Frans Couwenbergh, portretschilder & humanosoof

Big Ancestor

How humans became humans from apes


(update 6 March ’07)

how it started

Ten million years ago (mya) the climate became cooler and dryer. Jungles turned into open savannah’s. Eight mya it the jungle where our earliest ancestors lived, in Northeast Africa, underwent this change. Then and there our story begins.

Our earliest ancestors were apes. A kind of chimpanzee. Frans de Waal (Bonobo 1997) says when we want an image of our earliest ancestors, we can look at the bonobo’s. Because they are the only kind of chimpanzee whose environment never changed all this long times. A kind only changes when his environment changes.

So we name our earliest ancestors anbos (ancestor-bonobos).

It took tens of hundreds of thousands of years for their jungle to turn into savannah. The anbos never had any idea of this change; for them the world was in every phase like it always was. So the adaptations to the new conditions passed unperceived. But for our story this adaptations are crucial.

Savannah is a diversified environment. Open woodlands interspersed with impenetrable shrubs and grasslands with herds of many kinds of grass eaters.

The anbo’s lived in the woodlands, where they spent the nights in nests high in the trees. But these woodlands, along the shores of rivers and lakes, didn’t contain the fruit trees their ancestors lived from. For their food the anbo’s had to roam the open grasslands. Very dangerous for apes, because of the big cats that predated the grass eaters. Big lions and sabre toothed tigers and other formidable predators. The sabre toothed tigers were specialists in predating pachyderms: rhinoceros, hippopotamus and (ancestors of the) elephants. In a short sprint they run under them and ripped open the bellies with their sabre teeth. The mighty colossus was lost and after his downfall the ‘tiger’ fed on the entrails. Nature is cruel and doesn’t know empathy. Only the entrails: the sabre teeth were to frail for the rest of the cadaver. This was left to the hyena’s and because of the surplus of the cadavers it were giant hyenas.

What I emphasize: the Miocene (22 – 5 mya) savannah was characterised by a mega fauna and was much more dangerous than the nowadays Serengeti. Though the little anbos were much stronger than we now, they needed special armament to roam the grasslands safely.

The ancestral ape-armament against predators is throwing with something, with all they can grasp at the moment.

Jane Goodall tells the story of Mister Worzle. The bananas she put down for the chimpanzees to hold them in her neighbourhood for studying their behaviour, allured baboons too. Big and brave monkeys, who frightened some chimpanzee-women. But Mister Worzle gave not a centimetre of ground and threw with everything he could grasp: grass, branches, one time a bunch of bananas (baboons happy!), but soon he discovered that stones worked best and shortly he used still bigger stones.

The anbos had to become professional stone throwers for their living. They could not take a step on the savannah in safety without the armament of their stones. One stone is not enough for the safety, you need a handful of stones. But how can apes carry stones?

Hides enough everywhere on the savannah, because hyena’s eat everything, even the bones they can break with their mighty jaws but hairy skins are not that edible. So hides to carry things all over the place: it is not for nothing that I dwelled on the sabre toothed tigers. And with so long experience in braiding and wattling sleep nests, making ties is a mere trifle for the anbo’s.

But how must apes carry bags studded with stones?

How do bonobos carry heavy things? In their hands and then they go on their feet. Ah! That’s why we are the only biped kind of all mammals! In tens of hundreds of thousands of years the anbos – who had no other choice – turned into professional biped’s: longer and stronger legs, special pelvis and buttock muscles, special midriff and blood circulation. At least they made a good start developing these things, good enough for foraging on the savannah. With maintenance of the climbing facilities of hands and feet: they could not yet sleep on the floor because they had no campfires.

Women carry their babies and they had to gather food for them and for everybody else, so they couldn’t carry and throw stones. Men couldn’t gather food because the predators are always alert to moments of un-alertness. So the anbo’s cultivated a division of labour from the very beginning. Women and children gathered the food: grass seeds, tubers and roots (with digging sticks), larva’s and insects, eggs and little animals. The adult men did nothing but care for safety. Anyhow, the groups who cultivated these behaviours the most, flourished and kept more children alive and outnumbered the groups which were clumsy at these things. In tens of hundreds of thousands of years. In hundreds of generations the population with this behaviour survived.

The same mechanism about group harmony. Bonobo’s live in groups with female dominance, and group harmony is characteristic of them. They solve all tensions with sex. It is clear that the anbos professionalised this behaviour too. Nice breasts and buttocks for the women (the ‘attractive’ red vagina’s of the chimpanzee-women were not maintainable for biped’s, no more than that heavy scrotums of the males), nice big penises for the men, and permanent sexual willingness and ceiled oestrus of the women, all mechanisms for reducing tensions.

Nice boobs? Personally I think on another origin of the tits (ape-women have only tits when they have a baby). I see a link between the suckling power of our baby’s and their ‘pathological’ need to hold something in their mouth (we are walking archives!), the need of free hands for quickly climbing in a tree in case of danger and the immature baby’s (on account of the bipedal gait: narrower pelvis, so narrower birth canal, so premature birth) who were to weak for clinging to the mother but not to weak for suckling with power. So when I imagine a group of gathering anbos I see biped ape-women and some of them with a baby dangling on one of her tits. (I don’t want to risk my head for this speculation! But a photo of a pygmy-group, pygmy-mothers with long hang-tits, gave my this thought.)

Didn’t the men hunt? No way. The biped speed was by far not sufficient to participate in the hunting of the savanna predators. But now comes the real meaning of my dwelling on the sabre toothed tigers: the hides all over the place, the left-overs of the other meat-eaters of the savanna. The hides were a new niche for handy apes. There was enough protein-rich tissue left on it for the anbos who could pick and scrape with sharp edges of bones and shells and stones. And when an hide was totally clean, it was a perfect bag, or a blanket in the cold nights. The hides were their first and only wealth.

All those changes and adaptations developed unperceived for our anbos. Even as normal apes 10 mya they made their daily foraging routes in a vast foraging territory. In the course of two million years still more open grasslands became part of their territory and of a daily route. All needed adaptations developed during this time. 6 mya our anbos were experienced savannah dwellers.

A new kind of chimps. A totally new kind in the history of life on earth.

But the only thing that kept unchanged has been their way of life. Leaving their nests early in the morning, wandering along a route they perfectly knew, to the next sleeping wood where they made their nests high in the trees. 99,5 % of the time of our kind our ancestors were Gatherer/Hunters (GH’s).

names for the things

Now we come on the incidental invention that led, in the end, to me writing this and you reading this. For example.

Food enough on the savannah. But especially the women had to know when and where which food was available. In the rain wood the food hangs on the trees and the only thing you have to know is where the next fruit is ripe when your tree is emptied. On the savannah the living was far more complicated. So the anbo’s needed more communication than the normal rain forest communication (cries, gestures, facial expressions and other body language).

It had bound to happen. It happened in one group. One women developed the practice of imitating with her hands and fingers what she meant: [water], [stone], [a special plant], [a special larva], [sabre tooth tiger], [a special place], [a special act or operation or whatever]. Her daughters and other women became familiar with her useful habit and followed this practice. The better communication improved the cooperation in the group, benefited survival, the group flourished more than groups with clumsy communication. The young women moved for their partner to a neighbour group, took the habit along and so the practice spread over the whole clan and tribe. Our ancestors!

But with this incidental habit a totally new phenomenon in the history of life on earth had been born.

All kinds of group animals have their own means of communication. But in no other kind individuals can communicate about something beyond their awareness. About something in another place, in another season, in the past or in the future. These gesture-imitations of the things of our anbos were (the beginning of) names for the things.

There is something going on with an animal that can name things. It is not only the better communication and cooperation. It is not only the means of transferring the knowledge from the one generation to the following, so the building of knowledge in the population. It is the creation of a (feeling of) distance between the namer and the object. The creation of distance of a creature and his environment. That’s new in the history of life: a creature that is no longer totally dependant of his environment.

You could see it also as a mental professionalising of the ape ability of throwing, which enables a distance between the thrower and the object. It creates a feeling of power over the object, even – or just – when you aren’t powerful.

It started with nothing, but I think it started from the very beginning. Because the need for more communication was there from the beginning and the free hands with those ten fingers were available from the beginning.

It started with nothing and it started slowly. Like all developments in nature. Like the beginning of life on earth. For three billion years (a short side-leap here) there was nothing to see – there weren’t eyes anyhow; only the sky turned from brown into blue. And then: whoops! – from 900 mya on, little worms and crabs and plants, fishes, plants and amphibians on the land, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals, apes, us.

It started with one single gestured imitation. But it was a useful habit, in a need for more communication means. So it grew. Still more names for still more things. The anbo-tribe became a totally new kind of animals in Nature. A kind with more flexibility and inventiveness than all other animals, even than other hominid populations whose groups stayed without such a cultural habit of communication. Around the time of ‘the great jump’ of our kind, ca 2,5 mya, all other hominid kinds got extinct.

[Hominids is the name palaeontologists give to bipedal apes of the Mio-Pliocene. (Pliocene 5 – 1.4 mya and Miocene is the forgoing era) The common name for the Pliocene hominids is Australopithecus. My abbreviation: AP’s. From now on I name our ancestor-apes APan’s].

The APan’s developed more flexibility and inventiveness than other animals and even than other AP’s. Why? It is the result of the power of conferring one another. Two know more than one and as a group you can solve big problems. One hooligan is a timid boy but as a group hooligans are terrifying. It is the stack up of inventiveness. AP-groups devoid of this facility of conferring one another – boisei, robustus, aethiopicus, even afarensis– died out. I presume with some help of the APan’s: the ‘hooligans’ of the Pliocene savanna.

the big jump: fire

The APan’s. We don’t know which fossil – if any – belongs to the AP-an population. Brunet, leader of the French group which found the 6-7 million years old hominid skull in Chad, is showed with the skull, saying: “It’s a lot of emotion to have in my hand the beginning of the human lineage…” But there is no label on the skull, you can never know if he has an anbo in his hand or a prey of the

anbo’s. But there must have been anbo’s, otherwise you could not read this …

Around 2,5 mya the anbo’s have become APan’s. And I can show you a picture of their presence. Not a skull of course, but tools.

At 15 localities east and west of the Kada Gona river, Ethiopia, Sileshi Semaw and his team recovered more than 3000 surface and excavated artefacts, dated 2.6 –2.5 mya. [Journal of Archaelogical Science (2000) 27, 1197-1214]

All those artefacts are found in a context of animal bones, many of them with stone-tool cut-marks. So it are butchery tools, the bones are the result of “hunting and/or aggressive scavenging of large ungulate carcasses”.

Makers of these well-flaked artefacts: Australopithecus garhi. Archaeological name of these earliest stone industry: Oldowan.

Other early Oldowan sites, older than 2 mya: Olduvai, Omo, Bouri, Lokalei.

For me this picture is the hallmark of the second big jump of our ancestors, as the sequence of the first jump: names for the tings.

It was again the climate that triggered the jump. During five million years the climate was stable and gave no reason for changing behaviour. But then began the Ice Ages, the periodical increase of ice caps on the poles and around the high mountains. Cold periods (stadials, maxima) interspersed with warm periods (minima, interstadials). It started with a dramatic cooling and drying. Jungles receded to a narrow and interrupted belt around the equator, savannahs turned into deserts. Ever less trees to sleep in. Ever more natural fires.

Again it was a woman who had the courage to take a glowing branch of an extinguishing natural fire. She took it, trembling with fear, to a safe place, fed it with dry grass and wood and breathed in new life: fire. (When you don’t believe such an early ‘taming’ of fire, ask Ralph Rowlett of the University of Missouri-Columbia in Missouri.) Trembling with fear, of course, and the other APan’s

looked from a distance what the granny did, screaming for fear …

OK, I have another speculation for you. It is seen from gorilla’s and chimps that they like to sit near an extinguishing (natural or camp-)fire: in the nights the temperature come to zero on the savanna. But from no ape it is known that she/he ‘feeds’ the extinguishing fire with combustible material.

Of course our APan’s did: they had a name for fire!

Of course the AP-an’s knew also other attractive qualities of fire, and they were not the only animals who were lured by the far clouds of a fire. Vultures and other carrion eaters and even antelopes approached carefully, enticed by carrion and salty ashes. The APan women knew that some tubers and other plants, normally not edible, were edible after the work of the fire.

Why a woman again? Women have to feed their children and do everything for more and better food for their children. Perhaps it was an old and experienced woman. I think on a granny.

How dare I assume the point in time of 2 mya? Two ‘hard’ evidences. The APan’s started from now on growing in shape, because of the better food, and turned from APan to Homo erectus. Second: palaeontologists like Ralph Rowlett and Randy Bellomo studied the different influence of a natural fire and a campfire on the underground. The soil under campfires reaches much higher temperatures and the fire leaves behind a bowl-shaped layer of highly oxidised and magnetized soil. In Koobi Fora Jack Harris of Rutgers University, New Jersey found such remains of campfires of 1.6 mya. The start of the control of fire began a long time before that moment. ‘2 mya’ is not a date, it is only an easy story-number, like ’10 mya’ and ‘8 mya’.

the implications of the invention of the use of fire

Perhaps the dating of 2 mya is still to late!

The first ‘professional’ stone tools 2.6 mya of Kada Gona tell the story of a new niche for protein. For meat. Listen.

It started with the hides all over the place. In the following millions (!) of years the hooligans of the savanna ever more audacious with their stones chased away a feeding predator from his prey. Carrion had become a growing important part of the diet. The male part of the diet. That’s one.

Second: the woodland savanna turned into a desert savanna after 3 mya. The carrion competition grew. Third. The top-carrion: the pachyderms (elephants, rhino’s, hippo’s) had thick skins. Too thick for lions and hyena’s and vultures. These predators had to wait till, after two or three days, the skin cracked open by the decomposition gasses. But … the APan’s could on the work immediately: with their sharp stone ‘knives’! A new protein niche for our hooligan ancestors!

An incitement for improving their stone ‘knives’. No longer simple smashing a stone against another stone or a rock, and then pick out the best ‘knife’. The foregoing manner, millions of years long, of making a ‘knife’ or a scraper. Because knapping the ‘knife’ from a core stone with a hammer stone was too risky for their long and bended ape fingers (they still needed ape fingers for climbing quick in the trees for sleeping and safety). But for improving the stone ‘knives’ you need a knapping technique. So you need shorter and ‘handier’ fingers …

A balance situation! on one side the need for making nests high in the trees: long and bended fingers. On the other side: the need for better ‘knives’, so for a knapping technique. It was the use of the fire that did the balance incline.

It was the impact of the campfire on their communication.

Before this momentum their communication was limited to the foraging hours in daytime and the food sharing on the next sleeping place. But before the short twilight everybody had to climb in his tree and that was the end of the communication.

But now, with the campfire to keep the predators away, they could rest and communicate all night long! Dancing/singing around the fire.

Why dancing/singing?

From the beginning of the savannah foraging the normal ape communication (cries, gestures, facial expressions and other body language) got a humanlike component: names for the things. Those names were produced with their hands. Not with cries: apes have no neurological control over their cries because these originate in the limbic system.

The growing humanlike communication was a proto-form of sign-language. In essence no more than an extension of their body language.

The communication around the campfire was the exchange of thoughts, of what was going-on in somebody’s mind. Emotions. The memory of a shocking event in the past day, or a plan for the next day. Expressing such emotional thoughts the person used her/his whole body, and never without accompanying cries. And the others responder with imitating gestures and with cries, and many of them jumped up and joined the communicating person. And at very emoting items the whole group was dancing and crying, over and over.

homo erectus

The control of fire turned the APan’s into Homo erectus. So time for a new abbreviation: HE’s. Again it was one group of AP-an’s wherein this invention started, but it dispersed soon in all other APan groups, again like later the agriculture, through intense exchanges of sexpartners and meetings. The HE-population dispersed over Africa and started the first Out of Africa dispersion over Eurasia.

However, the last findings in the archaeological sites Dmanisi (1,7 mya) and Flores (descendants of hominids of Java from 1,6 mya) pint to the ancestors of the HE’s: the H. habilis. The HE’s are from 1,6 mya, and the finds of Dmanisi and the Far East show a more primitive hominid, with a more primitive toolbox. A reinforcement for the early use of fire.

linguistic creatures

Our kind is the only in Nature which controls fire. The cause is: only our AP-an’s became linguistic creatures, as the consequence of developing names for the things.

A linguistic creature experiences his world as a named world. It knows his world, but it knows the things only to the extent of having a name for them.

Only several names for several things is not enough to become a linguistic creature. Look at the family Washoe. This is the group of chimpanzees who learned ASL (American Sign Language) when they were young and in a human family setting, today living at the CHCI of Central Washington University of Ellensburg, in the lifelong care of Roger and Debbie Fouts ( Family Washoe uses 300 names for 300 things. You can say: proto-language. But not enough to experience their world as a named world.

What enables an ape to become a linguistic creature?

What makes – in other words – an animal communication to a language?

That is a stock of words, a vocabulary. A innumerable stock of names for a countless number of things. Your whole ‘world’ a world of named things.

How do we make our vocabulary? With phonemes: speech sounds with no sense of their own (say the letters of the alphabet), but the building stones of an endless number of words.

We make the phonemes with our speech apparatus: throat, tongue, lips and cheeks. But … apes cannot make (enough) phonemes because their throat is too short and their tongue too narrow. Experiments in training a young chimpanzee to speak resulted in papa and cup. Voiceless pronounced, because another ‘handicap’ is: apes cannot control their cries. Their cries are neurologically driven by the limbic system, an older part of the brain. Like our own cries of pain and anguish: when we hit our thumb with the hammer, we cannot withhold a cry of pain. With a tickling in our throat we cannot withhold a cough.

How could our ancestors – even the Neanderthals lacked the modern speech apparatus – have a language without phonemes at their disposal? They had the sign-alternative for phonemes, cheremes: language signs without own sense, but the building stones for an endless number of sign language words.

This process: a start with several names for several things to the ability to make a stock of names, reminds me always of the development of the writing.

8.000 ya still more people in the Middle East lived as farmers in villages. Each family contributed a part of the yield of fields and cattle to the temple, for the anniversaries, the barter with other villages and the emergencies. The temple functionaries needed, to forestall parasitizing and envy, to note what exactly each family tributed to the temple. The notes were engraved in the clay of the storage urns (later on tablets). The first notes were pure imitations, drawings. But … not artworks, utmost ‘minimal art’: the representation was divested of all that was not strict necessary for the identification. It became more and more stylised symbols.

So started Sumerian writing: pictograms, simple representations of what was meant. So a simple depict of a head stood for <head> and two wriggling lines for <water>. But soon this two symbols meant <drinking> and even <drink>. The pictogram’s became more and more schematic and only comprehensible for a writer.

The big jump came when some pictograms got a sound value, mostly the initial sound of the word-symbol. Soon there was a complete alphabet. The big jump to the written language: personal messages, enactments and laws, record of the oral tradition, the heroism of the successive kings (history writing), schools, scholarship.

Like this process the cheremes came into the human communication. The gestures were not more elaborated than enough to the wise. The less elaborated the gesture, the more gestures one can make in a communication moment. In most discussions you get little time to make your point, isn’t it? In a group of gossiping women each woman wants to contribute her share. Soon some gestures got the sense of syllables, building stones of sign words.

the birth of God

Our ancestors, now HE’s (Homo erectuses) spread from the tropics to the temperate zones in Africa and Eurasia. It was a slow migration, about 30 miles each generation. When a successful group became too numerous, tensions rose and then soon a little group of young women, children and men decided to put in use a new territory. This land was already known because each young woman or man made – as the initiation of adult life – a big journey. By safe and sound return they could tell till their old age of far worlds and strange people.

The settlers were the first humans who gave the mountains and rivers and lakes and marshes and fruit trees and wild animals their names. As I said, for humans the things only exist to the extent they have a name for it. For their descendants these settlers were the creators of the tribe territory. Men always had (and still have) the practice of defining a total group as one person (The American for all Americans, The Australian for all Australians) and so the descendants spoke of The Big Ancestor. I have no idea when and where I can let this process start. The first ‘hard’ evidence of dancing/singing experiencing of their world is Bilzingsleben: an archaeological site in Germany, an HE-campsite from 370.000 ya (Reinsdorf interglacial). The first place with evidence of a special dance place between 3 huts.

Linguistic creatures. But humans are part of the animal world. In the mind of the HE’s – or their descendants – they were not linguistic creatures (not even in your mind, dear reader, you are a linguistic creature but you aren’t aware of it) but animals. They felt themselves animals and originating of a special kind of animal.

It is something like our babies. Newborn babies live in the idea they are still part of their mother, like it was all their life time before. During their sleep this situation goes on, especially when the normal moves, shakes and sounds continue. When they are awake, the unceasing and loving attention of mama and others give them the confidence of safety, and then the neurological programming can do its work in growing up, step by step, to normal childhood and maturity. The same step by step development characterises the experience of the environment (world) of our ancestors. They thought totemistic.

Now comes the point.

Linguistic creatures live in a named world. A world full of things, full of names. This would be a chaos in their heads when they had no structure in this mass of names. The obvious structure is the story, the a up to z story, the creation story. The story of their world and humanity. Their ‘world’ was the tribe territory, and ‘men’ were the people of their tribe. (People of other tribes, with strange languages, were not real men because they couldn’t even talk; but they could become human by adoption or marriage: by incorporation in THE tribe.)

The creation story of the tribe tells how The Big Ancestor (never a man or a woman but something between animal and human) in the Dreamtime (!) entered the tribe land on a special place and made his journey through the land. Everywhere on his journey She/He left behind the mountains, lakes and trees and all the special things of the land. She/He also left behind, on a special place, the little souls who could fly in the belly of a woman when she passed by that place, the same place where the soul returns when the person dies. The Big Ancestor could travel through the sky or under the ground. At the end of the story She/He leaves the land on a special place under the ground.

This Story our ancestors sang/danced at every occasion. Special creations (mountains, trees or animals) were also important Figures in the Story, with special tasks or abilities. This Story of the creation of their world was so important to them that they believed their world would come to an end when they no longer sang/danced their world.

“She/He”: The Big Ancestor was never a man nor a woman and this makes sense: in origin it was a group. She/He was something between human and animal.

In the old times there has never been a tribe that did not have his sung/danced Story. Thousands of generations of sang/dancing our world and our community, this practice has become part of our genome. Molecular biologist Dean Hamer, Chief of gene structure at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, found recently The God Gene – of course without knowing the early ‘birth’ of God, as the Big Ancestor and the singed/danced creation stories.

We are born with the inclination to singing/dancing perceiving of the world. When the baby cries, it will be quiet when mama sings/dances with the baby in her arms. This inclination is the religious feeling that remains even when we are brights (www. It is this ancestral practice that makes us “incurably religious” as Dorothee Solle († 2003) defined it – without further explanation either.

The creation story as described above evolved with the thousands of generations and the evolving of the prehistoric economy. But in a few of the tribes we can still recognise the original form of it.


There must be a ‘momentum’ in exchanging acting from instinct to acting from deliberation and consulting. No two captains on the ship of your thinking! That they no longer acted by instinctive reaction on a sensual impulse, like a normal animal, they showed with the control of the fire.

Thinking? Animals? Of course animals think. The ‘higher’ kinds of mammals and birds make ‘scenario’s’ in their brains, possibilities of what can happen or be done, in order to choose what’s best. Intelligence. Some kinds of animals or birds we see as more intelligent than other kinds, but every kind is the most intelligent in its special niche. The tortoise is the most intelligent animal in the tortoise niche. And where instinct is concerned: only lower kinds of animals act only by instinctive reaction. Group animals act for a great deal by learning, example and intelligent trial and error. What we think as intelligent animals are always group animals. But it is a personal quality: the one dog is more intelligent than the other dog.

But consciousness is unique to humans, isn’t it?

It depends on what you mean by ‘consciousness’. Do you mean: aware of your environment? Every animal can be knocked out. Do you mean: self-conscious? Apes evidently display self-consciousness, plenty of examples.

What’s then unique to humans?

That we have names for the things when we think. The animal thinking is the manipulating of the things with representations of the things in the brain. In our human thinking the representations have labels, ‘handles’, ‘grips’, with which we can grasp the things. So we can better ‘handle’ the things, not only to communicate the things but also for easier and better thinking.

So when we speak about the concept of ‘consciousness’, we can better name it linguistic consciousness. Linguistic consciousness is unique to humans.

the dramatic consequences of becoming linguistic creatures

1 . The first dramatic consequence is for Nature (Universe). It is the insight of the American astrophysicist Eric Chaisson, the Universe started with – in the primordial stars – the simplest kind of complexity: the mere fusion of hydrogen and helium. In this fusion developed complex molecules, that endured in the clouds of dust around the implosions of this stars. In favourable environments, on some planets of the second generation stars, these complex molecules (matter) could generate more complex combinations, like DNA on Earth. In the rare ideal circumstances on Earth the complexity of matter made progress, step by step, in the evolution of life forms. The incentive to this evolution is: finding ever refining tricks for taking energy from the environment. The cell was a step, and so was the super cell, was multicellularity, were organisms, were sense-organs, were brains, was intelligence. Living in groups was a step. The linguistic consciousness of humans is the ultimate trick, the (provisional?) culmination of complexity of matter in the Universe. But: still for taking energy from the environment for staying alive and procreating.

2. The linguistic consciousness, the grasping, comprehending, understanding of the world, started by zero, with little. It was hopelessly deficient. Nevertheless the humans had to rely on it: they had put their instinct on the second level. When you no longer use an organ, it shrinks and so faired our instinct.

Because the humans started to understand their world with a weak and unreliable understanding, they fell prey to incertitude. We became ‘The Worrying Ape’ (title of another text of mine).

Not a new phenomenon in the Universe: incertitude. When an animal comes in a situation in which his instinct cannot give an impulse, incertitude is there. But for humans incertitude became part of the ‘human condition’.

Humans cannot live with constant incertitude. So they developed two anguish allaying mechanisms.

a. repeat: rhythm, dance/singing (“in the dark”!), rituals and traditions (doing things like they always did)

b. belief : that things are like we want them to be, or like somebody with status and/or authority says they are. But in primitive times humans weren’t acquainted with the concept of authority, they were equal. Their most important part of belief was magic (fear allaying actions) and myths (unscientific elucidations of their world).

Till our scientific times for our ancestors it was never important if a story was true. The only importance of a story was if it was a good story: a story which they wanted to be true. The story of the birth of Eva out of a rib of Adam was in the time of patriarch (machism) a good story because the men wanted to hear this, as a reinforcement of their supremacy. It had to be true.

3. The thus allayed incertitude enabled the humans to intervene in their environment. Names for the things gave also (a feeling of) power over the things. It created a distance between the understanding brain and the object: the understood thing or phenomenon. The first critical intervention was the control of the fire. Humankind became a factor in Nature that got a mental but also an instrumental power over the world. The conviction (idea with a reality of which a person has to convict himself) that some words – like incantations, charms or spells – can evoke magical forces and can create or destroy, is ancient. Knowing somebody’s name gives a feeling of power over him.

Besides this the ability to exchange complex thought scenarios with each other is a powerful device: two know more than one and with a brainstorm people can overcome the biggest problems.

4. Between the linguistic creatures and the environment rose an apparatus of thousands of concepts (sign language codes with associated representations in the brains) which created a ‘virtual’ world. Only named things are part of our world, but how can we be sure that this is the only world? Much philosophers, Plato with his cave metaphor; Emmanuel Kant with the thing as representation and the thing in itself; and many other thinkers wrestle with the feeling that, beside the world we know, there is a world which we are but which, just because we want to name and know it, slips out of our hands. So it is difficult to talk about this world. But linguistic consciousness takes only 20% of our thinking. Perhaps that philosophical ‘second’ or ‘real’ world exists in the other 80% part of our thinking.

5. the bastion of holyness. Our ancestors kept the incertitude liveable with belief and magic rituals. You believe when you don’t know. So it were imaged certitudes, pseudo-elucidations, not evidences. Deep in their minds the incertitude’s lived on. So the elucidations were canonicated to holy elucidations. Holy is: unassailable. No touch! May not be doubted or called in question!

But this is at right angles to the progress of our linguistic consciousness, our knowing, our ratio. To the only ability which can really free us from incertitude. This is the most dramatic consequence of our growing to linguistic creatures.

This is really dramatic!

good natured

This is the title of the – for the matter of philosophy – most important book of Frans de Waal (1996).

In the eyes of our philosophers the man is bad, fierce and violent by nature. Only by education and civilisation the man is socialised and good, they say. But what is the scientific evidence for this assumption? Oh, is the answer of a philosopher, the old philosophers always said so, Hobbes, Plato, you know. But what was the scientific evidence for Plato? None, there weren’t any social sciences in Plato’s time. Plato lived in a time of civil war and slavery and this observations coloured his concept of man. A concept of feeling and observation.

Feeling? Do you feel bad and fierce and violent? No. Observation? You never see a person who cares about another person? You never hear of a person who saves another person from a burning house or the water? A person as the Potamac man? Are this persons unnatural?

When humans were fierce and violent by nature, we would enjoy a war and have a good time seeing a rape or a murder. But no, we are shocked and grieved and afflicted. How can our philosophers persist in their assumption? Because they only study philosophy, and no other social sciences. To appreciate the book of Frans de Waal philosophers have to change their paradigm. Safer for them is not to study such books. They are to busy with their (postmodern!) philosophy anyhow. But they still have much influence on the other Public Intellectuals.

[Last time I get the impression that still more philosophers leave their ivory tower of postmodernity and pure philosophy.]

As we saw at the sabre tooth tigers: nature is cruel and knows no empathy. This is the point of departure. Humans know empathy, because they are a kind of chimpanzees and chimpanzees know empathy because they are higher group animals. Humans ‘professionalised’ this behaviour, we are the most social animals in Nature. So we are ‘unnaturalised’!

Nature is eating or being eaten, is food-chain. About the evolution of life, the principle of Eric Chaisson is: finding still refining tricks for taking energy from the environment. But another incentive for an organism is: passing-on its DNA. A lovely thing as maternal care is from this point of view: the incentive to pass-on her DNA.

Good for an organism is: taking as much energy from its environment to be strong enough to pass-on his DNA. Sense-organs and intelligence are beneficial, but also weapons, for defence or attack are beneficial. And violence. And poisoness, pricks and so on. These are all good qualities for an organism. In the struggle for life.

But in birds and perhaps in more dino’s mother care started, a refining in passing-on DNA and sacrificing immediate egoism. Living in groups, with accompanying give and take and compassion for group members, is a next refining. Perhaps already in dino’s. A group animal – elephant, whale, ape – cannot live well without his group: then he deserves the protection but also the knowledge, stored in the culture of the group. He is not born with this knowledge, he has to learn it in his youth. An ape cannot even copulate when he never saw it from adults when he was a young ape; young apes are very curious to see the adults copulate. An ape-woman cannot care for her baby when she never saw mother care in her youth. (What did I say about instinct?!)

Group animals like chimpanzees, our next of kin in the animal world, have an extensive repertoire of social skills (compassion and console, reconcile, commitment, good leadership, altruism, devotion and friendship, sorrow and communal sense. We were already social creatures before we were human, philosophers! And we ‘professionalised’ these social skills in our human evolution. It were special circumstances (overpopulation) who made chimpanzees and us to be fierce and violent. Study this situations but depart from social inclination.

Group animals are moved by two impulses: egoism (passing-on your DNA) and altruism (you have more chances to pass on your DNA in an harmonious group, so you must curb your egoism). These two impulses are at right angles to each other and would condemn the individual to a paralysing indecision if they hadn’t a calming mechanism at their disposal: manners, rules for social intercourse, culture, ‘norms and values’. When two chimpanzee-males had a fight, they try desperately to reconcile because they need each other against aggression from the neighbour group. The same mechanism works in humans. In theological works you find these opposite impulses as the good and the evil.

But … this ‘norms and values culture’ is still in the service of the individual passing of DNA, is egoism-as-a-group. With aggression and violence against other groups. Xenophobia!

The unique position of humanity in Nature is that we have the capability to reflection. A further refining step on the path of extracting energy from the environment and of passing-on DNA. We realize: all groups of humans have the same interest: survive on the planet Earth. There is no other place outside our planet for us for extracting energy and for passing-on our DNA. Humans have the capability to make the next step beyond group harmony: harmony between all our groups.

Our real creation story will be a great help in this reflection.

fierceness and violence, or: why we wage war? why machism?

Our kind started in very harmonious groups with the women as the dominant gender. The survival on the savannah’s was extremely precarious, in harmony living groups flourished better than groups with tensions. The natural selection advanced harmony. Millions and millions of years in harmony, this is what made us the most social kind in Nature and what made us good natured.

Why then, for Gods sake, did Plato live in a time of civil war and slavery? Why Holocaust, Rwanda and Srebrenica? Or, in other words: why are men the dominant gender now?

We find the answer in the chimpanzees.

We may assume the ancestors of the chimpanzees, the ‘chibo’s’, lived more harmoniously than their descendants now and the cause is the climate again. 2 mya the Ice Ages started. The shrinkings of their territories caused struggle for survival. Struggle, war, make men important. Groups with the most violent men survived. This process renewed which each Ice Age maximum, over and over.

For our ancestors this situation of overpopulation played a role in far later times.

200 thousand years ago (200 tya) in Northern Africa developed, as descendants of the African HE’s, the Anatomically Modern Man (AMM). The tropical HE’s over there were long and slender. Where the stocky figures of the Neanderthals adapted to a cold climate, their African contemporaries (I name them Afro-NT’s but for the scientists it is the MSA-culture) were adapted to a hot climate. Long and slender, so longer necks also. More place for lower throat and bigger pharynx. Our pharynx plays an important role in making vowels.

I told you of the communication moment. In most discussions you get little time to make your point and each woman wants to contribute her mite. From the very beginning their voices played a role in the sign communication. By communication in the dark, or with full hands, there was always pressure to more linguistic load in their voice sounds. For the long and slender Afro-NT’s the longer necks facilitated this process and 100 tya the communication of the population over there was in a transition from still more speech and a subordination of the sign language.

I think it was a female development in the first place. Males should never risk the success of their hunting with a prayer to the Big Ancestor or another mighty animal ghost with a female speech, they clung on the sacral sign language for their hunting prayers. Nowadays the Semai hunters still pray to their God in sign language before each hunting trip. Also for the sacral singing/dancing of their Creation Stories which had a so dominant place in the life of our ancestors, the sign language must have survived long-time, when we look to the important role of the gestures in sacral rituals today (we are walking archives).

But there is something going on with a person who speaks only with his voice: he can lie. Telling lies is difficult or even impossible for you as a sign language speaker, because your whole body lies with you and your company is experienced in reading body language. The American deafs could be very angry at a speech of Reagan: they saw he was lying! So I think the transition to speak, with a straight face, altered their community a bit. They became more individualistic than they always were. Their independence of the world grew. The bond of the tradition loosened a tiny little bit.

Just as newborns like tight swaddling-clothes, so too did our early ancestors like the tight bonds of tradition, as cover from the incertitude after loosing their animal instinct certitude. The NT’s and also the Afro-NT’s still clung to rigid tradition. But the AMM’s got a little more self-confidence and individualism by the new and faster communication. From the NT’s is not known the use of tools made from bone or ivory. But the AMM’s started to make harpoons and fishhooks (is not possible with stone as raw material). From the African AMM’s is known that they eat fish and sea-food, not from the NT’s or Afro-NT’s. I agree it is an unprecedented speculation to connect this new behaviour – some authors speak of “The Great Leap Forward” – with the new equipment for linguistic communication, but perhaps it makes sense. Sure is the increase of the population and the migration to Middle East and Eurasia: the second ‘Out of Africa’ migration. This time they spread also over Western-Europe, where they in 10.000 years caused the extinction of the NT’s.

Back to the point now: why war and why male dominance?

We saw it in the chimpanzees: overpopulation brings war and foster violence in males. The same mechanism works in humans. The longest times of the evolution of our kind the populations grew slowly and the world was wide. So equality between the genders or even female dominance. Because women fight for their children and children need quarrels to find their place in the status order, women always look for a hulk as an arbitrator. It is quite possible that communities, even with female dominance and leadership, had from the earliest times, a headman. In greater and later groups possibly males and females lived apart for most hours of a day, and had their own rituals.

The first real indication of overpopulation (so the start of wars and male dominance) in humans is 13.000 ya. In short time the big mammals (mammoths, cave bears, giant deer, sabre toothed tiger, et al) died out. It’s the time of the invention of bow and arrow and the domestication of the wolf. The time of the dispersion of the AMM’s all over the world, inclusive the ‘new world’. The time of the beginning of horticulture. On regions of Eurasia with density of shabono’s (the temporary villages of semi nomadic horticulturers) the first struggles for survival arose. Then the groups with the most violent males survived, and found women violence in males good. We see it still in all tribes with incessant and hopeless tribal wars: it occurs always and only in a situation of overpopulation.

But why do all these tribes know machism (male dominance) and sometimes severe violence against their women? Why this unproductive suppression of their indispensable and attractive partners in life?

In my eyes this is the ‘hard evidence’ of the female dominance in the long, long times before the overpopulation situation. In times of survival the ‘fittest’ groups are the groups with the most violence males, as we saw, and then the women see violence as a good quality in males. So they promote this quality in their men and sons. The males found out they were very, very important! They found out that their rituals were far more important than the rituals of the women! And they got hold of the holy flutes! (This element we find in many myths.)

But it was only the situation that had changed (war), not the males and not the women themselves. So the males had to suppress their incertitude, to allay their own doubts and declared the new relations holy. The deep incertitude of the males force them to a constant denigration of the female abilities. The fundamentalists still display this primitive incertitude.

I place the start of war and male dominance (machism) 13.000 ya. But when you see the state of machism in all American tribes up to the south of South America – a situation of overpopulation of a tribe makes a great difference; the egalitarity of the Iroquois have a totally different source – we may assume it was a cultural legacy of the first settlers from Siberia 14.000 ya.

A good question is: was it not a legacy of the AMM’s already? Was their immigration Out of Africa not a result of overpopulation? Even the most egalitarian tribes like the Mbuti (Congo) know a certain machism. In the past the Mbuti males annexed the molima, the rites of the holy flutes and excluded the women of it. The women still disturb the molima and cry that the men have stolen the molima and the holy flutes from them! We can learn very much of the Mbuti in concern of our past.

So when you say: machism is very old, I agree. But when you say: machism is part of human nature, I say definitely no! Even 100.000 years is not enough to change human nature. Machism is a result of overpopulation, and overpopulation is not that old in human history. Machism is unnatural. Women know that.


Dear reader, this was not THE new Origin Story of our globalizing western society, it was an example of a consistent origin story of how our kind evolved from apes to humans. It was an attempt to open the discussion about the Western alternative for the patriarchal biblical (and islamitic) Adam and Eva origin story. A demonstration: you see a consistent Story of Human Origins is possible.

That we desperately need a new Origin Story, demonstrate the Creationists who want to fight against human progress toward more humanity. They feel no responsibility for our surviving on our planet, they only feel responsibility for their conviction (idea with a reality of which a person has to convict himself!).

That we desperately need a new Origin Story, demonstrate the Islamists, who want to fight against human progress in the same mentality as the Creationists, but with the political premises that human progress is an American or western interest.

That we desperately need a new Origin Story, demonstrates our youth, who feel themselves floating in a world with “no future”, because of no past, no Story.

That we desperately need a new Origin Story, demonstrates our morality.

That we desperately need a new Origin Story, demonstrate our governments, who lack orientation and compass to steer our societies in the turbulent sea of financial capitalism and globalisation. Demonstrates the new Europe.

The IDEA aims: a team of students, paid by the international community (UNESCO?) with the mandate to reconstruct the story of human nature and mentality, by means of the human sciences. The results of their explorations are not a Book but periodicals. The team is permanent, and stays in life by cooptation. This is my idea and I wait for your opinion.

Frans Couwenbergh