Sunday, December 6, 2009

Things I Learned From “Becoming Human,” part 3

This is my take on the last episode of Becoming Human, the PBS Nova series about human evolution and it says about Bigfoot. All three episodes are well worth watching. You can watch them and more here. This episode is called, “Last Human Standing.”

3) Being flexible omnivores made us human. Our closest cousins on the evolutionary tree are the Neanderthals. Besides slightly bigger brains and the occasional brow ridge, Neanderthals had another significant difference from us. They were nearly exclusively carnivores. The hunted and killed large herbivores like the wooly mammoth and other Ice Age mega-fauna, but unfortunately did not eat Brontosaurus Burgers. Curse you, Fred Flintstone! But as for wily Home Sapiens, we pretty much ate anything we could get our hands on. During one of the major African droughts, when most of Africa was uninhabitable, Homo Sapiens picked up and moved to the coasts of Africa and started eating shellfish for the first time. That was their survival method for dealing with the long-term drought. This is also the time when we started making specialized tools.

Over the millennia, we added fruits, vegetables, and grains to the diet in addition to animals, birds, and fish. However, when the climate changed enough and enough species went extinct, Neanderthals weren’t able to adapt and find something else to eat. They started out eating meat and finished up eating meat, and then they went extinct when there was nothing left to hunt. In a related note, Scientists can track the migration paths of early Homo Sapiens by the patterns of the animal extinctions we left in our trails. The evidence indicates that Homo Sapiens have always been hard on the environment and was a contributing cause to the Neanderthal’s extinction in Europe and Homo Erectus’s extinction in Asia. What is clear is that when we use up the resources in one place, we either switch our food sources or we move to a different place. And it is this adaptability that has made us so successful.

So what does all this have to do with Bigfoot? Well, Becoming Human has shown us the essential aspects for being human, for what separates us from the other apes. 1) Highly adaptive to terrain, climate, and food. 2) Carnivorous, while leaning toward Omnivorous. 3) Big brains. 4) Little or no body hair with full body sweating. Notice that bipedalism didn’t make the cut. It’s an important characteristic, but not essential to being human. There were lots of other bipedal apes around before us. It’s our brains that really separate us from other apes.

Today, while different kinds of unknown bipedal primates are reported around the world in different climates and geographies, the reports indicate these are different species that have adapted to specific environments, not one species that roams around the world and is able to live anywhere. This indicates a low level of adaptability for Bigfoot and his assorted cousins. Given the question of body hair and sweating, it could be assumed that Bigfoot isn’t as efficient in body cooling as we are, which leads to the matter of brain size. The body to brain size ratio for Bigfoot would not nearly be as great as it is for Homo Sapiens—a furry, hairy body wouldn’t support a bigger brain like ours. Most reports of Bigfoot’s diet indicates a mostly vegetarian diet with rare instances of opportunistic meat scavenging, similar to chimpanzees. This would also be an indicator for a smaller brain.

What this all adds up to is that, in all likelihood, Bigfoot is an ape, not a human variant. If we accept the theories given in Becoming Human, then one of the three major questions concerning Bigfoot from Loren Coleman—Is Bigfoot human or ape?—has been answered. At least according to our latest understandings of what it means to be human.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Things I Learned From “Becoming Human,” part 2

This three-part series, Becoming Human, on PBS’s Nova covers new theories about how and why we evolved into human beings and is well worth watching. You can watch all of the episodes here, as well as view several interesting mini-programs about related topics. This post covers the major idea presented in episode 2, “The Birth of Humanity.” It’s a doozy.

2) Sweating made us human. Okay, bear with me. The big brains we got from climate change needed more food to operate. Our brains use more energy and food than any other organ in our body. To get more food, we turned to meat, which is loaded in calories, protein, and fat. To get meat, since humans don’t have claws, fangs, or great strength, we had to figure out a new way get our meat fix. Scientists now think we turned to persistence hunting, which is chasing the prey until it collapses from exhaustion and then killing it. The Bushmen of Africa still do this, chasing antelopes and other game for several hours in the heat of the day, when most animals are sleeping. It turns out that humans are unique in this capability; we can run for hours in the hottest temperatures because we traded fur for sweating. They think that losing our body hair or fur and gaining the ability to sweat happened at the same time as our brains started to get bigger. Most animals cool themselves by panting. Humans can sweat over their entire bodies which is a more effective method for cooling. Our bigger brains triggered a number of adaptations to support that growth. Because our brains got bigger, we started eating meat, lost our body hair, started sweating, and were able to run down prey for hours at a time. Oh, and our big brains and our new appetite for meat caused us to develop stone tool-making to “process” our kills and fire-making to cook the meat to make it more easily digestible. But the ability to sweat was the big change that enabled everything else. Cool.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Things I Learned From “Becoming Human,” part 1

This three-part series, Becoming Human, on PBS’s Nova covers new theories about how and why we evolved into human beings and is well worth watching. You can watch all of the episodes here, as well as view several interesting mini-programs about related topics. Some of the ideas being offered in Becoming Human are fairly new and have a lot of bearing on how we differ from the other great apes and by inference how we might compare to Bigfoot. I’ll cover the major ideas in each of the three episodes and wrap it all up in the final and third installment.

1) Climate change made us human. At one time, it was thought going from knuckle-walking to bipedalism is what triggered the growth of our brains. But there were bipedal apes staggering around Africa for 4 million years before there was a growth spurt in the brains department 2 million years ago, and then it was a upwards growth from then on. Scientists have now linked it to a long period of climate change in the Africa Rift Valley, where the climate swung back and forth between extreme drought and desertification to extreme rainy periods. This went on for a long time and the most successful bipedal apes were the ones that could adapt the easiest to the extreme changes in climate. The ones that could do this were the ones with bigger brains. They could think better with a bigger brain. The longer the climates changes continued, the bigger our brains got. So bigger brains enabled apes to adapt to their changing surroundings and to eventually adapt their surroundings to themselves—big brains, big advantage, big deal.

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