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The Real of Ayahuasca Visions

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The following are narrative representations of the phenomenal content of ayahuasca visions.  These representations attempt to capture a depth and richness of cognitive activity that are admittedly “beyond representation”.  The context of these descriptions are as follows:

  • Each of the three events were the first three events of my personal experience experimenting with the states-of-mind produced through using ayahuasca
  • The events took place with a European religious organization mythologically influenced by Western Christianity, South American Shamanism, and African Spiritualism.
  • Drinking of ayahuasca occurred within well-structured mythological environment, and the hallucinatory transitions and experiences took place within an environment highly mediated by ritual song and dance.
  • The sessions occurred during the first year of my PhD work in Brussels, Belgium; a period in which I was starting to read and be influenced by various forms of transcendental philosophy.

Event #1 — November 2014

After taking the first cup I didn’t feel very much, just some interesting shapes and colours on the periphery of my vision.

After the second cup the musical instrumentation and the singing around me started gaining a qualitative dimension of “perfection”.  I immediately felt a strong “pull” towards the “center” of the social group as if the instrumentation and singing were in-themselves gravitational forces mediating an irresistible attraction of mental activity.

For a moment “Cadell” (as “ego” or “self-identity”) resisted this attractive pull due to an intuitive recognition that this transformation would lead to a type of phase transition beyond personal control.  I specifically remember feeling an overwhelming “fear” or even “terror”, something like “Oh My God”, I could go off an edge/cliff of my own being.  I could lose all sense perception of time and linear development, or lose my mind altogether.  However, I was able to recall the advice of some fellow more experienced participants that was relevant to this transformation, which emphasized not to “fear losing control” and to “let the phenomenon take you”.

Upon affirming this cognitive action I was completely off in a positive (albeit overwhelming) direction.  I felt phenomenally oriented towards the centre of the social action and I could immediately conceive the whole of humanity integrated as “One” in a type of dynamic joyous harmony.

In this space I was surprisingly capable of what I perceived to be “higher levels” of “self-reflection” about my life (a “meta-view” of my “life history” and “current trajectory”).  In this mode I was all-consumed by questions of ultimate meaning and purpose, i.e. “What does it mean to engage in right action?” “What does it mean to be a good person?”  “What can I do with my life?”  “What can I do to make the world a better place?”

In response to these questions the “medium of visions” repeatedly reflected images of humanity/civilization as around an enormous global campfire singing and dancing in spaces with strange geometries or higher dimensional patterns and “spirally”/”fractally” movements.  I had the direct impression that if I could immediately share this experience with others then the world itself would be reconciled of all evil and suffering.

In these strange geometric spaces I felt whatever was left of my “ego” burning (within a fire that disintegrated my identity in an almost sexually satisfying way) and whatever observational point was left was filled with laughter and joy.  The “I” felt like “All” and possessed a strength that was unparalleled.  The feeling was of a “force in-itself” that was in some sense “in control without any reflective self-consciousness controlling the becoming”.  This state was perceived as a “gift” and an opening on to a horizon with a feminine presence that “said” something like: “Here, I know you have been waiting; I know you wanted mystery; I know you wanted to see the divine for yourself, so here it is.”

This gift phenomenon was associated with feeling “on top” or “at the peak” of potential mind, a mind mirror where everything was a reflection of my own loci of observation.  In other words the feeling of “I” as “All” could be represented in a sentence as “This is everything, absolutely everything, the experience of the height of all experience”.

In this mode there were a few moments where I thought I felt “the presence of ayahuasca itself”.  This was typically associated with the phenomenal form of female eyes.  These eyes were leading me or guiding me through different pathways of consciousness that were disorienting and connected with a sense of confusion and sometimes trouble.  I am unsure if they represented my past or my future.  I intuitively felt like I wanted to explore in greater depth these pathways but didn’t know how to reach them or actualize them, which I interpreted to mean that they were dimensions of my own mind that were “off limits”.

Towards the end of this contemplation of pathways I felt larger than not only the universe but the totality of all universes (a virtual multiverse in all its “modes of potentiality”).  I was capable of maneuvering and transitioning in scale from the incomprehensibly large to the realms of galaxies and solar systems and eventually around the sphere of our Earth.  I was able to “view the Earth as a whole sphere simultaneously” which felt as though I was being presented with a structural impossibility as an actualized observation.

Finally, there were sensations of my mind really opening up to a deeper dimension of space that was too overwhelming to possibly represent in this narrative.  The dimension was presented to me with a depth of being and complexity of a truly other world that felt “most real”.  This opening up felt as if it was an even deeper “phase transition of mind” that involves the “annihilation of mind itself”, as if I could easily be ripped through and leave what we call mind.  I had a mixture of wanting it to happen and being hesitant, and before I could think further about it, the phenomenon fell away.

In a reflective return to the social action of the circle I felt overwhelmed by the power of the circular drive and vitality of the instrumentation and music, as if I had become a part (or was playing my part) in some emergent perpetual motion machine in a centripetal pattern.  The production as a whole felt like the ultimate triumph as if “we had done IT!” (with “IT” representing some internally generated cosmic pinnacle that had conquered suffering, evil, and empty otherness).

In personal reflection the feeling was very strong that we could start new types of societies.  In relation to our current society it felt like “non-conformism” and not “playing-the-game” was the best approach.  A passage from a book by David Graeber I had been reading came to my mind as central: “fill out ‘their’ forms from time-to-time but mostly just ignore ‘them’ and do your own thing, disobey wherever you can.”  I interpreted the centrality of this statement to represent the ethos of “rule breaking for the sake of Truth-mediated individuation”.

The ideal emerged to me in an image of a free society around roaring campfires with music and song and dance and deep thoughtful conversations under the stars.  However, this ideal free society again appeared in “transcendent spaces” with all sorts of movement that would be “impossible” in our actually experienced “four dimensional reality”.  The idea that we should hug more was felt with enormous power (with the “enormous power” coming in the form of a type of “mind hug”).  The idea that our current society was robotic, robotic in the way we love, the way we think, the way we restrict possibilities of otherness (“rule following for the sake of rule following”).  The idea that life is a celebration, that life is warm, that the Earth is our home, that the universe as an object did not diminish the importance of the subject; on the contrary, that the universe as an object is only-ever something internally posited by a subject (the “objective” as a “fantasy” in the realest and deepest sense of the term).

The totality of the experience lacked a sense of clear “temporality” but instead gave the impression of an “eternity” (an ‘outside’ of what we normally refer to as ‘time and space’).  It could be simply that the “concepts of time and space” were not relevant in relation to this experience.  However, what I will refer to as a “spatial eternity” was connected to an overwhelming “presence of Love”.  In the final moments as the group’s music and motion slowed, it felt as though my mind had been dirty and muddy, and that I had just emerged from a perfect clear river.

Event #2 — December 2014

In this experience the first cup started to make me feel queazy, like I could vomit, but I didn’t.  Furthermore, at first, the dancing prevented me from fully getting into rhythm with my experience, and so I left the circle to sit by myself.

When I sat down to explore my mind the experience did not feel coherent.  I kept collapsing in on myself with no real direction or orientation.  I felt like I kept opening new chapters of my self but not able to make any thoughtful progress in reflection.  This was then followed by (light) images of me collapsing in on myself.

Then, following the second cup, my mind immediately exploded.  I felt “gone gone gone” as my mind was surrounded with unending (limitless) geometric patterns full of colour and brilliant symmetries that evoked the impression of immortal life.  My whole experience was so full of energy that I felt as though I was in another dimension of being.

Indeed, the main interpretation from the phenomenal perception was that I was in my own universe, a universe of my imagination, and I was travelling at “light speeds” (or very quickly) through the cosmos — by passing planets, stars, galaxies — and my Will was in charge the whole time (i.e. the direction I wanted to travel or the changes I wanted to effect within the imagination space).  Phenomena responded to the opening and closing of my vision, the focusing of my vision on a particular location, and the whole field was an energy connected and flowing through my loci of observation.

Then at one moment the field stopped, or I slowed down within the field.  I saw a virtual reality-like figure that was very powerful and big and green and smiling and shifting or drifting upwards around an enormous Earth-like planet.  The smile was incredibly interesting for some perplexing reason (perhaps a little like the disembodied smile of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland), and I followed this figure.

As I approached the planet I saw endless art in mediums and designs beyond comprehension and city structures of incredible diversity and complexity as if in a type of “futuristic utopia”.  This environment once again produced a feeling of “revelation” (something like the ‘Kingdom of God’) as if I could just communicate this experience to every human on Earth the “Truth” of the “highest existence” would become apparent or obvious.

In the city I felt like humanity could be this transcendent in “actual reality” (in contrast to “imaginary reality”), but it would take a currently unfathomable “metasystem of thought/feeling and being”.  It would require a resolution of the fundamental relationship between the “human mind” and “worldly otherness”.

As I walked and explored the maze-like pathways of this city I found myself reflecting on the nature of belief.  What is belief?  What is its function?  What does belief as an object of analysis in-itself say about our species, our aspirations, our possibilities?  I reasoned that humans want to believe that there is something higher/deeper/more than us, or: that we ourselves can be higher/deeper/more; that there is a way to escape what William Blake referred to as the “Mundane Shell”.  I interpreted this as a phenomenon of de-centering from within, i.e. that human beings are de-centered in relationship to transcendental visions.

As I opened my eyes to observe the social action around me I became mesmerized by the symmetry of motion.  I reflected on the insane improbability of such a symmetrical motion sustaining itself over any duration of time.  The motion for all appearances was a dance in defiance of the “fallen universe”, that our dance speaks of itself, that we are calling into being a higher order of existence through the collective organization of individual minds, that from our free cooperation an emergent order can arise.  The dance of transcendence itself and the ultimate negation of the external tendency of matter to fall into death and disorder.

I then encountered what was the impression of the paradoxical nature of Church structure.  On the one hand I deeply appreciated the order and ritual that the Church provided, I deeply appreciated the connection to higher meaning that it spoke for in-itself.  However, on the other hand, I wanted very deeply to experience this moment on my own terms.  I thought it would be ideal if there were less authority, hierarchy, lineage, and also less symbolism from traditional religions.  I recalled Emerson’s “does the sun not shine to-day?” “Can we not develop our own rituals, worship, and relations?”  This is in some sense in line with the Freudian ideas of “revivification of the Father”.  However, is this a total negation of the Church as such?  Or is this instead a call to re-imagine Church structures that speak to a divine present?

Towards the end of the ritual I had to lay down on my own because I had the intuition that I needed to explore once again my own visions independent of the group.  I found myself overlooking a plane or field of vision that seemed to represent the evolutionary history of the universe that specifically highlighted the topography of primate evolution in many different forested regions.  I saw all types of biological forms come into existence change and disappear from view.  I saw the power of death but the resilience of life.  I saw these as complimentary and necessary processes.  I saw human beings gradually emerge from this field of appearance and disappearance.  They appeared as troubled and confused, but mostly perplexed.

However, most of the experiences during this final stretch are extremely blurry and hard to recall in detail although I have an impression that the experiences in-themselves were rich and somehow related to other evolutionary processes.  The emphasis was on processes of change and transformation, and all of the emotions that such change and transformation can evoke.

Event #3 — August 2015

During the first two cups (which I had back to back) I started to feel a deep sense of anger and even a deeper sense of existential fear.  The anger and fear revolved around my own “creaturely-ness” and the imperfections, finiteness, and limits that come with being a creature.

There was an “all-consuming darkness” that involves a sense of being “hyper critical” of myself.  I started to “hate myself” and all of my flaws and inconsistencies and lack of social love and ability to communicate with others, etc.  This lasted for what felt like quite some time and I had a growing sense of emptiness or void in the center of myself.

This process may have been a reflection of the character or climate of the room as the whole room felt dark and silent as if the whole room were anticipating a horrible tragedy.  This feeling was overwhelmingly “creepy” and I started to worry that this would foreshadow the experience as a whole as a potential spiral descent into the depths of the worst Hell.

However, after the third cup this “lowly creature state” was transformed into the emergence of a meta-dialogue or analysis of myself, almost as if the flawed, inconsistent, and darker parts of me had been synthesized to a higher form.  This was coupled with a feeling of the importance of my embodied state, even the Truth and the purpose of my embodied state and the action in my embodied state.  I received the impression in an image that the feeling of your body wanting to vomit or throw up was in some sense an “ayahuasca metaphor for the state of the Self”, i.e. vomiting up your self was equal to a criticism of self, a type of purging yourself of faults and inconsistencies.

In this experience a type of dialectic between creature and creator played a dominant form of my thought.  How the “creature” and the “creator” were both “me” at different levels of thought, i.e. I could meta-analyze my creature self when I was in “creator” mode.  This appeared to me logically interpreted as the imagination “sculpting” biology in the form of its desire.

The mind felt like a vertical “pole” that was all along its axis “me”.  At the top of the pole I was eternal and all-knowing (not in the sense of “omniscient vis-a-vis the world” but in the sense of just “knowing” my own ground in-myself), i.e. a type of self-evident consciousness “in” and “for” itself.  The highest pole of myself could look down at my creature self with no fears and no concerns, everything was fine, and I was forgiven for being on a lower-level of mind, unable to overcome my inconsistencies.  This state was coupled with the annihilation of any “death anxiety”.

In this highest pole I interpreted this state to be “pure self-relating existence”, the strangest state of consciousness where everything was once again “I” (as in Idealism where everything in the “not-I” could be found internal to the “I”).  This felt like a type of “virtual consciousness” which was in some sense distinct from my biological and physical states or constraints, an “excess vis-a-vis the world” that was “I” (a paradoxical nothing and everything).  I would say a strange phenomenal dimension of this feeling was in relation to “weight-ness / light-ness” in the sense that I was “heavy” but in a “light” way (i.e. it was not a “heaviness” I would associate with “physical matter”).

I connected this highest state to the nature of eternity or immortality.  In this state “the I” does not appear as if it is linked to the material causal chain of necessity but “outside” of it looking down on “the chain of your being” as a free spirit.  This was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my entire life if not the most enjoyable experience of my life.

I recognized while in this state how crucial the music and social energy of the circle contributed to a type of “coherent platform” that enabled me to stabilize such a pure state of transcendental self-relating.  I felt that if this music and social energy of the circle were to disappear I could risk falling into an abyssal darkness.  I furthermore recognized again the patterns that the group generated, specifically the fact that the circular organization gathered its own energy and clearly directed it towards an inner center.

These reflections were then coupled with what appeared to me as a theory of the “end of the universe”.  I felt that the “end of the universe” deserved to be a glorious celebration ordered by music and dance as opposed to a gradual decay into disorder and death.  I thought that perhaps in the future we would develop the psycho-social and technical know-how to develop “our own ground” where our own “substantive work/effort” produced a virtual mental plane higher than nature.

In this sense the social energy and experience of this group was in some sense the opposite or an inversion of “real social life”.  I had the intuition that the bonds for  community life were in this experience, that it refreshes/rejuvenates everyone with a “youthful vitality” and “cosmic gratefulness”.  In your collective work you produce something more than you, and in that it provides the justification and motivation for the communities existence (there is no need for a coercive power as an external ground necessary for functional order).

I felt that the troubles of “real social life” could potentially be explained by a type of alienation, where social systems are composed of people who do not truly give their spirit to the organization, and/or the inverse, where the organization does not really deserve the people’s spirit.  In contrast, this social order was built in-and-through the subjective energy of your own work towards a transcendent self, coupled with the subjective energy of all the others who shared a similar motion.  In this sense there was no friction and only synergy in the creative actualization of all “transcendent-selves”.  From this perspective I thought that the “transcendent ground” could be “willed/actualized” by our own self-work.

However, I also realized that this state could not actually be discursively communicated to others who have not experienced it in-and-for themselves.  In other words, you cannot “convince” someone of this experience, someone who does not want to experience it, will not experience it.  It can only be willed/actualized by your own self-work.

As the effects wore down I reflected on the harsh fact that ayahuasca in-itself does not “actualize” you when the experience is over.  It rather opens the door for actualization, for deeper reflection on yourself, but the burden still ultimately falls on yourself.  In this sense the biggest adjustment to ayahuasca experience is in the relation between acquired habits and the self.  You are forced to confront change in yourself, to not “hold on to yourself” but to question and criticize everything about yourself in the goal of climbing the mental pole to the top (to overcome your particular creaturely self for a higher creative self).  However, and at the same time, at the height of the mental pole there is “no goal” and “only a drive of continued motion” (the “eternal-immortal” is a “drive” of “pure becoming”).

In this frame I recalled the Zizekian/Badiouian historical challenge: how can we forsake our particular animality (our mammalian, primatological origins) for a higher transcendental Truth in the 21st century (how is this even “thinkable” on a large scale?).  The idea of a “return to Plato” in the sense that, not democracy, but transcendental Truth/enlightenment in the form of a “community of philosopher beings” could only generate the power of the “One”.  In this sense “representative democracy” is the “best of a diversity of worse options” only in a fallen world, i.e. representative democracy is an effect a lack (of enlightenment).

From this perspective I thought that there was much to gain from the rituals and practices of the ayahuasca ceremony.  The customs of the event are important, everything from the music, the ordering of the people, the lighting, the rituals, all add dimensions of meaning and significance in-and-for the social group.  This process even opens up a strange mystery internal to the social group: that we are protecting and the guardians of something special (guardians of a sacred order).  The idea that in the social act you rekindle mystery of something beyond life itself (something immortal): the Truth as actualized effective appearances.

In this sense I wondered: does every social group in-itself operate under the de-centered circular production of myths and rituals for “actualizing the eternal-immortal” within the domain “finitude” and “mortality”?

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“The Advanced Apes is a great source for insight into the ideas and implications behind what’s happening in contemporary science.” – Mark Katakowski (Creator of Hubski) “I used the “Are Chimpanzees Cultural” video in my biological anthropology classes as an introduction to the discussion of culture and primates. “Love the animation” was the resounding response from students. What sets this video apart is the animation supports a clear message about how scientists define and determine culture in non-human primates. These definitions and the behavioral examples were a great springboard for the ensuing discussion.” – Cynthia Bradbury (Professor of Anthropology at Boise State University)

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A ‘Great’ Crisis

Change is in you

I have been thinking a great deal about happiness and how we can best study the happiness of our species.  That is why a recent study on great ape mood caught my eye.  I found it quite insightful.  The study was led by psychologist Alexander Weiss, who investigated patterns of well-being in two great ape species: chimpanzees and orangutans (Coles, 2012).  In this study, Weiss and his colleagues wanted to understand if our closest relatives share the same general life pattern of well-being that humans seem to possess.  Social scientists have established that humans experience a U-shaped pattern of well-being.  This means that as a species we tend to experience greatest mental health in youth, become far less happy throughout midlife, and then become happier again in old age (Weiss et al., 2012).  This seems to be a general pattern regardless of various socio-cultural and economic factors.  The study by…

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The Advanced Apes Podcast with Dr. Jonathan Marks

The Advanced Apes Podcast with Dr. Jonathan Marks

For the past few years, biological anthropologist Dr. Jonathan Marks has been a tremendous influence to me academically.  I love his books What It Means To Be 98% Chimpanzee, and Why I Am Not A Scientist.  Last week I had a chance to interview him for a The Advanced Apes Podcast.  For about an hour we discussed popular science, human evolution, and primatology. If you are interested you can check it out on theadvancedapes.com.

Are Chimpanzees Cultural?

For the past two months I, along with my two friends Alicia Herbert and Drew Hewitt, have been working on launching a new YouTube channel. We want this channel to be educational and focus on evolutionary and environmental science. Our first video is on chimpanzee culture. If you have any thoughts or comments, I would love to hear them.

Change is in you

I recently watched a BBC documentary about the Congo. It was part of a larger documentary series on Africa narrated by David Attenborough that I highly recommend. Whenever I watch BBC nature documentaries I feel like I learn something new each time. But while I was watching Congo, one scene in particular caught my attention. It was a scene on “chimpanzee fire.” Immediately my curiosity piqued. In the scene, a camera panned across a dark forest floor, and within moments it started coming to life with a green glow.

Was it chimpanzee fire? Unfortunately, it was not. It was bioluminescent fungi that the local Congolese call “chimpanzee fire.” Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Several animal, plant, and fungi species have adapted the ability to produce their own light, and it serves many important functions. I actually had a chance to learn a lot…

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“Chimpanzee Fire”

I recently watched a BBC documentary about the Congo. It was part of a larger documentary series on Africa narrated by David Attenborough that I highly recommend. Whenever I watch BBC nature documentaries I feel like I learn something new each time. But while I was watching Congo, one scene in particular caught my attention. It was a scene on “chimpanzee fire.” Immediately my curiosity piqued. In the scene, a camera panned across a dark forest floor, and within moments it started coming to life with a green glow.

Was it chimpanzee fire? Unfortunately, it was not. It was bioluminescent fungi that the local Congolese call “chimpanzee fire.” Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Several animal, plant, and fungi species have adapted the ability to produce their own light, and it serves many important functions. I actually had a chance to learn a lot about bioluminescence at an amazing exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York over the winter break.

It is easy to see why the native Congolese would have started to call this bioluminescent fungi chimpanzee fire. Modern science has only started to understand how bioluminescence functions and evolves. And it is kind of counterintuitive to think of organisms that have the ability to produce their own light. In the early modern era or pre-modern era, I think I would have been far more convinced by the chimpanzee fire hypothesis.

But this little anecdote about chimpanzee fire from the Congo reminds us of something more interesting: people in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa likely realized chimpanzees were behaviourally similar to humans for tens of thousands of years. Positing that chimpanzees had the ability to ignite fire across the forest floor is laden with symbolic meaning about our connection with them. And it is not hard to see why they would have attributed the glow to chimpanzees. In fact the name chimpanzee is derived from Tshiluba (a Congoloese language), and translates roughly as ‘mockman.’ This further supports the idea that we didn’t necessarily need modern science to reason that chimpanzees were human-like. Just like the Ancient Greek philosophers didn’t need telescopes to reason that the stars could be just like our Sun, only further away.

But let’s turn our attention back to fire. Sure the bioluminescent fungi were not chimpanzee fire, but can any populations of chimpanzee control and use fire? After all, most behavioural differences between chimpanzees and humans are really best thought of as gradient differences. Do any chimpanzees gather around a little campfire for warmth? Or light a torch to get through the forest at night?

Recent research at Fongoli in Senegal has revealed some interesting findings. Populations of chimpanzees at Fongoli behave a lot differently than many other populations studied to date. They are the only non-human organisms on the planet known to hunt other animals with weapons. They also periodically live in caves and travel at night. And unlike most other chimpanzee populations, they seem to have developed a fondness for water. But do they use and control fire?

Primatologist Jill Pruetz claims that the Fongoli chimps are confronted with fire more than other chimpanzee populations. They live in a savanna-mosaic environment and as a result wild fires spread more frequently than in the habitats of other chimpanzee populations. When confronted with these fires they seem to be able to “predict the movement.” (Pruetz & LaDuke, 2009). Pruetz says that in such situations she chooses to follow the chimpanzees rather than find her own path out of the woodland.

Despite this, no Fongoli chimp, or any other chimp, has ever been observed to control and use fire. That appears to be an ability acquired after our split with chimpanzees and bonobos. However, this leads to an interesting question: when did we start using fire? And what benefits did using fire have?

The question is harder to answer that it seems. The beginnings of most distinctively human behaviours leave little-to-no trace in the archaeological record. When it comes to understanding the origin of things like language or tool construction, theory has less testable evidence than would be ideal. In the case of fire, traces of fire use are easily and quickly destroyed by wind and rain, so acquiring direct evidence of early campsites may be impossible. That being said, we have uncovered some answers regarding the origin of the control and use of fire. This evidence is indirect, but reliable.

Paleoanthropologists believe they have pushed the origin of fire control and use to approximately 1.7 million years ago. The evidence comes from Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, where stratified deposits have produced burned cryptocrystalline stones, charred-calcined bones, and traces of ash, which indicate repeated burning events (Beaumont, 2011).

These deposits are associated with the remains of Homo ergaster, the African sister species to Homo erectus. Evolutionary anthropologists have known for a while that Homo erectus controlled and used fire, but the deposits at Wonderwerk push back its origin by hundreds of thousands of years.

Researchers have hypothesized that Homo ergaster regularly constructed campfires as they would have had considerable protection benefits on the southern savannas against a formidable array of carnivores. From my own research on chimpanzee nesting patterns, I believe that fire may have been a necessary behavioural adaptation to successfully migrate into a terrestrial niche. If my hypothesis is accurate, we should expect the origin of fire to be pushed back several millions of years. Alas, we don’t have evidence for that… yet.

Either way, fire may have provided our ancestors with an even greater benefit than protection from predators: cooking. Fire allowed our ancestors to prepare and cook meals (Wrangham, 2009). British primatologist Richard Wrangham recently wrote an entire book on the origin of fire and how it changed our species. He posits that cooking increased food efficiency, which enabled larger brain growth. His hypothesis is largely supported by current theory and evidence. It is also interesting to note that modern humans are highly evolved for eating cooked food, and if not prepared properly, raw food can be lethally poisonous to our digestive tract.

As human-like as chimpanzees can be, they do not control and use fire in the wild (even though they can be taught by humans). The original discovery that fire can be controlled and used for our benefit may have been the product of one ancient genius, or it may have been stumbled upon several hundreds of times. It seems that we will never have precise knowledge of how it exactly happened. However, we do have important knowledge of where it was made, when it was made, and what species discovered it. Future research should help us better understand how this happened, and consequently, it will help us reconstruct our current story of how we became human.  And you can help make future primatological discoveries possible by helping the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada continue field research throughout AfricaThe next big discovery is only one field season away.

References

Beaumont, P.B.  2011.  The Edge: More on Fire-Making by about 1.7 Million Years Ago at Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.  Current Anthropology, 52: 585-595.    

Pruetz, J.D. & LaDuke, T.C.  2009.  Brief communication: Reaction to fire by savanna chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of “fire behavior” and the case for a chimpanzee model.  American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 141: 646-650.

Wrangham, R.  2009.  Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.  New York: Basic Books.

Change is in you

A few posts ago, I wrote about how genetic testing could help conservationists reintegrate chimpanzees into the wild.  This is because chimpanzees are extremely diverse genetically; making it easy for geneticists to pinpoint what area of Africa an individual chimpanzee originated from.  In fact, chimpanzees (and all other great apes) are more genetically diverse than our species: Homo sapiens.  Recent genetic studies by molecular anthropologists have revealed that there are only 38 million unique genetic variants among the 3 billion base pair sequences within our species genome.  Although 38 million unique variants may seem like a lot, it is actually a very small fraction of our genome.  All the great apes are far more dissimilar than humans.  We appear to be a homogenous group!

But this begs the question: why are we so similar?

On further reflection it becomes very perplexing.  After all, there are seven billion humans on…

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