All people can trace their roots to the savanna of East Africa, home of one of the first members of the human species — Homo habilis.
This Monday, in the series premiere of The Great Human Race, experimental archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival instructor Cat Bigney attempt to face what early humans did, as they work together to survive in the wild savanna just as primitive people did 2.6 million years ago — without any weapons or fire.
As we get ready to introduce this exciting new series, we’ve invited prominent voices in the fields of archaeology, experimental archaeology, science and primitive technology to weigh in on the following questions:
Do you think that experts today can accurately replicate the challenges that Homo habilis faced thousands of years ago? And do you think that experts today could survive and thrive as Homo habilis did?
Here’s what they had to say:
Paleoanthropologist Dr. Briana Pobiner of Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program reflects on historical records in her response. “Compared to us modern humans, Homo habilis had a different body size and shape: They were from about 3 feet 4 inches to 4 feet 5 inches and weighed on average 70 pounds, with both absolutely and relatively longer arms and a lower face that jutted out with larger teeth. It also had a much smaller brain size than modern humans, made very basic stone tools and there is no evidence they had the capacity for language,” Pobiner says. She continues, “They faced the same kind of survival challenges like procuring food and water and avoiding predation that any other animal faces, which can be replicated on a basic level. But modern humans have much more sophisticated communication, cognitive abilities, manual dexterity, and experience with a huge range of knowledge and familiarity with technology far beyond what Homo habilis ever experienced. And while the ecosystems during the time of Homo habilis roamed Africa (which is where their fossils have been found) may have been roughly similar to today in terms of vegetation, there was an amazing array of different predators — like giant saber-toothed cats — and prey animals. So while I’m skeptical that one could accurately play Homo habilis in the modern world, I can see how it would be entertaining to try.”
ScienceBlogs’ Greg Laden of Greg Laden’s Blog answers the question at hand quite simply: “No, this is too hard.” He continues, “But we can try, and in so doing we can develop some interesting thinking about early human evolution.” Laden whips out some Archaeology 101, noting, “Homo habilis was not, of course, a human, but we assume that this early hominin had some incipient human traits, further developed with early Homo erectus/ergaster. The two rules of being a human hunter-gatherer refer to important aspects of living off the land that my research indicates apply to modern humans living without agriculture or animal husbandry as a source of food. I don’t know if these rules applied to earlier hominins or not … that is the $64,000 question.”
Dr. Javier Baena Preysler, professor of prehistory and director of the Laboratory of Experimental Archeology at UAM-LAEX, writes at Paleoaprende that he can see how, through the use of experimental archaeology, we could, with much care, replicate the challenges Homo habilis faced. Preysler explains, “Homo habilis and some other ancestors built up their own culture by the experience acquired with time and mainly under the natural selection laws (if we eat something poisonous, we will die). But our society has built a new culture based on ‘cultural experiences’ that put us away from nature.” On the other hand, he does not believe humans today could survive as Homo habilis did. Preysler explains, “We are not the same species. Even our philosophy is not equal, our feelings and perceptions differ from the past.” He continues, “As experts of the past, we are specialized in different aspects like lithic knapping, or fire reconstruction, diets in the past, etc., but this doesn’t mean that we as individuals could survive in the same conditions as the past species.”
Archeologist Maria-Louise Sidoroff, Ph.D., states bluntly that if the word “accurately” were taken out of the first question, her answer, simply, would be “yes.” Sidoroff explains, “Experimental archaeology research projects are designed to develop data for inferences about past material culture based on environmental, archaeological and ethnographic evidence. In present day African savanna regions, the conditions should be similar to the savannas that provided subsistence for Homo habilis.” She answers the second question noting, “Survival skills previously acquired by experts Schindler and Bigney ensure their survival in a savanna environment but they lack the environmental knowledge that was probably shared among Homo habilis by members of the band with some previous knowledge of the resources. Schindler and Bigney already have the ability to develop and maintain the efficiency of their tools. New skills they need to develop alone in the field are knowledge of how to access savanna food and water sources and to maintain constant awareness of life-threatening dangers from predators and environmental change.”
Roeland Paardekooper, Ph.D., of EXARC writes, “The evolution of humankind dates back about 7 million years, when walking upright began, and has still not ended. This evolution was not a linear one moving toward what we are now. It is not even a family tree, but a series of lines of development, which cross each other, split and merge. A high number of different kinds of humans lived simultaneously.” Paardekooper continues, “Homo habilis was a very early human being, without weapons or fire. Who knows what was in their mind? We cannot imagine how different life was for them compared to ours — not only regarding techniques used, but also in cooperation and communication. Their environment was the African savannah, their tools mainly rocks and perishable materials, their main challenge: survival. Imagine that it was the survival of the fittest — not of the smartest. It would be unfair to call them primitive in a derogatory way: For them it would be as hard to survive in our world as for us in theirs. The ones who could adapt best as well as the luckiest would survive. Their main quality was in their ability to cooperate with each other, to form social networks. Ninety-nine percent of our past is Stone Age, so just imagine the impact of that on who we are and what we do.”
Professor Aidan O’Sullivan of the University College Dublin School of Archaeology and director of the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture refers to experimental archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival instructor Cat Bigney’s task at hand in the series. “Cat and Bill offer us here some sense of what Homo habilis’ life experience was like, but of course we are totally unlike them. They were amongst the first hominids to use stone chopper tools, but they didn’t hunt or use fire, and their means of communication was rudimentary at best, so Cat and Bill — despite being the experts that they are — are almost at a loss in that world,” O’Sullivan says. He continues, “What Homo habilis had of course was a much more embedded sense of their environment, the plants and insects that they could source and eat, the occasional sources of protein, fats and marrow through eating carrion, and the vital sources of water and finally the places of shelter and safety. What this episode also very effectively communicates is the foreboding and constant sense of vulnerability and fright, the basic hardness of life, that Homo habilis endured — as well as their hard-learned knowledge of the dangers that literally lay in the long grass — keep an eye out for the big cat lolling in the sun!”
Professional archaeologist and one of the founders of the Society of Primitive Technology Jack Cresson writes, “We can only replicate what is known, from the body of science and research available. Yes – certain levels of accuracy can be mastered and presented regarding “technology” and the inferred range of natural materials and processes, as well as economies and the physical nature of bipeds. Cresson continues, “However, many many unknowns will always have to be accessed and accounted for…”.
Dr. Linda Hurcombe of University of Exeter’s Department of Archaeology, College of Humanities, emphasizes, “To tackle some of these issues in more detail we have to think through a couple of key aspects. Homo habilis was physically different from us. This species still had toes and hands better adapted to climbing than ours and getting off the ground more easily is a safety issue when people are in environments where there are large predators. The story of human evolution is above all that of a social journey.” Hurcombe continues, “Putting two people in a savannah environment disadvantages them as there are only two, but on the other hand they are fit and active without children and infants. The physical differences come into this again in that Homo habilis infants would most likely be able to cling onto their mothers, but for most modern humans climbing while holding a baby is a challenge of a different order. This kind of programme can make people — academics and public alike — think through some of the challenges faced by our ancestors.”
Thank you to all our experts for sharing their uniquely important perspectives on this intriguing topic. Tune in to The Great Human Race this coming Monday, Feb. 1, at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.