Ever since Darwin brought up the fact that the human race had apes as distant ancestors, modern humans have been uneasy and a little defensive. They mocked the simian nature of Australopithecus, jeered at the brow-ridges and stocky frame of the Neanderthals and the less said about Homo erectus around an adolescent boy, the better. As far as relatives go, these ‘apemen’ are the embarrassing cousins modern humans would rather not acknowledge.
However, it is very wrong to write off these forebears as dull brutes who lived short and squalid lives, even though that is how they have been characterized for many years. More recently, this idea has been rejected by some modern scholars who tend to view hunter-gatherer lifestyles as idyllic, with loads of free time, and an excellent diet. Both extremes miss the mark: These ancestors were neither mindless brutes nor noble savages. They were a little of both. Most of all, they were trailblazers who began the process of collective learning.
Unfortunately, popular culture has done its bit to undermine general respect for man’s hominid forebears. In a meme made famous by 1950s cartoons, cavemen with names like Grog and Ugg sporting unkempt mullets and fetching off-the-shoulder animal skins, fight off a T. Rex with stone-tipped spears. This image is amusing and about as anachronistic as it gets. At least 65 million years separate from any form of prehistoric human from encountering any form of dinosaur.
Another well-known trope is the caveman ‘seducing’ his intended mate with a club, then dragging her senseless body back to his cave by the hair. This is a deeply troubling image in this day and age (as it should have been in any day and age). These depictions fueled the perception that early hominids were clumsy and slow-witted. Admittedly, there is some validity to that view. For a start, Australopithecines were not skilled conversationalists. Experts believe they were about as vocal as the modern chimpanzee. But that does not mean Australopithecines could not be inventive. Stone implements still exist from at least 3.3 million years ago. There is also evidence that they were teaching each other how to make these tools. Researchers suggest that behavioral changes in Australopithecus afarensis associated with the development of stone-age tech, may have, over eons, driven emergence of the Homo genus.
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Scott Edwin Williams is an optimistic smartass, writer, educator, humorist, and history nerd. His fascination with humanity’s lightbulb moments began as a child while watching the first moon landing. The rest is… history. He is the author of Lightbulb Moments in Human History: From Cave to Colosseum.