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Monday, January 3, 2011

Monday Ground Up: Evolution of Culture, Genetic Anthropology, and the “Eve Theory”

Guest Post By Lima

Image via Sweet Trade Photography

For decades, anthropologists have debated “The Eve Theory” – the theory that world cultures migrated and evolved from a single source – Eve, a reference to Adam and Eve mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Genesis as the first man and woman and the progenitors of all human life.

Various studies have examined everything from linguistics to the shape of pottery in an attempt to determine just how cultures spread across the globe and developed into societies and nations. Most anthropologists attribute the advent of human culture to the receding ice from the last Ice Age approximately 10,000 years ago.

At about this time prehistoric humans began to change from hunters and gatherers to farmers. Farming provided a controllable supply of food and enabled humans to remain in one place rather than following herd animals and growing seasons for the vegetable and plant matter that comprised the diets of prehistoric peoples.

Because humans could remain in a single location and grow their food – crops and domesticated animals – villages sprung up over several millennia. Some of these villages grew in size and became the earliest cities, with streets, a diverse set of skills among the citizenry (weavers, bakers, metal workers) and organized government, most commonly in the form of a highly centralized power structure.

Field data at archeological digs indicate that the receding ice sheets triggered the creation of societies that stayed in one place and evolved into diverse cultures. The debate among anthropologists is simple. Some scientists believe that diverse human civilizations sprang from a single source, most commonly asserted to be the rich, savannah regions of central Africa. This is foundation of the Eve Theory.

Conversely, the other school of anthropologic thought suggests that cultures sprang up spontaneously around the globe. While neither theory can be proved, anthropologists now have a new tool – genetics – to help trace the cultural evolution that occurred during the early Bronze Age.

Where Did Cultures Start?

Anthropologists generally agree that cultures sprang up in six distinct places 10,000 years ago: Central America, the Andes Mountains that run down the west coast of South America, the Middle East, China and India.

The geographic expanse covered by these earliest cultures suggests that the evolution of modern societies began spontaneously. After all, there’s virtually no record or evidence that pre-Incan society engaged pre-dynastic Egypt or China.

It is difficult to imagine these primitive cultures exchanging technology, science, lore and language over such a vast geography. However, it’s important to recognize that modern humans had populated the Earth for almost two million years prior to the apparent cultural renaissance that occurred a mere 10,000 years ago.

Over the millennia, anthropologists agree that hunter-gatherer societies had ample time and the technological means to populate the planet without on-going interaction. However, it is also difficult to attribute the flowering of civilization in six geo-diverse locations to happenstance.

Tracing the evolution of culture becomes more complex when study shows that cultures evolved at different rates, and that cultural evolution is anything but smooth.

Non-Linear Cultural Evolution

The experts agree that distinct cultures appeared in six widespread locations at about the same time, but history clearly shows that the evolution of cultures does not follow a straight line.

For example, the Assyrians, perhaps the first great culture, thrived in the Fertile Crescent in present-day Iraq prior to the rise of the great Egyptian culture. The Assyrians used the wheel extensively in a variety of ways. However, the Egyptians used the wheel in a much more narrow fashion, primarily for transportation. Gilded war chariots have been excavated from several tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.

However, there are numerous glyphs that show sleds and sledges used to move the giant blocks that comprised the public works programs we know as mastabas and pyramids. The Egyptians certainly knew of the wheel since Egypt and Assyria engaged in trade and border skirmishes in which battle chariots would have been used.

The point is, if technology is a barometer of cultural evolution, then cultural evolution is anything but linear. It grows in fits and starts. It doesn’t build on past achievements and technology. And not every culture evolves at the same rate or manner, adding to the difficulty in proving or disproving the Eve Theory.

Both camps have put forth various discussion points to prove or disprove the Eve Theory. Now anthropologists have a new tool – genetics – to aid in tracking just how cultures began and evolved.

Genetic Anthropology

Genetic anthropology is a relatively new branch of the broader study of human activity, focusing specifically on two different areas of research.

The first area of genetic anthropology focuses on the development of databases of current genetics among various peoples across the planet. In what ways are people genetically different from one another?

Using this accumulated data, anthropologists hope to identify trends that serve as pointers to genetic connections between peoples around the globe. In what ways are the Inuit of the northern-most regions of North America genetically related to Asian populations and to populations of the indigenous tribes that inhabited current day Canada and the United States?

The second focus of genetic anthropology is to compare genetic materials collected in the field with current genetic databases and to compare homo sapiens’ DNA throughout the centuries. Why?

The diversity among humans can be traced to small, benign mutations in DNA, and through tracking these mutations, anthropologists hope to be able to trace the evolution of humanity with greater specificity.
While studies using DNA markers to track human evolution and the evolution of diverse cultures is rudimentary, it is also on-going. The Genographic Project, jointly undertaken by IBM and The National Geographic Society and published in 2007, provides intriguing data pointing to a single ancestor, supporting the Eve Theory, though, to date, the data needs greater refinement.

So, the Eve Theory remains just that – a theory with proponents and critics. However, the early results identified by genetic anthropology clearly demonstrate that this new branch of study will provide the data required to ultimately prove or disprove the Eve Theory.

Cultural evolution, in the meantime, remains a mystery. Did civilization appear spontaneously in six different parts of the world 10,000 years ago? Or, did these cultures simply evolve from a single source that spread across the planet in the preceding 1.9 million years homo sapiens inhabited Earth?

Genetic anthropology offers a new tool to answer these vital questions using hard science and empirical evidence.

It’s simply a matter of time.

This article is contributed by Lima, an avid traveler who owns a website offering high quality adjustable dumbbells for sale


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