What Is It That Makes Humans Unique?

Aside from our genes, what makes humans different from other animals?

Humans (Homo sapiens) are the only extant members of the subtribe Hominina. Together with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, they are part of the family Hominidae (the great apes, or hominids). A terrestrial animal, humans are characterized by their erect posture and bipedal locomotion; high manual dexterity and heavy tool use compared to other animals; open-ended and complex language use compared to other animal communications; larger, more complex brains than other animals; and highly advanced and organized societies.

Human-Family-TreeEarly hominins—particularly the australopithecines, whose brains and anatomy are in many ways more similar to ancestral non-human apes—are less often referred to as “human” than hominins of the genus Homo.[5] Several of these hominins used fire, occupied much of Eurasia, and gave rise to anatomically modern Homo sapiens in Africa about 315,000[6] years ago. Humans began to exhibit evidence of behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago, and in several waves of migration, they ventured out of Africa and populated most of the world.

The spread of the large and increasing population of humans has profoundly affected much of the biosphere and millions of species worldwide. Advantages that explain this evolutionary success include a larger brain with a well-developed neocortex, prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes, which enable advanced abstract reasoning, language, problem solving, sociality, and culture through social learning. Humans use tools more frequently and effectively than any other animal; and are the only extant species to build fires, cook food, clothe themselves, and create and use numerous other technologies and arts.

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Paleolithic-Age Tools

Humans uniquely use such systems of symbolic communication as language and art to express themselves and exchange ideas, and also organize themselves into purposeful groups. Humans create complex social structures composed of many cooperating and competing groups, from families and kinship networks to political states. Social interactions between humans have established an extremely wide variety of values, social norms, and rituals, which together undergird human society. Curiosity and the human desire to understand and influence the environment and to explain and manipulate phenomena (or events) have motivated humanity’s development of science, philosophy, mythology, religion, anthropology, and numerous other fields of knowledge.

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Modern reconstruction of what a Neanderthal probably looked like in real life. In a sense, this species of human went extinct about 40,000 years ago – after living side-by-side with Homo Sapiens for tens of thousands of years. In another very real sense, they haven’t gone anywhere – if you have European ancestry, you likely carry Neanderthal DNA.

Though most of human existence has been sustained by hunting and gathering in band societies, increasingly many human societies transitioned to sedentary agriculture approximately some 10,000 years ago, domesticating plants and animals, thus enabling the growth of civilization. These human societies subsequently expanded, establishing various forms of government, religion, and culture around the world, and unifying people within regions to form states and empires. The rapid advancement of scientific and medical understanding in the 19th and 20th centuries permitted the development of fuel-driven technologies and increased lifespans, causing the human population to rise exponentially. The global human population was estimated to be near 7.7 billion in 2019.

ACTIVITY – Interpreting Paleolithic and Neolithic Art

Information on Paleolithic and Neolithic Art

This page is meant to be viewed by students who have already completed the activity Interpreting Paleolithic and Neolithic Art.

The art of the Upper Paleolithic represents the oldest form of prehistoric art. Figurative art is present in Europe as well as in Sulawesi, Indonesia, beginning at least 35,000 years ago. Non-figurative cave paintings, consisting of hand stencils and simple geometric shapes, is at least 40,000 years old.

According to a 2018 study based on uranium-thorium dating, the oldest examples of Iberian cave art were made as early as 64,000 years ago, implying Neanderthal authorship, which would qualify as art of the Middle Paleolithic.

The emergence of figurative art has been interpreted as reflecting the emergence of full behavioral modernity, and is part of the defining characteristics separating the Upper Paleolithic from the Middle Paleolithic. The discovery of cave art of comparable age to the oldest European samples in Indonesia has established that similar artistic traditions existed both in eastern and in western Eurasia at 40,000 years ago. This has been taken to suggest that such an artistic tradition must in fact date to more than 50,000 years ago, and would have been spread along the southern coast of Eurasia in the original coastal migration movement. It is important to note that most of the art of this period is expected to have been lost, as it was submerged in the early Holocene sea level rise.

Niaux
A. Grotte de Niaux.

This painting of a bison hunt is between 17,000 and 11,000 years old, dating from at the latest 9000 BCE.  It is located deep inside a cave in southern France known as Niaux, meaning that ancient humans would have needed to carry lit torches to reach this site.

A scholar has described this giant artwork, saying: “The predominating animal is the bison, represented in the upper part of the panel. The bison standing out in the left central part is usually catalogued as a female, due to the shapes presented, such as the scarcely prominent hump. By contrast and in opposition to this is the male, found on the right-hand side and showing a more prominent hump.

The lower part of the wall represents several horses which, with painted hair, represent a member of the equine family with a great amount of hair, the Przewalski. The bestiary is finished off with two goats.”

Laas_Geel
B. Laas Geel.

Laas Geel are cave formations on the rural outskirts of Hargeisa, Somaliland (situated in the Woqooyi Galbeed region of the self-declared but internationally unrecognised Republic of Somaliland). They contain some of the earliest known cave paintings in the Horn of Africa. Laas Geel’s rock art is estimated to date to somewhere between 9,000 and 3,000 years BCE.

Laas Geel rock – the paleolithic art is preserved under the pronounced overhang near the top of the formation.

Although the Laas Geel rock art had been known to the area’s inhabitants for centuries, its existence only came to international attention after the 2002 discovery.

The Laas Geel cave paintings are thought to be some of the most vivid rock art in Africa. Among other things, they depict cattle in ceremonial robes accompanied by humans, who are believed to have been inhabitants of the region. The necks of the cattle are embellished with a kind of plastron. Some of the cattle are also portrayed wearing decorative robes. Besides long-horned cattle, the rock art also shows an image of a domesticated dog, several paintings of Canidae as well as a giraffe. The site is excellently preserved due to the location of the paintings which are covered by the granite overhangs.

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C. Cueva de las Manos.

Cueva de las Manos is located in modern day Argentina. The art in the cave dates to between 11,000–7,000 BCE.

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Canyon at the Pinturas River, view from the caves.

The images of hands are negative painted, that is, stencilled. Most of the hands are left hands, which suggests that painters held the spraying pipe with their right hand or they put the back of their right hand to the wall and held the spraying pipe with their left hand.

The age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall of the cave, then discarded thousands of years ago on the cave floor.

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D. Venus of Willendorf.

The Venus of Willendorf is an 11.1-centimetre-tall (4.4 in) figurine estimated to have been made 30,000 BCE. It was found on August 7, 1908 at a paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Austria. It is carved from an oolitic limestone that is not local to the area – meaning that it was probably traded for with people who lived far away – and tinted with red ochre.

Similar sculptures, first discovered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are traditionally referred to in archaeology as “Venus figurines,” due to the widely-held belief that depictions of nude women with exaggerated sexual features represented an early fertility fetish, perhaps a mother goddess – an item with supernatural powers that  could help a man and woman conceive a child. The reference to Venus is metaphorical, since the figurines predate the mythological figure of Venus by many thousands of years.

800px-Willendorf-Venus-1468Like other similar sculptures, it probably never had feet, and would not have stood on its own, although it might have been pegged into soft ground. Parts of the body associated with fertility and childbearing have been emphasized, leading researchers to believe that the Venus of Willendorf may have been used as a fertility fetish. The figure has no visible face, her head being covered with circular horizontal bands of what might be rows of plaited hair, or perhaps a type of headdress.

Other scholars hypothesize that the figurines may have been created as self-portraits by women. This theory stems from the correlation of the proportions of the statues to how the proportions of women’s bodies would seem if they were looking down at themselves, which would have been the only way to view their bodies during this period. They speculate that the complete lack of facial features could be accounted for by the fact that sculptors did not own mirrors. This reasoning has been criticized by still others, who note that water pools and puddles would have been readily-available natural mirrors for Paleolithic humans.

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E. Bradshaw Rock.

Bradshaw rock art or Gwion Gwion art is found in the northwest Kimberley region of Western Australia.  This particular piece is referred to by modern archeologists as tassel figures: identified by their characteristic tassels hanging from their arms and waists, various other accessories can be recognised, such as arm bands, conical headdresses and sometimes, boomerangs.

The Bradshaws are not the regions’ earliest paintings. The earlier art consists of crude animal drawings that are believed to be up to 40,000 years old. The Bradshaws have nothing in common with this earlier art and is dated between 26,500 and 20,000 years ago.

The height of the art is variable; most are between 40 and 50 cm in length with some examples up to 2 metres in height.

Artistically, Bradshaws are unusually advanced both in technique and style. Image processing has revealed that the outline of the Bradshaw figures are often painted first, then filled in. Engraving in the rock often follows the outlines of figures and may have served as a preliminary sketch which implies planning. Some faces of the figures are painted with anatomically correct features with enough detail to be considered portraits. Due to the fine detail and control found in the images, such as strands of hair painted in 1-2mm thicknesses, it has been suggested that feather quills may have been used as a technique to apply the paint to the rock walls; an imprint of a feather found at one site may support this possibility. No evidence has yet been found of any corrections or changes in composition during or after painting, while evidence of restoration has been found. In a detailed study of 66 Bradshaw panels, approximately 9% of the Bradshaw images have clearly been vandalized. Some were scratched with stones, some damaged by thrown stones, and some have been broken by hammering with large rocks.

What art will you leave behind as a testament to your presence on Earth?  Create your own piece of “rock art” – though please don’t paint it on the classroom wall – depicting the important things in your life.

Interpreting Paleolithic and Neolithic Artwork

ACTIVITY – Interpreting Paleolithic and Neolithic Art

Humans have been producing art works for at least seventy-three thousand years.

Look at the following art, which dates back to the Paleolithic Age – the Old Stone Age, before humans discovered how to farm.  For each piece, respond to the following:

  1. Describe what you see with your eyes (figures, colors, size, etc)
  2. Offer an interpretation – What was this artist trying to communicate? What was the purpose of this art?
  3. What can we learn about this artist’s way of life from this art?
  4. What modern artwork or form of expression does this ancient piece remind you of, and why?

 

 

 

What art will you leave behind as a testament to your presence on Earth?  Create your own piece of “rock art” – though please don’t paint it on the classroom wall – depicting the important things in your life.

More information about each piece can be found here.

The Medina: Sustainable City of the Ancient World

This lesson was reported from:

For Your Consideration:
  1. What is a medina?
  2. This article lists many benefits of living in a medina – list them, adding any additional benefits that strike you. Then, create a list of drawbacks.
  3. Should cities in your country build neighborhoods that look more like this?  Would you live in one?
  4. Design your own ideal neighborhood – create a map that considers space to live, work, and play, as well as transportation and utilities like power and water.

A medina quarter (Arabic: المدينة القديمة‎ al-madīnah al-qadīmah “the old city”) is a distinct city section found in a number of North African cities, including in Morocco. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets. The word “medina” (Arabic: مدينة‎ madīnah) itself simply means “city” or “town” in modern-day Arabic.

Medina quarters have usually been inhabited for a thousand years or more, and often contain historical fountains, palaces, public squares, mosques, and churches.

The Medina of Chefchaouen.
The medina of Chefchaouen, Morocco – densely clustered, multipurpose buildings, many of which are both homes and businesses. (Chefchaouen, Morocco, 2019.)

Because of their very narrow streets, medinas are generally free from car traffic, and in some cases even motorcycle and bicycle traffic. The streets can be less than a metre wide. This makes them unique among highly populated urban centres. The Medina of Fes, or Fes el Bali, is considered one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world.

Aside from the addition of some electrical wires and modern plumbing, most medinas in Morocco today look a lot like they did in those bygone glory days of the trans-Saharan trade one thousand years ago. The streets are rarely wider that six or seven feet, and are sometimes as narrow as two or three. Mules and men with carts do most of the heavy lifting in the streets, delivering or carrying away what can’t be done by hand – no trucks or cars can penetrate, so most people buy groceries for today, and maybe tomorrow. Furniture and modern appliances are often transported into the medina over a neighbor’s rooftop, and down a home through the central, open air courtyard. Anger your neighbors, and you might have a hard time remodeling your house. 

Don’t think of a city like this as “backward” – think of it as a template for a life many in our modern times have forgotten… But which many of us are trying to rediscover.  What appear to be drawbacks at first glance, described another way, are what many Americans and Europeans list as desirable qualities in a neighborhood.

It is walkable, by necessity. Most anything you need is available in a five to ten minute walk from your door.  

It is communal – there are basically no police present, so most problems are solved in the community. Violence is squashed through neighbors’ intervention and social pressure. Public fountains with fresh, clean water can be found at most major intersections.  Same with mosques, which, in addition to the square full of small shops, are at the center of residents’ spiritual and social lives. 

Most all food is organic, fresh, and affordable, sold with zero plastic packaging.

The narrow streets, paved with stone, between high mud-walled homes are many degrees cooler than the open air outside the medina, meaning that while most who live within don’t have air conditioning, they don’t really need it either.

Without glamorizing the social problems like poverty and sanitation issues that persist in some medinas, there is a good reason that this way of life has persisted since prehistoric times, while the patterns of American suburbanization are barely a century and half old – but are killing the people who live there via social isolation, urban sprawl, excess carbon emissions, and water wasted irrigating green lawns.  

Which is really the ideal here? Can we learn something from our human past?

It’s not backward if it offers answers to questions of sustainability and community that so many in countries like the United States are trying in vain and at great cost to reinvent.

THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Medina Quarter

Uxmal: Thrice Built City of the Maya

Check out this new Openendedsocialstudies documentary short, shot on location at Uxmal, a Maya ruin in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  This tour of the city is a great introduction to Maya culture and can be enjoyed by the casual viewer, the history buff, or in the classroom, in conjunction with our brand new (and totally free) unit on the ancient Maya.

The Ancient Maya in Time and Space

This lesson was reported from:

Adapted in part from open sources.

Continue reading “The Ancient Maya in Time and Space”

Teotihuacan: The Place Where The Gods Were Born

Continue reading “Teotihuacan: The Place Where The Gods Were Born”