Earliest Signs & Origin Stories

Back in 2011 when I was starting this blog and writing Stone tools for 2+ million years, I noted how headlines often seek to blurt out the theme of “earliest signs” or “firsts.” Fast forward to 2018 and it seems the effort to publicize findings by calling them “first” or “earliest” has only increased in the age of sensationalistic click-bait headlines.

I cited the 2003 delightful article by Robert N. Proctor, Three Roots of Human Recency: Molecular Anthropology, the Refigured Acheulean, and the UNESCO Response to Auschwitz: “Scholars know that there is more glory in finding the ‘oldest evidence’ for controlled fire (or smelting or cocoa use or whatever) than the ‘second-oldest’ evidence. Discovering the ‘second-oldest’ fire is something like being the second to discover the oldest fire, a distinction roughly comparable to that between discovery and confirmation in the reward economy of science” (Proctor 2003:226-227).

Proctor’s wry observation has become something like an evergreen Tweet.

Discovering the 'second-oldest' fire is something like being the second to discover the oldest fire, a distinction roughly comparable to that between discovery and confirmation in the reward economy of science. (Proctor 2003:226-227)Click To Tweet
Or as The Onion captured it perfectly in July 2018 when World’s Oldest Bread Found At Prehistoric Site In Jordan: “Ah. My condolences to whoever found what is now the world’s second-oldest bread.”

Problems with firsts & earliest signs

There are a few issues with touting firsts and the idea of earliest signs. Such discovery pronouncements turn processes into events, as if there are watershed events in history. Most of the time, good science takes what is seen as an event and demonstrates the process around it.

Such pronouncements also tend to come with the formula of “how X made us human” or “how Y changed the world,” as if there were exclusive singularity to the discovery. Tim Ingold’s exploration of the idea of the “first hut” is a great example of such an illusionary quest

Earliest Signs 2011

My two examples from 2011 were

There were reasons for caution. One of the co-authors on the cooking article was Richard Wrangham, whose work Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is certainly interesting but seems monocausal and perhaps out-of-step with latest evidence on gathering and hunting (see the review by Frances Burton; also see the great 2010 round-up on cooking by Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology, “Food for thought: Cooking in human evolution” which included a back-and-forth in the comments from Richard Wrangham).

With regard to the supposed Acheulean tools, see the critique by John Hawks, “Digging deeper into the earliest Acheulean.” Hawks comments bluntly: “This isn’t news.” It’s already been researched and reported. Also there is a “lack of any discussion at all about why the assemblage is Acheulean as opposed to, say, Developed Oldowan.”

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Earliest Signs: Advanced Tools and Cooking Up a Search for Origins.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/earliest-signs-of-advanced-tools/. First posted 1 September 2011. Revised 23 July 2018.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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