Deep in the Amazon jungle, a European explorer had a
On June 5, 1799, the Prussian geographer and naturalist set sail for South America aboard the Spanish frigate Alexander von HumboldtPizarro. He landed in Cumaná, Venezuela, and then went on to Caracas, in what was then New Granada. In February 1800, the Humboldt expedition set out to map the Orinoco River, collecting plant and animal specimens along the way. Deep inland they encountered a group of indigenous people armed with finely crafted bows and arrows. Humboldt identified them as the Yanomami, a reclusive tribe that he knew was rumored to live in the Orinoco basin.
Humboldt's scientific interests were wide ranging and his work included physical geography, meteorology, and biology. He was among the first to suggest that South America and Africa had once been connected and his work with helped develop the modern science of climatology. Charles Darwin credits Humboldt with inspiring him to undertake his own explorations and may have emulated his writings, while Alfred Wegener was surely familiar with his work, which stressed the value of studying the geographical distribution of plants and animals. “isothermal” lines
Humboldt did not consider himself an anthropologist and though his later work, collected in the multivolumed Kosmos, attempted to explain the “unity of nature” by applying all of the physical sciences collaboratively, it's uncertain to what extent he viewed his encounter with the Yanomami and other indigenous people as a window into the human past. Modern anthropologists use the study of foraging societies as a way to better understand how our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived and to help unravel the mysteries of human evolution.
Scientists believe that the earliest humans diverged from other primates partly in response to a changing climate in what is now East Africa. Forests grew drier and the savanna – large swaths of grassland interspersed with trees – spread, leading these early ancestors of ours to give up tree-dwelling and to instead range the open spaces, hunting and gathering.
Over time, our ancestors slowly became us. They switched to bipedalism, walking exclusively on two feet. Unlike the big toes of great apes, which are separated from other toes to help in gripping tree branches, human big toes evolved to be parallel to the others. Our ancestors developed a wider range of vision more suitable to broad expanses than to the tight, leafy confines of the forest. They made simple tools to procure food, and used fire to cook it. Their brains grew in size and weight, from about 850 grams for Homo erectus or Homo ergaster to about 1,350 grams for
But there are other species that use tools and other species with large brains. It is , the ability to share, store, and build upon information that truly distinguishes humans. collective learning
When did collective learning start?
No one can pinpoint when our ancestors started to learn collectively, but many agree that the ability to communicate with each other symbolically using the voice must have come first. So when and how did humans develop such a precise language? There are dozens of theories. Some say it was the cooing of a mother to an infant that evolved into the first protolanguage. Others believe that sounds were learned from animals. Some point to the development of certain anatomical features in the human skeleton and tissues that are necessary for human speech. Recent genetic research has highlighted the importance of a specific gene, FOXP2, and its likely importance in the human capacity for precision speech and early collective learning.
By whatever means our ancestors learned to communicate with each other, they then began to learn from each other, to teach each other, to share information with their companions, their children, and their grandchildren.
It's clear that our foraging ancestors used collective learning 50,000 years ago and perhaps much earlier. They used it to adapt to life in various climates, to share information about food sources, and to develop tool technology. Generally we don't give nearly enough credit to foraging people. When we think of humans who live as hunter-gatherers, we tend to think of them as “primitive.” We have our caricatures of the “Stone Age” and hairy, unintelligent, club-toting creatures called “cavemen.” How can we see this period more clearly?
The Yanomami still follow the same lifeways they did when Humboldt encountered them. They are one of the largest and most traditional intact tribes of the Amazon, and they have become famous among anthropologists because they can help teach us about how earlier human foraging societies might have lived. Studying them can tell us a lot about our past and also about our present.
You fly to Manaus, the capital city of Amazonas state in Brazil, travel hundreds of miles up the largest river on Earth, drive a jeep on a muddy jungle road for several hours, board a motorized canoe and twist along one of the Amazon's small tributaries for several more, and finally you arrive at a village of thatch-and-mud huts perched on a hill above the dark water.