Take the First Steps: Where to Place Our Feet

| 10/20/2011 8:23:00 AM

Intelligence is sometimes measured by the number of cortical neurons in the brain, a more precise measurement than simple brain volume. Human beings have about 11.5 billion cortical neurons, more than any other species. Chimpanzees are in second place with about 6.2 billion, and bottlenose dolphins are in third with about 5.8 billion. 

An alien biologist visiting from a distant planet might look at the remarkable similarities in our physiology and conclude that chimpanzees would live pretty much as humans do, only more simply.

But there’s something definitively, well, human about us.

Chimpanzees and dolphins live pretty much as they did 100,000 years ago, so far as we can tell. Not so Homo sapiens. Until just 20,000 or 30,000 years ago, the evidence suggests, humans lived as the animals live, browsing for fruit, nuts, small prey and carrion. But we were different. We had technology.

The earliest stone tools belonging to the ancestors of Homo sapiens appear to be about 3.4 million years old. They were simple: rocks chipped to create sharp edges. For a long time that was the limit of human technology. Somewhere along the line we learned to attach stone points to wooden shafts, inventing the spear and the arrow. It appears that technology progressed very, very slowly for a very, very long time. Humanity didn’t make any big lifestyle changes, so far as we can tell from the archaeological record, until about 40,000 years ago when we started wearing jewelry, painting on cave walls and playing little flutes made of bone.

Photo by Carolyn Welch

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