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The African Interregnum: Good Rituals Make Good Friends

matt j rosano
Matt J Rosano
Southeastern Louisiana University

Matt J. Rossano received his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California at Riverside in 1991. He is a Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA. He is the author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, released in June 2010 by Oxford Press. His interests include: Evolution and human nature, evolutionary psychology, consciousness, evolution of the mind/brain, religion and science, and evolution of religion.


Around 100,000  years before present(ybp), anatomically modern humans (AMH)(these are not the same as Neanderthals and other hominids at the time) went back to the place from whence they emigrated, Africa; however, their retreat did not last as they were expanding again into the Eurasian landmass again 60,000 ybp and showing evidence of a much more sophisticated social structure and developed levels of cognition. This might have been due to ecological conditions in Africa at the time that created an extinction environment for AMH. From this, a level of social complexity partly based in religion emerged.tobatoba

According to Stanley Ambrose, a professor at the University of Illinois, during this period of difficulty for AMH, there was an eruption that caused a 6-10 year volcanic winter followed by a 1000 year winter winter(an ice age). This served to bottleneck AMH’s population to about only 2000 individuals, which luckily is the closest humans have ever come to extinction. This problem set the stage for a series of developments for human cognition’s development into what it is today.

The Social Solution

Around 75,000 ybp, we see evidence of trade going on around Africa: stashes of beads and sets of tools are found together, and we know they have intrinsic value as the beads are all the same type and the tools have a sophistication that man should not have accomplished at this time. These tools were a “social response to ecological stress.” The eruption made it so that AMH had to band together and trade resources or risk extinction. This solution (social solution) remained a part of human interaction even after AMH escaped extinction and is a critical part of today’s horticulture society.

Another aide to the development of society was the usage of ritual: a rule-governed pattern of formalized, attention-demanding behavior. The main usage of ritual in mammals is to confront tense or awkward situations in a way that releases tension. It draws attention away from threatening cues and defensive responses and so creates conditions for extended social interaction. Ritual behavior is also the basis of many other social and cognitive skills and so no matter how few rituals were observed, the fact that they happened at all served as a keystone to the development of social bonds.

Origins of Modern Cognition

Archaeologists have suggested that modern cognition is based on the use of symbols to organize behavior. Put another way, symbols help us organize our society by having a set standard (think of the alphabet). The symbols have purely arbitrary value decided by the culture that uses them. The reason we are able to use these symbols as social cues is because of the increase in working memory during this period. We gained the ability to hold goal-relevant information while completing other tasks. This increased memory combined with the development of symbols, humans began to master the concept of shared intentionality, which is just a fancy way of saying we can understand what another person is doing or thinking and so we can create shared meanings and communicate.

This working memory was also extremely important in the establishment of more complex rituals as these rituals needed increasing levels of self-restraint. The ability to ignore an intuitive response to complete a ritual takes a level of mental fortitude that AMH developed.  Evidence shows that rituals in place to develop group trust and solidarity are the most demanding of self-control and focus. Three main types of social rituals were key in building group alliances and trust: trust building and reconciliation, initiation, and shamanistic.

trust fall
an example of a ritual that we use today where we have to hold back our inhibitions

Rituals of Trust-Building and Reconciliation: These types of rituals likely saw a rise in polarity as AMH started grouping up more and more. Individuals had to show that they could restrain their instinct when it came to interactions with the group to show that they were indeed members who embodied the group’s best interests. The individuals who could not inhibit these instincts were probably left to survive alone as outcasts.

Rituals of Initiation: Even today, over 70% of traditional societies have rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood. As society during this period become more and more complex, the initiation practices became more intense. The ability to have self-control during these rites is a hallmark of the increased working memory needed for symbolic thought.

Shamanistic Healing Rituals: Shamanism combined supernatural authority to social norm which led to increased within group cohesion. Groups that were bonded by these emotionally taxing rituals would more likely exhibit altruism during times of scarcity and this gave the group a fitness advantage over other hominids. These shamanistic rituals were also heavy on their usage of mind altering drugs ad most of the practices during the rituals served the gual of achieving an altered state of consciousness. This process of ritual healing shows evidence of being viable at the time for increasing survival rate and the rituals might have even played a roll in increasing working memory necessary for modern cognition with the mind altering drugs.

The Fortuitous Mutation

Stanford archaeologist Richard Klein’s theory on human development is that the difference between AMH  and other hominins was genetic mutations that restructured AMH’s brains in a way to conduce social interaction resulting in a cognitive advantage. In 1896, three researchers studied the process known as the Baldwin effect which provided a mechanism for allowing environmental phylogenic traits to become genetically expressed through processes of natural selection. Acquired traits do not necessarily affect the genes, but they might create an advantage in these individuals that could contribute to this gene becoming expressed in future generations. Complex cognitive skills could have emerged as a necessity of the environment and as that necessity persisted, the traits required for cognitive abilities were genetically expressed and become stabilized in the gene pool.

Baby Rituals

When we observe rituals in mammals, we can see all of the elements associated (attention-demanding, formalized, rule governed) in interactions between infants and adults. Within an hour of birth, human babies start imitating facial expressions indicating these reactions are more than just reflexes, they are genetically coded and expressed. Even in later infancy, we notice a pattern in mother-child interactions:

  1. Initiation- engage attention
  2. Mutual orientation- excitement calms and voices soothing
  3. Greeting- infant moves limbs, mother more animated
  4. Play Dialogue- take turns making sounds (protoconversation)
We see that this baby has learned the action, so why does she laugh every time we play peek-a-boo?

These elements show that there is a specific order followed, and even if this ritual is not used to confront an awkward situation, it teaches the baby the process of ritual behavior. Why does a baby laugh every single time you play peek-a-boo? It’s not like it has not leaned what is going on, it is part of the ritual of the game (you would be hard pressed to find a baby that doesn’t laugh at peek-a-boo).  These interactions with adults and especially mothers teach infants the critical skills of how to regulate emotions based on interactions, how to use social partners as cues for emotion and as a source of information, and how to use the ritual context to interpret a situation and the emotions attached to it.

The parents of AMH 70,000 years ago did not share this level of intricacy in parent-infant interactions, but ones that showed increased  levels of it were more likely to reproduce and this possibly became a part of genetic code through the Baldwinian process.

Unique Culture Produces Unique Cognition

After all of this, we only have one question: why us? There were other hominids like the Neanderthals that shared many features with us, but did not show this level of cognition. The only differences were the wide ranged trading patterns of AMH and supernatural beliefs associated with shamanistic rituals. Basically, increased social rituals were the only differences that allowed humans to develop cognition and developed highly complex social rituals because of this. The reason humans are so unique, no matter how corny it sounds, is because we worked in groups as a species due to survival needs.