Origin of Our Species – by Chris Stringer

As a young man I was very interested in the caves of Devon, and the early work of the Victorian archaeologist William Pengelly in Kent's Cavern, Devon, so I was delighted to learn that human bones from this cave have now been shown to be about 40,000 years old and hence among the oldest homo remains found in Europe. Fifty years later my interests in human-computer communication have widened in an attempt to understand the evolution of human-human communication and I needed a crash course on what is currently known on the subject.

Chris Stringer's book The Origin of Our Species was was just what I needed The material is what you might expect from a heavyweight researcher from the British Natural History Museum working in a complex and rapidly changing field. Despite this the writing style made the information accessible to anyone with a serious interest in the subject. Modern science techniques play an important part in dating and assessing finds and these are described in just the right amount of detail to explain why the results are important. However the problem with such a book, published at this time, is that it is rapidly going to be out of date. Chris hints at some as yet unpublished findings - now published – and while they are not described in the book the fact that I had read the book greatly helped me to understand their importance.

Because my interest is in the nature and evolution of language I was not expecting a lot on this subject by what is there is well presented and I accept his view that there must have been some pre-modern communications and to quote:

From my perspective, modern human language probably evolved out of growing social complexity over the last 250,000 years to bolster mind-reading and communication, and I agree with archaeologist Steven Mithen that by enhancing cognitive fluidity, language took modern humans into new and shared worlds that were unknown to our ancestors. The Neanderthals must have been highly knowledge­ able about the world in which they lived, too - for example, about the materials from which they made tools and the animals they hunted. But in my view their domain was largely of the here and now, and they did not regularly inhabit the virtual worlds of the past, the future and the spirits. After our evolutionary separation about 400,000 years ago, we and the Neanderthals travelled down parallel paths of developing social complexity and, with it, developing language complexity.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the story, and one where our picture of human evolution is changing most rapidly, related to the possibility that interbreeding between closely related species played an important part in our evolution. His coverage of recent research on the DNA of Neanderthals and Denisovans is intriguing and there are hints that there are other hominins that have contributed to our DNA.

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