Tuesday, October 09, 2018

The Atlatl (Spear Thrower) in the Cultural Evolution of Lockean Liberalism

                                                 Weapon Masters Videos on the Atlatl

A Fragment of an Atlatl Dated between 15.2-15.9 Thousand Years Ago Made of Engraved Antler with the Hook Still Intact, from El Miron Cave, Cantabria, Spain (Morales and Straus 2008)

Beginning about 1.8 million years ago, our human ancestors could enforce social cooperation by threatening cheaters and free riders with killing from a distance through throwing rocks or javelins.  The effective lethal range of these weapons is about fifteen meters.  Paul Bingham estimates that with such weapons up to about ninety people could encircle a small group of free riders or cheaters while remaining in range.  In this way, Locke's executive power of the law of nature could coercively enforce social cooperation among no more than ninety individuals.  And so, for about 1.7 million years, that was the limit for human non-kin social cooperation, because the scale of their cooperation was limited by the range of their weapons for remote killing.

Then about 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, something happened to produce what paleoanthropologists call "behaviorally modern humans" (Bar-Yosef 2002; Hill et al. 2009; Klein 2009).  Their anatomy was the same as earlier humans, but their behavior showed a stunning increase in their mental complexity and abstraction.  They were able to migrate out of Africa, and by about 20,000 years ago, they had migrated throughout Eurasia, Australia, North America, and South America.  This began the human dominance of the whole planet. Their tools become more complex and sophisticated.  Their ornaments became more abstract and esthetically evocative.  Their art showed a distinctly human sense of beauty, as in this cave art:

There was also an expansion in the scale of social cooperation, as indicated by large "public works" such as huge earthen mounds and by evidence for long-distance trade networks.  If the scale of social cooperation depends on the range of weaponry for remote killing, then there must have been some new weapon with a range greater than that for thrown rocks or javelins.  And, indeed, there is evidence for the first appearance of atlatls (the Aztec word for spear throwers).

An atlatl amplifies the human throwing motion so that the bolt (or dart) is launched to greater distances, higher velocities, and more penetrating power than thrown stones or hand thrown spears.  Originally, the atlatl was invented by humans to be a weapon for hunting wild game, but then it could be used as a weapon against other humans in war or to punish cheaters and free riders, and thus to coercively enforce a larger scale of cooperation.  Bingham estimates that while thrown stones and javelins could enforce cooperation among up to 90 individuals, atlatls could expand this tenfold up to 900 individuals.

Bingham argues that this expanded the range of cooperation because this new weapon allowed law enforcement to encompass a larger group of people, which then increased the scale of information sharing.  This increase in cultural information sharing could then cause all of the other increases in inventiveness and complexity that characterize the behaviorally human revolution--including more complex tools, abstract art, and more intricate human artifacts.

Bingham's theory makes falsifiable predictions that can be tested against the archaeological evidence.  For example, it predicts that the appearance of atlatls in the archaeological record precedes the appearance of the many traits of behavioral modernity.

The throwing stick and the bolt shaft of the atlatl are normally made mostly of wood and therefore likely to perish over thousands of years.  But some apparently atlatl fragments made of bone, antler, or ivory have been dated to around 16-17 thousand years ago--such as the fragment from El Miron Cave pictured above (O'Driscoll and Thompson 2018; Morales and Straus 2008).

The oldest indirect evidence of atlatls come from the sharp stone points that have the shape and size that identify them as atlatl bolt points rather than thrusting spear points or arrow points.  Thrusting spear points are larger and heavier than bolt points, which are larger than arrow points.  Some of the oldest bolt points have been dated at 50 to 40 thousand years ago (O'Driscoll and Thompson 2018; Shea 2006; Shea and Sisk 2010).

John Shea--Bingham's colleague at Stony Brook University--sees some evidence of bolt points in sub-Saharan Africa as early as 100,000 years ago, although they become more common after 50,000 years ago.  Shea admits, however, that he is baffled by the fact that historic hunter-gatherers in Africa have not used the atlatl.  It's perplexing if atlatls were used in prehistoric Africa but not later.

Shea thinks Bingham has part of the puzzle for human evolution, but not all.  Shea thinks the technology of the atlatl is not enough to explain human complexity, and that spoken language is a crucial factor.  By contrast, Bingham thinks the evolution of human non-kin cooperation supported by coercive weaponry to manage the problem of conflicts of interest created the conditions for the evolution of language: non-kin cooperation was the cause, language was the effect (Bingham and Souza 2009, 240-76).  I am inclined to agree with Shea that while the technology of projectile weapons is one critical factor in shaping human evolution--for the reasons indicated by Bingham--it cannot be the only prime cause.

Here's a video of John Shea showing how ancient atlatls were made and used:

One of the most conspicuous signs of behaviorally modern humans is the construction of huge earthen mounds that apparently were used for local gatherings, perhaps seasonally.  Here is one of the Hopewell mounds in Ohio:

As many as one thousand people could have gathered on this mound.  Although archaeologists continue to debate the functions of these mounds, they seem to be designed for local gatherings.  And since Hopewell societies were connected by extensive trading networks, people were probably meeting at these spots for trade--looking for mates, goods, services, and information.  Such centers of commercial activity would have needed law enforcement to sustain peaceful exchange by punishing thieves and cheaters.  The Hopewell culture flourished from 100 BCE to 500 CE, prior to the arrival of the bow and arrow, so their best weapon for law enforcement would have been the atlatl, and the range of the atlatl was great enough to sustain a scale of cooperation up to one thousand people.

Hopewell burial mounds often have symbolic artifacts.

Hopewell Art

These symbolic artifacts were clearly traded over vast distances, and so they probably functioned as currency for exchange.  Symbolic objects can serve as a form of money because they are precious and difficult to counterfeit.  They can also be worn as ornaments or be signs of status, just as gold, silver, and diamonds can be both currency and valuable ornaments in our culture.

The economic trade in such valuable objects would have been impossible without some coercive law enforcement with weapons like the atlatl to punish thieves and cheaters and thus securing the rights of property and contract.

The evidence for such trade over 100,000 years or more refutes Friedrich Hayek's claim that market exchange is a recent invention in human history.  On the contrary, we might conclude that Adam Smith was right in seeing that human beings are economic animals who naturally strive to "truck, barter, and exchange."

Some of my posts responding to Hayek and defending the idea that the extended order of liberal capitalism appeals to our evolved human nature can be found herehere, and here.


Bar-Yosef, Ofer. 2002. "The Upper Paleolithic Revolution." Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 363-93.

Bingham, Paul, and Joanne Souza. 2009. Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe. Charleston, SC: BookSurge.

Hill, Kim, Michael Barton, and A. Magdalena Hurtado. 2009. "The Emergence of Human Uniqueness: Characters Underlying Behavioral Modernity." Evolutionary Anthropology 18: 187-200.

Klein, Richard G. 2009. The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morales, Manuel R. Gonzalez, and Lawrence Guy Strauss. 2009. "Extraordinary Early Magdalenian Finds from El Miron Cave, Cantabria (Spain)." Antiquity 83: 267-81.

O'Driscoll, Corey A., and Jessica C. Thompson. 2018. "The Origins and Early Elaboration of Projectile Technology." Evolutionary Anthropology 27: 30-45.

Shea, John J. 2006. "The Origins of Lithic Projectile Point Technology: Evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe." Journal of Archaeological Science 33: 823-46.

Shea, John J., and Matthew L. Sisk. 2010. "Complex Projectile Technology and Homo sapiens Dispersal into Western Eurasia." PaleoAnthropology 2010: 100-22.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Friedrich Nietzsche and Lou Salome: The Movie

"Lou Andreas Salome: The Audacity To Be Free" is a good movie about the life of Lou Salome (1861-1937)--the Russian philosopher, novelist, essayist, and psychoanalyst, who became a seductive muse for Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ree, Rainer Rilke, and Sigmund Freud.  This is a German movie released in Germany in 2016 and then released this year in North America with English subtitles.  It can now be found at Amazon.

Cordula Kablitz-Post is the director of the movie and the co-author of the screenplay.  The movie shows her intelligent study of Lou's life and writings.  Four different actresses play Lou at four periods of her life.

Here is the trailer.

I have written about Nietzsche being "under Lou Salome's whip" (here and here).  She wrote the first--and perhaps most insightful--book on Nietzsche.  She saw that Nietzsche's early and late writings show his struggle with his religious longings, which he overcame only for a time in his middle writings (such as Human, All Too Human), where he showed his devotion to a philosophic and Darwinian science.  Like me, Lou thought that Nietzsche's middle writings were his best.

Nietzsche's struggle with God and with the possible consequences of the death of God is suggested in one scene (about 58 minutes into the movie), where Salome and Nietzsche are playfully swimming in a river.  As they joke about death and drowning, Lou speaks about her loss of faith in God as a young girl. Then Nietzsche says: "Living without faith takes a lot of energy. Perhaps it's even impossible. And it will be our undoing someday."

The meaning of "our undoing" from our loss of faith is suggested by the coming of Nazism to Germany in 1933.  Lou is in poor health in that year in Germany--she will die in 1937--and she is dictating her memoir to a young admirer--Ernst Pfeiffer, who will edit her memoir for publication in 1951.

We see how Nietzsche's sister--Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche--helped to break up Lou's friendship with Nietzsche.  We also hear about Elisabeth's management of the Nietzsche Archives to turn Nietzsche into the Nazi Philosopher and her scorn for Lou, who fears Nazi persecution.

In this way, the movie intimates the question of whether Nietzsche's death of God and Lou's philosophic freedom from faith lead somehow to the Nazi catastrophe.

I have written about the "Nazi philosophers" here, here., and here.

I haven't yet figured out how all of this is related to another theme of the film: the complexity of human eroticism at many levels--sexual, intellectual, and religious.  I might need to study some of Lou's other writing, such as the first two chapters of her memoir--entitled "The God Experience" and "The Experience of Love."

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Throwing Stones to Kill from a Distance: The Evolutionary Origin of Lockean Liberalism?

We humans are unique among all animals in our ability to throw projectiles at high speeds and with amazing accuracy.  We must wonder how this is possible and why this has evolved as a trait of our human nature.

This image shows the differences in the position of the shoulder between chimpanzees (left) and humans (right).  These differences can be seen in both the muscular anatomy and in the bony anatomy of the scapula (shoulder blade).

This allows humans to store elastic energy (like a slingshot) in the tendons, ligaments, and muscles crossing the shoulder.  This energy is then used to catapult the arm forward in a fast motion, which allows very rapid throws.  This was made possible by changes in the upper body that appeared first almost 2 million years ago in the species Homo erectus.  This allows humans to throw projectile missiles (such as rocks and spears) with deadly speed and accuracy (Roach et al. 2013).  Today, we see that most clearly in professional baseball pitchers who can throw baseballs at 90 to 100 miles an hour, again and again.  By contrast, chimpanzees trained to throw can throw a ball only about 20 miles per hour, even though adult chimpanzees are physically stronger in some ways that adult humans. 

This helped our hominin ancestors to kill from a distance in hunting dangerous animals.  The archeological evidence for intensified hunting behavior among our hominin ancestors supports this conclusion.

This capacity for killing at a distance also helped our human ancestors to punish other humans in exercising what John Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature."  Locke recognized that punishment could be costly for the punisher, because "such resistance many times makes the punishment dangerous, and frequently destructive, to those who attempt it" (ST, sec. 126).  The costs of punishment come mostly from provoking violent attacks from those who are being punished.  So the power to punish could never be effectively executed until the risky costs of punishment could somehow be reduced, so that the immediate costs of coercive punishment could be less than its immediate benefits in enforcing social cooperation.

Locke never explains how this could have happened. One likely explanation is that human beings became the first animals capable of killing at a distance by throwing rocks at their victims.  Once this developed as a technique for hunting large animals, it could then be used to kill or threaten other humans who deserved punishment.  Many people could throw stones at a misbehaving individual, and the punishers could do this with little risk to themselves. Thus the evolved human power to punish violators of the law of nature through killing at a distance could be a crucial evolutionary adaptation for Lockean liberalism.  The expansion of social cooperation enforced by cheap punishment of cheaters has evolved from the expanding range of the weapons for remote killing--from rocks to bow-and-arrow to guns to nuclear bombs.

Anthropologists studying nomadic hunter-gatherers have recognized their remarkable egalitarianism--that all adult individuals are equally free in their autonomy and freedom from domination by others.  This looks like Locke's state of nature.  Anthropologists have seen that this egalitarianism requires "leveling mechanisms"--means by which individuals can prevent bullies from dominating them.

One of the critical leveling mechanisms is the equal access to weapons for remote killing.  Anthropologist James Woodburn (1982) noted that in hunter-gatherer bands, all males have equal access to weapons.  "Hunting weapons are lethal not just for game animals but also for people.  There are serious dangers in antagonizing someone: he might choose simply to move away, but if he feels a strong sense of grievance that his rights have been encroached upon he could respond with violence" (436).  Some men will try to dominate others by giving orders or by stealing wives and property, but this is punished by violent retaliation.  Woodburn observes:  "In normal circumstances, the possession by all men, however physically weak, cowardly, unskilled or social inept, of the means to kill secretly anyone perceived as a threat to their own well-being not only limits predation and exploitation; it also acts directly as a powerful levelling mechanism."  For Thomas Hobbes, this was the ground for equality in the state of nature: despite all the inequality in human traits, no one was so superior as to be free from the threat of being killed by those he might try to dominate.

Biologist Paul Bingham has developed this idea into a general theory of human social evolution (Bingham 1999, 2000; Bingham and Souza 2009; Okada and Bingham 2008).  Humans are unique because they are the first animals to be able to kill adult members of their species remotely.  Every other unique feature of humans--such as language, abstract reasoning, morality, and so on--is simply an effect of that one cause.

Bingham argues that the uniquely human capacity for killing at a distance explains the uniquely human capacity for kinship-independent social cooperation.  The evolution of all organisms creates the problem of conflicts of interest that impede social cooperation, because all organisms must compete for the resources necessary for survival and reproduction.  A common way to manage those conflicts of interest is to cooperate with close kin, because kinship creates overlapping interests.  So animals cooperate with close kin, and cooperation with non-kin is typically very limited.  So, for example, among mammals, mothers commonly care for their offspring.  Some animals--such as social insects--cooperate in huge colonies, but this depends on kinship: in ant and bee colonies, most of the (female) members of the colony work to rear their sisters (and a few brothers).

Like other animals, humans cooperate with their kin, but they also cooperate with non-kin much more expansively than is the case for other animals.  To do this, they must manage the problem of conflicts of interest.  And they do that by employing the cheap punishment made possible by remote killing to enforce cooperation: cheaters and free-riders are deterred from their misbehavior by the costs of punishment.

There is a lot of archaeological, anatomical, and ethnographic evidence to support this theory that the uniquely human capacity for throwing stones to kill from a distance initiated the uniquely human evolution of kin-independent social cooperation in a manner that sustains Lockean liberalism (Bingham and Souza 2009, 147-204; Isaac 1987; Marzke et al. 1988; Aiello and Dean 1990; Roach et al. 2013).

Beginning around 2.3 to 2.5 million years ago, there are archaeological deposits in East Africa of stone flakes and fossil prey bones indicating the evolution of hominid scavenging and hunting.  There is also evidence of the evolution of elite human throwing associated with this early scavenging/hunting.  There are piles of stones that archaeologists call "manuports" because the archaeological context suggests that they were moved across the landscape.  Some of these manuports are of the size and shape that would make them good ammunition for throwing at prey animals or at other humans.

There is also skeletal evidence that the first fully human ancestors emerging about 2 million years ago had evolved the anatomical traits--in the hands, arms, torso, pelvis, and feet--that make humans uniquely good throwers.  The hands and arms of our primate ancestors are adapted more for climbing than for throwing, because they were adapted for an arboreal life.

Darwin noticed how skillful hunter-gatherers in Tierra del Fuego were in throwing stones forcefully and accurately.  By contrast, he saw that monkeys and apes were clumsy throwers.  He thought this was one uniquely human trait arising from bipedality and the design of the human hand and arm, which might help to explain human dominance over the Earth (Darwin 2004, 68-72).

Other European explorers of the New World and the South Pacific discovered how deadly this rock throwing could be, because aboriginal people could attack European intruders with a bombardment of stones (Isaac 1987).

If Bingham is right, that evolved uniquely human capacity for elite throwing was the cause for the evolution of the big human brain that arises from a uniquely human life history that depends upon human kin-independent social breeding (Bingham and Souza 2009, 120-146).  "It takes a village to raise a human child," and unlike the social breeding of other animals, the human village that helps in the rearing of offspring includes many adults of both sexes who are not close kin.  It also includes many adult members who are armed for the projection of coercive threat that enforces the village's non-kin cooperation.

A newborn chimp has a very big and heavy brain.  But a newborn human has an even bigger and heavier brain.  Moreover, the human infant's brain will grow much faster and longer.  This growth will extend even into young adulthood.  And while a chimp mother can provide enough food and care for her offspring by herself, a human mother must provide so much more food and better food and so much more care for her offspring that she cannot do this without help from others.  A human mother needs to be a member of a large society--at least as large as a foraging band--that will help in the rearing and protection of her child.  And this society will extend beyond her kin to include unrelated adults.  That's why "it takes a village to raise a human child."

But then we might wonder why the help of her husband would not be enough for her.  Maybe, "it takes a couple to raise a child!"  That's Locke's solution to the mother's problem.  He argues that like many birds, human beings are pair-bonding animals because mothers need the help of fathers in providing food, rearing, and protection for the children, when mothers alone cannot do this.  Human beings are naturally cooperative breeders in families of mothers, fathers, and children (FT, secs. 86-89; ST, secs. 77-84).  Some evolutionary anthropologists today support this idea--that pair-bonding is the crucial evolutionary adaptation in human evolution.

But this doesn't explain why other pair-bonding animals like birds didn't follow the human evolutionary path towards large communities of non-kin members.  And it doesn't explain why human pair-bonded families depend on the support of that large community of both kin and non-kin members.

The proper explanation, Bingham suggests, is that humans are unique in their capacity for non-kin social cooperation, which supports the uniquely human life history for sustaining the growth and rearing of that big human brain.  Non-kin cooperation is impossible without some way to manage the conflicts of interest that necessarily arise among individuals who are unrelated to one another.  Humans are unique because they stumbled into a clever trick for managing such conflicts of interest by the low-cost punishment of cheaters and free-riders through killing or threatening to kill them from a distance.

In foraging bands, most or even all adult individuals have access to such coercive threat, which has a levelling effect in securing each individual's autonomy and freedom from domination.  Consequently, power is democratized in foraging societies, and social norms are formulated and enforced through a broad consensus.

But then, Bingham argues, with the emergence of archaic states, coercive power was concentrated in ruling elites that could enforce their will on the great multitude.  To restore or at least approximate the equal liberty of the hunter-gatherer society--what Locke called the state of nature--access to the weapons of coercive threat would have to be once again equalized.

Here Bingham has rediscovered an insight of some political philosophers--that the structure of political order depends on whether the access to weapons of coercive power is confined to a few or open to many.  In the Politics, Aristotle writes:
"Since there are four parts of the multitude, the farming, the working, the merchant, and the laboring elements, and four parts of the city are useful with a view to war, the horse-rearing, the heavy-armed, the light-armed, and the seafaring elements, wherever it happens that the country is suitable for horses, conditions are naturally apt for instituting a strong oligarchy (for the preservation of the inhabitants derives from a force of this sort, and horse-rearing is done by those possessing larger properties); where it is suitable for heavy arms, the next sort of oligarchy (for the heavy-armed element is made up of the well off more than the poor).  Light-armed and naval forces, on the other hand, are wholly popular.  At present, therefore, wherever this sort of multitude is numerous, and there is a factional split, the oligarchs often get the worst of the contest. . . . This is the way the people prevail over the well off in factional splits: being light-armed, they can easily contend against a force of cavalry and heavy-armed troops" (1321a5-21).


Aiello, L., and C. Dean. 1990. An Introduction to Human Evolutionary Anatomy. San Diego: Academic Press.

Bingham, Paul. 1999. "Human Uniqueness: A General Theory." Quarterly Review of Biology 74: 133-69.

Bingham, Paul. 2000. "Human Evolution and Human History: A Complete Theory." Evolutionary Anthropology 9: 248-57.

Bingham, Paul, and Joanne Souza. 2009. Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. 2nd edition. London: Penguin Books.

Isaac, Barbara. 1987. :"Throwing and Human Evolution." The African Archaeological Review 5: 3-17.

Marzke, M. W., et al. 1988. "Gluteus Maximus Muscle Function and the Origin of Hominid Bipedality." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 77: 519.

Okada, D., and Paul Bingham. 2008. "Human Uniqueness--Self-Interest and Social Cooperation." Journal of Theoretical Biology 253: 261.

Roach, Neil T., et al. 2013. "Elastic Energy Storage in the Shoulder and the Evolution of High-Speed Throwing in Homo." Nature 498: 483-86.

Woodburn, James. 1982. "Egalitarian Societies." Man 17: 431-51.