Humans have gone through a series of struggles in the ascent from rather beastly beginnings. What happened in the structure of the brain, perhaps inducing a bicameral state, which turned the natural man from the wilderness into the civilized man from a global society? This is real mystery of consciousness. In the quest for answers about the origin of consciousness, one question keeps appearing. That is, what happened in the human mind to cause man to think differently than the so-called beast?
Some anthropologists will suggest that there was no real moment of change; that the human has evolved slowly as a result of natural adaptation to its environment. Others have suggested that this shift in consciousness may have happened as a result of changes in the diet of early man, even suggesting that cooking habits may have provoked physiological changes in the brain.
In the late 1990s, Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham theorized that a change accelerated the rate of brain growth occurred in human ancestors about 1.6 million to 1.8 million years ago, when Homo erectus learned how to roast meat and tubers over a fire. Wrangham argued that it was the act of cooking that essentially predigested food, making it easier and more efficient for our ancestors to gain nutrients. This increase in caloric efficiency theoretically allowed human ancestors to spend less time foraging, chewing, and digesting, eventually leading to the development of a smaller, more efficient digestive tract. This reduction in the size of the digestive tract freed up energy to enable denser brain growth.
Humans have more brain neurons than any other primate, leading the brain to use at least 20% of our body's energy when resting. This has left the question; where did our ancestors get that extra energy to expand their minds? Wrangham set out to answer this question by proving his “digestion theory.”
In his lab, he and his colleagues have studied what happens to rodents and pythons when they eat cooked meat instead of raw meat. He has published reports to show that these animals grow up bigger and faster and take less energy to digest cooked meat than raw meat.
Wrangham’s studies are ongoing and not without their critics. For instance, there is very little archaeological evidence to prove that this was a pattern for Homo erectus. In fact, most archaeologists will point to the evidence which shows that an increase in meat was due to the scavenging habits of early man and the important role of the female in tuber gathering in labor division. Most researchers will agree, however, that there was some sort of event in history that caused a chain of consciousness events. Some have even named this mysterious event, “The Big Brain Bang,” while others have called it, simply, “The Leap.”
Aside from the rather speculative hypothesis of Terrance McKenna, the "Stoned Ape Theory," one of my favorite theories about the leap in human brain development is from Julian Jaynes. Julian Jaynes was a psychologist and author out of Princeton University who proposed the theory of the bicameral mind. According to Jaynes, the human mind was once divided into two separate parts, the "bicameral" mind, with one part (the "conscious mind") responsible for conscious thought and decision-making, and the other part (the "unconscious mind") responsible for issuing commands and instructions. Jaynes suggested that this division of the mind was responsible for the appearance of gods and other supernatural entities in ancient cultures, as the commands issued by the unconscious mind were interpreted as coming from these entities.
The debate about what drove the evolution of the human brain has been ongoing for some time, with many scientists arguing that natural selection played a significant role. A study by Bruce Lahn of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Chicago, published in the journal Cell, aimed to settle this debate by analyzing 214 genes known to influence brain development and function in humans, macaque monkeys, rats, and mice. The study found that these genes evolved faster in humans and macaques than in rats and mice, indicating that natural selection for greater intelligence and larger and more complex brains was more intense during human evolution. However, the study does not fully explain what triggered these genetic adaptations, and further research is needed to fully understand the evolution of the human brain. Additionally, archaeological evidence suggests that the evolution of the human brain was not only a physiological event but also a spiritual one.
We have evidence to support this spiritual shift, dating as far back as at least 70,000 years. It can be found in the hills of the remote Ngamiland region of Botswana. It is here that archaeologists discovered what appeared to be remains of the world's earliest religious worship sites. In the shelter of these rocks, early man performed advanced rituals to worship the python. According to a report published by the University of Oslo (Norway), these rock paintings show that early man practiced some form of religious ritual some 30,000 years earlier than the oldest findings in Europe.
Until this discovery, archaeologists believed that man’s first religious rituals were practiced over 40,000 years ago in Europe. Associate Professor Sheila Coulson, from the Oslo University, is convinced she has discovered mankind's oldest known ritual in Botswana while searching for Middle Stone Age artifacts in the Tsodilo Hills. The Tsodilo Hills are listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site and are known for having the largest concentration of rock paintings in the world.
To this day, the Tsodilo Hills are sacred to the local San people, who call them the "Mountains of the Gods." The San people also still consider the python as their most sacred animals. According to their creation myth, man descended from the python in the sky. The streambeds around the hills are believed to have been created by the python as it circled the hills looking for water. In order to get a San guide into the hills, one must first gain permission from the ancient serpent.
Even after permission has been “granted” by the python god, reaching the cave is no easy feat. It is extremely difficult to access and so secluded, that it was not even discovered by archaeologists until the 1990s.
At the site, there are two rock paintings on one side of the cave and a rock with a three-to-four hundred man-made indentations in it. This strange rock resembled the head of a large python, measuring six meters in length and two meters in height. With the sunlight glistening on the indentations, it gives the appearance of snake skin. An even more stunning site is at night, when the radiant glow of firelight bounces and flickers on the “scales” of the python, giving the feeling that the snake is undulating through the darkness.
To find out more about what specific rituals may have been performed at the site, archaeologists dug a test pit in front of the python stone. There, they uncovered a number of the stones that were likely used in the making of the indentations. These stones, as well as ancient tool, dating to at least 70,000 years ago, were found a found more than 13,000 artifacts. An even more interesting detail, is that the spearheads were made from material not from the Tsodilo region, but from areas much further away, indicating these were indeed, special. Additionally, the spearheads found were of better quality and more colorful than other spearheads from the same region
Archaeologists found that only the red-colored spearheads had been burned. They theorized that the early inhabitants of this site took an assortment of colored spearheads to the cave where they would finish carving them. Then, they would perform a ritual burning of the red ones. Given the absence of any other artifact type at the site, it is believed that no one lived here. Rather, it shows that this site served a special ritual purpose. All of this points to the idea that early humans were capable of abstract thinking, much earlier than previously accepted.
Moreover, behind the python rock is a secret chamber, believed to be accessed only by a shaman. It is there, he (or she) may very well have hidden and spoke to pilgrims from his hiding place. From his vantage point, he would have had a keen view of the comings and goings of people around him. He would also be in complete control, as the illusion would have been mesmerizing to an early human ancestor, having never before seen or experienced such a thing.
Just imagine for a moment you are an early human ancestor, approaching the summit after a long journey. Here, you catch a glint of light jutting off of what appears to be one of the most universally dreaded creatures in natural human history; the serpent. Although trembling in fear, you proceed. After all, this is what you came here for. Perhaps you are bringing your spearheads to be blessed so that you have luck in the hunt. Maybe you seek healing; a common association with serpent symbolism. As you stand in awe and reverence at the serpent, a low, cavernous voice bellows out to you. You would be in a highly suggestible state, having been scared and manipulated into submission to the will of the great serpent.
Had you been a cleverer fellow, you may have had some suspicion. Maybe you are brave and decide to go directly into the belly of the beast to see from where this voice was emanating. Alas, you would have likely been tricked, as the shaman would have disappeared from the chamber by way of the small shaft leading out onto the hillside!
When imagining this speculative but probable scenario, it is interesting to also consider how Jaynes’ theories may have been at play. From the point that man started to distinguish his own inner voice, he was able to impose his will onto others through the manipulation of symbols, whether they be words, paintings, animals, or hand-made goods. His internal world remained hidden to observers. He could only manifest what was buried deep inside through the manipulation of these symbols.
This occult language and the hierarchical system began as far back as prehistory, with the emergence of consciousness. It progressed as the ego manifested, creating an internal schism that framed the constant push and pull of the human experience. In another post, I'll take a closer look at how this internal schism influenced our perception, and later our interpretation, of objects and symbols.