Peking man
Franz Weidenreich

This is a followup on the last post about Franz Weidenreich’s vision of thousands of generations of Homo erectus engaging in continual group warfare, constantly clubbing each other to death causing those with progressively thicker skulls to survive. His most direct proof consists of ten fossils of skulls from China (Peking Man) which he claimed had sustained depressed skull fractures – some of which also show signs of healing indicating they were alive when they received the injuries. There is also evidence that these creatures cannibalized each other. Weidenreich states bluntly, “He hunted his own kin as he hunted other animals and treated them no differently” (1943).

Homo erectus skull
I had to admit that this is a very thick skull

After reviewing this literature (Roper, 1969) and particularly the authors of Dragon Bone Hill, paleo-anthropologists Noel Boaz and Russell Ciochon, present a very convincing and detailed argument that multiple aspects of the Homo erectus skull were selected to defend against blows to the head by club or rock wielding members of their own species. From the thickened ring around the head called the “sagittal keel” to bony reinforced aspects of the jaw to the placement of arteries in the skull; all point to adaptations to head trauma in the absence of any other explanation. Indeed I am mystified that articles on the roots of human violence, such as the review article in Science one by Christopher Boehm in 2012, do not mention this compelling body of evidence.

            Boaz and Ciochon note that these thickened skulls progressively thinned in later Homo erectus and as they evolved into Homo heidelbergensis from which our own Homo sapiens emerged. They speculate that the diminishing thickness of the skull was caused by the need to cool the progressively larger brain which superseded the need to protect it from intra-species violence.

Jean Jacques Rouseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was the romantic philosopher who claimed that “…nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.” It must be admitted that the Narrative in this blog looks more to Rousseau than Hobbes…but facts are stubborn things. Although violence is far from being proven as the cause of the thickened skulls of Homo erectus, until further, more compelling evidence arrives, the Myth accepts this interpretation.

propensity for war
Last 50,000 yrs.

However, the Narrative disputes the assumption by Weidenreich, Boaz, and Ciochon that this violence reflected groups at war with one another. This automatic assumption is deeply conditioned by modern man’s obvious propensity to chronic war and its presence in chimpanzees who also engage in group versus group violence. My gradual rejection of this nearly universal line of thought over many years has been based on the determination that our hominid family would never have leaped out and away from all other forms of life if we had not first shaken off the shackles of war despite the fact that we have been plunged back into this sorry state since well before our own recorded history.

Bonobos don't do war
Bonobos don’t do War

Two facts are relevant here. Bonobo apes, the third species that shares a common ancestor with us, are not particularly territorial, and group-group violence is very rare. But most important is the little known reality about violence in the purest extant examples of hunter-gatherer humans–most likely those who typified Homo sapiens behavior for 3/4 of our 200,000 year existence. Meticulously observed on four different continents is that a very frequent form of violence in these groups –  perhaps the most frequent –  is against those who violate norms of equality and morality! Yes, the earliest humans clearly demonstrate that they had internalized a sense of right and wrong. Christopher Boehm has been a pioneer through the years in identifying and stressing the importance of this early human social structure, first in Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999), and most recently in Moral Origins, The Evolution of Altruism (2012).

Christopher Boehm
Sheriff Chris: “Don’t mess with Justice.”

            Dr. Boehm hypothesizes that equality and morality evolved about 400,000 years ago when big game hunting began in earnest adapting to the increased cooperation required. But the brain had already undergone most of its expansion by then. Indeed, the Narrative conceives morality to have initiated the Hominid Family six million years ago and considers that, in the pre-human Homo period, it was woven into the expansion of a communal brain that functioned as a group-organism.

Justice defines what hominids do.

The Narrative acknowledges that the primate legacy of hierarchical competition continued to lay beneath the surface of its transformation into obedience to the authority of the good-of-their-groups, and that it was (and remains) our most ancient social impulse. But the Narrative also attributes the 6 million year success of hominids to the power of communal justice over these worthless and divisive emotions. Therefore, the Narrative attributes this evidence for violence in Homo erectus to the fact that stone tools (and probably wooden clubs) could be also used (by the bad guys) as as weapons. As a result, the early members of our Homo Genus sustained a flare-up in the protracted conflict that defines our entire Hominid Family: the war against injustice which continues now,  in our time, and will continue on into the future until victory is finally secured.

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2 Comments on “Hominid History: A 6 Million Year War Against Injustice?”

  1. I find your reasoning compelling, and proof that our current ideas and feelings color our interpretation of our past and therefore of our current selves. Take sports. As you have pointed out, those who hate big egoistic sporting events focus on that, on ego and dominance. But the salient fact is that they are bound by rules, by the better angels of our nature. Scientists seldom admit and may hardly see their own interpretation biases, however.

    1. Yes, Richard, the referee is the really unique element in a sporting contest.
      You can certainly understand that someone (Franz Weidenreich) who has just escaped the holocost would assume that the same type of thing was happening between Homo erectus groups and that it wouldn’t occur to him that the meaning of WW-II, which was to extinguish group dominance in its most virulent form, might have also been the meaning of the violence 500,000 years ago – only at the level of individual dominance.

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