In Search of Human Consciousness in the Upper Paleolithic Era

Charles Foster on the Birth of Our Sense of Self

Tom and I take a train for 150 miles and 40,000 years. We change in Derby, where we drink tea, play cards and finish off a flint spearhead.

“Very irresponsible,” a highly scented woman had said the week before. “By all means indulge your own fetish for squalor, and your own perverted ideas about cavemen as Philosopher-Kings, but don’t force poor Tom to come along too.”

“Have you seen the forecast?” asked a man with little hot eyes who believes what he reads in newspapers and plans to hold his wife’s wake in an airport hotel. “Sounds like a case for Social Services.” He was serious, according to his brow and his CV.

Tom is thirteen, and wonders what all the fuss is about. We’d lived in holes before. Now we’re going to a wood we know well, and we’re going to make a shelter, kill things and stare into fires until Christmas. Then we’ll get the train back in time for all the usual things.

His teachers were understanding: “Interesting time, the upper Palaeolithic. Try to keep up with your maths, won’t you?” His mother wasn’t. “Do you know how behind he is already?”

We’ve heard all the jokes about mammoths ever cracked. Our faces are tired from forced smiles.

At a tiny country station the taxi that’s going to drive us up to the moor is waiting. A plastic dog wobbles on the dashboard.

“Have you got a dog?” I ask the driver. 
 “No,” he says, and that’s that. 
 We go a silent mile before Tom says: “Can we stop, please?” So we do, and out Tom hops with a black bin liner, puts a dead fox in it just like I did at his age, gets back in and puts on his seat belt.

“Thank you,” he says. “And sorry.”

“No problem,” says the driver. “Just try to keep its bowel contents off my carpets.” He has the professional detachment of a priest in a confessional.

We stop twice more, but for dead rabbits. Their eyes have shrunk back into the sockets and have films across them, as if they’re watching something inside themselves; as if grass-eating and mating are dull compared with what’s playing now.

The taxi winds up the dale past chip shops, abandoned mills and standing stones. Festive lights blink around plastic windows. Hot air, stinking of diesel, pumps out round our feet, and the fox’s musk rises and surges round the car. Cackling drunks stagger out into the road. The driver swerves around them without comment.

The street lights surrender. The dark is bigger than them. We plunge on through a tunnel bored by the headlights into the night, and when the hill rears up we drive towards the sky. The road flattens onto the moor, or what they call the moor up here: fields of thin grass littered with sheep bones, etched by drystone walls built by men buried in the field corners. There’s always wind here. It glances off the walls like a squash ball, so it’s always coming at you from all directions at once.

The cab drops us by a gap in one of the walls. We sling our rucksacks and the roadkill onto the verge.

“Have fun, won’t you?” says the driver as I pay him. He’s not smiling.

I can see Sarah’s TV flickering through the windows of her farm, just down the lane. Sheep freeze in the torch beam: clouds of wet wool, green with algae. Our breath hangs round our chins.

We bang on the door and, when we get no reply, on the window. Sarah must be in the pub three miles off down the dale. It’s curry night, and a band from Sheffield is playing bluegrass. On the screen a narcissistic psychopath is threatening to beat up a little country. A cookbook is open on the sofa by the TV, and a cat is rubbing itself against a vat of kombucha. The oranges in the fruit basket are from Israel, and the light from last week’s wind. In the kitchen a grouse is rotting until it’s edible. We try the door, thinking that we’ll raid the fridge and perhaps sit by the fire. It’s locked.

We’ve heard that a big black dog of a storm is about to bound in from the north, and now we scurry to get under cover before he arrives. Through the gate; down the hill; avoid the mine shaft to the left; past the hare’s tree; remember to bend low or the thorns will get you in the eye; have a piss before you dive into the wood; note the pheasant exploding from the rowan (we’ll be back for you, my lad); don’t worry about your coat on the spikes, Tom; let’s just get our heads down. Under the low long branch of an old hawthorn, stretching out beside a collapsing wall. Out of here, you sheep: this is our place now. Get out and take your ticks with you.

The storm dog comes. He doesn’t even growl first. He’s suddenly there under the tree, snarling and snapping; all hair and spittle. We’d planned to tie a tarpaulin to a tree to make a tent until we could make a more authentic shelter, but he’d rip it straight off. So we curl up on the ground as near to the wall as we can, wrap ourselves in the tarp and let him do his worst.

It’s not so bad, though it’s pointless trying to sleep while he’s in the wood. He roots around for a few hours, trying to get to us. He slaps us around with his paws for a bit and then, frustrated, cocks his leg over us and moves on to see what he can find in Nottingham.

When he leaves, the wood sighs, shakes itself and breathes again. A damp owl kills. Badgers lumber through the brush, sucking up worms like spaghetti. A sheep coughs. There are no stars. Cold crawls from the earth and through our clothes. We think about fire and tea and wine. Sleep creeps into us with the cold. We are part of the mud.

When I wake, the fox is my pillow. It is blue and white and shining out there, we’re in a wood on top of the world, and we can begin.

*

What we are beginning is ourselves. By which I mean ourselves as modern humans.

Here’s the ruling theory of mainstream anthropology. Human evolution began in Africa. There were several prototypes, some of which co-existed. They were all brutally road-tested by natural selection. Around 200,000 years ago we appear in the fossil record: beings, that is, anatomically and physiologically more or less identical to us. Their brains were the same shape as ours, but perhaps slightly bigger. You need a big brain for relationship, which is costly, demanding and very rewarding. They did relationship better than we do, and so needed powerful neurological hardware. They stalked around the veldt on two long, strong legs, gazing with their forward-facing binocular eyes at horizons that would have been hidden to their non-bipedal ancestors by the long grass; looking down at the world literally and, eventually, figuratively; seeing the earth at their feet; blessed and cursed by a perspective that nothing had previously had; their noses, hoisted out of the dust, subservient to their sight; their clever hands with opposing thumbs freed to make tools, signal, bludgeon and caress, but never again to soak up sensation from the ground.

Abstraction conferred massive advantages. The various strategies for killing a bear could be examined in the safety of your head, rather than tried out, dangerously, against a real bear in a cave.

But anatomy and physiology aren’t everything. For 150,000 years these humans didn’t behave much like us. They weren’t, to use the phrase beloved and hated by archaeologists, “behaviorally modern.” Probably they didn’t adorn their bodies, bury their dead with grave goods, make bladed or bone tools, fish, move resources significant distances, cooperate with anyone to whom they weren’t closely related, And probably they weren’t organized enough to kill large animals.

Then something big happened. The speed with which it happened, and the amount that happened in Africa, are contested. That it did happen is not.

Go to a good museum, and find the gallery dealing with early humans. There will be lots of flint in it. Start at the beginning, and walk chronologically towards today. Look carefully at the artifacts. The first few minutes of your walk will be really boring. You’ll be looking at dowdy things: lumpen, undifferentiated tools and pictures of hairy men roasting carrion. Everything is directed relentlessly towards the material. Everything behind the glass says that humans are just lumps of meat, bone and gristle.

Then, if you’re in a really good museum, you’ll turn a corner, the labels will say “upper Palaeolithic,” and your heart will start pounding. For there, from around 40,000 years ago, you’ll see the family. You’ll recognize it by a massive explosion of symbolism. Bone and stone are made to stand for wolves, bears and humans, and metaphor must have been born at the same time. There was a tsunami of possibility. A bone could be a wolf while still being a bone. If that was possible, was anything impossible? A world that had been merely chemical had become alchemical. Just because something was invisible according to the laws of optics and visual physiology didn’t mean that it didn’t exist.

Time started to behave differently. Now it didn’t seem to be the normal medium in which humans swim, and no doubt there was a revolt, previously unthinkable, against the tyranny of time, or at least against the notion that one moment just plodded in front of another. The dead continued. Human dead were anointed with ochre and sent on their journey with food, weapons and objects of merely sentimental or aesthetic significance. The animal dead were appeased. As a bone could also be a wolf, so the dead could be both on a journey and present at the campfire to comfort, advise, rebuke and taunt.

The world was hugely more complex and resonant than it had been.

Tom and I hope we’re in that world now, or can find a way there. X is here somewhere, waiting to help.

This new complexity demanded and gave more. It takes a prism to show that white light is anything but white: that it’s composed of many colors. This was the new prismatic age. What in the old days had been one job (hacking up a dead bear, let’s say) was now many: skin the bear, cure the skin, dissect out the tendons and make strings, turn the thigh bone into a hyena, make the dead bear safe, and ideally friendly. So we see, for the first time, elaborate tool kits containing specific tools for specific tasks. There was a new precision in action and thought. Blades were used to cut precisely along a pre-planned route through joint and organ where, before, a blunt axe had crushed and splintered.

To pre-plan the passage of a flint blade through a bear’s belly, and to discard other possible routes, means that possibilities have been created and evaluated on some virtual drawing board. There was, in other words, abstraction: a move away from the concrete world of stone and bone to another arena of action—a place, like the realm of the dead, which could not be seen with physical eyes, but which was real nonetheless, and whose results could be seen when stone was hammered or bone trimmed.

Abstraction conferred massive advantages. The various strategies for killing a bear could be examined in the safety of your head, rather than tried out, dangerously, against a real bear in a cave—when you’d have only one chance to get it right. It could not have been done without the idea of an “I.” an “I” had to be the main actor in the imagined drama: an “I” had to throw the spear and avoid the paws. An “I” involves looking down at oneself and describing one’s self to oneself.

The “I” birthed the “You.” The way was open for the human variety of theory of mind, and hence for our kinds of love, empathy and acquisitiveness.

There’s a word that means, literally, standing outside oneself: it is ecstasy. The etymology’s curious. Do you have to get outside yourself to have ultimately pleasurable feelings? Well, that’s my experience. Selfish bastards are miserable bastards. Do you have to have distance for a proper view of yourself? Yes again. But a proper view of myself certainly doesn’t produce pleasure. Perhaps the Greek self-viewers who coined the word ecstasy were nicer than I am.

This ecstasy—the self-seeing—of the upper Palaeolithic is crystallized in the museums’ bone figurines. Human faces appear for the first time. They are the most eloquent art ever, and they shout out: “This is me” or “This is you, and I’m different from you.”

What follows from this? Above all: story. You and I are actors. Actors don’t just stand around with their hands in their pockets. They can’t. They act compulsively, and their acts are joined together, creating story. Little parochial stories give rise to bigger stories. If you see what happens to other humans when they’re taken by a rock fall, lion’s teeth or a speeding BMW, only years of arduous conditioning can stop you telling a story that makes sense of you and your own annihilation.

The “I” birthed the “You.” The way was open for the human variety of theory of mind, and hence for our kinds of love, empathy and acquisitiveness. The ancient desire to kill was recast, and this time it had moral color. There was a nagging hint, which turned into a deafening shout, that some sorts of killing might be wrong. That sense of self spawns all laws, all ethics, all sadism, all love and all war.

As soon as there was an “I,” existence stopped being merely a chain of events. It remained like that for another 45,000 years or so, and then, as we’ll see, we were told that there were no stories but only events: that we were only events—chemical events and their corollaries. A few people even believed it. Human consciousness was first demonstrated by symbolism: by things that signified other things. Now, we’re told, nothing signifies anything. Nothing is significant.

The “I” revolution may not have come just once to humans, in one great surge of self-creation and self-knowing. It may have erupted many times, around many different campfires, and over many thousands of years. But however, wherever and whenever it happened, it made you.

________________________________________________

Excerpted from BEING A HUMAN: Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness by Charles Foster. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2021 by Charles Foster. All rights reserved.

Charles Foster
Charles Foster
Charles Foster is the author of Being a Beast, which won the 2016 Ig Nobel Award for biology and was a finalist for the Baillie Gifford Prize. He teaches medical law and ethics at the University of Oxford and his writing has been published in National Geographic, the Guardian, Nautilus, Slate, the Journal of Medical Ethics and many other venues. He lives in Oxford, England.





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