a new find of humans at higher elevations and a deep biological root

I have found another new report of ancient humans living at higher elevations, 11,000 feet, 47,000 years ago:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/science/humans-high-altitude-ethiopia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

This report adds to some others that I have posted about, e.g. high life in the Andes 12,000 years ago and the Denisovans wandering from the steppes of central Russia to the Himalayas 160,000 years ago, bringing their genes with them, especially the ones that specified a hemoglobin more adapted to the thin air of higher elevations.  Whether it’s highlands, lowlands, hot, cold, tropical, dry, humans have sought to live there and exercising thereby our wondrously flexible adaptive abilities.

I want to focus on one idea Carl Zimmer, the NYT science writer from above, reported.  That is that paleoanthropologists have assumed that humans did not settle at higher elevations until more recently because, I can only guess, of the thin air, sparse vegetation and wildlife for food, severe weather, etc.  This new discovery of early humans at 11,000 feet was made because the researchers ignored those assumptions and looked there. Now they think more efforts will find other sites situated up high—they need only to look.

Davis and Panksepp emphasize in The Emotional Foundations of Personalitythat the 6 basic emotional subcortical systems are ancient with some appearing with the earliest nervous systems and then culminating in their current forms with the evolution of mammals.  These 6 are seeking, play/joy, caring/nurturance (all positive valence) and rage/anger, fear/anxiety, panic/sadness (all negative valence), and the most ancient of these is seeking.

Seeking would seem to me to be a manifestation of a basic life function. If you have followed this blog you may remember that I see 2 such functions that I call Solving the World Problem (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR).  SWP involves finding the necessary resources for life to continue, but more than that, it involves exploiting opportunities (that arise from actions or from chance) and mitigating exigencies (that arise from, you know, just trying to stay alive in a blooming, buzzing, chaotic and at times dangerous world). It makes sense, then, that early nervous systems helped the organism to find its way through to survival, i.e., seeking.

 

Our SEEKING (in all caps following Panksepp’s labeling of major subcortical systems) is a remarkable and powerful system that bears fruit as dopamine flows up to innervate cortical systems and energize activity in intellectual domains.  Jaak Panksepp gives an amazingly detailed, data driven description in chapter 8 of his fabulous text, Affective Neuroscience(I learn more every time I re-read portions—you gotta read this amazing book).  Consider some of his introductory statements:

  • Now we know that ascending DA [dopamine] tracts lie at the heart of powerful, affectively valenced neural systems that allow people and animals to operate smoothly and efficiently in all of their day-to-day pursuits.
  • [DA is] a major contributor to our feelings of engagement and excitement as we seek the material resources . . . . and when we pursue the cognitive interests that bring positive existential meanings into our lives.
  • Without DA human aspirations remain frozen, as it were, in an endless winter of discontent

Ah, but with a healthy flow of DA we human animals seek out opportunities, tried and true & novel, in our thinking and in our world. Again, after the systems controlling arousal the SEEKING system is the most ancient, and I think that throughout our evolution and during individual development this system has developed into new structures fueled by the flow of dopamine.  These higher structures serve increasingly cognitive functions infusing them with curiosity and an appetite for novelty.

If certain paleoanthropologists had read Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, they would have assumed that humans diversified into every environment because meeting the challenges of seeking resources, internal and external, is a basic instinct, i.e., a deep biological root of our humanity, that finds new expression and fulfillment in human intellect.  That is good news and I will rest here for a moment rather than travel on.

 

 

Forensic science finds ancient crimes, but solving the mystery?

My wife is a big fan of Lin Anderson’s detective novels featuring Rhona MacCleod, forensic scientist; she likes the gritty details of Rhona’s investigations (otherwise she does not like blood or crime or anything like that) and the insight the writer shows into human motivations, behaviors, and relationships.   Now archeologists are using the tools of forensic science to investigate the ancient times.  A report came out a while back that forensic science figured out Otzi, the stone age man whose body was mummified in ice found in the Italian alps 10 years ago, was killed by an arrow in the back 5000 years ago.  His clothes had the blood from 4 other individuals on them and he had other wounds some partially healed and some at time of death. The researchers put together a plausible narrative wherein he had a fight and won, took off to the mountains to escape retribution, and was shot in the back because his assailants did not want to face him again in a fight.  Even then Otzi rolled over and tried to pull the arrow out, a futile task because of the fatal damage done.  It also appears that his enemies ended his life quickly then with some blows. Sounds like a good plot for a novel or script for a movie, eh?

A recent report on PLOS (that’s the Public Library of Science) details the techniques forensic scientists use as they find evidence for interpersonal violence 30,000 years ago:  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0216718.   This analysis was on a skull found in Romania some time ago.  The researchers examined the skull through CT scans and visual inspection, analyzing the pattern of injuries, whether they had healed or not, whether the bone was still plastic (indicating that the person was alive when injured), and other features.  They also used synthetic skulls to experimentally replicate the pattern of injuries through various means, e.g., blunt force trauma, falling, etc.  They concluded that the skull injuries occurred at the time of death, not before and not after, and that the only probable means for an injury with this pattern was blunt force trauma with a club-like weapon.

Now this person was a modern human, not a Neandertal or other variant, but who knows who killed him.  I tend to think that early tools were developed for hunting, digging, etc., but maybe the first tool was a weapon.  Our biological nature is one wherein we fight for defense and to protect resources from the others, e.g., not of our clan, though culturally this has developed to become violence in the service of aggrandizing power and thus resources, e.g., slaves, land, taxes, etc.  And another motivation, as I posted about on 3/28/19, was to appease the gods and so control the supernatural forces controlling weather and harvests. In this instance Incan priests sacrificed 140 child prisoners and 200 animals in response to, so the primary hypothesis runs, a natural disaster.  This was done around 1400 CE.  It probably did not achieve its desired end, unless that was to bring Spanish conquistadors and priests a few decades later to subjugate the indigenous peoples.  (In a cynical aside, I wonder if our efforts to mitigate climate change are any more effective, at least so far?  Maybe some alien life form will arrive to ‘help’ us?)  But I digress.

Or maybe I don’t.  In my last post on Davis and Panksepp’s Emotional Foundations of PersonalityI presented their idea that 6 basic emotional systems operating in subcortical neural structures underlay, constrain, motivate and flavor our personality structure and cognitions.  They said this succinctly towards the end of the book, “Although we humans are highly cognitive creatures, it is clear that we are not liberated from ancient emotional arousals”.  Amen.  In modern America the availability of guns, these products of our cognitive and technological precision, amplifies through tragic actions the motivations for violence, e.g., turf wars, domestic violence, and now mass murders in the service of what?  Imagined invasions and the incredibly vile and mistaken cognitive efforts to see ‘others’ as dangerous aliens when all reasoned and realistic minds understand the value of these others and cherish their presence in our country.  And even more prescient minds understand that we are all one on one planet.  And our American culture seems to worship guns in ways no other culture or nation does, or has ever done, so that our laws make sure everyone can have as many lethal weapons as they want.  These are not the clubs of 30,000 years ago, nor the arrows of 5000 years ago, nor the ritual sacrificial and horrid killings of 600 years ago, but modern tools of fatal warfare.  After each modern mass murder or once we notice a surge or pattern in individual murders, another ritualized pattern of behavior is enacted to somehow cleanse the nation’s psyche, e.g., thoughts and prayers, affirmations of resilience, etc., and then we are, I can only assume, ‘ready’ for the next instance.

I have begun reading a book recommended by Davis and Panksepp, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Themby Joshua Greene.  So far he has articulated the notion that our evolution has prepared us for resolving conflicts through moral means between an individual and others in his tribe, e.g., through reconciliation or making up, but that part of this development involves serious problems resolving conflicts between tribes.  As I have assumed and said here, we evolved with strengths in intimate and small group relationships.  These were adequate when the human population was sparsely distributed, tribes were small, and resources relatively adequate.  However, as many have noted, with a burgeoning population, large, rather artificially constructed groups called nations, and increasingly inadequate resources, especially water (you know, the basic stuff of life) our evolutionary abilities to relate peacefully and morally are being tested in new ways and are all too often falling short.  This is so even as the overall level of violence on a global scale has fallen, according to Stephen Pinker.

I will continue reading Greene’s book, hoping to learn more about our biological roots and how we can draw upon them to live better with all others.  I will continue to read fine fiction that presents the human condition in clarifying aesthetic light. While forensic tools can detect and clarify the nature of the crime; solving the mystery is another matter.  And I will advocate for the notion that our culture can act upon better impulses—cultures can and do change: gun worship is not intrinsic or necessary to who we are. We are certainly not trapped by our biology to be violent with each other; in fact human nature is just the opposite.  Time to travel on.