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Paleobiologist explains paleolithic art

<t was our natural life history? Can it tell us something about our morals, love, and even our religion today?” This was the question that renowned paleobiologist R. Dale Guthrie posed as he delivered convocation last Friday, October 15.

Guthrie is Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and focuses particularly on what Paleolithic art can tell us about our ancestors. After posing the above question, he opened his speech by introducing the concept of “pirated” organs – traits which are successful enough in some species that other species adopt them as well. Guthrie’s argument was that love, as well as other parts of human morality, stems from traits that we have stolen from our ancestors.

According to Guthrie, we are “children of the Pleistocene,” in that we are similar in many ways to our Paleolithic ancestors of that era. He discussed how early, successfully developed weapons were used to defend our ancestors, a result, he argued, of our innate creative abilities. “Life was pretty risky,” he concluded. As a result, early humans slowly began to cooperate instead of competing in order to acquire food and defend themselves, leading to small nomadic “bands” of humans that lived and traveled together. As humans, he argued, our “creative intelligence” was a “necessary ingredient” in our success as an early species, as was our ability to pay close attention to detail. These traits were then present in the art of the era.

Guthrie then took a break from this idea by changing the subject to chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Male chimpanzees fight for the females, and sometimes, he explained, the dominant male even kills young chimpanzees if he suspects that they are not his own young. Guthrie’s proposal was that in humans, this problem was solved with the idea of monogamy – meaning that a male human would always know he was the father of a child. This notion has several implications.

Monogamy most likely would have led to a special kind of attachment between mates, the origin of today’s concepts of love and fidelity. In addition, if a male knew beyond a doubt that a child belonged to him, he and his mate could love the child equally, further fostering the connection between families. Guthrie reminded the audience of the evolutionary piracy he had mentioned earlier: the evolution of monogamy “pirated” a mother’s love for her child and transferred it to her mate, encouraging him to love his children as well. Evolution, he concluded, could very well be responsible for the development of family love and values.

In addition, Guthrie looked to the social structures of the Pleistocene to further explain the love between families. Our Paleolithic ancestors lived in small, mobile bands where the men worked together to protect women, children, and the band as a whole, giving rise to altruism and cooperation. Men therefore stayed in the same band, but women moved between bands to find husbands. Guthrie explained that it was only natural in small bands dependent on cooperation that cooperative, amiable women would be the most sought-after members. Thus, he noted, ethics might have even evolved as a way for tribes to compete at good morals. The tribes with better cooperation would not only have desirable women but would also be an attractive place for women seeking a husband. It was women, not men, who ultimately forged the ties between bands, and this relationship is shown in the paintings of the period.

As Guthrie specializes in analyzing Paleolithic art, he made sure to further elaborate on the relevance of art in understanding our own roots. The art of the era was not only immensely detailed, but also filled with spontaneity and color. Using a slideshow, he showed photographs of early cave paintings depicting family life and hunting – photos, he explained, which emphasize the importance of sex, status, health, and marriage in early Paleolithic tribes.

Even after the Pleistocene ended, art continued to play an important role in expression, and consequently, is crucial in our understanding of our ancestors. Guthrie showed the audience a few pictures of art from the Holocene, the period directly after the Pleistocene, and pointed out that it was much more symbolic and abstract than the art from the Pleistocene. In addition, the Holocene art marks the first appearance of the concept of organized war. As humans organized into villages, they fortified their tiny societies. According to Guthrie, one of the most important things that Holocene art tells us is that “the village next door were no longer kin” – meaning that women could only marry within their tribes. The emergence of violence had another implication: the emergence of religion. Tribes developed “a sense of exceptionalism,” explained Guthrie, from the mindset that “our tribe is best.” Just like love, empathy and morality, religion has its roots in social structure.

Guthrie concluded that “intelligent love and deep empathy” are reminiscent of a time when environmental demands and pressures created a social need for morality. He felt they comprise our “evolutionary signature,” and remind us that in order to fully understand humankind, we must look both at our biological development and at our social history.

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