Archaeology and what it means to be "human"

One of my favourite excuses for escaping from London is to go and help out with courses at the Blackden Trust. The Trust gives school students the opportunity to come and learn about archaeology, history and geography, working with leading academics in these fields and hopefully contributing to the ongoing process of research on this part of Cheshire:

This Saturday, I'll be there for a course on 'Geology and the landscape archaeology at Blackden', led by Mark Roberts, who has spent nearly a quarter of a century leading excavations at Boxgrove in Surrey, one of the earliest sites of human occupation in Britain.

I thought I'd try to find out a bit more about Mark's work, and that led me to this article, reposted on an anthropology forum, which gives a taste of what's been learned from the work at Boxgrove. I find these glimpses of life half a million years ago tantalising, not least for the questions they raise about what it means to be "human":

"Hunting and butchering large mammals in open environments would have, in hominids, required a level of planning and co-operation that could only be serviced by speech... Conversely, they are not yet fully 'modern' humans. This is the puzzling conundrum - because contrary to established views they were organised, they could plan and were adaptable. However, unless we are missing a great deal from the non-surviving organic record, they don't appear to have been particularly innovative, probably as a result of a lack of competition...

"It is also difficult to imagine speech without any manifestation of art or ceremony but at present none has been found. It appears that like the Neanderthals, into which species the Boxgrove hominids evolved, these hominids combined physical prowess with a 'partly modern' behavioural pattern in order to survive successfully in Europe for over 400,000 years. Whether they were actually human or not depends on our definition of the term; but it is certainly time to study them as a species in their own right, rather than to position them either as tool-assisted apes or as a failed model of ourselves."

This sounds very interesting.

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