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Hunter Gatherer Society Has a Time-Tested, Secret Method to Traverse the Rainforest

Hunter Gatherer Society Has a Time-Tested, Secret Method to Traverse the Rainforest

How do human foragers find food or the way home in rainforests, where heavy vegetation limits visibility, without a map, compass, or smartphone?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, show that rainforest-dwelling Mbendjele BaYaka people from the Republic of Congo point to out-of-sight targets with high precision. Pointing accuracy was equally good in men and women; children’s performance improved when the sun was clearly visible in the sky. The study has been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B .

Who are the Mbendjele BaYaka?

Knowing which direction to go in order to reach a food location or home is important for many animal species, including humans. For human foragers who travel long distances every day hunting and gathering, orientation skills are essential. Haneul Jang and her colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology set out to study how the Mbendjele BaYaka people in Republic of Congo orient themselves in the dense rainforest.

To this aim, the researchers conducted more than 600 pointing tests with 54 Mbendjele BaYaka men, women, and children aged between 6 and 76 years, in which the participants were asked to point an out-of-sight target in more than 60 different rainforest locations (including the camp).

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The Mbendjele BaYaka have been living in the rainforest as hunter gatherers for hundreds of years. Moreover, there is archaeological evidence that hunter gatherer groups have inhabited some parts of the rainforest for 100,000 years (although it’s uncertain if they are related to the current inhabitants.) They are sometimes referred to as Pygmies (although with some differences from other Pygmy groups) and they live as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Mbendjele BaYaka men. ( libcom.org)

Most of the year they live in the rainforest, however they also work with agriculturalists sometimes to trade food, alcohol, money, and other goods. Some people have also begun to work with logging companies. Libcom.org provides some insight on Mbendjele BaYaka economy, stating that they have “economies based on demand-sharing,” and practice “important rituals associated with elephant hunting”.

Pointing Accuracy is Equally Good in Men and Women

Jang and her colleagues found that the Mbendjele BaYaka are highly accurate at pointing to distant and out-of-sight target locations. The researchers found pointing accuracy was equally good in men and women. Jang, lead author of the study, said:

"Gender equality in the Mbendjele BaYaka population may result in Mbendjele women’s long-distance foraging for fishing and hunting as do men. This might allow women and men to develop similar orientation abilities. Our results are consistent with previous studies that found no sex differences in orientation abilities in hunter-gatherer societies where both sexes actively travel away from home. Studies from various cultures suggest that sex differences in orientation abilities may indeed result from sex-specific mobility, and our results add to this growing body of evidence.”

"In contrast to men and women in our society, where women may still be more likely to work at home or closer to home compared to men, we observed that Mbendjele men and women travel equally far from home, and it is therefore perhaps not surprising that they score equally well in orientation tasks. The results of our study confirm how important experience is for our cognitive development", says Karline Janmaat, main supervisor of the study.

A Mendjele BaYaka woman, here carrying GPS before leaving for a hunting trip in the rainforest in the Republic of Congo. (© Haneul Jang )

Libcom.org also emphasizes the importance of rainforest hunting for Mbendjele BaYaka people. Traditional they have spent “at least four months a year hunting and gathering in the forest; strongly identifying with and preferring forest life; contrasting the “forest world” to the “village world.”” With the rainforest playing such a prominent role in traditional Mbendjele BaYaka lives, it is clearly important that they have a method to orient themselves in that environment.

Learning to Navigate from an Early Age

Interestingly, Jang and her colleagues found that at around age six, Mbendjele BaYaka children already performed as accurately as adults in the pointing tests when the tests were conducted close to the camp. Moreover, the researchers found that when the sun was visible in the sky, children’s pointing accuracy increased substantially, especially in more distant and less familiar areas. Adults, on the other hand, performed accurately throughout their range also on cloudy days.

"Unlike the adults, who have a very good sense of direction in distant areas even if they cannot see the sun’s position , the children make large pointing errors in less familiar areas when they cannot see the sun. However, if they can see the sun, children’s performances improve considerably", says Jang.

"The Mbendjele BaYaka people live in flat lowland rainforests where orienting oneself is challenging due to heavy vegetation and the absence of distant landmarks like mountain peaks. People who live in such an environment may need to start learning how to use the position of the sun to ascertain a direction from a very early age."

People who live in such an environment may need to start learning how to use the position of the sun to ascertain a direction from a very early age.” ( CC0)

The First Known Case of Sun Compass Use

According to the authors, this study provides the first behavioral evidence for sun compass use in humans. "We know that bees can use the sun to navigate, but surprisingly there has been no scientific evidence yet that humans may have this skill, too, and that children may develop this skill by age six", says Janmaat.

"Our study shows that there is still so much to discover and with a high level of urgency. All forests inhabited by human rainforest foragers in Congo have been sold to foreign companies, causing these people to lose not only their foraging grounds, but their intriguing navigation skills as well."

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Young Mbendjele boy of age 8.5 years pointing at a food location. Here with researcher Haneul Jang in the tropical rainforest of the Republic of Congo. (© Karline Janmaat)

Although the Max Planck press release doesn’t go into detail on how the Mbendjele BaYaka use their ‘sun compass’ an article titled ‘The sun compass revisited,’ published in Animal Behavior in 2014, provides some insight on how others use this method:

“Having set a heading by whatever means, animals, like aviators, must make continued use of directional information in order to maintain that heading. Although it is possible in principle to use a compass for this task, the directional information that is required to maintain a heading need not involve any absolute geographical reference at all. The value of this simpler kind of directional information will be familiar to anyone who has strayed from a footpath in dense forest, flown through cloud or dived in murky waters. In such circumstances, it may not matter that you know which way is north or south, but it matters greatly that you can monitor your heading so as to maintain a straight course in a given direction, and reverse it accurately if required. Surface-bound animals may use idiothetic cues associated with walking on a substrate to achieve this […] the sun and its attendant cues, such as the polarization axis of the sky, provide a reliable celestial heading reference, analogous to the inertial heading reference provided by the gyroscope in an aircraft's heading indicator.”

Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality

Indigenous cultures are too often represented as if they live in a fog of superstition. In B-grade movies and far too many documentaries, so called ‘primitive’ people are shown performing nebulous rituals to their gods. They are apparently afraid of thunder because they don’t have an explanation for it and perform all sorts of sacrifices to appease the deities. The reality is very different. This essay will demonstrate that the rituals of indigenous cultures are grounded in reasoned practices. It will demonstrate their ability to retain, maintain and communicate the complexity of their physical and cultural domains. 1

This essay will also argue that we need to go beyond respecting indigenous cultures to recognizing how much we can learn from them. We can add to Western education practices by grounding our contemporary learning in knowledge structures, fixed by physical locations and enhanced by integrating song, dance and vivid imagination with the way we encode information right across the knowledge domains.

The misconception that we have little to gain from indigenous intellectual achievements arises from the fact that we who use literacy to store information have not grasped that there is an alternative: orality. We often read that non-literate cultures left no written records. Culture is built around what you do have, not what you don’t. Cultures which have no contact whatsoever with writing, referred to as primary oral cultures, have developed a suite of mnemonic technologies in order to memorise the learning built up over the millennia.

In order to grasp a totally different way of knowing it is necessary first to appreciate just what is known. Then, and only then, can we look at the power associated with the control of knowledge. Ceremonies can then be explored as pragmatic gatherings which serve to ensure that knowledge is retained accurately and transmitted appropriately. Having grasped the complexity of the pragmatic intellectual lives of indigenous elders, we can then explore the extraordinary memory systems they use to maintain an encyclopaedic knowledge of their physical environment and cultural obligations. Indigenous cultures must live in a concrete reality or they simply wouldn’t survive.

Everybody gains new memories all day every day. Most are lost. A few are retained for life. Those memories come naturally. That is not what this essay is about. Some memories are deliberately encoded, formally memorized as a result of a deliberate effort to do so. It is those memories which create an indigenous oral tradition.

Sociologist Carl Couch writes:

In all societies the bulk of the information used to organize conduct has been accumulated and preserved by prior generations. Communication is the core process of all human societies. Consequently a comprehensive theory of social life must attend to how information is accumulated, preserved and shared. 2

Cultures without writing accumulate and preserve information in human memory, and share it directly from memory. We know a great deal about pre-literate Greek society as the culture became literate and documented their transition. Ancient Greeks differentiated between natural memory and what they referred to as artificial memory. The latter is a trained memory, an asset greatly admired in pre-literate and early literate society. Not surprisingly, all non-literate cultures train their memories. Their very survival depended on them doing so.

When discussing oral tradition, the majority of scholars will talk about history and religion as if these are the key components which combine to create the indigenous knowledge bank. Consequently, we focus on the major areas of difference between us and them. However, it is our commonalities which form the significant proportion of our knowledge, where ‘our’ refers to all societies, all humans, whether oral or literate. Our knowledge of fauna and flora, astronomy and geology, seasons, weather, human behaviour, of navigation and obligation, of birth and of death are genres which captivate us all. Obsidian is black, shiny and sharp, corn cross-pollinates and bones break whether you use oral or literate technologies to store that information. It is the way that information is accumulated, preserved and shared which is the significant difference.

It is important at this stage to clarify some terms. In this essay, the term ‘pre-literate’ is restricted to the few societies that went on to develop their own script, unlike most societies which became literate through adopting a script introduced by the spread of a different culture. Non-literate or oral societies are those which have no contact with writing. People who are illiterate are those who do not read despite living in a society which has writing. These differences are hugely significant when considering the natures and roles of power structures and knowledgeable elites. In non-literate societies, the elders are also non-literate and use mnemonic technologies to maintain both information system and their power. Those who are illiterate will almost certainly live in societies in which the power and knowledge base is controlled by literates.

The study of non-literate societies will be influenced by the proximity of literacy. For example the influence of Islamic literature on many Southeast Asian and African cultures indicates that they are further from a primary oral state than Australian cultures with a more recent contact date. It is only a century ago that Sigmund Freud wrote: ‘I shall select as the basis of this comparison the tribes which have been described by anthropologists as the most backward and miserable of savages, the aborigines of Australia’. 3 It is those very Australian Aboriginal cultures, of which there are hundreds, which have inspired me to understand the mechanisms by which they can memorise a vast store of practical knowledge. All contemporary anthropologists consider Aboriginal people as having the same intellectual potential, physiology and memory ability as has been typical of all humans for millennia. It is imperative that we look beyond superficial differences and celebrate our similarities.

Australian Aboriginal songlines and the method of loci

The way indigenous cultures across the world use the landscape to order, structure and ground their knowledge systems can be best understood through the Australian experience, as Australian indigenous cultures have a continuous record dating back at least 50,000 years. Significantly, some populations in the remote areas of Arnhem Land and around the Gulf of Carpentaria were not colonised until relatively recently so there are still a few elders who were fully initiated in the traditional systems. In talking about Australian Aboriginal cultures, the English terms ‘Dreaming’ and ‘songlines’ are frequently used. ‘The Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ is described in Aboriginal terms as ‘a way of talking, of seeing, of knowing…’ 4 Critically, knowledge and law are by far the most common terms I have heard Indigenous Australians use when talking about the Dreaming.

Songlines are sung pathways through the landscape. Australian Aboriginal people talk of ‘Country’, reflecting that their environment is far more than just a physical landscape. As popularized through Bruce Chatwin’s influential book, The Songlines, 5 singing these sets of ordered locations enables Aboriginal people to navigate through forest, deserts and open plains. They are able to teach each other these singing tracks and hence, collectively, navigate the entire continent. Zoologist Sue Churchill described her experience of travelling with Aboriginal men who were navigating by songline in 1983. She was searching for cave-dwelling ghost bats.

We travelled with different old men from different communities in an old Landcruiser. There were no maps and most of the caves had not been visited for many years. One involved a 100-km drive cross-country through sand dunes to a cave that couldn’t be seen if you stood more than 3 m from its small vertical entrance. The old men who guided us were navigating by the shape of the sand dunes. They would stop every now and then and sing a long song to help them remember the landmarks of the journey. At each new locality the old men would try to tell us (there were some serious language barriers) the Dreamtime story of the ghost bat, or explain the ring of standing stones near a cave mouth, and sing the songs that they learned as young men. They even pointed out the woman in the story, a large rock on one of the ridges above a cave. 6

In discussions of Chatwin’s book, my Aboriginal colleagues have reiterated the disappointment many felt that the complexity of the concept of songlines was not conveyed. At every location along a songline, a ritual is performed. ‘Ritual’ is too often a nebulous term used to refer to any kind of sacred act. In this essay, I am using the term ‘ritual’ as defined by anthropologist Roy Rappaport, that is, ritual is ‘a relatively invariant and formal sequence of acts and utterances not encoded by the performers’. 7 Rituals in oral cultures must be considered in terms of the culture in which they are performed. They should not be likened to rituals in literate religions, where the pragmatic aspect of the performance is of secondary importance, if it exists at all. It is naïve to try and find an equivalence between the role of ritual in non-literate and literate cultures. Such an equivalence does not exist.

For the discussion in this essay, rituals are considered in terms of their efficacy in encoding practical information including navigation, animal behaviour, plant properties, cultural expectations and interactions, environments and resources and so on. In Australia there are over 300 language groups and it is estimated there were probably around 800 dialects before colonisation. Consequently it is important to be culturally specific whenever possible.

The Australian Yanyuwa people refer to their songlines as kujika. In a superbly comprehensive book on the topic, Singing saltwater country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria, 8 anthropologist John Bradley describes how through kujika every detail of the land is described and stored in the sung narratives. He has mapped over 800 km of songlines in his three decade long association with the Yanyuwa. As will be described below, indigenous knowledge exists in both public and restricted forms. Bradley wrote that ‘the public kujika is a thick description – a very detailed vision of the country – its geography and the plant, animal species, phenomena and objects one might encounter in it’. 9 The following extract from the Rrumburriyi Tiger Shark’s kujika shows the way in which a songline acts as a set of subheadings to the songs associated with each location along the path and the information which will be sung, repeated, ritualised at that location.

We sing this spring waters there in the north and we come ashore at Yulbarra. We come ashore and we sing the people at Yulbarra. We sing the paperbarks swamp and then onwards and northwards we sing the messmate trees and then we climb up onto the stone-ridge country and we sing the cabbage palms, and then we come to that place called Rruwaliyarra and we are singing the blue-tongued lizards and then the spotted nightjar, the quoll and the death adder, and we sing that one remains alone – the rock wallaby – we are singing her, and then we sing the messmate trees. 10

Bradley described another Yanyuwa singing track which embedded in the named landscape knowledge of people, winds, seasonal events, objects, the correct way to hunt and forage, process food and make tools, along with various groups’ rights to the land. When they arrived at the quarry site, the elder, who had last travelled there over fifty years before, sung verses that explained a particular stone tool technology. Although the technology had not been used for 100 years, the songs matched the flakes scattered at the site. 11

Australian anthropologist Howard Morphy wrote that the ‘landscape created by mythological actions is the ultimate medium for encoding mythological events and does so almost by definition through ordering them in space’. 12 Not surprisingly, the same memory technique is documented for a wide variety of cultures around the world. For example, American Indian, Donald Fixico describes the sacred landscape sites as ‘touchstones for memory’. 13 Belgian anthropologist Jan Vansina worked with African cultures and explained that the African ‘landscape, changed by man or not, was often a powerful mnemonic device’. 14 There can be no more reliable way of grounding information, of ordering and indexing a knowledge system, than using the landscape itself. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the linking of oral tradition to rocks, streams, rivers, lakes, hills, cliffs, trees and other natural features a characteristic of oral cultures universally. It is also not surprising that this powerful memory method can be found right through human history.

The Dreaming tracks represent a cognitive technology very similar to the method of loci, so well known from ancient Greek resources. The ‘method of loci’ is described in detail in Frances Yates’s seminal text, The Art Of Memory. 15 Ancient Greek orators mentally placed each section of their performance in a specific location within a streetscape or building. When delivering their oration, they would simply imagine themselves walking the street or ambling around the building withdrawing each item to be presented in order. No item would be lost and the sequence would usually be preserved. Sixth and fifth-century Greek bards, for example, could recite all 16,000 verses of the Iliad from memory, which would have required a number of evenings for the full performance. Eight times world memory champion, Dominic O’Brien, 16 developed a version of the method of loci independently and still uses what he calls ‘the journey method’ as he has found nothing better. I find his description of mentally travelling the set of locations as a journey by far the most apt for the way I experience this method, having myself now it used extensively for number of years.

A great deal of our understanding of the methods used by the ancient Greeks and adopted by the Romans comes from an anonymous Latin textbook for orators, Rhetorica ad Herennium (circa 86-82 BC). The textbook recommends that the set of locations use should be in a fixed sequence, away from the distractions of daily life, well lit, differing from each other, of moderate size and with a moderate distance between them.

The method of loci was widely used in schools from classical times right through the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, changing form and slowly fading as the dominance of writing grew. In Western societies and indigenous cultures alike, the use of this spatial memory technique was not purely for oratory but to memorise all forms of information which could be structured. Stories are far easier to remember then lists of facts. Narratives and vivid characters enacting the knowledge increase the chance that it will be remembered. Structuring information in such a concrete way also allows for commentary and recognizing patterns and stimulating questions in a way that many contemporary educational methods have lost.

The Rhetorica ad Herennium advises its orators that to make information most memorable, mental images should be as striking as possible with vibrant active characters displaying exceptional beauty or singular ugliness. They should be engaged in striking or comic effects involving heroes and trauma, disasters and great feats. These characteristics also fit the active and highly emotive myths found throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, enriched with exaggerated characters and monstrous creatures, part human part beast, which make the story much easier to remember. 17 Although to claim that this is the sole purpose of mythology would be clearly naïve, there is no doubt that mythology greatly aids the memory of more mundane information.

Too often, the transmission of learning in traditional societies is depicted as occurring while out on the daily gather and hunt or through child-like stories told around the campfire. In reality, the vast store of oral tradition is formally taught. It is committed to memory, practiced, repeated, performed and stored in the only databank available: human memory.

Integration of spiritual and pragmatic domains

Knowledge within oral cultures is held within an integrated information system. Mythological stories encode and make memorable information about flora, fauna, navigation, genealogies, land resources and management and all the other domains which will be discussed more fully below. Studies of the songs and mythology from cultures as diverse as the Australian Dyirbal 18 and the West African Yoruba 19 demonstrate the vast array of practical information stored within the ritual performances.

Unfortunately in English we do not have words which represent the complexity of indigenous knowledge systems. With the arrogance of literate colonisers, we label rituals according to the nearest equivalent we can find in our cultures. Prevalent is the misuse, of the word ‘magic’. For example, rituals performed before a hunt are often described as ‘hunting magic’ with an explanation given that the indigenous culture believes these calls to supernatural beings increase the fortune of the hunt. Indigenous cultures in fact assure us that the ritual does work this way, and a rational analysis that makes no recourse to the idea of ‘magic’ shows why this is most certainly the case. Rituals, that is repeated performances, not only request supernatural assistance but also often involve re-enactment of hunting strategies. When out in the field, calling to each other would not only take time but alert prey. The group enact their signals and co-operative plans to ensure an optimum hunt as well as reminding the hunters of the prey behaviour.

The hunting songs from Central Australia, 20 for example, describe the subtleties of behaviour of the various prey. Dances demonstrate details such as ear movements of kangaroos which indicate when the prey is alert and therefore likely to flee or whether it is relaxed and unaware enabling closer approach. Performance of dances replicating these behaviours ensure that every member of the hunting party is observing and reacting appropriately. Songs replicate the subtle sounds of an animal feeding, again indicating that it is unaware of the hunter. Songs describe footprints and other tracking indicators whilst also warning against actions which may lead to noisy approach. The songs have also been shown to encode which parts of the prey are most valuable in terms of proteins and oils, and which bones are rich with marrow to ensure these items are brought back to camp.

Indigenous ‘magic’ is grounded in reality and calls on spirituality without any necessity for differentiation between the two. Informal discussions with members of Australian and North American indigenous cultures assured me that they were perfectly well aware of this link. I am not qualified to assess the value of the call to spiritual forces, but the practicality of the ‘hunting magic’ is undeniable.

Orality expert, Ruth Finnegan argues that too often a misleading distinction is made between modern, rational, literate ‘us’ and the primitive, magical, oral ‘them’. This is reflected in the way that ‘they’ are ‘somehow mystically closer to nature than ourselves’. This idea has been popular with sociologists and romantics who dream of a vanished natural past, but Finnegan claims it says more about the writers than about the evidence. 21

Communications expert, Emevwo Biakolo writes:

perhaps the commonest in all anthropological-philosophical discourses of this sort … is the notion that the magical, with its connotation of, and connection with, ritual and religion, is the dominant characteristic of all primitive thought and behavior. The volume of anthropological research, from James Frazer upwards, demonstrates that this assertion is indeed overwhelming. What is not so certain is the theoretical justification for this. . Why, for example, is the comparison not made within the same experiential domain, say, between traditional religious thought and modern Western religious thought? Or alternatively, between an instance of traditional nonreligious thought and science? 22

Polish born anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski emphasised in his writing about the Trobriand Islanders that they were perfectly capable of separating the magical (in our terms) and practical when asked to describe soils and cultivation. Similarly, Leah Minc’s study of the Nunamiut and Tareumiut, 23 Dennis Tedlock’s research with the American Zuni 24 and Polly Wiessner’s work with the Enga of Papua New Guinea, 25 among many others, demonstrates that the knowledge keepers are perfectly capable of making a distinction between the mundane and the spiritual domains.

Tellingly, Jan Vansina 26 describes the way a real event was developed into a mythological form with the full understanding of the Hopi of exactly what they were doing. Vansina wrote about a historical quarrel between the Pueblo Hopi speakers and Navajo concerning the border between their lands. Over the following eighty years, the record of the location of the border was enforced through narration of the events. The narrative increasingly took on characteristics of oral tradition, including mythological characteristics and, even today, the decisive affray is narrated as an aspect of Hopi history preserving the border location.

It is well beyond the scope of this essay to define and discuss religion in all its variations. In a broad, geographically diverse range of non-literate cultures, stories are told of spiritual beings who created the land, plants, animals and people. Reports from early contact with indigenous cultures were often written from a Christian ethic. Gods, worship and prayers were part of the worldview of Christian writers and therefore often assumed to be part of all cultural belief systems. In his huge collection of Central Australian Aboriginal songs, T.G.H. Strehlow wrote that ‘it is a striking characteristic that there are no invocations or prayers to the spirits or to the totemic ancestors contained in these songs’. 27 Sir James Frazer makes a similar point:

it is a serious, though apparently a common, mistake to speak of a totem as a god and to say that is worshipped by the clan. In pure totemism, such as we find it among the Australian aborigines, the totem is never a god and is never worshipped. 28

In contemporary Aboriginal contexts, stories come from Ancestral Beings, Spiritual Beings, Ancient Ones, Ancestors … but never gods. Nungarrayi, a Warlpiri colleague, emphasises that ‘the Dreaming’ is better translated as ‘the law’ and ‘the knowledge,’ and is not merely simplistic stories about religious beliefs as so often portrayed. The stories told to those who are not initiated give the narrative framework for layer upon layer to be added over a lifetime of learning.

Are the ancestors mythological or actual forebears? The distinction may be of more consequence for historians than indigenous people. For recent generations, they are most likely actual forebears. As we move further back in time, it is more likely they have been fully mythologized and maybe conflated with the beings in the origin stories. The distinction will vary hugely depending on the culture and their societal priorities. What is universal is the way in which the mythological stories encode a vast store of pragmatic, rational, spiritual and cultural information in a highly memorable form.

Although it is acknowledged that personal biases and background cannot be eliminated when trying to understand a different belief system, they can be minimised. By seeking analogies in the ethnographer’s own belief system, the ethnographer distances him or herself from looking more deeply at the purpose of ceremonies and supernatural beliefs, reducing them to primitive versions of what contemporary religious individuals might consider their own superior belief system. Terms which derive from analogies with Western cultures, words such as ‘gods’, ‘priest’, ‘prayer’, ‘worship’, should be avoided. Cultural beliefs should be represented, wherever possible, in the terms used by the indigenous people themselves.

The most revealing study I came across when trying to understand the complexity of mythology from an indigenous perspective involved another of the Pueblo cultures, the Tewa. Indigenous Tewa writer Alfonso Ortiz 29 and ethnobotanist Richard I. Ford 30 both describe the way in which the Pueblo ensure a reliable corn harvest each year in a harsh environment. Each suggests reading the version of the other. If you read Ortiz alone you would learn the stories of the Corn Mothers and of the coloured Corn Maidens (blue, yellow, red, white, black and all-coloured). The stories link to many other aspects of the oral tradition. If you read Ford alone, you would learn of the extraordinary ability of the Pueblo to maintain pure strands of multiple varieties of different coloured corn over generations if not millennia, despite the readiness with which corn varieties cross-pollinate. Read together, you will find a stark representation of seemingly mutually exclusive versions about corn, yet each deliver the specialist knowledge on which the physical survival of the Pueblo people depended. Ford writes:

From an ecological perspective, plant nomenclature is a component of the information system that regulates behaviour towards plants. In the case of corn, the colour name used to define each type implies a culturally recognized range of hue and the physical management of the corn in order to comply with these expectations. The skills and knowledge required to maintain these corn types include recognition of pollination, spacing of fields, patterning of plant populations, time for maturation, and noninjurious cultivation techniques. If the cognized environment is considered, then attention to pure coloured corn is the means to revere or to placate the spirit forces of the Tewa world who would otherwise be offended and bring disaster to the crops and people if fed “mixed up” corn. Pure color corn is a mediating force in the cognized environment. On the other hand, when the operational environment is examined, then the maintenance of named corn types by raising each type in separate and dispersed fields prevents total crop losses in a land of climatic extremes and uncertainty. From both points of view, the application of a particular colour term to maize requires concomitantly an appropriate behavioural sequence for its perpetuation from time immemorial, and verification of a farmer’s adherence to tradition is attested to by the condition and success of his corn harvest. 31

Weather and the impact of domesticated animals, grasshoppers, birds, skunks, deer and nomadic raiders also impact upon the corn harvest. Although the total yield will not be maximised, planting different colours reduces the high risk of total loss which could occur with a monoculture. Modern farming methods have a great deal to learn from the Pueblo. Ford explicitly linked ritual to survival when he writes:

ritual imperatives and traditional cultural practices depend on corn types of pure colour. Adherence to the practice of growing sacred colour corn in the face of adversity means survival for the Tewa…. The outcomes resulting from adhering to ritual needs through the cognized environment, or maintaining named corn types in separate and dispersed fields in the operational environment, are the same – reliable corn production in a harsh climate. 32

Research indicating that rituals serve the pragmatic purposes as described for the Tewa can be found across the world, such as in taro cultivation in the New Guinea Highlands. 33

Domains of knowledge

The human species has adapted to almost every environment on the planet in a way no other animal species has been able to do. Such incredible adaptability is only possible because humans have developed methodologies which can manage a vast store of information.

There is ample evidence that the knowledgeable elders in indigenous cultures across the world effectively memorised field guides to all the flora and fauna in their environment. They stored extensive navigational charts in memory, along with the legal system, trade agreements and the cultural expectations that bind communities together. 34 The most complex data sets of all, intricately interwoven genealogies, are found it all oral cultures, held in memory and often used to structure other aspects of the knowledge system. Oral tradition always records lessons from the past to provide knowledge for the future, especially about how to survive in times of extreme resource stress or cultural conflict.

My research into the indigenous stories of the 23 crocodilian species around the world indicated that the stories reflect a very detailed observation of the physiology and behaviour of the specific species in the local environment, those which are eaten, avoided or simply observed. 35 This started me on the journey through years of research discovering the extraordinary depth of animal knowledge stored in the oral tradition of indigenous cultures across the world. The natural sciences provided a database which is essentially consistent for both literate and non-literate observers, providing a particularly valuable insight into the way knowledge is stored so differently across the orality/literacy divide.

The difficulty is finding and funding a team which can successfully cross the divide and produce a record which accurately reflects the knowledge of the indigenous elders. For example, the North American Navajo have worked with ethnoentomologists to produce a classification of over 700 insects. Most have no apparent practical use, but are known because, being human, the Navajo value knowledge for its own sake. 36 The research team thus requires a number of elders, scientists from the required domain and extremely adept linguists. This is not an easy team to put together.

An ethnobotanist must be familiar with every plant in the environment under study. Botanists struggled during research among the Hanunóo in the Philippines in the middle of last century because indigenous experts named 1,625 Hanunóo plant types, far more than were known to Western science at the time. 37 More likely, the scientist would need to recognize all plants and animals, something rare in our segmented academic world. John Bradley described this issue when writing about trying to learn an Australian Yanyuwa songline, a kujika:

So much knowledge was being presented to me, at many levels and intricately interrelated. I was struggling to find words for much of the material as it was deeply encoded and dependent on other knowledge.

There were many verses describing the myriad species – fish, sharks, birds and other animals and plants, whose names in Yanyuwa were so familiar to my informants that I had yet to identify in English. .

I was amazed by the detail of this kujika, especially of the different species of sea turtles, their life cycle and habitats it was a biology lesson in sung form. 38

The resulting studies have concluded that the classifications of non-literate cultures are scientific in the Western sense of the word. 39 However, unlike in Western education, these classifications form a concrete foundation for adding layers of information from a variety of domains by linking the knowledge to specific places. The classifications are made more memorable through performance. When introducing a detailed study of the plant use of the Australian Yankunytjatjara culture, linguist Cliff Goddard commented on the inadequacy of using only writing to record what he was being taught as much of the information was given through performance. 40

All indigenous cultures maintain knowledge of a pharmacopoeia, combining medicinal plant knowledge, information on protecting and binding wounds and treatment of mental illness. Often traditional medicines are seen as vastly inferior to Western science, but those treatments which are still considered purely traditional represent the remaining healing knowledge after much has already been adopted and refined by modern science.

The way in which animal and plant knowledge is integrated within the entire knowledge system is far too complex a topic for this essay. Suffice to say that an understanding of animals and plants within the environment offers a significant resource for setting the calendar on seasonal behaviour and migrations. Plants and animals are also frequently used as metaphor for human issues, a significant proportion of which deal with ethics and morality.

One area of indigenous study which has been well documented is that of navigation. 41 No indigenous culture relies solely on their astronomical observations, detailed as these often were. If a navigator relied solely on the stars, they would only be able to travel on clear nights. Obviously, this would never be the case. Pacific navigators cross thousands of miles of open ocean. The navigation schools across the Pacific involved years of intense training song, story, mythology and incorporated a host of physical mnemonic devices to ensure their navigators could recall details enabling them to safely travel between distant islands and to colonise further and further afield. Australian Aboriginal cultures used a similar set of mnemonic technologies to create the singing tracks which enabled them to traverse the entire continent and surrounding seascapes, each language group able to teach a traveller the next stage. As much of the country is desert, navigation training had to ensure that sources of water were known. Survival depended on it. The Inuit also used a range of oral and material mnemonics to travel across moving ice, often with no visible landmarks. More importantly, their skills ensured that they could return home again across a landscape which may have changed visibly in the time they were away. Understanding snow drifts and wind angles, among many other features, was critical to the survival of both the hunters and their families waiting at home.

Navigation was also essential to ensure those travelling to gatherings managed to find their way, often across great distances. Anthropologist Howard Morphy described the relatively infrequent and complex ritual performances among Australian Aboriginal cultures as ‘often operatic in scale’ 42 involving thousands of participants. Such gatherings in traditional cultures served a multiplicity of purposes: trade, social meetings, securing marital partners and, critically for our purpose here, to share, repeat and trade information. But it was also essential that the attendees arrived on time. Timekeepers in historic oral societies wielded immense power. All cultures, modern or traditional, operate with an awareness of both immediate and long-term time. In order to optimise hunting, gathering and any form of land management, someone must maintain a calendar to predict and respond to seasonal changes.

Unfortunately most ethnographers were not scientists nor did they have they linguistic skills necessary to recognise environmental knowledge. The desire to ‘educate’ indigenous peoples in Western beliefs blinkered those who made the first contact to the depth of the knowledge they were literally overwriting. More recently, many New Age devotees chose to misappropriate and romanticise indigenous cultural practices. They created the illusion that indigenous elders had some kind of psychic link to the earth. In every culture I studied, the elders had acquired the knowledge through years of learning and to imply otherwise is offensive. We literates study. Non-literates study every bit as hard. They use orality rather than literacy as their storage device.

With so many domains of knowledge, each with a vast store of information to be memorised, it is not surprising that knowledge was highly valued and a source of power. Essentially, an elder at the peak of his power would have memorised field guides to all the flora and fauna, navigational charts, a year of astronomical maps, the laws, ethical expectations and trade agreements, along with genealogical networks, far more complicated than our simple hierarchies of forebears. Anthropologist Jan Vansina argues that indigenous genealogies ‘are among the most complex sources in existence’. 43 All this information would be stored in songs, numbering in the hundreds, if not over a thousand.

Although much of the information discussed above is essential for the survival of the society, both physically and culturally, all human societies, non-literate and literate, also demonstrate a love of knowledge for its own sake. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote half a century ago that the ‘thirst for objective knowledge is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call “primitive”’. 44 I would argue that this situation has not much improved. Lévi-Strauss also observed that ‘animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known’. This aspect of ‘native’ science, Lévi-Strauss argues, ‘meet intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs’. 45 That intellectual system, being entirely stored in memory, needs to be structured and consciously retained. A new person, a new technology or a newly identified plant or animal species must be named and linked into the existing system to ensure it is not forgotten.

It is this method of constantly structuring information and adding new information to the existing structure which is the strength of indigenous knowing. The intellectual domain is sorely lacking in popular depictions in indigenous culture, especially when recreated for documentaries of prehistoric cultures.

Literacy makes storing information much easier, enabling a much larger data bank to be available in permanent storage. While engaging with the huge benefits of literacy, we have also dispensed with many aspects of orality which are natural to human learning and understanding. We segregate art and music from science and literature. We don’t let vivid characters tell the stories about the science and history, geography and politics. We don’t ground our curriculum in the physical environment, letting memory locations fix the information in logical sequences in touchable places that are infinitely expandable. We sit still when we could dance.

I have no doubt that a fusion of literacy and orality offers the optimum for contemporary education.

Hunter Gatherer Society Has a Time-Tested, Secret Method to Traverse the Rainforest - History

Aborigines decorated their bodies with tattoos that conveyed messages particularly at ceremonial times. The patterns represented the totems of individuals or denoted information about the tribe itself.


Death was always a time of sorrow and supernatural fear among traditional ATSI people. Wailing or crying was a common occurrence among the mourners who often painted their bodies with pipe clay, red ochre, or charcoal when a relative or friend died. In some districts people wore a head covering made of feathers. Others beat their bodies with sticks or clubs, or cut themselves with shells or stone knives to cause bleeding. In these instances the period of sorrow or mourning, was considered to be at an end when their wounds were healed.

Relatives and close friends often sat beside a grave of a deceased person, but this was related to their superstitious beliefs. Sitting beside a grave - sometimes shaded with a hut or covering to provide shelter for the mourner or mourners - involved ensuring that the deceased person's spirit had gone to the 'sky camp' or to its spirit-place. Obviously it is impossible to say 'how' they knew or considered when this happened. However after the mourning period was completed, a deceased person's name was never mentioned again. This often involved inventing new words for totems but was based on their superstitious beliefs in a personal spirit and ghosts.

The belief in a personal spirit was based on the Dreamtime stories that told the people that birth was the result of a spirit-child entering a woman's body. Or in some parts of the country, birth had been an act of the creators. For example in Arnham Land the Djanggau Sisters (who were considered to be daughters of the Sun and arrived in the area in a bark canoe with their brother Bralgu)created the land and gave birth to the first-people to live there. In other words birth and death were great mysteries involving supernatural beings.

The people also believed that a person's spirit could visit living people to harm or warn them of danger. This usually resulted in a 'inquiry' about the death of a person who was considered to have died prematurely or in unusual circumstances. The inquiry - usually undertaken in consultation with an Elder or a Clever Man - looked for actions undertaken by some person that had caused the death of an individual. Any culprit was severely punished. The belief in a person spirit also led the people to take great precautions in the burial or cremation of the deceased.


A number of difference 'races' of people believe or have believed that when a person dies, their soul (or inner spirit) is born again - in the form of an animal, bird, reptile, fish or as another human being. The Eora / Dharawal Aborigines believed in transmigration also known as transmutation or metephsychosis. For example during the 1830s Quaker James Backhouse toured the Illawarra district and recorded that some Aboriginal men were mortified when some Europeans shot and killed some dolphins. The Aborigines of the area believed that after death, their warriors became dolphins. This belief was bolstered by the habit of dolphins to herd fish and to protect people from shark attacks.

Another example of the belief in reincarnation was given by David Collins who noted that when a European was about to shoot a raven, an Aborigine stepped into the firing line to stop him from doing this because 'him brother'. In other words the bird was the man's totem and he was compelled to do everything possible to make sure that the raven wasn't killed.


Aboriginal people are spiritual though they had no formal religion.

The word spirit has many different meanings. For example it can be used to refer to the immaterial part of a human being often called his or her soul or to the personality of people when they are said to have a courageous or cowardly spirit. Or to describe qualities of people or (other) animals when they are said to be high spirited. Spirit can also refer to supernatural beings such as a deity (god) or to evil manifestation such as ghosts.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians believed in a number of spirits. In particular to ancestral spirits a personal spirit animal spirits, deceased spirits or ghosts and evil spirits. Their beliefs were founded - like every other aspect of their life - on Dreamtime myths which informed them that their world had been created by was filled with the supernatural. This was something to be taken notice of and was the basis of them being very superstitious people.

Animal Spirits: During the Dreamtime the creators made spirits of every living creature including that of every animal, bird, reptile, insect and form of marine life (etc). Wherever they rested the creators left the spirits of living creatures behind them. This was the origin of life. The Aborigines believed they were intrinsically linked to every other 'species' because of the actions of the creators. They also believed that it was their personal responsibility to ensure the continuation of 'animal' life through the concept of taking care. This involved the singing of songs and performing of ceremonies which were believed to ensure the continuation of the birth of each species.

During the Dreamtime the creators had metamorphosed into various forms of animals, birds and other species. Individuals were linked to the creators through totemic relationships and did not eat their personal totem. To do so would be a form of cannibalism. The practice had the effect of providing a safe sanctuary for different species.

ATSI people also believed that particular animal spirits could harm living people. For example they believed that killing a willy-wagtail would result in the spirit of this bird becoming angry and to the creation of storms of violence which could destroy others.

Evil Spirits: A number of Dreamtime stories related stories of evil spirits. One Queensland story recorded by A.W. Howitt told of a group who went to hunt and fish leaving behind two boys in camp, with instructions not to leave the camp: The boys played about for a time in the camp, and then getting tired of it, went down to the beach where a Thugine came out of the sea, and being always on the watch for unprotected children, caught the two boys and turned them into rocks that now stand between Double Island Point and Inskip Point and have deep water close to them. 'Here you see', the old men used to say, 'the result of not paying attention to what you are told by your elders'."

The Thugine mentioned in this story is one of hundreds of evil spirits whose evil deeds were recorded in stories and songs. Along the south-east coast of New South Wales evil spirits were and are known as Goonges. Generally speaking contemporary Aboriginal people still believe in these spirits. For example if they go to a particular area they believe they must be invited to stay there if they are not welcome they will feel this and to remain there under these circumstances will result in being punished. Punishment may mean death or injury and this may extend to other members of a family. Some areas are forbidden to women because the male spirits that are believed to live there will punish them if they disobey the trespassing laws.

Beliefs in spirits and ghosts among Aboriginal Australians was common to all tribes throughout the continent, although there were a number of variations in the actual names that were used to describe them. Contextually the beliefs were one aspect of Aboriginal culture and need to be understood from their perspective. Modern day Western understanding tends to 'see' body, mind and spirit as separate entities, which we somehow or other manage to unite into concepts of person or oneness. This understanding can lead to skepticism about spirit as this has largely become associated with religious beliefs. Traditional Aborigines did not think this way. They certainly understood the separate concepts of body and spirit, but in such a way that they seen as being united with other people and every other living creature, in a unique oneness. This applied to the past, present and future in an ontology (philosophy) that humanism, rationalism and science cannot understand.

The Australian Aborigines believed that the land they lived in (and owned) along with all it contained (every rock, tree, waterhole and cave), was created for them during the Dreamtime.

In some areas of the continent the creators were all-powerful figures such as Biami. In other areas creation was the result of the actions of ancestral heroes and heroines. In Central Australia the Tnatantja Pole was responsible for forming mountain ranges and valleys.


Because Aboriginal society was very spiritual (in the sense that spirits were thought to have made the land and were responsible for birth and sometimes death),it is not surprising that Aboriginal people 'believed' in magic.

It was practiced in a number of ways. For example through the pointing of the bone (sometimes called singing someone) which was believed to cause death. People who had been 'pointed' often died, not as a result of the magic itself, but because of their belief that they would die ie., death through superstition or imagination. In the same way, people were 'cured' of sickness / illness through the use of magic stones and crystals.


Boys began a period of initiation from when they were 7 or 8 years of age. The first initiation ceremonies they attended were designed to make them independent on their mothers and other females. At other ceremonies and meetings with older males they were informed about the history and customs of the tribe and were taught how to survive and to be dependent on other males. Initiation continued over a number of years and boys gradually acquired knowledge through learning stories, attending ceremonies and through education by initiated males.

Pain endurance was an important part of initiation of males and was considered to be manly. In theEora / Dharawal tribe teenage boys attended a tooth evulsion ceremony when a front tooth was knocked out during the ceremony. In some tribes boys were circumcised at puberty as a pain endurance test.

Initiation was also a time of obedience as boys were expected to comply with food and other taboos during this time. For example Louisa Atkinson reported in her reminiscences of knowing the Aborigines of the south coast of New South Wales (published as A Voice in the Country: Sydney Mail 19th September 1863), that two boys of the Picton area disobeyed a food taboo and were punished by death.

'For some time the lads are not permitted to mingle with the tribe, or eat particular food. The tooth is knocked out by the point of a boomerang. should they disobey the regulations deadly consequences ensue. This report goes on to report that two initiates killed and ate a duck. Mullich (a Koradji or Clever Man of the area)discovered what they had done: in consequence the lads were surprised when asleep, stunned by a blow of a club, and an insidious poison, administered to them, under which they sank in about three months.

Girls did not participate in initiation ceremonies. At puberty they were married and went to live with their husband. However, their mothers and other women prepared them in knowledge about their bodies and sexual intercourse. Ceremonies included ritual bathing, separation from the main tribal group for varying periods of time and food taboos.


Traditional Aboriginal people had great respect for older people such as Grandfathers and Grandmothers. However old age, seniority or maturity were not sufficient for a person to be considered an Elder.

Elders (who were usually males), were people who were considered to be wise in tribal knowledge and worldly matters. They were leaders of family or kinship groups who made decisions about moving camp, when boys would be initiated, when girls would be married and settled disputes among other members of the social unit.

Senior females were not considered to be Elders in traditional Aboriginal society. However they did play important roles in tribal matters. For example they decided when girls would undergo rituals in preparation for marriage, conducted or organized ceremonies including those that males and children participated in (but not initiation ceremonies). They also acted as midwives and story-tellers.

Today some Aboriginal people call themselves Elders but are not recognized by traditional people. Sometimes because they are too young to be Elders or live in areas that is not their traditional land. There are also a number of female Elders in society today, but this seems to be an adaptation of the traditional leadership laws. However Aboriginal laws are not and probably never have been static and there is a great need today, for female Aborigines to be involved in achieving rights, recognition and reforms for all ATSI people.

One important aspect of traditional Aboriginal life was the custom of being led by Elders (see Elders). However, Governor Lachlan Macquarie set about changing Aboriginal society by awarding some Aboriginal people with a Brass plates and calling them Kings. This was a breach of traditional tribal laws, but the people who accepted these titles were those 1) who were considered by the authorities to have shown an inclination to accept the new way of life under British Law or 2) to those who had led exploration parties.

Aboriginal lore was an important and vital aspect of community life. Lore means 'the facts and stories about a particular subject or topic'. For example Aboriginal people learned their 'laws' from those Dreamtime stories that informed the listeners about acceptable and unacceptable behavior together with the punishment offenders received.

The lore's / laws were serious as they were considered to have originated from the ancestors and therefore were considered to be the law-givers or law-makers and law was an important aspect of Aboriginal life. On the other hand there were those early colonists who believed that the Aborigines were a lawless race of people. They accused them (as some do today), of having a genetic 'fault' as natural thieves and murderers.

It is certainly true that the Aborigines of the Sydney district stole axes and other weapons from the colonists. But history records this as happening after their own weapons and tools were stolen by the convicts (who sold them to sailors who took them back to England to sell them). This is not a justification. It is a simple fact that the Aborigines considered it quid pro quo ie., good enough to steal from those who stole from them.

They also stole corn, potatoes and other food from the early settlers. Perhaps they were starving. On the other hand the early colonists were struggling to survive in the colony and the Aborigines may have stolen their food as a strategy to drive them out of their land. Murder was also exacted by the Aborigines. They believed that anyone who shot one of them should be punished and exacted this on the Europeans.

Aboriginal lore (in songs and stories about a particular topic) also taught and guided the people to survive. Some stories informed them about the life cycle of birds, animals and insects. Others (often called Songlines) were like oral road maps and identified tracks that the people followed when moving around their tribal territory or when visiting other tribes.

Message Sticks

Aboriginal lore (law) required a person who did not 'belong' to a particular area, to be invited or granted permission, to enter into the territory of a tribe. In other words, he or she could not simply wander into the land of another tribe. To do so invited hostility that could result in the death of the individual for trespassing.

When someone wanted to visit another tribe, they carried a message stick - a piece of bark or timber that was decorated with symbols. These symbols have sometimes been said to have been a written form of language. This is not correct. But they were a form of passport that identified the intent or authority of the bearer and 'communication' took place verbally (or by sign language), between the 'stranger' and those whom s/he wanted to visit. "The passing of a boundary line by the blacks of another territory was considered as an act of hostility against the denizens of the invaded grounds, and wars were frequently the sequence of such transgressions." (The Aborigines of Australia, Roderick J Flanagan, 1888, pp 46)

A Bora is the name given both to an initiation ceremony of Indigenous Australians, and to the site on which the initiation is performed. At such a site, boys achieve the status of men. The initiation ceremony differs from culture to culture, but often involves circumcision and scarification, and may also involve the removal of a tooth or part of a finger. The ceremony, and the process leading up to it, involves the learning of sacred songs, stories, dances, and traditional lore. Many different clans will assemble to participate in an initiation ceremony.

The word Bora was originally from South-East Australia, but is now often used throughout Australia to describe an initiation site or ceremony. It is called a Burbung in the language of the Darkinjung, to the North of Sydney. The name is said to come from that of the belt worn by initiated men. The appearance of the site varies from one culture to another, but it is often associated with stone arrangements, rock engravings, or other art works. Women are generally prohibited from entering a bora.

In South East Australia, the Bora is often associated with the creator-spirit Baiame. In the Sydney region, large Earth mounds were made, shaped as long bands or simple circles. Sometimes the boys would have to pass along a path marked on the ground representing the transition from childhood to manhood, and this path might be marked by a stone arrangement or by footsteps, or mundoes, cut into the rock. In other areas of South-East Australia, a Bora site might consist of two circles of stones, and the boys would start the ceremony in the larger, public, one, and end it in the other, smaller, one, to which only initiated men are admitted. Matthews (1897) gives an excellent eye-witness account of a Bora ceremony, and explains the use of the two circles.

Bora rings, found in South-East Australia, are circles of foot-hardened earth surrounded by raised embankments. They were generally constructed in pairs (although some sites have three), with a bigger circle about 22 metres in diameter and a smaller one of about 14 metres. The rings are joined by a sacred walkway. While most are confined to south east Queensland and eastern New South Wales, five earth rings have been recorded near the Victorian town of Sunbury, although Aboriginal use has not been documented.

Bora rings in the form of circles of individually placed stones are evident in Werrikimbe National Park in northern New South Wales.

The Aborigines in some parts of Australia the tribes called the places where initiation ceremonies were held, bora grounds. They were called Buna grounds in other parts of the country, but the sites were not randomly chosen and were used for thousands of years by the tribe. The bora ground itself was identified by two circles that were drawn on the ground or were formed by rocks or pebbles. The circles were connected by a path and other symbols were drawn into the earth or carved into trees near the grounds. These symbols were highly significant in ceremonies and also warned people (women and uninitiated youths and strangers), to stay away from the area.


Almost all of the Koori (preferred name of Australian aboriginies) shaman are initiated within one large group, called "The Dreamers". This is due to the fact that Australia has some of the strongest, and chaotic magic, around. All of the shaman are needed to put a check on that chaos. A Koori shaman takes only a small penalty for some tasks when astrally perceiving. As a trade off they are unable to mask. Any magician (full or adept) will notice this, whether or not he can assence. Mundanes even can tell when one of The Dreamers has entered the room. A Koori shaman will rarely travel outside of Australia, the need is too great in the outback for that. White Australian shamans cannot join the dreamers, but some are associated with the koori group.

The Australian aboriginal shamans - "clever men" or "men of high degree" - described "celestial ascents" to meet with the "sky gods" such as Baiame, Biral, Goin and Bundjil. Many of the accounts of ritualistic initiation bare striking parallels to modern day UFO contactee and abduction lore. The aboriginal shamanic "experience of death and rising again" in the initiation of tribal "men of high degree" finds some fascinating parallels with modern day UFO abduction lore involving the Gray Aliens. The "chosen one" (either voluntarily or spontaneously) is set upon by "spirits", ritualistically "killed", and then experiences a wondrous journey (generally an aerial ascent to a strange realm) to met the "sky god." He is restored to life -- a new life as the tribal shaman.

Wondjina Figures - Gray Aliens

Ritual death and resurrection, abduction by powerful beings, ritual removal or rearrangement of body parts, symbolic disembowelment, implanting of artifacts, aerial ascents and journeys into strange realms, alien tutelage and enlightenment, personal empowerment, and transformation - these and many other phenomena are recurring elements of the extraordinary shamanic tradition.

The Australian aboriginal shamans - "clever men" or "men of high degree" -- described "celestial ascents" to meet with the "sky gods" such as Baiame, Biral, Goin and Bundjil. Many of the accounts of ritualistic initiation bare striking parallels to modern day UFO contactee and abduction lore. The aboriginal shamanic "experience of death and rising again" in the initiation of tribal "men of high degree" finds some fascinating parallels with modern day UFO abduction lore. The "chosen one" (either voluntarily or spontaneously) is set upon by "spirits", ritualistically "killed", and then experiences a wondrous journey (generally an aerial ascent to a strange realm) to met the "sky god." He is restored to life - a new life as the tribal shaman.

Ritual death and resurrection, abduction by powerful beings, ritual removal or rearrangement of body parts, symbolic disembowelment, implanting of artifacts, aerial ascents and journeys into strange realms, alien tutelage and enlightenment, personal empowerment, and transformation - these and many other phenomena are recurring elements of the extraordinary shamanic tradition.

Forgotten Histories: Eugenics, Racism and Colonial Mental Doctors in Kenya

How racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances can do the most damage.

In 1951, a prominent British medical journal on mental disease published the now-notorious account from Dr J.C. (John Colin) Carothers on “frontal lobe function and the African.” While such racist pseudo-sciences were ubiquitous throughout the colonial period, this article contained the rather shocking analogy comparing the brains of “normal” Africans to that of leucotomized (lobotomized) Europeans. Although the original article is lost somewhat to obscurity, its hypothesis has been a mainstay in much of the historiography surrounding the racist science behind what can be called a “colonial psychiatry.”

Since Megan Vaughan’s seminal article on “Idioms of Madness in a Nyasaland asylum” (1983), a robust sub-genre in medical history scholarship has followed suit to explore the concepts, confinements, and rhetorical abuses of colonial institutions across their occupied territories. Kenya, as is often the case, looms large. This is due, in part, to the work of Carothers throughout the 1940s from Nairobi’s Mathari Mental Hospital, which followed on from an ugly eugenicist turn amongst white settler physicians in the 1930s.

The body of work by such physicians appearing frequently within the pages of the East African Medical Journal and the later, more substantial, publications by Carothers in the early 1950s, solidified what came to be known as the East African School of psychiatry with Carothers as exemplar.

Carothers is known for three influential publications the aforementioned article on frontal lobe function, a widely read World Health Organization monograph, The African Mind in Health and Disease (1953), and a British government commissioned treatise on the Mau Mau rebellion, “The Psychology of Mau Mau” (1954).

Despite his prominence in some quarters, and the expectation that his years of service at the helm of Mathari qualified him as an expert witness on African mentalities, Carothers’ work did not receive a quiet acceptance among his contemporaries. Experts from psychiatry and anthropology weighed in with responses to the WHO monograph with scathing reviews appearing in equally prominent journals. Lest Carothers’ stance on race appear unclear, critics made direct references to his racial and biological determinism—fair play, considering Carothers himself cited his frontal lobe theory in his later works.

Frantz Fanon, critiquing the agony of the colonial situation, referred directly to the sinister nature of the work emanating from Kenya and from Carothers specifically. Although Fanon had many targets, Carothers’ infamy was cited in a summing up of his chapter on “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” in The Wretched of the Earth with commentary on the damage done by the widespread acceptance, even in university teaching, of the “uniform conception of the African.”

“In order to make his point clearer” Fanon wrote, “Dr Carothers establishes a lively comparison. He puts forward the idea that the normal African is a ‘lobotomized European.’” Unlike Fanon, J.C. Carothers was not actually trained as a psychiatrist (he completed a diploma course in psychology while on leave in the UK). He utilized the patient population of Mathari Hospital and a general armchair anthropological tendency that infected many colonial administrators, to publish his findings about the nature of the “normal and abnormal” African. Although he lacked genuine academic credentials, he did enough to beat out experts like Melville Herskovitz (a prominent figure in the founding of modern African Studies in the US) to win the WHO commission. Despite this intellectual coup, the book was seen as a racially charged blemish on the organisation and was controversial the moment it was released.

Melville Herskovitz’ review warned that the potential damage caused by the publication was palpable. “For where, as in Africa, stakes are high and tempers are short, anything this side of the best scientific knowledge will accelerate existing tensions and make their resolution the more difficult.” The impact of the book might have remained fairly academic it was, after all, an extended institutional report with a poorly constructed literature review. But it gave Carothers an air of authority as an expert on African psychology amidst a period of turmoil and increasingly violent demands for independence.

By the time the state of emergency was declared in Kenya in 1952, Carothers had already returned to the UK. When the British government called on him to provide his opinion on the psychological impulse behind the Mau Mau rebellion, he was able to oblige from the comfort of home by plagiarizing substantial aspects of The African Mind with added polemics about the “forest psychology” of the Mau Mau. He made a brief government sponsored visit in 1954 to observe the detention camps, and his visit to Manda Island was documented in a scant entry in Gakaara Wa Wanjau’s Mau Mau Author in Detention. The result was a widely read government pamphlet, “The Psychology of Mau Mau,” which not only explained the reasons why Kenyans had resorted to violence, but also laid out a medicalized rationale for what to do about it.

Under the radar, in the mid-1950s, another psychiatrist had a mandate to visit the camps. However, so dominant is the Carothers narrative of East African psychiatry, these two doctors are generally not compared as such. Edward Lambert Margetts was a little-known psychiatrist from Canada who had the distinction of having overseen Mathari Hospital during the Mau Mau war. In stark contrast to Carothers, Margetts made some surprising observations about the trauma of detention camps—although it must be said that he was no sympathizer to the Mau Mau cause.

Despite a penchant for collecting, documenting, and writing, he eschewed any opportunity to write about the Mau Mau war directly, but he too was invited to visit detention camps and to examine detainees brought to Mathari. Camp superintendents had little interest in big picture theories about the African mind, but they were keen to expose specific prisoners who were suspected of feigning mental illness as a means of escaping hard labor.

While some of Margetts’ notes are uncharacteristically cagey, he observed key patterns amongst a small number of detainees held in camps as well as Kenyans living amidst Mau Mau chaos. Most fascinating are medical notes with a term coined by Margetts “Mau Mau perplexity fear syndrome” in which he documented the anguished testimonies or panicked delusions of Kenyans who lived under a constant terror of violence.

For detainees, Margetts made a remarkable observation that while some prisoners might well be “malingering,” others exhibited signs of dissociation caused by extreme trauma related to their confinement. Ganser Syndrome (after Sigbert Ganser, 1898) was also known as “prison psychosis” and included an array of unusual symptoms such as hysterical blindness or the compulsion to give nonsensical answers to easily understood questions. Margetts queried whether some detainees could be considered under this diagnosis—an indication that some of the trauma in Kenya might be attributable to British administration of the war and not the innate savagery of the African personality.

Frantz Fanon also referred directly to Carothers’ “Psychology of Mau Mau,” and to the government’s concurrence that the “revolt [was] the expression of an unconscious frustration complex whose reoccurrence could be scientifically avoided by spectacular psychological adaptations.” If Fanon was aware of Margetts at all, he would likely have conflated his views with those of his predecessor within the East African School. Fanon noted that Carothers’ work dovetailed with the types of claims made by the North African School. and the credence given to such ideas made the corruption, and “tragedy” of colonial medicine all the more evident.

Although they were contemporaries, these three psychiatrists had little in common, although two of them challenged the “Mau Mau as mental disease” paradigm from the distinct vantage points of clinical curiosity and revolutionary political thought. There are still many avenues to pursue within a scholarship concerned with psychiatry’s entanglement with colonial politics and violence, but perhaps J.C. Carothers output has had a shelf life beyond what it should have done. Edward Margetts’ tenure at Mathari is not unproblematic, but nonetheless leaves a very different intellectual footprint. From his clinical notes and writing, we may apply a bit more nuance and tension to the otherwise flat depiction of Carothers’ overt racism.

The “East African school” represents a paradox between a scientific community that for the most part knew better in the 1950s, and the undeniable influence of racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances to do the most damage.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

4. Religion and culture

As one should expect for such a vast region as sub-Saharan Africa, with its thousands of societies and cultures, religious beliefs and practices varied enormously. Nevertheless there were some features which were widespread amongst African religions. Most involved a keen belief in spirits of different kind of the afterlife of a spiritual dimension to the land and of evil. African religious practices were equally common, involving ritual experts, mediums, dances, often with masks and often involving trances, witches, and charms.

Gods and spirits

All Africans believed in spiritual beings. It has been noted that herding peoples had a stronger tendency to believe in a high god, whilst cultivators were more likely to worship many gods. These, as elsewhere in the world, had specialist activities – ensuring fertility of women and soil, for example, or providing wealth. Even here, however, there was commonly a belief that a ‘higher’ or ‘ultimate’ power lay behind the pantheon of gods who interacted with humans.

In many agricultural societies, however, the most important spiritual beings were the “spirits of the land” and, closely associated with these, ancestral spirits. A common idea was that the founders of a particular community, on first settling the area, had made a pact with the spirits of the land in order to ensure good harvests. The original settlers became the founding ancestors of the new community, and because it was they who had struck the original pact with the spirits of the land, it was they alone who could communicated with them, even (or especially) after death. These ancestral spirits thus became the channel through which spiritual forces could be accessed.

Similarly, belief that spiritual power came only through dead ancestors was common amongst herding societies. Given the nomadic nature of these societies the spiritual power in question could not be tied to a particular area – might, indeed, be a universal spirit who controlled all the land. But it was ancestors with whom these people directly interacted, and approaching them with sacrifices of cattle.

This categorization was not hard and fast. Some cultivators worshipped a supreme god, particularly when seeking rain. In fact, cults involving rain shrines and weather gods might command the loyalty of people over a wide area, a form of worship practiced side-by-side with that concerning the spirits of the land.

For cultivators in particular, any religious beliefs were underpinned by a deeply-held idea about the world in which they found themselves. This was that there was a fundamental distinction between the cultivated and the wild, between civilization and savagery. Establishing a new settlement was not just about clearing forest or scrub and creating fields for crops it was about taming the land, seeking the permission of the spiritual forces which controlled a patch to settled on it, and making a contract with them to bless them with protection and fertility. The surrounding bush remained untamed, wild, a source of harm, the abode of dangerous animals and evil spirits. Those humans whose livelihood depended on adventuring into the bush – hunters above all but also herbalists and iron workers, who needed wood for their furnaces – were regarded with awe, for they must be protected by strong magic to survive such trips.

Surrounded as they were by vast stretches of bush, agricultural villages and the human societies they sheltered were fragile places, always under threat from the encroaching forest. Some communities, especially those in rain forests, had a sacred barrier to keep the wilderness at bay.

In contrast to all this, anthropologists found that the pygmies who inhabited the deep forests, and who relied for their survival on its produce, regarded the forests as innately good, and the lands surrounding it as fearful.

In many societies, the village chief, as the senior descendant of the founding ancestor, was deemed to have a special relationship with the spirit world. He therefore possessed both religious and secular authority within his community. Much religious activity, however, was in the hands of religious specialists adept at making contact with the spirit world in order to influence the forces of nature. To the Western mind, at least, this aspect of religion was indistinguishable from magic, and was in the hands of mediums, priests, diviners and healers. Their repertoire involved rituals, spells, dances and trances, as well as more practical applications such as herbs and ointments. Religious and medical knowledge was interwoven, and was mysterious to the community at large (except in so far as the healing properties of many plants were commonly appreciated). The mysteriousness of such knowledge might be reinforced in societies where secret associations had a monopoly of spiritual activity. In large settlements religion and healing was in the hands of professionals, whose interests naturally lay in keeping such matters out of the reach of the general populace.

In line with the pragmatic nature of African thought, the test for religious practices and practitioners was whether they worked, especially in relieving human misfortune or securing fertility of womb or field, prosperity, health and social harmony in the world. Such pragmatism made for an open attitude to ideas and practices from outside: if something worked it was acceptable, wherever it came from.

In large societies with dense populations, which showed marked differences in wealth and were controlled by strong political power, human sacrifice was widely practiced. Men captured in war or raids were often sacrificed to the gods, and the wives, retainers and servants of dead rulers were frequently buried with him.

One of the biggest threats to harmony within society was witchcraft. This was greatly feared, as it could spring up in communities and tear them apart.

Witches were widely blamed for misfortunes, especially involving the fertility of women and the survival of children. These matters touched on the central concern of Africans, the continuity of the community. Fear of witchcraft was particularly virulent in concentrated settlements where interpersonal tensions could be high. Those suspected of witchcraft were commonly relatives or neighbors who would benefit from a person’s misfortune and especially women whose age, childlessness, deformity or demeanor suggested bitterness.

Suspects were often the victims of mob violence. More often, they might be tested by a poison ordeal and if found guilty, put to death, often with great cruelty.

When one society was conquered by another, it was the mediums and priests, as well as others in the community with high religious status such as iron workers and herbalists, who often put up the stoutest resistance to alien rule. Eventually, however, immigrant rulers usually learnt to co-exist with local religious practitioners. They sought to bring shrines and cults under their authority through a mixture of threat and patronage. This task would be helped by the fact that a defeated ruler had, by definition, been shown to have lost the support of the gods, and the victorious ruler had proved himself to be the more spiritually powerful.

In West Africa, a new religious influence began to make itself felt in the later first millennium. This was Islam, which gradually spread throughout the region over a number of centuries. Indigenous religions never died out, however, and the two belief-systems lived side by side in uneasy co-existence for a long time (indeed, they still do in parts of West Africa).

Art, literature and culture

Circumstances might have been against African societies in the effort to create advanced material cultures, but this did not stop some of them from producing some of the most highly regarded works of art known to man. The magnificent sculptures of the West African societies of Ife and Benin, for example, depict human figures in an idealized yet deeply moving way, and possess a serene majesty unsurpassed in human art.

The sculptural tradition in West Africa goes back to the terracotta figures of the Nok culture of the early first millennia BCE and CE, and began to reach a peak in the 13th and14th centuries in Ife, in Yorubaland (in modern day Nigeria). The surviving examples re terracotta, though there may well have been a much more substantial tradition of wood carving which lay behind these. They represent the spectrum of human conditions, from kings and courtiers to the diseased and the executed. In the 14th and 15th centuries this tradition was transferred to brass. Fewer than 30 examples have survived, all made by the lost wax process. They are in a style of idealized naturalism, most representing kings at the height of their powers. The sculptural tradition spread to other Yoruba cities in the form of wood carvings, where they continued to reveal an artistry and appreciation of human worth that marks them out as truly great works.

This tradition of West African sculpture arose in a much broader context of mask-making and statuary in wood and ivory, which covered much of sub-Saharan Africa. In the Great Lakes region, for example, the Lega people developed a distinctive and lively series of exquisite miniature sculptures. The same eye for beauty and spirit, along with a zest for color and pattern, was revealed in countless textile works from all over the continent.

Except where influenced by Islam, most pre-modern sub-Saharan societies were non-literate. Underpopulation, and the difficulties that this created for taxation and control, meant that the kind of bureaucracies which invented literacy in Sumer or Egypt could not emerge in the African context.

That said, African oral culture was exceptionally rich, with an enormous store of myths, stories, poems and aphorisms. Oratory, debate, story-telling, poetry and conversation were all held in high esteem, and were developed into a highly sophisticated art at the royal courts of African kingdoms and chiefdoms. Rulers displayed their power by the number of retainers they had, and the sophistication of their court, where urbanity, eloquence, and quickness of wit were cultivated.

Connected with this, feats of memory were a key part of African religious, political and commercial life. African ritual experts learnt thousands of verses of religious and wisdom poetry, and expounded the appropriate one to guide kings and ministers as they resolved disputes Rememberers treasured the traditions and histories of the kingdoms and traders astonished early European travelers with their powers of recall. In many of the great kingdoms of Africa, administration was carried on entirely orally. The Mali empire, for example, had secretaries to conduct foreign correspondence, but its internal administration only employed word of mouth.

Popular culture

Dance was the most important African cultural form, central to communal festivals, religious ceremonies and masquerades. Much dance was narrative in purpose, telling and retelling myths and stories. As such it was essentially a form of theatre. Everyone on the community would take part, but the central roles were reserved for the mediums with their trance-dancing.

A popular form of leisure was a board game called mankala. This was usually played communally, and noisily, in the open air, with plenty of noise. However, it was also played in the more refined atmosphere of some royal courts, both in West Africa and East Africa, where the game formed part of a succession ritual.

Under Muslim influence the game of dara became popular. This was a form of draughts, and was played in private rather than in public.


In the Caribbean, there is little direct evidence of canoes in the archaeological record, while inter-island connectivity is ubiquitous in archaeological explanations. This contradiction suggests that aspects of society related to canoe manufacturing and voyaging have tended to be under-represented in our interpretations. This paper aims to contribute to correcting this under-representation and highlight the canoe as the foundation of precolonial infrastructure by examining the ecology of canoe-specific resources using habitat suitability modeling along with diverse lines of evidence from archaeological findings, ethnohistoric accounts, and experimental ethnoarchaeology. The synthesis of these diverse lines of evidence leads to a discussion of some implications that may follow from adopting a more canoe-centric perspective on the archaeological record.

Modern and revisionist perspectives

A Shoshone encampment in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, photographed by Percy Jackson, 1870

In the early 1980s, a small but vocal segment of anthropologists and archaeologists attempted to demonstrate that contemporary groups usually identified as hunter-gatherers do not, in most cases, have a continuous history of hunting and gathering, and that in many cases their ancestors were agriculturalists and/or pastoralists who were pushed into marginal areas as a result of migrations, economic exploitation, and/or violent conflict (see, for example, the Kalahari Debate). The result of their effort has been the general acknowledgement that there has been complex interaction between hunter-gatherers and non-hunter-gatherers for millennia.

Some of the theorists who advocate this "revisionist" critique imply that, because the "pure hunter-gatherer" disappeared not long after colonial (or even agricultural) contact began, nothing meaningful can be learned about prehistoric hunter-gatherers from studies of modern ones (Kelly, ⎭] 24-29 see Wilmsen ⎮] )

Lee and Guenther have rejected most of the arguments put forward by Wilmsen. ⎯] ⎰] ⎱] Doron Shultziner and others have argued that we can learn a lot about the life-styles of prehistoric hunter-gatherers from studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers—especially their impressive levels of egalitarianism. ⎲]

Many hunter-gatherers consciously manipulate the landscape through cutting or burning undesirable plants while encouraging desirable ones, some even going to the extent of slash-and-burn to create habitat for game animals. These activities are on an entirely different scale to those associated with agriculture, but they are nevertheless domestication on some level. Today, almost all hunter-gatherers depend to some extent upon domesticated food sources either produced part-time or traded for products acquired in the wild.

Some agriculturalists also regularly hunt and gather (e.g., farming during the frost-free season and hunting during the winter). Still others in developed countries go hunting, primarily for leisure. In the Brazilian rainforest, those groups that recently did, or even continue to, rely on hunting and gathering techniques seem to have adopted this lifestyle, abandoning most agriculture, as a way to escape colonial control and as a result of the introduction of European diseases reducing their populations to levels where agriculture became difficult.

Three Indigenous Australians on Bathurst Island in 1939. According to Peterson (1998), the island was a population isolated for 6,000 years until the eighteenth century. In 1929, three-quarters of the population supported themselves off the bush. ⎳]

There are nevertheless a number of contemporary hunter-gatherer peoples who, after contact with other societies, continue their ways of life with very little external influence. One such group is the Pila Nguru (Spinifex people) of Western Australia, whose habitat in the Great Victoria Desert has proved unsuitable for European agriculture (and even pastoralism). Another are the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, who live on North Sentinel Island and to date have maintained their independent existence, repelling attempts to engage with and contact them.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I kind of like to know what I’m talking about. At least, I like to know what the words I’m using mean even if I can’t make sense with what I am trying to make them say. We invariably use lots of words throughout our daily lives without reference to where they come from or how their original meaning has changed. Sometimes, we’re even distant from the slang that seems so current, but may be recycled. Words like “cool” have re-entered the lingo of new generations who don’t know that it came from the bebop beatniks, daddy-o. The first time I heard it since I’d first heard Kookie Burns say it on 󈬽 Sunset Strip” was in Silicon Valley in the 90’s—and it came out of the mouths of some very geeky engineers. I still get a funny feeling when I hear Bill Gates use it in one of his testimonials.

There are other words that are also in common usage that are very distant from their origins—one in particular is almost as widespread as the word “like” and “awesome”. That word is “suck” and it’s been somewhat twisted not necessarily to mean something entirely new, but has found wide social acceptance despite its low origins.

When I was about 11, I bought some badges at the local hippie emporium. One of them said, “Dracula Sucks”, which my father made me take right off my Sgt. Pepper’s jacket and toss in the trash. I was surprised, and he answered what must have been my hangdog look by saying that it was “just inappropriate.” That was enough for me to spend the rest of the night seeking out its deep, dark, hidden meaning. I better understood when I discovered it referred to a sex act that my teachers probably would not see eye-to-eye with as a point of for extra class discussion.

But today, “suck” is so commonly used in commercials, on talk shows, by politicians, and in everyday conversation cross generations that it seems to have been denuded of its original meaning. It’s used to convey a general sense of something that is awful. Its reference to a subservient position for one participant in a sex act may be hidden in the mists of time—or at least in how well-worn it’s become as part of the daily lexicon used by schoolchildren and adults.

I wondered if its popular use might be excused somehow—maybe there was another meaning that forgave its vulgar origins. After some digging into a handy dictionary of etymology, I discovered that the word was part of a once popular phrase. It just so happened that “suck” also designated the sad lot of the runt of the porcine litter who was left to suckle on the hind most “teat”. Eventually, the expression gave way to “suck hind tit”, which is probably shrink-wrapped today in common usage as good old, plain, “it sucks!” So, the next time you are tempted to use it, remember that words are chameleons that double-up and sometimes come back to bite us like the time-tossed travelers they are.

(With thanks to Suw Charman Anderson and Peter Corbett: http://charman-anderson.com/2010/02/04/the-impenetrable-layer-of-suck/)


Some disagreement exists about the scientific definition of human. Some scientists date the Homo genus back only 100,000 years while others go back 11 million years and include Neanderthals, chimps and gorillas. Most say early humans first appeared between 2–3 million years ago. [2] In common usage the word human generally just refers to Homo sapiens, the only extant species. [3]

Human is a Middle English loanword from Old French humain, ultimately from Latin hūmānus, the adjectival form of homō ("man" — in the sense of humankind). [4] The native English term man can refer to the species generally (a synonym for humanity) as well as to human males. It may also refer to individuals of either sex, though this latter form is less common in contemporary English. [5]

The species binomial "Homo sapiens" was coined by Carl Linnaeus in his 18th-century work Systema Naturae. [6] The generic name "Homo" is a learned 18th-century derivation from Latin homō, which refers to humans of either sex. [7] The species name "sapiens" means "wise", "sapient", "knowledgeable" (Latin sapiens is the singular form, plural is sapientes). [8]

Humans are primates and part of the superfamily Hominoidea. [9] The gibbons (family Hylobatidae) and orangutans (genus Pongo) were the first living groups to split from this lineage, then gorillas, and finally, chimpanzees (genus Pan). The splitting date between human and chimpanzee lineages is placed 4–8 million years ago, during the late Miocene epoch. [10] [11] [12] During this split, chromosome 2 was formed from the joining of two other chromosomes, leaving humans with only 23 pairs of chromosomes, compared to 24 for the other apes. [13]

Homo sapiens (humans)

The earliest documented representative of the genus Homo is Homo habilis, which evolved around 2.8 million years ago from Australopithicus. [14] H. erectus were the first of the hominina to leave Africa, between 1.3 and 1.8 million years ago. Homo sapiens emerged around 300,000 years ago from H. erectus (sometimes called Homo ergaster) that remained in Africa. H. sapiens migrated out of the continent gradually replacing local populations of H. erectus and other archaic humans. [15] [16] [17]

The "out of Africa" migration took place in at least two waves, the first around 130,000 to 100,000 years ago, the second (Southern Dispersal) around 70,000 to 50,000 years ago. [18] [19] H. sapiens proceeded to colonize all the continents and larger islands, arriving in Eurasia 125,000–60,000 years ago, [20] [21] Australia around 65,000 years ago, [22] the Americas around 15,000 years ago, and remote islands such as Hawaii, Easter Island, Madagascar, and New Zealand between the years 300 and 1280. [23] [24]

Human evolution was not a simple linear or branched progression, but involved interbreeding between related species. [25] [26] [27] Genomic research has shown that hybridization between substantially diverged lineages was common in human evolution. [28] DNA evidence suggests that several genes of Neanderthal origin are present among all non-African populations, and Neanderthals and other hominins, such as Denisovans, may have contributed up to 6% of their genome to present-day humans. [25] [29] [30]

Anatomical adaptations

Human evolution is characterized by a number of morphological, developmental, physiological, and behavioral changes that have taken place since the split between the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. The most significant of these adaptations are bipedalism, increased brain size and decreased sexual dimorphism (neoteny). The relationship between all these changes is the subject of ongoing debate. [31] Other significant morphological changes included the evolution of a power and precision grip, a change first occurring in H. erectus. [32]

Bipedalism is the basic adaption of the hominin line, and it is considered the main cause behind a suite of skeletal changes shared by all bipedal hominins. The earliest bipedal hominin has been considered to be either Sahelanthropus [33] or Orrorin, with Ardipithecus (a full bipedal) [34] coming somewhat later. [n 1] The knuckle walkers, the gorilla and chimpanzee, diverged around the same time, and either Sahelanthropus or Orrorin may be humans' last shared ancestor with those animals. [36] There are several theories for the adaptational value of bipedalism. It is possible that bipedalism was favored because it freed up the hands for reaching and carrying food, because it saved energy during locomotion, because it enabled long-distance running and hunting, or as a strategy for avoiding hyperthermia by reducing the surface exposed to direct sun. [37] [38]

The human species developed a much larger brain than that of other primates, typically 1,330 cm 3 (81 cu in) in modern humans, over twice the size of chimpanzee or gorilla brains. [39] The pattern of encephalization started with H. habilis which at approximately 600 cm 3 (37 cu in) had a brain slightly larger than chimpanzees, and continued with H. erectus (800–1,100 cm 3 (49–67 cu in)). [40] The pattern of human postnatal brain growth differs from that of other apes, and allows for extended periods of social learning and language acquisition. The differences between the structure of human brains and those of other apes may be more significant than differences in size. [41] [42] [43] [44] The increase in volume over time has affected different areas within the brain unequally. The temporal lobes, involved in language processing, and the prefrontal cortex, related to complex decision making and moderating social behavior, have increased disproportionately. [39] Encephalization has been tied to an increasing emphasis on meat in the diet, [45] [46] or with the development of cooking, [47] and it has been proposed that intelligence increased as a response to an increased necessity for solving social problems as human society became more complex. [48]

The reduced degree of sexual dimorphism is primarily visible in the reduction of the male canine tooth relative to other ape species (except gibbons). Another important physiological change related to sexuality in humans was the evolution of hidden estrus. Humans are the only ape in which the female is intermittently fertile year round, and in which no special signals of fertility are produced by the body (such as genital swelling during estrus). Nonetheless, humans retain a degree of sexual dimorphism in the distribution of body hair and subcutaneous fat, and in the overall size, as males are around 15% heavier than females. [49]

Until about 12,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. [50] The Neolithic Revolution (the invention of agriculture) first took place in Southwest Asia and spread through large parts of the Old World over the following millennia. [51] It also occurred independently in Mesoamerica (about 6,000 years ago), [52] China, [53] [54] Papua New Guinea, [55] and the Sahel and West Savanna regions of Africa. [56] [57] [58] Access to food surplus led to the formation of permanent human settlements, the domestication of animals and the use of metal tools for the first time in history. Agriculture and sedentary lifestyle led to the emergence of early civilizations. [59] [60] [61]

An urban revolution took place in the 4th millennium BCE with the development of city-states, particularly Sumerian cities located in Mesopotamia. [62] It was in these cities that the earliest known form of writing, cuneiform script, appeared around 3000 BCE. [63] Other major civilizations to develop around this time were Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley Civilization. [64] They eventually traded with each other and invented technology such as wheels, plows and sails. [65] [66] [67] [68] Astronomy and mathematics were also developed and the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. [69] [70] [71] There is evidence of a severe drought lasting about a hundred years that may have caused the decline of these civilizations, [72] with new ones appearing in the aftermath. Babylonians came to dominate Mesopotamia while others, [73] such as Poverty Point cultures, Minoans and the Shang dynasty, rose to prominence in new areas. [74] [75] [76] The bronze age suddenly collapsed about 1200 BCE resulting in the disappearance of a number of civilizations and the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages. [77] [78] During this period iron started replacing bronze leading to the Iron Age. [79]

In the 5th century BCE history started being recorded as a discipline, so providing a much clearer picture of life at the time. [80] Between the 8th and 6th century BCE Europe entered the classical antiquity age, a period when ancient Greece and ancient Rome flourished. [81] [82] Around this time other civilizations also came to prominence. The Maya civilization started to build cities and create complex calendars. [83] [84] In Africa the Kingdom of Aksum overtook the declining Kingdom of Kush and facilitated trade between India and the Mediterranean. [85] In West Asia the Achaemenid Empire's system of centralized governance become the precursor to many later empires, [86] while the Gupta Empire in India and the Han dynasty in China have been described as golden ages in their respective regions. [87] [88]

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 Europe entered the Middle Ages. [89] In the middle east Islam became the prominent religion and expanded into North Africa. [90] Christianity was likewise expanding in Europe, leading the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire to declare a series of holy wars to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims. [91] Elsewhere the Aztecs and Incas would become the dominant powers in the Americas and the Mongol Empire would conquer much of Eurasia in the 13th and 14th centuries. [92] [93] Over this same time period the Mali Empire in Africa grew to the largest empire in Africa, stretching from Senegambia to Ivory Coast. [94]

Throughout the early modern period (1500–1800) the Ottomans controlled the lands around the Mediterranean Basin, [95] Japan entered the Edo period, [96] the Qing dynasty rose in China [97] and the Mughal Empire ruled much of India. [98] Europe underwent the Renaissance, starting in the 15th century, [99] and the Age of Discovery began with the exploring and colonizing of new regions. [100] This includes the Scramble for Africa (where European control of Africa went from 10% to almost 90 in less than 50 years), [101] the British Empire expanding to become the world's largest empire [102] and the colonization of the Americas. [103] This expansion led to the Atlantic slave trade [104] and the genocide of Native American peoples. [105] This period also marked the Scientific Revolution, with great advances in mathematics, mechanics, astronomy and physiology. [106]

The late modern period (1800–present) saw the Technological and Industrial Revolution bring such discoveries as imaging technology, major innovations in transport and energy development. [107] The United States of America underwent great change, going from a small group of colonies to one of the global super powers. [108] The Napoleonic Wars raged through Europe in the early 1800's, [109] Spain lost most of its New World colonies [110] and Europeans continued expansion into the islands of Oceania. [111] A tenuous balance of power among European nations collapsed in 1914 following the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, resulting in World War I. [112] The Great Depression of 1929 caused mass unemployment and facilitated Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany. [113] A Second World War, involving almost all the world's countries, broke out in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. [114] Following its conclusion in 1945, the Cold War between the USSR and the United States saw a struggle for global influence, including a nuclear arms race and a space race. [115] [116] The current Information Age sees the world becoming increasingly globalized and interconnected. [117]

Early human settlements were dependent on proximity to water and—depending on the lifestyle—other natural resources used for subsistence, such as populations of animal prey for hunting and arable land for growing crops and grazing livestock. [121] Modern humans, however, have a great capacity for altering their habitats by means of technology, irrigation, urban planning, construction, deforestation and desertification. [122] Human settlements continue to be vulnerable to natural disasters, especially those placed in hazardous locations and with low quality of construction. [123] Grouping and deliberate habitat alteration is often done with the goals of providing protection, accumulating comforts or material wealth, expanding the available food, improving aesthetics, increasing knowledge or enhancing exchange of resources. [124]

Humans are one of the most adaptable species, despite having a narrow tolerance to many of the earth's extreme environments. [125] Through invention humans have been able to extend their tolerance to a wide variety of temperatures, humidity, and altitudes. [125] As a result, humans are a cosmopolitan species found in almost all regions of the world, including tropical rainforest, arid desert, extremely cold arctic regions, and heavily polluted cities. Most other species are confined to a few geographical areas by their limited adaptability. [126] The human population is not, however, uniformly distributed on the Earth's surface, because the population density varies from one region to another and there are large areas almost completely uninhabited, like Antarctica and the vast swathes of ocean. [125] [127] Most humans (61%) live in Asia the remainder live in the Americas (14%), Africa (14%), Europe (11%), and Oceania (0.5%). [128]

Within the last century, humans have explored challenging environments such as Antarctica, the deep sea, and outer space. [129] Human habitation within these hostile environments is restrictive and expensive, typically limited in duration, and restricted to scientific, military, or industrial expeditions. [129] Humans have briefly visited the Moon and made their presence felt on other celestial bodies through human-made robotic spacecraft. [130] [131] [132] Since 2000 there has been continuous human presence in space through the manning of the International Space Station. [133]

Estimates of the population at the time agriculture emerged in around 10,000 BC have ranged between 1 million and 15 million. [134] [135] Around 50–60 million people lived in the combined eastern and western Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. [136] Bubonic plagues, first recorded in the 6th century AD, reduced the population by 50%, with the Black Death killing 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa alone. [137] Human population was believed to have reached one billion in 1800. It has then increased exponentially, reaching two billion in 1930 and three billion in 1960, four in 1975, five in 1987 and six billion in 1999. [138] It passed seven billion in 2011 and in 2020 there were 7.8 billion humans. [139] The combined biomass of the carbon of all the humans on Earth in 2018 was estimated at 60 million tons, about 10 times larger than that of all non-domesticated mammals. [140]

In 2018, 4.2 billion humans (55%) lived in urban areas, up from 751 million in 1950. [141] The most urbanized regions are Northern America (82%), Latin America (81%), Europe (74%) and Oceania (68%), with Africa and Asia having nearly 90% of the world's 3.4 billion rural population. [141] Problems for humans living in cities include various forms of pollution and crime, [142] especially in inner city and suburban slums. Both overall population numbers and the proportion residing in cities are expected to increase significantly in the coming decades. [143] Humans have had a dramatic effect on the environment. They are apex predators, being rarely preyed upon by other species. [144] Human population growth, industrialization, land development, overconsumption and combustion of fossil fuels has led to environmental destruction and pollution that significantly contributes to the ongoing mass extinction of other forms of life. [145] [146] They are the main contributor to global climate change, [147] which may accelerate the Holocene extinction. [148] [145]

Anatomy and physiology

Most aspects of human physiology are closely homologous to corresponding aspects of animal physiology. The human body consists of the legs, the torso, the arms, the neck, and the head. An adult human body consists of about 100 trillion (10 14 ) cells. The most commonly defined body systems in humans are the nervous, the cardiovascular, the digestive, the endocrine, the immune, the integumentary, the lymphatic, the musculoskeletal, the reproductive, the respiratory, and the urinary system. [149] [150] The dental formula of humans is: . Humans have proportionately shorter palates and much smaller teeth than other primates. They are the only primates to have short, relatively flush canine teeth. Humans have characteristically crowded teeth, with gaps from lost teeth usually closing up quickly in young individuals. Humans are gradually losing their third molars, with some individuals having them congenitally absent. [151]

Humans share with chimpanzees a vestigial tail, appendix, flexible shoulder joints, grasping fingers and opposable thumbs. [152] Apart from bipedalism and brain size, humans differ from chimpanzees mostly in smelling, hearing and digesting proteins. [153] While humans have a density of hair follicles comparable to other apes, it is predominately vellus hair, most of which is so short and wispy as to be practically invisible. [154] [155] Humans have about 2 million sweat glands spread over their entire bodies, many more than chimpanzees, whose sweat glands are scarce and are mainly located on the palm of the hand and on the soles of the feet. [156]

It is estimated that the worldwide average height for an adult human male is about 171 cm (5 ft 7 in), while the worldwide average height for adult human females is about 159 cm (5 ft 3 in). [157] Shrinkage of stature may begin in middle age in some individuals, but tends to be typical in the extremely aged. [158] Through history human populations have universally become taller, probably as a consequence of better nutrition, healthcare, and living conditions. [159] The average mass of an adult human is 59 kg (130 lb) for females and 77 kg (170 lb) for males. [160] [161] Like many other conditions, body weight and body type is influenced by both genetic susceptibility and environment and varies greatly among individuals. [162] [163]

Humans have a far faster and more accurate throw than other animals. [164] Humans are also among the best long-distance runners in the animal kingdom, but slower over short distances. [165] [153] Humans' thinner body hair and more productive sweat glands help avoid heat exhaustion while running for long distances. [166]


Like most animals, humans are a diploid eukaryotic species. Each somatic cell has two sets of 23 chromosomes, each set received from one parent gametes have only one set of chromosomes, which is a mixture of the two parental sets. Among the 23 pairs of chromosomes there are 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes. Like other mammals, humans have an XY sex-determination system, so that females have the sex chromosomes XX and males have XY. [167] Genes and environment influence human biological variation in visible characteristics, physiology, disease susceptibility and mental abilities. The exact influence of genes and environment on certain traits is not well understood. [168] [169]

While no humans—not even monozygotic twins—are genetically identical, [170] two humans on average will have a genetic similarity of 99.5%-99.9%. [171] [172] This makes them more homogeneous than other great apes, including chimpanzees. [173] [174] This small variation in human DNA compared to other species suggests a population bottleneck during the Late Pleistocene (around 100,000 years ago), in which the human population was reduced to a small number of breeding pairs. [175] [176] The forces of natural selection have continued to operate on human populations, with evidence that certain regions of the genome display directional selection in the past 15,000 years. [177]

The human genome was first sequenced in 2001 [178] and by 2020 hundreds of thousand of genomes had been sequenced. [179] In 2012 the International HapMap Project had compared the genomes of 1,184 individuals from 11 populations and identified 1.6 million single nucleotide polymorphisms. [180] African populations also harbour the highest number of private genetic variants, or those not found in other places of the world. While many of the common variants found in populations outside of Africa are also found on the African continent, there are still large numbers which are private to these regions, especially Oceania and the Americas. [181] By 2010 estimates, humans have approximately 22,000 genes. [182] By comparing mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from the mother, geneticists have concluded that the last female common ancestor whose genetic marker is found in all modern humans, the so-called mitochondrial Eve, must have lived around 90,000 to 200,000 years ago. [183] [184] [185]

Life cycle

Most human reproduction takes place by internal fertilization via sexual intercourse, but can also occur through assisted reproductive technology procedures. [186] The average gestation period is 38 weeks, but a normal pregnancy can vary by up to 37 days. [187] Embryonic development in the human, covers the first eight weeks of development at the beginning of the ninth week the embryo is termed a fetus. [188] Humans are able to induce early labour or perform a caesarean section if the child needs to be born earlier for medical reasons. [189] In developed countries, infants are typically 3–4 kg (7–9 lb) in weight and 47–53 cm (19–21 in) in height at birth. [190] [191] However, low birth weight is common in developing countries, and contributes to the high levels of infant mortality in these regions. [192]

Compared with other species, human childbirth is dangerous, with a much higher risk of complications and death. [193] The size of the fetus's head is more closely matched to the pelvis than other primates. [194] The reason for this is not completely understood, [n 4] but it contributes to a painful labor that can last 24 hours or more. [196] The chances of a successful labor increased significantly during the 20th century in wealthier countries with the advent of new medical technologies. In contrast, pregnancy and natural childbirth remain hazardous ordeals in developing regions of the world, with maternal death rates approximately 100 times greater than in developed countries. [197]

Both the mother and the father provide care for human offspring, in contrast to other primates, where parental care is mostly restricted to mothers. [198] Helpless at birth, humans continue to grow for some years, typically reaching sexual maturity at 15 to 17 years of age. [199] [200] [201] The human life span has been split into various stages ranging from three to twelve. Common stages include infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. [202] The lengths of these stages have varied across cultures and time periods, but is typified by an unusually rapid growth spurt during adolescence. [203] Human females undergo menopause and become infertile decades before the end of their lives. [204] It has been proposed that menopause increases a woman's overall reproductive success by allowing her to invest more time and resources in her existing offspring, and in turn their children (the grandmother hypothesis), rather than by continuing to bear children into old age. [205] [206]

The life span of an individual depends on two major factors, genetics and lifestyle choices. [207] For various reasons, including biological/genetic causes, women live on average about four years longer than men. [208] As of 2018 [update] , the global average life expectancy at birth of a girl is estimated to be 74.9 years compared to 70.4 for a boy. [209] [210] There are significant geographical variations in human life expectancy, mostly correlated with economic development—for example life expectancy at birth in Hong Kong is 87.6 years for girls and 81.8 for boys, while in Central African Republic, it is 55.0 years for girls and 50.6 for boys. [211] [212] The developed world is generally aging, with the median age around 40 years. In the developing world the median age is between 15 and 20 years. While one in five Europeans is 60 years of age or older, only one in twenty Africans is 60 years of age or older. [213] The number of centenarians (humans of age 100 years or older) in the world was estimated by the United Nations at 210,000 in 2002. [214]

Humans are omnivorous, capable of consuming a wide variety of plant and animal material. [215] [216] Human groups have adopted a range of diets from purely vegan to primarily carnivorous. In some cases, dietary restrictions in humans can lead to deficiency diseases however, stable human groups have adapted to many dietary patterns through both genetic specialization and cultural conventions to use nutritionally balanced food sources. [217] The human diet is prominently reflected in human culture, and has led to the development of food science. [218]

Until the development of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago, Homo sapiens employed a hunter-gatherer method as their sole means of food collection. [218] This involved combining stationary food sources (such as fruits, grains, tubers, and mushrooms, insect larvae and aquatic mollusks) with wild game, which must be hunted and killed in order to be consumed. [219] It has been proposed that humans have used fire to prepare and cook food since the time of Homo erectus. [220] Around ten thousand years ago, humans developed agriculture, [221] [222] [223] which substantially altered their diet. This change in diet may also have altered human biology with the spread of dairy farming providing a new and rich source of food, leading to the evolution of the ability to digest lactose in some adults. [224] [225] The types of food consumed, and the way in which they are prepared, have varied widely by time, location, and culture. [226] [227]

In general, humans can survive for up to eight weeks without food, depending on stored body fat. [228] Survival without water is usually limited to three or four days, with a maximum of one week. [229] In 2020 it is estimated 9 million humans die every year from causes directly or indirectly related to starvation. [230] [231] Childhood malnutrition is also common and contributes to the global burden of disease. [232] However global food distribution is not even, and obesity among some human populations has increased rapidly, leading to health complications and increased mortality in some developed, and a few developing countries. Worldwide over one billion people are obese, [233] while in the United States 35% of people are obese, leading to this being described as an "obesity epidemic." [234] Obesity is caused by consuming more calories than are expended, so excessive weight gain is usually caused by an energy-dense diet. [233]

Biological variation

There is biological variation in the human species—with traits such as blood type, genetic diseases, cranial features, facial features, organ systems, eye color, hair color and texture, height and build, and skin color varying across the globe. The typical height of an adult human is between 1.4 and 1.9 m (4 ft 7 in and 6 ft 3 in), although this varies significantly depending on sex, ethnic origin, and family bloodlines. [236] [237] Body size is partly determined by genes and is also significantly influenced by environmental factors such as diet, exercise, and sleep patterns. [238]

There is evidence that populations have adapted genetically to various external factors. The genes that allow adult humans to digest lactose are present in high frequencies in populations that have long histories of cattle domestication and are more dependent on cow milk. [239] Sickle cell anemia, which may provide increased resistance to malaria, is frequent in populations where malaria is endemic. [240] [241] Populations that have for a long time inhabited specific climates tend to have developed specific phenotypes that are beneficial for those environments—short stature and stocky build in cold regions, tall and lanky in hot regions, and with high lung capacities at high altitudes. [242] [243] Some populations have evolved highly unique adaptations to very specific environmental conditions, such as those advantageous to ocean-dwelling lifestyles and freediving in the Bajau. [244]

Human hair ranges in color from red to blond to brown to black, which is the most frequent. [245] Hair color depends on the amount of melanin, with concentrations fading with increased age, leading to grey or even white hair. Skin color can range from darkest brown to lightest peach, or even nearly white or colorless in cases of albinism. [246] It tends to vary clinally and generally correlates with the level of ultraviolet radiation in a particular geographic area, with darker skin mostly around the equator. [247] Skin darkening may have evolved as protection against ultraviolet solar radiation. [248] Light skin pigmentation protects against depletion of vitamin D, which requires sunlight to make. [249] Human skin also has a capacity to darken (tan) in response to exposure to ultraviolet radiation. [250] [251]

There is relatively little variation between human geographical populations, and most of the variation that occurs is at the individual level. [246] [252] [253] Much of human variation is continuous, often with no clear points of demarcation. [254] [255] [256] [257] Genetic data shows that no matter how population groups are defined, two people from the same population group are almost as different from each other as two people from any two different population groups. [258] [259] [260] Dark-skinned populations that are found in Africa, Australia, and South Asia are not closely related to each other. [261] [262]

Genetic research has demonstrated that human populations native to the African continent are the most genetically diverse [263] and genetic diversity decreases with migratory distance from Africa, possibly the result of bottlenecks during human migration. [264] [265] These populations acquired new genetic inputs from local admixture with archaic populations and have much greater variation from Neanderthals and Denisovans than is found in Africa. [181]

Humans are a gonochoric species, meaning they are divided into male and female sexes. [266] [267] The greatest degree of genetic variation exists between males and females. While the nucleotide genetic variation of individuals of the same sex across global populations is no greater than 0.1%–0.5%, the genetic difference between males and females is between 1% and 2%. Males on average are 15% heavier and 15 cm (6 in) taller than females. [268] [269] On average, men have about 40–50% more upper body strength and 20–30% more lower body strength than women. [270] Women generally have a higher body fat percentage than men. [271] Women have lighter skin than men of the same population this has been explained by a higher need for vitamin D in females during pregnancy and lactation. [272] As there are chromosomal differences between females and males, some X and Y chromosome related conditions and disorders only affect either men or women. [273] After allowing for body weight and volume, the male voice is usually an octave deeper than the female voice. [274] Women have a longer life span in almost every population around the world. [275]

The human brain, the focal point of the central nervous system in humans, controls the peripheral nervous system. In addition to controlling "lower," involuntary, or primarily autonomic activities such as respiration and digestion, it is also the locus of "higher" order functioning such as thought, reasoning, and abstraction. [276] These cognitive processes constitute the mind, and, along with their behavioral consequences, are studied in the field of psychology.

Humans have a larger and more developed prefrontal cortex than other primates, the region of the brain associated with higher cognition. [277] This has led humans to proclaim themselves to be more intelligent than any other known species. [278] Objectively defining intelligence is difficult, with other animals adapting senses and excelling in areas that humans are unable to. [279]

There are some traits that, although not strictly unique, do set humans apart from other animals. [280] Humans may be the only animals who have episodic memory and who can engage in "mental time travel". [281] Even compared with other social animals, humans have an unusually high degree of flexibility in their facial expressions. [282] Humans are the only animals known to cry emotional tears. [283] Humans are one of the few animals able to self-recognize in mirror tests [284] and there is also debate over what extent humans are the only animals with a theory of mind. [285]

Sleep and dreaming

Humans are generally diurnal. The average sleep requirement is between seven and nine hours per day for an adult and nine to ten hours per day for a child elderly people usually sleep for six to seven hours. Having less sleep than this is common among humans, even though sleep deprivation can have negative health effects. A sustained restriction of adult sleep to four hours per day has been shown to correlate with changes in physiology and mental state, including reduced memory, fatigue, aggression, and bodily discomfort. [286]

During sleep humans dream, where they experience sensory images and sounds. Dreaming is stimulated by the pons and mostly occurs during the REM phase of sleep. [287] The length of a dream can vary, from a few seconds up to 30 minutes. [288] Humans have three to five dreams per night, and some may have up to seven [289] however most dreams are immediately or quickly forgotten. [290] They are more likely to remember the dream if awakened during the REM phase. The events in dreams are generally outside the control of the dreamer, with the exception of lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is self-aware. [291] Dreams can at times make a creative thought occur or give a sense of inspiration. [292]

Consciousness and thought

Human consciousness, at its simplest, is "sentience or awareness of internal or external existence". [293] Despite centuries of analyses, definitions, explanations and debates by philosophers and scientists, consciousness remains puzzling and controversial, [294] being "at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives". [295] The only widely agreed notion about the topic is the intuition that it exists. [296] Opinions differ about what exactly needs to be studied and explained as consciousness. Some philosophers divide consciousness into phenomenal consciousness, which is experience itself, and access consciousness, which is the processing of the things in experience. [297] It is sometimes synonymous with 'the mind', and at other times, an aspect of it. Historically it is associated with introspection, private thought, imagination and volition. [298] It now often includes some kind of experience, cognition, feeling or perception. It may be 'awareness', or 'awareness of awareness', or self-awareness. [299] There might be different levels or orders of consciousness, [300] or different kinds of consciousness, or just one kind with different features. [301]

The process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses is known as cognition. [302] The human brain perceives the external world through the senses, and each individual human is influenced greatly by his or her experiences, leading to subjective views of existence and the passage of time. [303] The nature of thought is central to psychology and related fields. Cognitive psychology studies cognition, the mental processes' underlying behavior. [304] Largely focusing on the development of the human mind through the life span, developmental psychology seeks to understand how people come to perceive, understand, and act within the world and how these processes change as they age. [305] [306] This may focus on intellectual, cognitive, neural, social, or moral development. Psychologists have developed intelligence tests and the concept of intelligence quotient in order to assess the relative intelligence of human beings and study its distribution among population. [307]

Motivation and emotion

Human motivation is not yet wholly understood. From a psychological perspective, Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a well-established theory which can be defined as the process of satisfying certain needs in ascending order of complexity. [308] From a more general, philosophical perspective, human motivation can be defined as a commitment to, or withdrawal from, various goals requiring the application of human ability. Furthermore, incentive and preference are both factors, as are any perceived links between incentives and preferences. Volition may also be involved, in which case willpower is also a factor. Ideally, both motivation and volition ensure the selection, striving for, and realization of goals in an optimal manner, a function beginning in childhood and continuing throughout a lifetime in a process known as socialization. [309]

Emotions are biological states associated with the nervous system [310] [311] brought on by neurophysiological changes variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioural responses, and a degree of pleasure or displeasure. [312] [313] They are often intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, creativity, [314] and motivation. Emotion has a significant influence on human behavior and their ability to learn. [315] Acting on extreme or uncontrolled emotions can lead to social disorder and crime, [316] with studies showing criminals may have a lower emotional intelligence than normal. [317]

Emotional experiences perceived as pleasant, such as joy, interest or contentment, contrast with those perceived as unpleasant, like anxiety, sadness, anger, and despair. [318] Happiness, or the state of being happy, is a human emotional condition. The definition of happiness is a common philosophical topic. Some define it as experiencing the feeling of positive emotional affects, while avoiding the negative ones. [319] [320] Others see it as an appraisal of life satisfaction, such as of quality of life. [321] Recent research suggests that being happy might involve experiencing some negative emotions when humans feel they are warranted. [322]

Sexuality and love

For humans, sexuality involves biological, erotic, physical, emotional, social, or spiritual feelings and behaviors. [323] [324] Because it is a broad term, which has varied with historical contexts over time, it lacks a precise definition. [324] The biological and physical aspects of sexuality largely concern the human reproductive functions, including the human sexual response cycle. [323] [324] Sexuality also affects and is affected by cultural, political, legal, philosophical, moral, ethical, and religious aspects of life. [323] [324] Sexual desire, or libido, is a basic mental state present at the beginning of sexual behavior. Studies show that men desire sex more than women and masturbate more often. [325]

Humans can fall anywhere along a continuous scale of sexual orientation, [326] although most humans are heterosexual. [327] [328] While homosexual behavior occurs in many other animals, only humans and domestic sheep have so far been found to exhibit exclusive preference for same-sex relationships. [327] Most evidence supports nonsocial, biological causes of sexual orientation, [327] as cultures that are very tolerant of homosexuality do not have significantly higher rates of it. [328] [329] Research in neuroscience and genetics suggests that other aspects of human sexuality are biologically influenced as well. [330]

Love most commonly refers to a feeling of strong attraction or emotional attachment. It can be impersonal (the love of an object, ideal, or strong political or spiritual connection) or interpersonal (love between two humans). [331] Different forms of love have been described, including familial love (love for family), platonic love (love for friends), romantic love (sexual passion) and guest love (hospitality). [332] Romantic love has been shown to elicit brain responses similar to an addiction. [333] When in love dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin and other chemicals stimulate the brain's pleasure center, leading to side effects such as increased heart rate, loss of appetite and sleep, and an intense feeling of excitement. [334]

Human society statistics
Most widely spoken native languages [335] Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Lahnda, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, French, Vietnamese, Korean, Urdu, Italian, Indonesian, Persian, Turkish, Polish, Oriya, Burmese, Thai
Most practised religions [336] Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism

Humanity's unprecedented set of intellectual skills were a key factor in the species' eventual technological advancement and concomitant domination of the biosphere. [337] Disregarding extinct hominids, humans are the only animals known to teach generalizable information, [338] innately deploy recursive embedding to generate and communicate complex concepts, [339] engage in the "folk physics" required for competent tool design, [340] [341] or cook food in the wild. [342] Teaching and learning preserves the cultural and ethnographic identity of all the diverse human societies. [343] Other traits and behaviors that are mostly unique to humans, include starting fires, [344] phoneme structuring [345] and vocal learning. [346]

The division of humans into male and female gender roles has been marked culturally by a corresponding division of norms, practices, dress, behavior, rights, duties, privileges, status, and power. Cultural differences by gender have often been believed to have arisen naturally out of a division of reproductive labor the biological fact that women give birth led to their further cultural responsibility for nurturing and caring for children. [347] Gender roles have varied historically, and challenges to predominant gender norms have recurred in many societies. [348]


While many species communicate, language is unique to humans, a defining feature of humanity, and a cultural universal. [349] Unlike the limited systems of other animals, human language is open—an infinite number of meanings can be produced by combining a limited number of symbols. [350] [351] Human language also has the capacity of displacement, using words to represent things and happenings that are not presently or locally occurring, but reside in the shared imagination of interlocutors. [151]

Language differs from other forms of communication in that it is modality independent the same meanings can be conveyed through different media, auditively in speech, visually by sign language or writing, and even through tactile media such as braille. [352] Language is central to the communication between humans, and to the sense of identity that unites nations, cultures and ethnic groups. [353] There are approximately six thousand different languages currently in use, including sign languages, and many thousands more that are extinct. [354]

The arts

Human arts can take many forms including visual, literary and performing. Visual art can range from paintings and sculptures to film, interaction design and architecture. [355] Literary arts can include prose, poetry and dramas while the performing arts generally involve theatre, music and dance. [356] [357] Humans often combine the different forms, for example music videos. [358] Other entities that have been described as having artistic qualities include food preparation, video games and medicine. [359] [360] [361] As well as providing entertainment and transferring knowledge, the arts are also used for political purposes. [362]

Art is a defining characteristics of humans and there is evidence for a relationship between creativity and language. [363] The earliest evidence of art was shell engravings made by Homo erectus 300,000 years before modern humans evolved. [364] Art attributed to H. sapiens existed at least 75,000 years ago, with jewellery and drawings found in caves in South Africa. [365] [366] There are various hypotheses as to why humans have adapted to the arts. These include allowing them to better problem solve issues, providing a means to control or influence other humans, encouraging cooperation and contribution within a society or increasing the chance of attracting a potential mate. [367] The use of imagination developed through art, combined with logic may have given early humans an evolutionary advantage. [363]

Evidence of humans engaging in musical activities predates cave art and so far music has been practised by virtually all human cultures. [368] There exists a wide variety of music genres and ethnic musics with humans musical abilities being related to other abilities, including complex social human behaviours. [368] It has been shown that human brains respond to music by becoming synchronised with the rhythm and beat, a process called entrainment. [369] Dance is also a form of human expression found in all cultures [370] and may have evolved as a way to help early humans communicate. [371] Listening to music and observing dance stimulates the orbitofrontal cortex and other pleasure sensing areas of the brain. [372]

Unlike speaking, reading and writing does not come naturally to humans and must be taught. [373] Still literature has been present before the invention of words and language, with 30,000 year old paintings on walls inside some caves portraying a series of dramatic scenes. [374] One of the oldest surviving works of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, first engraved on ancient Babylonian tablets about 4,000 years ago. [375] Beyond simply passing down knowledge the use and sharing of imaginative fiction through stories might have helped develop humans capabilities for communication and increased the likelihood of securing a mate. [376] Storytelling may also be used as a way to provide the audience with moral lessons and encourage cooperation. [374]

Tools and technologies

Stone tools were used by proto-humans at least 2.5 million years ago. [377] The use and manufacture of tools has been put forward as the ability that defines humans more than anything else [378] and has historically been seen as an important evolutionary step. [379] The technology became much more sophisticated about 1.8 million years ago, [378] with the controlled use of fire beginning around 1 million years ago. [380] [381] The wheel and wheeled vehicles appeared simultaneously in several regions sometime in the fourth millennium BC. [66] The development of more complex tools and technologies allowed land to be cultivated and animals to be domesticated, thus proving essential in the development of agriculture—what is known as the Neolithic Revolution. [382]

China developed paper, the printing press, gunpowder, the compass and other important inventions. [383] The continued improvements in smelting allowed forging of copper, bronze, iron and eventually steel, which is used in railways, skyscrapers and many other products. [384] This coincided with the Industrial Revolution, where the invention of automated machines brought major changes to humans lifestyles. [385] Modern technology could be seen as progressing exponentially, [386] with major innovations in the 20th century including electricity, penicillin, semiconductors, internal combustion engines, the internet, nitrogen fixing fetilisers, airplanes, computers, automobiles, the pill, nuclear fission, the green revolution, radio, scientific plant breeding, rockets, air conditioning, television and the assembly line. [387]

Religion and spirituality

Religion is generally defined as a belief system concerning the supernatural, sacred or divine, and practices, values, institutions and rituals associated with such belief. Some religions also have a moral code. The evolution and the history of the first religions have recently become areas of active scientific investigation. [388] [389] [390] [391] While the exact time when humans first became religious remains unknown, research shows credible evidence of religious behaviour from around the Middle Paleolithic era (45-200 thousand years ago). [392] It may have evolved to play a role in helping enforce and encourage cooperation between humans. [393]

There is no accepted academic definition of what constitutes religion. [394] Religion has taken on many forms that vary by culture and individual perspective in alignment with the geographic, social, and linguistic diversity of the planet. [394] Religion can include a belief in life after death (commonly involving belief in an afterlife), [395] the origin of life, [396] the nature of the universe (religious cosmology) and its ultimate fate (eschatology), and what is moral or immoral. [397] A common source for answers to these questions are beliefs in transcendent divine beings such as deities or a singular God, although not all religions are theistic. [398] [399]

Although the exact level of religiosity can be hard to measure, [400] a majority of humans professes some variety of religious or spiritual belief. [401] In 2015 the majority were Christian followed by Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. [402] As of 2015, about 16%, or slightly under 1.2 billion humans, were irreligious, including those with no religious beliefs or no identity with any religion. [403]

Science and philosophy

An aspect unique to humans is their ability to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next and to continually build on this information to develop tools, scientific laws and other advances to pass on further. [404] This accumulated knowledge can be tested to answer questions or make predictions about how the universe functions and has been very successful in advancing human ascendancy. [405] Aristotle has been described as the first scientist, [406] and preceded the rise of scientific thought through the Hellenistic period. [407] Other early advances in science came from the Han Dynasty in China and during the Islamic Golden Age. [408] [90] The scientific revolution, near the end of the Renaissance, led to the emergence of modern science. [409]

A chain of events and influences led to the development of the scientific method, a process of observation and experimentation that is used to differentiate science from pseudoscience. [410] An understanding of mathematics is unique to humans, although other species of animal have some numerical cognition. [411] All of science can be divided into three major branches, the formal sciences (e.g., logic and mathematics), which are concerned with formal systems, the applied sciences (e.g., engineering, medicine), which are focused on practical applications, and the empirical sciences, which are based on empirical observation and are in turn divided into natural sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology) and social sciences (e.g., psychology, economics, sociology). [412]

Philosophy is a field of study where humans seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves and the world in which they live. [413] Philosophical inquiry has been a major feature in the development of humans intellectual history. [414] It has been described as the "no man's land" between the definitive scientific knowledge and the dogmatic religious teachings. [415] Philosophy relies on reason and evidence unlike religion, but does not require the empirical observations and experiments provided by science. [416] Major fields of philosophy include metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and axiology (which includes ethics and aesthetics). [417]

Society is the system of organizations and institutions arising from interaction between humans. Humans are highly social beings and tend to live in large complex social groups. They can be divided into different groups according to their income, wealth, power, reputation and other factors. [418] The structure of social stratification and the degree of social mobility differs, especially between modern and traditional societies. [418] Human groups range from the size of families to nations. The first forms of human social organization were families living in band societies as hunter-gatherers. [419]


All human societies organize, recognize and classify types of social relationships based on relations between parents, children and other descendants (consanguinity), and relations through marriage (affinity). There is also a third type applied to godparents or adoptive children (fictive). These culturally defined relationships are referred to as kinship. In many societies it is one of the most important social organizing principle and plays a role in transmitting status and inheritance. [420] All societies have rules of incest taboo, according to which marriage between certain kinds of kin relations are prohibited and some also have rules of preferential marriage with certain kin relations. [421]


Human ethnic groups are a social category who identify together as a group based on shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups. These can be a common set of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area. [422] [423] Ethnicity is separate from the concept of race, which is based on physical characteristics, although both are socially constructed. [424] Assigning ethnicity to certain population is complicated as even within common ethnic designations there can be a diverse range of subgroups and the makeup of these ethnic groups can change over time at both the collective and individual level. [173] Also there is no generally accepted definition on what constitutes an ethnic group. [425] Ethnic groupings can play a powerful role in the social identity and solidarity of ethno-political units. This has been closely tied to the rise of the nation state as the predominant form of political organization in the 19th and 20th centuries. [426] [427] [428]

Government and politics

The early distribution of political power was determined by the availability of fresh water, fertile soil, and temperate climate of different locations. [429] As farming populations gathered in larger and denser communities, interactions between these different groups increased. This led to the development of governance within and between the communities. [430] As communities got bigger the need for some form of governance increased, as all large societies without a government have struggled to function. [431] Humans have evolved the ability to change affiliation with various social groups relatively easily, including previously strong political alliances, if doing so is seen as providing personal advantages. [432] This cognitive flexibility allows individual humans to change their political ideologies, with those with higher flexibility less likely to support authoritarian and nationalistic stances. [433]

Governments create laws and policies that affect the citizens that they govern. There have been multiple forms of government throughout human history, each having various means of obtaining power and ability to exert diverse controls on the population. [434] As of 2017, more than half of all national governments are democracies, with 13% being autocracies and 28% containing elements of both. [435] Many countries have formed international political alliances, the largest being the United Nations with 193 member states. [436]

Trade and economics

Trade, the voluntary exchange of goods and services, is seen as a characteristic that differentiates humans from other animals and has been cited as a practice that gave Homo sapiens a major advantage over other hominids. [437] [438] Evidence suggests early H. sapiens made use of long-distance trade routes to exchange goods and ideas, leading to cultural explosions and providing additional food sources when hunting was sparse, while such trade networks did not exist for the now extinct Neanderthals. [439] [440] Early trade likely involved materials for creating tools like obsidian. [441] The first truly international trade routes were around the spice trade through the Roman and medieval periods. [442] Other important trade routes to develop around this time include the Silk Road, Incense Route, Amber road, Tea Horse Road, Salt Route, Trans-Saharan Trade Route and the Tin Route. [443]

Early human economies were more likely to be based around gift giving instead of a bartering system. [444] Early money consisted of commodities the oldest being in the form of cattle and the most widely used being cowrie shells. [445] Money has since evolved into governmental issued coins, paper and electronic money. [445] Human study of economics is a social science that looks at how societies distribute scarce resources among different people. [446] There are massive inequalities in the division of wealth among humans the eight richest humans are worth the same monetary value as the poorest half of all the human population. [447]


Humans commit violence on other humans at a rate comparable to other primates, but at a higher rate then most other mammals. [448] It is predicted that 2% of early H. sapiens would be murdered, rising to 12% during the medieval period, before dropping to below 2% in modern times. [449] Unlike most animals, which generally kill infants, humans kill other adult humans at a very high rate. [450] There is great variation in violence between human populations with rates of homicide in societies that have legal systems and strong cultural attitudes against violence at about 0.01%. [451]

The willingness of humans to kill other members of their species en masse through organized conflict has long been the subject of debate. One school of thought is that war evolved as a means to eliminate competitors, and has always been an innate human characteristic. The other suggests that war is a relatively recent phenomenon and appeared due to changing social conditions. [452] While not settled, the current evidence suggests warlike predispositions only became common about 10,000 years ago, and in many places much more recently than that. [452] War has had a high cost on human life it is estimated that during the 20th century, between 167 million and 188 million people died as a result of war. [453]