chapter  1
16 Pages

Setting the stage

Developing the human niche across the Pleistocene
ByAgustín Fuentes

In assessing the evolution of human beings we need not only explain the development of bodies and our modifications to ecologies, we also must develop a robust description for an evolving system that facilitates the production of Oldowan stone tools at 2 million years ago, more complex stone tool technologies and widening geographic spread between 1.75 and 1 million years ago, the use and control of fire and complex hunting and materiality by 400,000 years ago, art and increasingly complex multi-community social networks by 120,000 years ago, domestication by 15,000–10,000 years ago, early cities by 5,000 years ago, and the megacities, global religions, and world economies of today. Making, sharing, and navigating meaning is as central to our evolution as are bones, stones, and local ecologies. One can envision part of this explanation pivoting on the pattern (and ability) of successful complex decision-making in navigating increasingly larger and more complex social networks in the developing niches of human communities. Philosophers and theologians might term this ability a form of wisdom, including humility, and even a form of grace, and view it as a key element in the human perceptual and behavioural toolkit. Anthropologists see this ability as reflecting the behavioural and perceptual (cognitive) processes inherent in the human niche. Regardless of what label we use, such capacities/processes for complex decision-making must have an evolutionary history. But assessing evidence for their emergence in the palaeoanthropological record is extremely challenging (to put it mildly). Is it possible to identify particular aspects of the material and fossil records that indicate the ways in which human beings, and other hominins in our lineage (Homo), expressed aspects of this interactive complexity in their organization and interactions with others?