is a singular creature.
He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the
animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the
landscape - he is a shaper of the landscape.
In body and in mind he is the explorer of nature, the
ubiquitous animal, who did not find but has made his home in
It is reported that when the
Spaniards arrived overland at the Pacific Ocean in
1769 the California Indians used to say that at full
moon the fish came and danced on these beaches.
And it is true that there is a local variety of
fish, the grunion, that comes up out of the water
and lays its eggs above the normal high-tide mark.
The females bury themselves tail first in the sand
and the males gyrate round them and fertilise the
eggs as they are being laid.
The full moon is important, because it gives the
time needed for the eggs to incubate undisturbed in
the sand, nine or ten days, between these very high
tides and the next ones that will wash the hatched
fish out to sea again.
Millions of years
of evolution have shaped the grunion to fit and
sit exactly with the tides.
spawning dance of the grunion, La Jolla
Shores beach, California. [Page 18]
Every landscape in the world is full of these exact and
beautiful adaptations, by which an animal fits into its
environment like one cog-wheel into another. The sleeping hedgehog waits for the spring to burst its
metabolism into life. The humming-bird beats the air and dips its needle-fine
beak into hanging blossoms. Butterflies mimic leaves and even noxious creatures to
deceive their predators. The mole plods through the ground as if he had been
designed as a mechanical shuttle. So millions of years of evolution have shaped the
grunion to fit and sit exactly with the tides. But nature - that is, biological evolution - has not
fitted man to any specific environment. On the contrary, by comparison with the grunion he has
a rather crude survival kit; and yet - this is the paradox
of the human condition - one that fits him to all
environments. Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly,
burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not
locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and
toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the
environment but to change it. And that series of inventions, by
[Page 20]which man from age to
age has remade his environment, is a different kind of
evolution - not biological, but cultural evolution.
that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks The Ascent of
human alternative I
use the word ascent with a precise meaning.
Man is distinguished from other animals by his
He makes plans, inventions, new discoveries, by putting
different talents together; and his discoveries become
more subtle and penetrating, as he learns to combine his
talents in more complex and intimate ways.
So the great discoveries of different ages and different
cultures, in technique, in science, in the arts, express
in their progression a richer and more intricate
conjunction of human faculties, an ascending trellis of
course, it is tempting - very tempting to a
scientist - to hope that the most original
achievements of the mind are also the most
And we do indeed have cause to be proud of some
Think of the unravelling of the code of heredity
in the DNA spiral; or the work going forward on
the special faculties of the human brain.
Think of the philosophic insight that saw into
the Theory of Relativity or the minute behaviour
of matter on the atomic scale.
to admire only our own successes, as if they
had no past (and were sure of the future),
would make a caricature of knowledge.
human achievement, and science in
particular, is not a museum of finished
constructions. It is a progress,
in which the first experiments of the
alchemists also have a formative place, and
the sophisticated arithmetic that the Mayan
astronomers of Central America invented for
themselves independently of the Old World. The stonework of
Machu Picchu in the Andes and the geometry
of the Alhambra in Moorish Spain seem to us,
five centuries later, exquisite works of
decorative art. But if we stop our
appreciation there, we miss the originality
of the two cultures that made them. Within their time,
they are constructions as arresting and
important for their peoples as the
architecture of DNA for us.
every age there is a turning-point, a new
way of seeing and asserting the coherence of
perspective exercise in how to draw a
chalice, and rotation of the DNA
molecular basis of inheritance, from a
computer-graphic display. [Page
The dry savannah became a trap in time as well
Herd of Topi. [Page
frozen in the statues of [Pages 21-23, 24]Easter Island
that put a stop to time - and in the medieval clocks
in Europe that once also seemed to say the last word
about the heavens for ever.
Each culture tries to fix its
visionary moment, when it was transformed by a new
conception either of nature or of man.
But in retrospect, what commands our attention as much are
the continuities - the thoughts that run or recur from one
civilisation to another.
There is nothing in modern chemistry more unexpected than
putting together alloys with new properties ; that was
discovered after the time of the birth of Christ in South
America, and long before that in Asia.
Splitting and fusing the atom both derive, conceptually,
from a discovery made in prehistory: that stone and all
matter has a structure along which it can be split and put
together in new arrangements.
And man made biological inventions almost as early:
agriculture - the domestication of wild wheat, for example -
and the improbable idea of taming and then riding the horse.
In following the turning-points and the continuities of
culture, I shall follow a general but not a strict
chronological order, because what interests me is the
history of man's mind as an unfolding of his different
I shall be relating his ideas, and particularly his
scientific ideas, to their origins in the gifts with which
nature has endowed man, and which make him unique.
What I present, what has fascinated me for many years, is
the way in which man's ideas express what is essentially
human in his nature.
So these programmes or essays are a journey through
intellectual history, a personal journey to the high points
of man's achievement.
Man ascends by discovering the fullness of his own gifts
(his talents or faculties) and what he creates on the way
are monuments to the stages in his understanding of nature
and of self - what the poet W. B. Yeats called 'monuments of
in Africa Where
should one begin ?
With the Creation - with the creation of man himself.
Charles Darwin pointed the way with The Origin of Species in
18^9, and then in his book of 1871, The Descent of Man.
It is almost certain now that man first evolved in Africa
near the equator.
Typical of the places where his evolution may have [Page
25] begun is the savannah country that
stretches out across Northern Kenya and South West Ethiopia
near Lake Rudolf.
The lake lies in a long ribbon north and south along the
Great Rift Valley, hammed in by over four million years of
thick sediments that settled in the basin of what was
formerly a much more extensive lake.
Much of its water comes by way of the winding, sluggish Omo.
For the origins of man, this is a possible area: the valley
of the river Omo in Ethiopia near Lake Rudolf.
The ancient stories used to put the creation of man into a
golden age and a beautiful, legendary landscape.
If I were telling the story of Genesis now, I should be
standing in the Garden of Eden.
But this is manifestly not the Garden of Eden.
And yet I am at the navel of the world, at the birthplace of
man, here in the East African Rift Valley, near the equator.
The slumped levels in the Omo basin, the bluffs, the barren
delta, record a historic past of man.
And if this ever was a Garden of Eden, why, it withered
millions of years ago.
the origins of man, this is a possible
Spread of strata of the Omo beds: the bottom level is
four million years old. Remains of
early hominids are found at levels of these strata from
well over two million years ago.
I have chosen this place because it has a unique
In this valley was laid down, over the last four million
years, layer upon layer of volcanic ash, interbedded with
broad bands of shale and mudstone.
The deep deposit was formed at different times, one stratum
after another, visibly separated according to age: four
million years ago, three million years ago, over two million
years ago, somewhat under two million years ago.
And then the Rift Valley buckled it and stood it on end, so
that now it makes a map in time, which we see stretching
into the distance and the past.
The record of time in the strata, which is usually buried
underfoot, has been tip-tilted in the cliffs that flank the
Omo, and spread out like the ribs of a fan.
are the strata on edge: in the foreground the bottom
level, four million years old, and beyond that the
next lowest, well over three million years old.
The remains of a creature like man appear beyond
that, and the remains of the animals that lived at
the same time.
animals are a surprise, because it turns out that
they have changed so little. When we
find in the sludge of two million years ago the
fossils of the creature who was to become man, we
are struck by the differences between his skeleton
and ours - by the development of the skull, for
So, naturally, we expect the animals of the savannah
also to have changed greatly.
But the fossil record in Africa shows that this is
Look as the hunter does at the Topi antelope now.
The ancestor of man that hunted its ancestor two
million years ago would at once recognise the Topi
But he would not recognise the hunter today, black
or white, as his own descendant.
5. Modern and fossil
nyala horns from Omo. The fossil horns
are over two million years old. [Page 27]
Yet it is not hunting in itself (or
any other single pursuit) that has changed man.
For we find that among the animals the hunter has changed as
little as the hunted.
The serval cat is still powerful in pursuit, and the oryx is
still swift in flight; both perpetuate the same relation
between their species as they did long ago.
Human evolution began when the African climate changed to
drought: the lakes shrank, the forest thinned out to
And evidently it was fortunate for the forerunner of man
that he was not well adapted to these conditions.
For the environment exacts a price for the survival of the
fittest; it captures them.
27, 28] animals like Grevy's zebra were adapted to the dry
savannah, it became a trap in time as well as space; they
stayed where they were, and much as they were.
The most gracefully adapted of all these animals is surely
Grant's gazelle; yet its lovely leap never took it out of
In a parched African landscape like
Omo, man first put his foot to the ground.
That seems a pedestrian way to begin the Ascent of Man, and
yet it is crucial.
Two million years ago, the first certain ancestor of man
walked with a foot which is almost indistinguishable from
the foot of modern man.
The fact is that when he put his foot on the ground and
walked upright, man made a commitment to a new integration
of life and therefore of his limbs.
one to concentrate on, of course, is the head, because of
all human organs it has undergone the most far-reaching and
Happily, the head leaves a lasting fossil (unlike the soft
organs), and though it is less informative about the brain
than we should like, at least it gives us some measure of
A number of fossil skulls have been found in Southern [Page 29] Africa in the last fifty years
which establish the characteristic structure of the head
when it began to be man-like.
Plate 6 shows what it looked like over two million years
It is a historic skull, found not at Omo, but south of the
equator at a place called Taung, by an anatomist called
Raymond Dart. It is a baby, five to six years old, and
though the face is nearly complete, part of the skull is
In 1924 it was a puzzling find, the first of its kind, and
was treated with caution even after Dart's pioneering work
6. I do not know how the Taung baby began life, but to me it still remains
the primordial infant from which the whole
adventure of man began.
The Taung child's skull.
7. The ancestor of man had
a short thumb, and therefore could not manipulate
Finds of finger and thumb bones of Australopithecus from
the lowest beds of Olduvai Gorge
superimposed on the bones of a modern hand.
instantly recognised two extraordinary features.
One is that the foramen magnum (that is, the hole in
the skull that the spinal cord comes up through to the
brain) is upright; so that this was a child that held its
That is one man-like feature; for in the monkeys and apes
the head hangs forward from the spine, and does not sit
upright on top of it.
And the other is the teeth.
The teeth are always tell-tale.
Here they are small, they are square - these are still the
child's milk teeth - they are not the great, fighting
canines that the apes have.
That means that this was a creature that was going to forage
with its hands and not its mouth.
The evidence of the teeth also implies that it was probably
eating meat, raw meat; and so the hand-using creature was
almost certainly making tools, pebble-tools, stone choppers,
to carve it and to hunt.
Dart called this creature Australopithecus.
It is not a name that I like; it just means Southern Ape,
but it is a confusing name for an African creature that for
the first time was not an ape.
I suspect that Dart, who was born in Australia, put a pinch
of mischief into his choice of the name.
It took ten years before more skulls were found - adult
skulls now - and it was not until late in the 1950s that the
story of Australopithecus was substantially pieced
It started in South Africa, then it moved north to Olduvai
Gorge in Tanzania, and most recently the richest finds of
fossils and tools have turned up in the basin of Lake
This history is one of the scientific delights of the
It is every bit as exciting as the discoveries in physics
before 1940, and those in biology since 1940; and it is as
rewarding as either of those in the light that it throws on
our nature as human beings.
For me, the little Australopithecus baby has a
In 1950, when its humanity was by no means accepted, I was
asked to do a piece of mathematics.
Could I combine a measure of the size of the Taung child's
teeth with their shape, so as to discriminate them from the
teeth of apes?
I had never held a fossil skull in my hands, and I was by no
means an expert on teeth.
But it worked pretty well; and it transmitted to me a sense
of excitement which I remember at this instant.
I, at over forty, having spent a lifetime in doing abstract
mathematics about the shapes of things, suddenly saw my
knowledge reach back two million years and shine a
searchlight into the history of man.
That was phenomenal.
And from that moment I was totally committed to thinking
about what makes man what he is: in the scientific work that
I have done since then, the literature that I have written,
and in these programmes.
How did the hominids come to be the kind of man that I
honour: dexterous, observant, thoughtful, passionate, able
to manipulate in the mind the symbols of language and
mathematics both, the visions of art and geometry and poetry
and science? How did the ascent of man take him from those
animal beginnings to that rising enquiry into the workings
of nature, that rage for knowledge, of which these essays
are one expression?
I do not know how the Taung baby began life, but to me it
still remains the primordial infant from which the whole
adventure of man began.
The human baby, the human
being, is a mosaic of animal and angel.
For example, the reflex that makes the baby kick is already
there in the womb - every mother knows that - and it is
there in all vertebrates.
The reflex is self-sufficient, but it sets the stage for
more elaborate movements, which have to be practised before
they become automatic.
Here by eleven months it urges the baby to crawl.
in new movements, and they then lay down and
consolidate the pathways in the brain (specifically
the cerebellum, where muscular action and balance
are integrated) that will form a whole repertoire of
subtle, complex movements and make them second
nature to him. Now
the cerebellum is in control.
All that the conscious mind has to do is to issue a
And by fourteen months the command is 'Stand!'
The child has entered the human
commitment to walk upright.8. Fourteen-month-old
child just beginning to walk.
gift of foresight Every
human action goes back in some part to our animal
origins; we should be cold and lonely creatures if we
were cut off from that blood-stream of life.
Nevertheless, it is right to ask for a distinction:
What are the physical gifts that man must share with
the animals, and what are the gifts that make him
Consider any example, the more straightforward the
better - say, the simple action of an athlete when
running or jumping. When [Page 32] he hears the gun, the
starting response of the runner is the same as the
flight response of the gazelle.
He seems all animal in action.
The heartbeat goes up; when he sprints at top speed
the heart is pumping five times as much blood as
normal, and ninety per cent of it is for the muscles.
He needs twenty gallons of air a minute now to aerate
his blood with the oxygen that it must carry to the
muscles. The violent coursing of the blood and
intake of air can be made visible, for they show up as heat on
infra-red films which are sensitive to such radiation.
(The blue or light zones are hottest; the red or dark zones
The flush that we see and that [Page 33, 34, 35] the infra-red camera
analyses is a by-product that signals the limit of muscular
For the main chemical action is to get energy for the muscles
by burning sugar there; but three-quarters of that is lost as
heat. And there is another limit, on the runner and the
gazelle equally, which is more severe.
At this speed, the chemical burn-up in the muscles is too fast
to be complete.
The waste products of incomplete burning, chiefly lactic acid,
now foul up the blood.
This is what causes fatigue, and blocks the muscle action
until the blood can be cleaned with fresh oxygen.
far, there is nothing to distinguish the athlete from
the gazelle - all that, in one way or another, is the
normal metabolism of an animal in flight.
But there is a cardinal difference: the runner was not
The shot that set him off was the starter's pistol,
and what he was experiencing, deliberately, was not
fear but exaltation.
The runner is like a child at play; his actions are an
adventure in freedom, and the only purpose of his
breathless chemistry was to explore the limits of his
Naturally there are physical differences between man
and the other animals, even between man and the apes.
In the act of vaulting, the athlete grasps his pole,
for example, with an exact grip that no ape can quite
Yet such differences are secondary by comparison with
the overriding difference, which is that the athlete
is an adult whose behaviour is not driven by his
immediate environment, as animal actions are.
In themselves, his actions make no practical sense at
all; they are an exercise that is not directed to the
The athlete's mind is fixed ahead of him, building up
his skill; and he vaults in imagination into the
Poised for that leap, the pole-vaulter is a capsule of
human abilities: the grasp of the hand, the arch of
the foot, the muscles of the shoulder and pelvis - the
pole itself, in which energy is stored and released
like a bow firing an arrow.
The radical character in that complex is the sense of
foresight, that is, the ability to fix an objective
ahead and rigorously hold his attention on it.
The athlete's performance unfolds a continued plan;
from one extreme to the other, it is the invention of
the pole, the concentration of the mind at the moment
before leaping, which give it the stamp of humanity. 9. The
athlete's mind is fixed ahead of him, building up his skill;
and he he vaults in a into the future. Athlete: about to vault and at climax of action.
of the head and torso of a fatigued athlete.
of the head The
head is more than a symbolic image of man; it is the
seat of foresight and, in that respect, the spring
which drives cultural evolution.
Therefore if I am to take the ascent of man back to
its beginnings in the animal, it is the evolution of
the head and the skull that has to be traced.
Unhappily, over the fifty million years or so to be
talked about, there are only six or seven essentially
distinct skulls which we can identify as stages in
Buried in the fossil record there must be many other
intermediate [Page 37] steps, some of
which will be found; but meanwhile we must
conjecture what happened, approximately, by
interpolating between the known skulls.
The best way to calculate these geometrical
transitions from skull to skull is on a
computer; so that, in order to trace the
continuity, I present them on a computer with
a visual display which will lead from one to
the next.10. The head
is the spring which drives cultural evolution.
display of stages in evolution of the head.
fifty million years ago with a small
tree-dwelling creature, a lemur; the name,
appropriately, is that of the Roman spirits of
The fossil skull belongs to the lemur family Adapis,
and was found in chalky deposits outside
When the skull is turned upside down, you can
see the foramen magnum far at the back
- this is a creature that hung, not held, its
head on the spine.
The likelihood is that it ate insects as well
as fruits, and it has more than the thirty-two
teeth that man and most primates now have.
The fossil lemur has some essential marks of
the primates, that is, the family of monkey,
ape and man.
From remains of the whole skeleton we know
that it has finger nails, not claws.
It has a thumb that can be opposed at least in
part to the hand.
And it has in the skull two features that
really mark the way to the beginning of man.
The snout is short; the eyes are large and
That means that there has been selection
against the sense of smell and in favour of
the sense of vision.
The eye-sockets are still rather sideways in
the skull, on either side of the snout; but
compared with the eyes of earlier insect
eaters, the lemur's have begun to move to the
front and to give some stereoscopic vision.
These are small signs of an evolutionary
development towards the sophisticated
structure of the human face; and yet, from
that, man begins.
The earliest creatures in the sequence
man were nimble-eyed and delicate-fingered
and fruit-eaters like the lemurs.
Modern lemur from Madagascar,
and skeleton of the fruit-eating bush-baby of East Africa,
a close relation of the
lemur. (Note the structure of
the hand and nails.)
was fifty million years ago, in very round
In the next twenty million years, the line
that leads to the monkeys branches away from
the main line to the apes and man.
The next creature on the main line, thirty
million years ago, was the fossil skull found
in the Fayum in Egypt, and named Aegyptopithecus.
He has a shorter snout than the lemur, his
teeth are ape-like, and he is larger - yet
still lives in the trees.
But from now on the ancestors of the apes and
man spent part of their time on the ground.
Another ten million years on take us to twenty million years
ago, when there were what we should now call anthropoid apes
in East Africa, Europe and Asia.
A classical find made by Louis Leakey goes by the dignified
name of Proconsul, and there was at least one other
widespread genus, Dryopithecus.
(The name Proconsul is a piece of anthropological
wit; it was coined to suggest that he was an ancestor of a
famous chimpanzee at the London Zoo in 1931 whose nickname was
The brain is markedly larger, the eyes are now fully forward
in stereoscopic vision.
These developments tell us how the main ape-and-man line was
But if, as is possible, it had already branched again, then so
far as man is concerned, alas, this creature is on the branch
line -the ape line.
The teeth show us that he is an ape, because the way in which
the jaw is locked by the big canines is not man-like.
It is the change in the teeth that signals the separation of
the line that leads to man, when it comes.
The first harbinger that we have is Ramapithecus,
found in Kenya and in India.
This creature is fourteen million years old, and we only have
pieces of the jaw.
But it is clear that the teeth are level and more human.
The great canines of the anthropoid apes are gone, the face is
much flatter, and we are evidently near a branching of the
evolutionary tree; some anthropologists would boldly put Ramapithecus
among the hominids.
mosaic of man There
is now a blank in the fossil record of five to ten million
Inevitably, the blank hides the most intriguing part of the
story, when the hominid line to man is firmly separated from
the line to the modern apes.
But we have found no unequivocal record of that, yet.
Then, perhaps five million years ago, we come certainly to the
relatives of man.
A cousin of man, not in the direct line to us, is a
heavily-built Australopithecus who is a vegetarian. Australopithecus robustus is manlike and his line does
not lead elsewhere; it has simply become extinct.
The evidence that he lived on plants is again in his teeth,
and it is quite direct: the teeth that survive are pitted by
the fine grit that he picked up with the roots that he ate.
His cousin on the line to man is lighter - visibly so in the
jaw - and is probably a meat-eater.
He is the nearest thing we have to [page 40] what used to be called the 'missing link': Australopithecus
africanus, one of a number of fossil skulls found at
Sterkfontein in the Transvaal and elsewhere in Africa, a fully
The Taung child, with which I began, would have grown up to be
like her; fully erect, walking, and with a largish brain
weighing between a pound and a pound and a half.
That is the size of the brain of a big ape now; but of course
this was a small creature standing only four feet high.
Indeed, recent finds by Richard Leakey suggest that by two
million years ago the brain was larger even than that.
with that larger brain the ancestors of man made two major
inventions, for one of which we have visible evidence and for
the other inferential evidence. First, the visible invention.
Two million years ago Australopithecus made
rudimentary stone tools where a simple blow has put an edge on
And for the next million years, man in his further evolution
did not change this type of tool.
He had made the fundamental invention, the purposeful act
which prepares and stores a pebble for later use.
By that lunge of skill and foresight, a symbolic act of
discovery of the future, he had released the brake which the
environment imposes on all other creatures.
It was held in a simple way, by pressing its thick end
against the palm of the hand in a power-grip.
(The ancestors of man had a short thumb, and therefore
could not manipulate very delicately, but could use
And, of course, it is a meat-eater's tool almost
certainly, to strike and to cut.
11. The steady use of
the same tool for so long shows the
strength of the invention. Every animal
leaves traces of what it was; man
alone leaves traces of what he
hand axe of Homo rectus.
The other invention is social, and we
infer it by more subtle arithmetic.
Skulls and skeletons of Australopithecus that have now
been found in largish numbers show that most of them died
before the age of twenty.
That means that there must have been many orphans.
For Australopithecusssurely had a long childhood, as
all the primates do; at the age of ten, say, the survivors
were still children. Therefore there must have been a social
organisation in which children were looked after and (as it
were) adopted, were made part of the community, and so in some
general sense were educated.
That is a great step towards cultural evolution.
At what point can we say that the precursors of man become man
That is a delicate question, because such changes do not take
It would be foolish to try and make them seem more sudden than
they really were - to fix the transition too sharply or to
argue about names.
Two million years ago we were not yet men.
One million years ago we were, because by one million years
ago a creature appears who can be called Homo —Homo
erectus. He spreads far beyond Africa.
The classical find of Homo erectus was in fact made in
He is Peking man, about four hundred thousand years old, and
he is the first creature that certainly used fire.
The changes in Homo erectus that have led to us are
substantial over a million years, but they seem gradual by
comparison with those that went before.
The successor that we know best was first found in Germany in
the last century: another classic fossil skull, he is
He already has a three-pound brain, as large as modern man.
Probably some lines of Neanderthal man died out; but it seems
likely that a line in the Middle East went on directly to us,
Somewhere in that last million years or so, man made a change
in the quality of his tools - which presumably points to some
biological refinement in the hand during this period, and
especially in the brain centres that control the hand.
The more sophisticated creature (biologically and culturally)
of the last half million years or so could do better than copy
the ancient stone choppers that went back to Australopithecus.
He made tools which require much finer manipulation in the
making and, of course, in the use.
The development of such refined skills as this and the use of
fire is not an isolated phenomenon.
On the contrary, we must always remember that the real content
of evolution (biological as well as cultural) is the
elaboration of new behaviour.
It is only because behaviour leaves no fossils that we are
forced to search for it in bones and teeth.
Bones and teeth are not interesting in themselves, even to the
creature to whom they belong; they serve him as equipment for
action - and they are interesting to us because, as equipment,
they reveal his actions, and changes in equipment reveal
changes in behaviour and skill.
For this reason, changes in man during
his evolution did not take place piecemeal.
He was not put together from the cranium of one primate and
the jaw of another - that misconception is too naive to be
real, and only makes a fake like the Piltdown skull.
Any animal, and man especially, is a highly integrated
structure, all the parts of which must change together as his
The evolution of the brain, of the hand, of the eyes, of the
feet, the teeth, the whole human frame, made a mosaic of
special gifts - and in a sense these chapters are each an
essay on some special gift of man.
They have made him what he is, faster in evolution, arid
richer and more flexible in behaviour, than any other animal.
Unlike the creatures (some insects, for instance) that have
been unchanged for five, ten, even fifty million years, he has
changed over this time-scale out of all recognition.
Man is not the most majestic of the creatures.
Long before the mammals even, the dinosaurs were far more
But he has what no other animal possesses, a jig-saw of
faculties which alone, over three thousand million years of
life, make him creative.
Every animal leaves traces of what it was; man alone leaves
traces of what he created.
cultures of the hunter
Change in diet is important in a changing species over a time
as long as fifty million years.
The earliest creatures in the sequence leading to man were
nimble-eyed and delicate-fingered insect and fruit eaters like
Early apes and hominids, from Acgyptopithccus and Proconsul
to the heavy Australopithecus, are thought to have
spent their days rummaging mainly for vegetarian foods.
But the light Australopithecus broke the ancient
primate habit of vegetarianism.
The change from a vegetarian to an omnivorous diet, once made,
persisted in Homo erectus, Neanderthal man and Homo
From the ancestral light Australopithecus onwards, the
family of man ate some meat: small animals at first, larger
ones later. Meat is a more concentrated protein than plant,
and eating meat cuts down the bulk and the time spent in
eating by two-thirds. The consequences for the evolution of
man were far-reaching.
He had more time free, and could spend it in more indirect
ways, to get food from sources (such as large animals) which
could not be
[Page 43, 44, 45] tackled by hungry brute force.
Evidently that helped to promote (by natural selection) the
tendency of all primates to interpose an internal delay in the
brain between stimulus and response, until it developed into
the full human ability to postpone the gratification of
But the most marked effect of an indirect strategy to enhance
the food supply is, of course, to foster social action and
A slow creature like man can stalk, pursue and corner a large
savannah animal that is adapted for flight only by
co-operation. Hunting requires conscious planning and
organisation by means of language, as well as special weapons.
Indeed, language as we use it has something of the character
of a hunting plan, in that (unlike the animals) we instruct
one another in sentences which are put together from movable
The hunt is a communal undertaking of which the climax, but
only the climax, is the kill.
hunt is a communal undertaking of which the
but only the climax, is the kill.
A Wayam Indian hunter group, Amazon Basin,
eating together before the hunt.
cannot support a growing population in one place; the limit
for the savannah was not more than two people to the square
At that density,
the total land surface of the earth could only support the
present population of California, about twenty millions, and
could not support the population of Great Britain.
The choice for the hunters was
brutal: starve or move.
They moved away over prodigious distances.
By a million years ago, they were in North Africa.
By seven hundred thousand years ago, or even earlier, they
were in Java.
By four hundred thousand years ago, they had fanned out and
marched north, to China in the east and Europe in the west.
These incredible spreading migrations made man, from an early
time, a widely dispersed species, even though his total
numbers were quite small — perhaps one million.
What is even more forbidding is that man moved north just
after the climate there was turning to ice.
In the great cold the ice, as it were, grew out of the ground.
The northern climate had been temperate for immemorial ages -
literally for several hundred million years.
Yet before Homo erectus settled in China and northern
Europe, a sequence of three separate Ice Ages began.
The first was past its fiercest when Peking man lived in
caves, four hundred thousand years ago.
It is no surprise to find fire [Page 46] used in those caves for the first time.
The ice moved south and retreated three times, and the land
changed each time.
The icecaps at their largest contained so much of the earth's
water that the level of the sea fell four hundred feet.
After the second Ice Age, over two hundred thousand years ago,
Neanderthal man with his big brain appears, and he became
important in the last Ice Age.
the ice ages The
cultures of man that we recognise best began to form in the
most recent Ice Age, within the last hundred or even fifty
That is when we find the elaborate tools that point to
sophisticated forms of hunting: the spear-thrower, for
example, and the baton that may be a straightening tool; the
fully barbed harpoon; and, of course, the flint master tools
that were needed to make the hunting tools.
It is clear that then, as now, inventions may be rare but they
spread fast through a culture.
For example, the Magdalenian hunters of southern Europe
fifteen thousand years ago invented the harpoon.
In the early period of the invention, the Magdalenian harpoons
were unbarbed; then they were barbed with a single row of fish
hooks; and at the end of the period, when the flowering of
cave art took place, they were fully barbed with a double row
The Magdalenian hunters decorated their bone tools, and they
can be pinned to precise periods in time and to exact
geographical locations by the refinement of style which they
They are, in a true sense, fossils that recount the cultural
evolution of man in an orderly progression.
Fossils that recount the cultural evolution of man
in an orderly progression.
reindeer horn harpoon. The barbs on the harpoon
changed from a simple single row to the double
rows during the last Ice Age.
staff from Santander, Spain,
decorated with heads of hinds.
painting of a reindeer hunt, Los Cabalbos Shelter,
Valiorta Gorge, Castellon, Eastern Spain. The invention of the bow
and arrow came at the end of
the last Ice Age.
the fierce test of the Ice Ages because he had the flexibility
of mind to recognise inventions and to turn them into
Evidently the Ice Ages worked a profound change in the way man
They forced him to depend less on plants and more on animals.
The rigours of hunting on the edge of the ice also changed the
strategy of hunting.
It became less attractive to stalk single animals, however
The better alternative was to follow herds and not to lose
them - to learn to anticipate and in the end to adopt their
habits, including their wandering migrations.
This is a peculiar adaptation - the trans-humance mode of life
on the move.
It has some of the earlier qualities of hunting, because it is
a pursuit; the place and the pace [Page 47, 48] are set by the food animal.
And it has some of the later qualities of herding, because the
animal is tended and, as it were, stored as a mobile reservoir
Transhumance cultures: the Lapps
transhumance way of life is itself a cultural fossil
now, and has barely survived.
The only people that still live in this way are the
Lapps in the extreme north of Scandinavia, who follow
the reindeer as they did during the Ice Age.
The ancestors of the Lapps may have come north from
the Franco-Cantabrian cave area of the Pyrenees in the
wake of the reindeer as the last icecaps retreated
from southern Europe twelve thousand years ago.
There are thirty thousand people and three hundred
thousand reindeer, and their way of life is coming to
an end even now.
The herds go on their own migration across the fiords
from one icy pasture of lichen to another, and the
Lapps go with them.
But the Lapps are not herdsmen; they do not control
the reindeer, they have not domesticated it.
They simply move where the herds move.
are thirty thousand people and their way of life is coining to an end.
reindeer herders in front of a
shelter in Finnmark, 1900. [Page
Even though the reindeer herds are in
effect still wild, the Lapps have some of the traditional
inventions for controlling single animals that other cultures
also discovered: for example, they make some males manageable
as draught animals by castrating them.
It is a strange relationship.
The Lapps are entirely dependent on the reindeer - they eat
the meat, a pound a head each every day, they use the sinews
and fur and hides and bones, they drink the milk, they even
use the antlers.
And yet the Lapps are freer than the reindeer, because their
mode of life is a cultural adaptation and not a biological
The adaptation that the Lapps have made, the transhumance life
on the move in a landscape of ice, is a choice that they can
change; it is not irreversible, as biological mutations are.
For a biological adaptation is an inborn form of behaviour;
but a culture is a learned form of behaviour - a communally
preferred form, which (like other inventions) has been adopted
by a whole society.
A Swedish Lapp woman with her children on
the summer migration to the coastal
of Norway, 1925,
and wild reindeer herds after confinement
in winter quarters.
the fundamental difference between a cultural adaptation and a
biological one; and both can be demonstrated in the Lapps.
Making a shelter from reindeer hides is an adaptation that the
Lapps can change tomorrow - most of them are [Page 49, 50] doing so now.
By contrast the Lapps, or human lines ancestral to them, have
also undergone a certain amount of biological adaptation.
The biological adaptations in Homo sapiens are not
large; we are a rather homogeneous species, because we spread
so fast over the world from a single centre.
Nevertheless biological differences do exist between groups of
men, as we all know.
We call them racial differences, by which we mean exactly that
they cannot be changed by a change of habit or habitat.
You cannot change the colour of your skin.
Why are the Lapps white ?
Man began with a dark skin; the sunlight makes vitamin D in
his skin, and if he had been white in Africa, it would make
But in the north, man needs to let in all the sunlight there
is to make enough vitamin D, and natural selection therefore
favoured those with whiter skins.
The biological differences between different communities are
on this modest scale.
The Lapps have not lived by biological adaptation but by
invention: by the imaginative use of the reindeer's habits and
all its products, by turning it into a draught animal, by
artefacts and the sledge.
Surviving in the ice did not depend on skin colour; the Lapps
have survived, man survived the Ice Ages, by the master
invention of all - fire.
transhumance life on the move in a landscape of ice.
Drawn by the Lapp, Johan
Turi, for his own written
account of his people's life: pack
animals move beside the wild herds. The lead reindeer buck is
guided by a herdsman on skis. [detail]
in cave art
Fire is the symbol of the hearth, and
from the time Homo sapiens began to leave the mark of
his hand thirty thousand years ago, the hearth was the cave.
For at least a million years man, in some recognisable form,
lived as a forager and a hunter.
We have almost no monuments of that immense period of
prehistory, so much longer than any history that we record.
Only at the end of that time, on the edge of the European
ice-sheet, we find in caves like Altamira (and elsewhere in
Spain and southern France) the record of what dominated the
mind of man the hunter.
There we see what made his world and preoccupied him.
The cave paintings, which are about twenty thousand years old,
fix for ever the universal base of his culture then, the
hunter's knowledge of the animal that he lived by and stalked.
One begins by thinking it odd that an art as vivid as the cave
paintings should be, comparatively, so young and so rare.
Why are there not more monuments to man's visual imagination,
as [Page 51-53,
54] there are to his invention?
And yet when we reflect, what is remarkable is not that there
are so few monuments, but that there are any at all.
Man is a puny, slow, awkward, unarmed animal — he had to
invent a pebble, a flint, a knife, a spear.
But why to these scientific inventions, which were essential
to his survival, did he from an early time add those arts that
now astonish us: decorations with animal shapes?
Why, above all, did he come to caves like this, live in them,
and then make paintings of animals not where he lived but in
places that were dark, secret, remote, hidden, inaccessible?
The obvious thing to say is that in these places the animal
No doubt that is right; but magic is only a word, not an
In itself, magic is a word which explains nothing.
It says that man believed he had power, but what power?
We still want to know what the power was that the hunters
believed they got from the paintings.
Here I can only give you my personal view.
I think that the power that we see expressed here for the
first time is the power of anticipation: the forward-looking
imagination. In these paintings the hunter was made familiar
with dangers which he knew he had to face but to which he had
not yet come. When the hunter was brought here into the secret
dark and the light was suddenly flashed on the pictures, he
saw the bison as he would have to face him, he saw the running
deer, he saw the turning boar.
And he felt alone with them as he would in the hunt.
The moment of fear was made present to him; his spear-arm
flexed with an experience which he would have and which he
needed not to be afraid of.
The painter had frozen the moment of fear, and the hunter
entered it through the painting as if through an air-lock.
For us, the cave paintings re-create the hunter's way of life
as a glimpse of history; we look through them into the past.
But for the hunter, I suggest, they were a peep-hole into the
future; he looked ahead.
In either direction, the cave paintings act as a kind of
telescope tube of the imagination: they direct the mind from
what is seen to what can be inferred or conjectured.
Indeed, this is so in the very action of painting; for all its
superb observation, the flat picture only means something to
the eye because the
[Page 56] mind fills it out with roundness and movement, a
reality by inference, which is not actually seen but is
18. We find in caves like
Altamira the record
of what dominated the mind of man the hunter. I think that the power we
see expressed here for the first time is
the power of anticipation: the forward-looking
science are both uniquely human actions, outside the range of
anything that an animal can do.
And here we see that they derive from the same human faculty:
the ability to visualise the future, to foresee what may
happen and plan to anticipate it, and to represent it to
ourselves in images that we project and move about inside our
head, or in a square of light on the dark wall of a cave or a
We also look here through the telescope of the imagination;
the imagination is a telescope in time, we are looking back at
the experience of the past.
The men who made these paintings, the men who were present,
looked through that telescope forward.
They looked along the ascent of man because what we call
cultural evolution is essentially a constant growing and
widening of the human imagination.
The men who made the weapons and the men who made the
paintings were doing the same thing - anticipating a future as
only man can do, inferring what is to come from what is here.
There are many gifts that are unique in man; but at the centre
of them all, the root from which all knowledge grows, lies the
ability to draw conclusions from what we see to what we do not
see, to move our minds through space and time, and to
recognise ourselves in the past on the steps to the present.
All over these caves the print of the hand says: 'This is my
mark. This is man.'
of a hand, El Castillo, Santander, Spain.
spawning dance of the grunion 24 (National
Geographic) p18. Computer-generated
Renaissance perspective 25 exercise and DNA spiral
p2, 3, and p21. a.
Impala (Ed Ross) p22. b.
Herd of Topi (Simon Trevor, Bruce Coleman Ltd)
Omo beds (Yves Coppens) p25. Olduvai
Gorge Project http://www.olduvaiproject.org/what-is-olduvai-gorge/ Modern
and fossil nyala horns, Musde de l'Homme, Paris (Yves
Coppens) p27. The
Taung child's skull, University of Witwatersrand,
(Alun R. Hughes, by permission of Prof. P. V.
Tobias) p28. Finger
and thumb bones of Australopithecus (Mary
Waldron) p28. Fourteen-month-old
child (Gerry Cranham) p30, p31, p32, p33. Pole-vaulter
in action (Gerry Cranham) p34, p35. Computer-graphic
display of stages in evolution of the head,
Note that these are
incomplete, the missing images reproduced below. Acheulian
hand axe (Lee Boltin) p39. Wayana
Indian hunter group (Cornell Capa, Magnum)
p42-p43. a. A
modern lemur (Ed Ross) p44.
Modern day lemur,
Madagascar. http://www.africanbudgetsafaris.com/budget-lodge-safaris/eastern-madagascar-safari/ b.
The skeleton of a bush-baby (Jonathan Kingdon,
by courtesy of Academic Press) p45. a. Magdalenian reindeer horn
Museum, Oxford p46. Bilaterally-barbed
decorated harpoon. (Unpublished
Magdalenian art from Pont d’Ambon) http://paleo.revues.org/2866 b.
Decorated staff, National Gallery of Art,
Washington (Hugo Obermaier) p47. c.
Rock painting (Erwin 0. Christensen, by courtesy
of Bonanza Books) p47.