The catastrophe that gave humans the upper hand
March 29, 2017 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Modern humans colonised the planet after coming out of Africa, spreadinjg across Asia some 60k years ago, thence everywhere. But how did we do so well, given that genetics suggests we were down to under 10,000 breeding pairs, possibly well under and possibly more than once? And what happened to the other hominids around at the time?

Professor Stanley Ambrose, Professor of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gives an entertaining, wide-ranging lecture on how the most recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano may have driven Homo sapiens to evolve co-operation and thus the adaptibility to take over the world.

By no means everyone agrees on the evidence or the interpretation - conflict is as prevalent in paleoanthropology as it ever was on the ancient veldt. But if you fancy bonobo sex, neanderthal violence and even some Barry White, Ambrose is your man.

(Previously, also previous,, again with the previous)
posted by Devonian (10 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
Dangit, just in the last few days I ran across some interesting network studies of (instrumented!) modern hunter-gatherer societies. As I recall it, one found that between-tribe friendships were vital to spreading and recombining knowledge, and another that hunter-gatherer societies do *not* live in closely-genetically-related groups because both men and women have say in where they go, and living with the relatives of the men and the relatives of the women mixes up into living with some of practically everyone.
posted by clew at 12:53 PM on March 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

... found them, not recent at all: sex equality and group relatedness, friendships facilitate culture.
posted by clew at 1:21 PM on March 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

Yes, the dynamics of successful nomadic societies are really interesting, and I wonder whether city living has more call-backs to nomadism than rural. Because getting from the ME to Austraila in around 20k years, from a population base that could fit in five or six large skyscraper apartment blocks, is pretty darn nomadic.

(I sat on this post for a while, because it's a bit presumptious to expect people to set aside the time to watch a whole lecture when so much of Metafilter is about the quick-in-and-out, but I enjoyed it so much when I foudn it, and it stuck with me so well, that I couldn't resist sharing. Also, there's never been a post about Toba, which is probably worth a FPP, if not by itself, then in a longer one about supervolcanos and environmental shocks.)
posted by Devonian at 1:23 PM on March 29, 2017 [9 favorites]

Just popping in to say I'm glad you posted it, Devonian! Won't be able to take it all in for days, probably, but this is some of the best of what Metafilter is about.
posted by penduluum at 1:44 PM on March 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

Just popping in to say, decidedly non-eponysterical. It's kind of like that thing where Jurassic Park is almost entirely Cretaceous Park. Got any lectures on, like, spiny sharks, Devonian?

(But anyway, this is fascinating, thanks)
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 2:21 PM on March 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

A thought occurs: It’s fairly well known that humans have an instinctive aversion to mating with the people they grew up with as children, which has been interpreted as an anti-inbreeding adaptation. But a side effect of this is presumably that in tribal communities you’re more likely to regard all of your immediate tribal contemporaries as being off-limits & therefore be interested in travelling to meet other tribes in order to find a mate (or sometimes capturing them from other tribes?). Either way, the knowledge transfer between tribes is presumably made more effective by this partner transfer than it would be between more harem-based social primates.

Will watch this video when I get the chance - looks interesting.
posted by pharm at 11:53 PM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Great post. Count me Devonian fan!
posted by persona au gratin at 1:45 AM on March 30, 2017

He's pretty harsh on the Neanderthals; I thought that the theory had swung the other way on them.
posted by fleacircus at 4:41 AM on March 30, 2017

I was present for a lecture from Clayton Long, the onetime, and maybe still Navajo liaison to the San Juan County school district. He traced his ancestors to the Northwest Territories, and said they had been driven out of their ancestral lands by a volcano around 750 years ago. They wandered down the west side of the Rocky Mountains, eventually settling in Kayenta, Arizona, he herded goats for his grandmother in a very simple life. He said the Navajo didn't like raiding because it caused death for elders, women and children. They voluntarily left that area after losing their way to survive in the area. That is a danged long walk. If I misheard him and that were 7,500 years ago, that would have been Mount Mazama the volcano that formed Crater Lake. It also has an island in the middle.
posted by Oyéah at 7:25 PM on March 30, 2017

Thanks for the reading materials. I'm still working on them, but this is great. The Toba incident has fascinated me since I first heard about it.
posted by mordax at 10:27 AM on March 31, 2017

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