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.