Give Me the Healthy Joe From Ages Ago

I’m skeptical of the speculation of a couple of Australian scientists that Homo erectus died out because they were just too darned lazy to survive:

Findings from the Australian National University after an archaeological excavation in Saudi Arabia found Homo erectus tended to do the bare minimum to get by, while other species of human were inclined to put in the effort.

They used “least-effort strategies” for tool making and collection of resources, as opposed to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, who would climb mountains and haul materials over dozens of kilometres to ensure they had quality goods, the research showed.

Homo erectus, in contrast to the more advanced species, tended to use a single “generic” tool for almost all purposes.

I’m skeptical for a number of reasons.

First, the yobbos appear to be drawing sweeping conclusions based on a very small sample. Second, the behaviors they’re crediting erectus with are actually pretty common among more recent hunter-gatherer societies. Look at the anthropological studies of Australian aborigines some time. They don’t exactly put in 40 hour weeks let alone the grueling work schedules that were commonplace among farmers in the 18th or 19th centuries. Third, I’m pretty sure you could find modern hunter-gatherer societies that don’t “put in the effort”, either, i.e. selection bias may be at work.

But most importantly I think there’s as much genetic variation within the modern human species as there is between modern humans and Homo erectus. Said another way, the more we learn the more likely it seems that Homo sapiens is a fairly old species that includes members like Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens denisova, and, in all likelihood, Homo sapiens erectus. If that’s correct, erectus never died out. You can walk down the street and run into one.

2 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    I’m skeptical as well, and as to your third point, there are studies of modern HGs that show that they don’t spend much time working, so its not at all speculative. But I am a little skeptical of how much modern HGs reflect the pre-neolithic HGs. Seems like there is a survival bias, with the possibility that modern HGs would only exist in places that are very good for obtaining food by hunting and gathering. Land good for agriculture or settlement has been taken away, leaving land that is either insufficient for HG lifestyles or sufficient, but often on the periphery so as to avoid competition. But it’s certainly possible that this homo erectus group lived in a climate and geography in which they thrived, and didn’t need to leave a record of tools.

    But that’s just nourishment, when I took an evolutionary psychology course in college, sex was always a driver of effort that influenced behavior. Were the erectus just a bunch of free-love hippies?

  • TarsTarkas

    I personally suspect that Homo erectus died out the good old-fashioned way; by death from on high (i.e. a cometary or asteroidal impact) or from beneath (titanic volcanic eruptions, possibly sparked or exacerbated by an impact). That is been the history of sudden extinction since the early days of Earth. Another possibility is being outcompeted by or hybridization with Homo heidelbergensis or archaic Homo sapiens. Until hard repeatable tests of a hypothesis can be made, it’s all speculation.

Leave a Comment