Cooking is now seen as the definitive characteristic of modern humans, from which all others followed. It seems to have directly led to the development of tools, especially blade design, but it had many other consequences.
Cooking, particularly of meats and fats but also starches, partially pre-digests the food, making more energy available to us and allowing us to use less to digest it. We put this extra energy into growing brains. Growing big brains burns many calories and just running them consumes a significant part of our daily food intake. We know that the physical structures which allow us to speak were evolving at the same time as our brains were growing larger. Speech allowed more complex and efficient communication and cooperation. This encouraged conceptual thinking and other intellectual skills, again leading to the development of bigger brains.
The complex anatomy required for sophisticated language, as opposed to grunts and shrieks, developed over a million years ago in hominids. We did not evolve it and then suddenly decide to speak but because we were speaking. Language gave us an evolutionary advantage. Human culture, the product of all that chattering and storytelling and the incessant posing and answering of questions, is not only innate to us, it is also essential to our survival.
Homo sapiens’ vocalising structures are markedly more sophisticated than earlier hominids, such as Homo erectus. We have a hyoid bone, which is what allows us to modulate the pitch of our voices by stretching vocal cords anchored to it. H. erectus, modern chimps and other primates have hyoid bones, but we go further and add a space behind the hyoid called a ‘dropped larynx’. This development, like other human evolutionary adaptations, is fascinating because it is dangerous. It is possible for a human to choke to death on his tongue; other hominids have no space into which it could fall. So the advantage of speech – and its consequence, culture – must be much greater than the risk of accidental death. The adaptation is like our upright postures, which allowed us to use our hands while moving but at the same time forced skeletal changes that made childbirth difficult and dangerous.
It is likely that the anatomical ability to speak, the neurological ability to form complex languages, and the more complicated and successful techniques of cooperation that these might have afforded, progressed hand in hand.
Dr Michael Tomasello has collated peer-reviewed research that shows how cooperation is not only innate to humans, but also an intrinsic part of our character, and essential to our success. His studies suggest that when the first Homo habilis left the African jungles and began to populate the savannahs, they were at a disadvantage to the large carnivores that were already present. However, rather than competing directly with these predators, they developed a strategy of scavenging from their kills. He concludes:
‘The result was a new kind of interdependence and group-mindedness…at the level of the entire society.’ (link)
Being able to talk to each other made us more successful. Once we could express complicated plans clearly and give quick commands and instructions when required, we could progress from scavenging to hunting. This increased dependence on sophisticated levels of cooperation would have been facilitated by verbal communication and this in turn would have led to an evolutionary impetus towards increasingly complex cooperation and language.
This combination of factors makes an early date for the development of sophisticated language more probable. The first Homo sapiens communicated in ways that we would understand although we might not know their language. Not only were the people in the single group that left Africa to populate the world talking, they also would have spoken the same language and shared the same culture.
To people living by a tropical sea, the sun always comes up at around the same time and rises to the same height in the sky. Some parts of the year may be wetter than others, but that matters little if the sea, which remains a constant temperature all year round, continually brings forth food. Days are easily measured by the rising and setting of the sun, which varies little throughout the year. Lacking the obvious measure of longer intervals that the annual changes in declination of the sun afford to temperate-zone dwellers, the most obvious indicator of the passage of time would have been the monthly phases of the moon.
As ever, our natural reaction was to explain the moon’s phases in human terms, albeit on a supra-natural scale. We had already invented the Goddess and the moon’s phases became the ages of her life. The new, waxing moon became the Maiden, a young girl. She was full of charm and beauty, the fount of burgeoning fertility, but not yet a mother. The full moon was the Mother, the Goddess at her most resplendent, representing the prime of a woman’s life, fully integrated into the sacred sisterhood of mothers. The waning, dying moon became the Crone, the older woman, perhaps no longer fertile, yet full of knowledge and wisdom. There is a three-night period of darkness in each lunar cycle and, in time, this would be associated with death.
The lunar cycle is regenerative. Metaphorically the moon is born, grows to its full splendour, reduces and then disappears. Three days later it regenerates, and the cycle begins again. This concept is one of the most important in human culture and would lead to the notions of reincarnation and resurrection that are at the heart of modern religious beliefs.
Tides also follow a cycle, with the tidal range growing and diminishing; at ‘spring’ and ‘neap’ tides the range is greatest and smallest respectively. This cycle is caused by the moon’s gravity, and spring tides occur at the full and no moon, with neap tides at the half-moon phases. People would have noticed this difference in tidal range, since it affected their access to food; far more of the intertidal zone is accessible at the springs than the neaps. Ancient people may have had no idea of gravity, but it would have been clear that, in some profoundly mysterious way, the waxing and waning of the tide were related to the phases of the moon. For the pattern-seeking humans the tides came to represent the cycles of the deity they had identified with the sea. This correlation would develop into the idea that the Goddess controlled time which, along with that of the regeneration of life, was to become another foundation stone of religion.
The sea was a supra-natural Mother, and her cycle of twenty-eight days showed in the tides and the phases of the moon. The moon and the tides must, therefore, be very special, sacred things. Women also had a cycle in which their fluids came and went, and it too repeated every twenty-eight days.
Survival, and in particular, survival of the women and children, was the primary aim of the culture. Since mating does not always lead to procreation, and the first months of a pregnancy are not visible, perhaps people did not fully understand the process of reproduction. Alternatively, since the first small signs of pregnancy are noticeable almost immediately to the mother, it is possible that the mothers amongst the close group of women knew, and guarded this ‘women’s wisdom’.
The first outward sign that a woman has conceived is in the cessation of the menstrual cycle. Without any understanding of biology, ancient women would still have connected these events. This association made menstruation very important; menstrual blood was sacred and more than that, magical: it had the power to make life. Perhaps the fluid was even used as a medicine, the original ‘magic potion’. Women were the first midwives, and they were probably the first healers too, since it is a practice that is still observable in modern shamanistic cultures.
For those who were not privy, the ability of women to create life would have seemed mysterious and apparently supernatural. Tantalising tales linger in the myth-cycles of many cultures which suggest that conception was due to walking under a full moon, the north wind, the bite of certain insects, or eating particular foods. Thousands of years later the Greeks still believed that women retained their menstrual blood within their bodies and made life from it. These echoes support the idea that the precise mechanism of conception was knowledge that women kept to themselves..
The passage of time was reckoned in terms of the phases of the moon and the ebb and flow of the tides, the creative cycles of the Goddess. Since women shared these cycles as well as the gift of creating life, motherhood was sacred, menstruation was sacred, and ultimately, to be a woman was sacred. Women were of the Goddess and one with Her.