I just finished reading Cro-Magnon by Brian Fagan. Overall, it’s pretty good reading, though it’s clearly meant as a primer. It doesn’t have much in the way of Earth-shattering, ground-breaking, material.
From an HBD standpoint, I wanted to highlight some interesting statements that Fagan makes:
Neanderthals may have also interbred with moderns in Europe, where they survived alongside Cro-Magnon for a long time… Perhaps it resulted from very rare encounters between solitary or near-solitary individuals rather than bands, where commonly shared prejudices, especially among modern human groups, might have militated against any form of close contact, let alone sexual intercourse (pg. XI of the preface).
I’ll admit it’s likely I’m missing something obvious here, but this looks like a Freudian slip to me. Why would Fagan assign prejudices more to modern humans than to Neanderthals? Is there any evidence that early Cro-Magnons were more prejudiced than late Neanderthals? I seriously doubt it. I think Fagan is sub-consciously equating Cro-Magnons with whites, and Neanderthals with blacks. Since it’s customary to be critical of white prejudices, but not black ones, Fagan carries this over to prehistory as well.
What can we say about them from this research? They were striking people, with brains as large as our own, but their heads were shaped differently. We have high foreheads and rounded heads, whereas the Neanderthals had long, low skull vaults, which were larger and protruded at the back. A pair of large, rounded, and continuous ridges overhung the eye sockets. The front of the skull was somewhat flattened and constricted like that of much earlier, archaic humans. This may be significant, for it is in this area, the so-called prefrontal association cortex, that much of our thinking takes place( pg. 46).
Is Fagan a proponent of phrenology? I doubt it. Most likely, he would make a distinction between comparing the skulls of members of the same species and those of different species. Though both human, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon were certainly different species – or were they? Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari, in “Race and Human Evolution” (which I reviewed here) claim we are the same species. Either way, we have here an admission that consistent differences in skull shape may have deeper meaning. How would Fagan’s description of modern skull structure pertain to this person?
For all I know, the man could be a genius; I don’t believe we can conclude anything, about an individual, from his skull shape. But if this skull shape is typical for his population, it isn’t far fetched to surmise that it may have deeper significance – at least according to Fagan.
The African Eve is a fictional person, a product of molecular biology… If such a person existed, she would have been dark haired and black skinned, a member of a small hunting band, and strong enough to tear apart human flesh with her hands and carry heavy loads (pg. 89).
This is a rather bold statement, especially considering the fact that much of Africa was populated by Khoisan-type people until they were overrun by Bantu tribes only a few thousand years ago. The Khoisan are not “black skinned”. In fact, Fagan himself writes (pg. 91):
They concentrated much of their effort on the Khoi and San peoples of southern Africa, because they are surviving representatives of ancient hunter-gatherer traditions – people with a slender, light build… Their paternal and maternal lineages are along the deepest branches known among modern humans.
What would motivate a scientist to make such a statement without any evidence? It looks more like a political statement than a scientific one.
The harsh environmental conditions after the Toba disaster would have fostered strong pressures for cooperation over longer distances, even entire regions. Such cooperation would have come from expanding social networks far beyond the limited contacts between neighbors…
These developments came at a time of stress and reduced population, when only a few thousand people lived south of the Sahara and when Africa was cut off from the outside world by intense drought. Then, after seventy thousand years ago, Africa’s population began to grow once again as the cold receded. Small numbers of people, with all the cognitive abilities of modern humans, now moved out of Africa into Asia and lands beyond…
Fagan elaborates upon the pressures of a harsh environment. He makes much of the Toba vulcanic eruption, which occurred 70,000 years ago. But would not the much longer ice ages, which affected Eurasia far more than Africa, have exerted at least as much pressure? It makes no sense to assume that these ice ages exerted no evolutionary pressure upon the humans who lived through them. According to Fagan, once humans attained the status of “modern humanity” (a title arbitrarily bestowed by people such as himself), then their cognitive abilities must be equal to our own. Fagan allows for no variance, in cognitive ability, within Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Fagan is even more blunt about his position on page 146, where he writes:
How, then, does one explain the sudden appearance of sophisticated cave paintings at just one location? Certainly, painting the Chauvet art was well within the intellectual capabilities of people who had exactly the same cognitive abilities as painters of later millennia…
Was Fagan there to administer I.Q. tests to both populations? Even if he was, how can he be sure they weren’t “culturally biased”? I think it’s irresponsible for a scientist to make such blanket statements. Perhaps he believes that his experience and expertise gives him carte blanche to make, under that same authority, any fanciful statements he wishes. But getting back to the rigors of the ice ages, Fagan writes (pg. 170):
Infinite patience and persistence were also qualities common to tropical and cold-climate hunters alike. Everywhere, mental attitudes were important, but they were particularly central to survival in environments where strong winds and the bitter cold of subzero temperatures for days on end sapped human energy. Successful hunting and survival depended on deeply ingrained attitudes of self-assurance and competence, on mental attitudes that were part of the Cro-Magnon personality.
Fagan chose his words carefully. It is becoming more and more obvious that mental capabilities are largely heritable. But there is far less consensus when it comes to the heritability of “mental attitudes”, “self-assurance” and “competence”. Note that Fagan carefully avoids using the word “intelligence” or “cognitive ability” in the above paragraph. Doing so would have implied that the colder environment might have led to smarter people. Perhaps Fagan knows this, but he prefers to avoid controversy. In any event, it doesn’t take much “cognitive ability” to replace the words “mental attitudes” with “mental capabilities” in the above paragraph – and understand that the statement makes just as much sense. We don’t need Fagan to tell us that.
Along the same lines, Fagan implies that civic mindedness was also a trait that was more necessary in the cold north:
All of these qualities would have served the Cro-Magnons well in a world where climate change was often rapid, winters were severe, and periods of warmth and abundance were usually short. Of course there were exceptions to the norm: quarrelsome individuals, volatile family situations, interpersonal violence, and other far-from-ideal circumstances – but in general, the personal qualities shared by the Cro-Magnons, and their encyclopedic knowledge of their world, were their most powerful weapons for survival… (pg. 173).
Indeed, the subtitle of the book is “How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans”. So maybe Fagan is a closet believer in HBD, not that he’ll admit it. But he does proclaim pride in his own heritage at the very end of the book (pg. 264):
The genes of the Cro-Magnons are still dominant among modern Europeans today. My DNA tells me that genetically I’m one of them, and I’m proud of it.