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Van Reybrouck 2012 - From Primitives to Primates

Van Reybrouck 2012 - From Primitives to Primates

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Published by Sidestone Press
Where do our images about early hominids come from? In this fascinating in-depth study, David Van Reybrouck demonstrates how input from ethnography and primatology has deeply influenced our visions about the past from the 19th century to this day. Overviewing two centuries of intellectual debate in fields as diverse as archaeology, ethnography and primatology, Van Reybrouck’s book is one long plea for trying to understand the past on its own terms, rather than as facile projections from the present.
Where do our images about early hominids come from? In this fascinating in-depth study, David Van Reybrouck demonstrates how input from ethnography and primatology has deeply influenced our visions about the past from the 19th century to this day. Overviewing two centuries of intellectual debate in fields as diverse as archaeology, ethnography and primatology, Van Reybrouck’s book is one long plea for trying to understand the past on its own terms, rather than as facile projections from the present.

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Published by: Sidestone Press on Jan 07, 2013
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In terms of number of sources summoned, nearly all primate models, from the ear-
liest baboon comparisons to the most recent chimp models, were confined to a
single species: the gelada, the wolf, the common chimpanzee, the bonobo—even
the baboon model, though referring to an entire genus, was largely based on stud-
ies of the single species of olive baboons (Papio anubis). Chimpanzees were by far
the most popular source of inspiration: apart from their ubiquitous role in the
feminist evolutionary scenario, they figured in many other reconstructions, in the
few ethoarchaeological case studies, in Lovejoy’s behavioural ecology of early ho-
minids and in all neo-referential models. Only two approaches diverged from this
pattern and strengthened their analogy by increasing the number of sources: the
social carnivore model, particularly the proposals by Schaller and Lowther (1969)
and King (1975; 1976; 1980) who argued that the inclusion of carnivores greatly
expanded the source analogue, and the phylogenetic comparisons or cladistics of
behaviour (Wrangham 1987; Ghiglieri 1987; Cameron 1993) which looked for
shared traits across a great number of primate taxa.
Tis predilection to focus on a single primate species is somewhat surprising. Of
course, ‘experts on ape behavior like to claim that their subjects are the only or best
model of the last common ancestor’ (De Waal in Stanford 1998: 407) but the conse-
quence of such ‘my-own-species syndrome’ can be grave. Hominization was a process
that took place over several millions of years, a process which by definition implied
change and variation and which involved many species. Today, there are hardly 200
extant primate species to model this varied process. Primate variability is thus limited


to a relatively small sample that is even rapidly disappearing. Te decision to focus on a
single species is, therefore, simply pernicious.66
As an obvious consequence, the variety of source contexts was also largest in
these two approaches. Phylogenetic comparisons enhanced the variety by looking
at all African great apes rather than a single species. A more recent study on the
origins of nesting behaviour even applied the method to all living primate spe-
cies, including the prosimians (Kappeler 1998). Apart from the bonobo and the
chimp, the galago and the aye aye are now included in the source. Social carnivore
modellers, too, worked from a varied source base: they included animals as diverse
as the wolf, the hyena and the lion and they even made reference to nonhuman
primates and contemporary hunter-gatherers. Clearly, the strength of causal pat-
terns observed in the source is greatly increased if it holds across a variety of source
contexts. It is surprising, therefore, that most primate models have stuck to source
contexts as homogeneous as possible.
Increasing the number of similarities between source and target is an often in-
voked strategy for improving analogies. This, however, was not always done. The
earliest baboon studies, for example, worked first and foremost from observed dif-
ferences between baboons and humans, since these could indicate the trajectory
of human evolution from its primate substrate. Models based on social carnivores
and geladas, too, did not seek to enhance the amount of observed similarity in a
strictly quantitative sense but rather focused on a single trait of supposedly rel-
evant resemblance (in subsistence ecology or dental morphology). It was only
with the chimpanzee and bonobo model that the degree of overall similarity be-
came the dominant criterion, even to the extent that a form of quasi-identity was
sought in order to allow wholesale projections from source to target. All sorts of
similarity (behavioural, biochemical, morphological, ecological, etc.) were thus
summoned. During the subsequent crisis of referential modelling, the critics re-
acted precisely upon this over-reliance on the quantity of similarity instead of its
quality. Phylogenetic comparison, behavioural ecology and ethoarchaeology were
all attempts to move beyond the criterion of numerical resemblance in order to
find some relevant patterning—a tendency now reversed by the most recent de-
fences of referential modelling.
A similar pattern is tangible in the way different modellers dealt with the
thorny issue of dissimilarity. Here too, it seems that the models based on baboons,
geladas and carnivores as well as the more recent critical alternatives could happily
cope with dissimilarity by distinguishing between ‘structure-violating’ or ‘struc-
ture-preserving’ differences (Holland et al. 1986: 299), whereas the chimpanzee
and bonobo modellers, on the other hand, considered every form of dissimilar-
ity between source and target as ultimately weakening the argument. As long as
the amount of similarity is the sole validating criterion, clearly, any difference is
seen as threatening. The very opposite was true for the social carnivore model of
Schaller and Lowther (1969): the difference they noted between nocturnal hunting

66 Lockard was right when he said: ‘Tere are too few ape species, each too specialized, for easy use of
the comparative method’ (Lockard 1971: 177).


among carnivores and diurnal hunting among humans did not weaken but
strengthened the argument—early hominids could fill in an ecological niche of
daytime hunting, a period during which social carnivores were nonactive. Authors
who picked up the criticism of the Kinzey volume agreed that differences were as
instructive as similarities: ‘That leaves us with the alternative of trying to learn
what we can by examining comparatively both similarities and differences in the
behaviors of modern primates’ (Schubert 1991: 8). In any case, it was clear that
‘differences between two species cannot be explained by taking one of them as a
model for their last common ancestor’ (Cartmill 1990: 189).
Though the chimpanzee and bonobo models mostly relied on the criterion of
similarity, it would be erroneous to assume that they did not consider issues of
relevance. Of course, they did—but it was another definition of relevance than
with the previous models. The ‘mature’ baboon model (as it appeared in the 1963
paper by DeVore and Washburn and by all later textbooks and popular accounts)
and the social carnivore model were both based on an ecological analogy: social
behaviour was the result of environmental parameters, understood in terms of eat-
ing or being eaten (food availability versus predator stress). Important differences
notwithstanding—according to the carnivore model, early hominids had been
predators but according to the baboon model, they had been prey animals—there
was a shared conviction of a one-to-one ratio between behaviour and ecology.
Indeed, knowing the subsistence and the environment was in fact enough to pre-
dict the social organization.
The reverse was true with the chimp and bonobo model which replaced ecol-
ogy for phylogeny as the relevant criterion. The belief that there was any single
correspondence between behaviour and ecology had been seriously undermined
now that primate variability started to be better understood: transfer of behav-
ioural attributes could be no longer executed on the basis of a handful of ecologi-
cal variables. Instead, the stunning degrees of genetic affinity between chimps,
bonobos and humans which biochemists had discovered, made it much more use-
ful to look at these phylogenetically close allies. Not a shared environment, but a
shared set of genes lay at the base of these models, and hence an overall similar-
ity in anatomy and behaviour. After that, the tension between an ecological and
phylogenetic understanding permeated into the subsequent crisis of referential
modelling: behavioural ecology stressed the ecological component whereas cla-
distics of behaviour was more turned towards the phylogenetic component (the
work by Foley and Lee (1989) being a rare attempt to reconcile both). Relevance
was certainly an issue at stake throughout the entire debate on primate modelling,
though it increasingly left out the discussion on causality in the source. After the
optimism of the ecological modellers who had come up with an unambiguous and
uniformitarian causality, there was less and less confidence that such simple cor-
relations really existed. Enumerating likenesses became more popular than sub-
stantiating their relevance.
Finally, how did primate models balance the weight of the conclusion against
the weight of the premises? Apart from a few exceptions, the answer is: badly.
Nearly all models were far too ambitious in their inferences of the past on the


basis of what they had. This is not just true of the projective models who wanted
to give a visualized image of the past (like the mature baboon model, the chim-
panzee model and the bonobo model), but also of the more argumentative forms
like most carnivore models and recent alternatives. They all attempted to give an
encompassing view of the key characteristics of social life at a certain stage of hu-
man evolution, often flanked by an evolutionary scenario of how early hominids
moved on from that stage onwards. That is a lot of interpretation to rest upon a
terrestrial habitat, a hunting subsistence, a convergence in DNA, or female immo-
bility to name but a few of the premises. There are only two exceptions to this pat-
tern. Jolly’s gelada model was more humble in that it only wanted to deduce early
hominid diet from a present source (although he did not refrain himself from
inventing yet another origin story from that base). And Sept’s chimpanzee paral-
lel simply pointed out that very different behavioural dynamics might have been
responsible for the formation of the so-called living floors than the ones hitherto
assumed. Overall, however, the conclusions derived from the modelling activity
greatly outweighed the premises of available similarity and causality.
Looking at the way primate models were defended and strengthened, the his-
tory of debate can be recapitulated as follows. In a first episode, which roughly ran
from the early sixties to the mid-seventies, baboons, social carnivores and geladas
were used to draw inferences about the past. The approach consisted of analogi-
cal reasoning from fairly distant sources (imported analogues), on the basis of few
observed similarities which were made relevant through considerations of eco-
logical or subsistence analogy, dissimilarities in this respect not necessarily being
structure-violating. A second episode, from the mid-seventies to the mid-eight-
ies, witnessed the emergence and popularity of referential models based on both
chimpanzee species as a reaction to the textbook version of the baboon model.
Here, the approach consisted of projective modelling from close sources (manifest
analogues), on the basis of numerous similarities required by the premise of phy-
logenetic homology. Dissimilarity was much more problematic and seen as struc-
ture-violating. Whereas in the first episode, extant primate species were used for a
partial transfer of attributes to early hominids, in the second episode (but already
foreshadowed by the final variants of the baboon model) these species turned into
wholesale projections onto the past. It is also in this context that the metaphor
of visualization first occurs: among some well chosen living primates, one could
‘see’, ‘get a picture’ or ‘find an image’ of early hominid life. From the mid-eight-
ies onwards, such extreme forms of referential modelling have been criticized and
alternatives were sought, although chimpanzees are still being favoured as ‘the best
model available’.

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