Saturday, April 25, 2009

ESL In Korea: Questions And Answers Part II

As Experienced by Me

Cultural Differences

The following is my rant about everything I hated about South Korea. I did meet some wonderful Koreans during my 5 months as an ESL teacher. However, these were all people who had travelled outside of Korea and knew how to interact with 'Westerners'. There is a small, but loud contingent of anti-American extremists. Remember, even though you aren't American, we all look alike to them and speaking English is the dead give away.

Now, having travelled around the world and being anthropologically inclined, I have always considered myself to be culturally tolerant. I try to learn at least a few phrases of the local language (if only "Hello", "Yes/No" and "Thank you") and am always willing to check out the non-touristy locales and 'native' foods. I have been to countries where English is rarely spoken but due to effort on my part, and the aid of helpful locals, I have never had a problem getting around, feeding myself, finding accommodations or exploring the area. South Korea is not like that at all. You will see signs in English and Korean everywhere, which is helpful in getting around, but it is a rare occurance to find someone who speaks or understands English.

I have been to other Asian countries, so I was familiar with some of the cultural behaviours (respect for elders, bowing/no physical contact, etc.). However, the behaviour which soon wore me down was the cold, emotionless face which exemplify Koreans.

They don't smile freely, and especially not to strange foreigners. It was almost 4 months before any of my neighbourhood shopkeepers smiled in response to polite greetings. The thing is, after all of that time, it became difficult for me to smile at all. It was oppressive. Sure, you can laugh and smile with the kids you are teaching (when you aren't pulling your hair out or screaming at them to behave) but not smiling on a regular basis will make you depressed.

Koreans distrust and disdain foreigners. I have never felt more like a freakish alien in my life. This was not a situation where my clothing gave me away as a tourist (for the Koreans are wearing 'Western' clothing). No, what makes the ESL teacher stand out is our physical appearance (hair, eye and skin colour but not height).

I have been to countries where I have been stared at intensely (India springs to mind) and while that is fucking annoying, Koreans trump that by both staring and talking about you, the freakish foreigner. If you notice a group of women/girls/men huddled together, pointing in your direction and laughing amongst themselves, rest assured, they are talking about you.

What pissed me off the most about this is the fact that South Korea can't even claim to be an isolated country. The Americans have stationed 37,000 troops in South Korea for almost 50 years. They watch American and European movies and tv shows. They buy American and European books and magazines. They eat American fast food. They hosted the 1988 Olympics for fuck's sake!

Yet they act as though each 'Westerner' is a rare specimen, to be viewed and commented upon from a distance. Again, after 4 months of this type of behaviour, I gave up on trying to be understanding and polite. They simply don't know how to interact with non-Koreans (and I was in Seoul during the 2002 World Cup!).

You, the foreigner, will also be viewed as a complete simpleton compared to the superior Koreans. You will either be seen as over-reacting (which you tend to do but that is because you have been biting your tongue and trying to be culturally sensative for weeks at a time) or just ignorant.

The rule being, nothing ever goes wrong in Korea. You, stupid foreigner, simply do not understand that things are different (and superior) in Korea. Anytime you have a complaint, you will be greeted first by disbelief, then condecending behaviour. For example, I had told my principal that my washing machine hose was broken (it would spray water all over the walls and ceiling). I waited over 3 months for something to be done before I gave up and bought the Korean version of duct tape and fixed it myself.

Additionally, I had arranged for the principal of my school to pay all of my bills (thereby saving me the hassle of trying to pay them at a bank). Whenever I would receive a bill, I would give it to the principal and he would deduct the amount from my monthly pay. Well, one day I noticed that my phone was not working. I told the principal that my phone wasn't receiving a dail tone (and brought the phone to the school to save myself the hassle of drawing a picture of a phone).

He smiled and nodded in the Korean way which means, "Ignorant foreigner, can't you operate a simple telephone?". At the end of the day, he returned the phone and told me that it was okay. However, when I hooked up the phone that night, it still wasn't working. I left a note for him the following day, explaining that I still couldn't use my phone.

I was without the use of my phone for 3 weeks. I finally lost my temper and got another Korean teacher to speak to the principal for me. Four hours later my phone was reconnected. Apparently, the bill hadn't been paid (even though it was his responsiblity to do that). I later learned from other foreign teachers that they had all had their phones disconnected at one point or another (which is why most people eventually get cell phones).

Ultimately, the little everyday annoyances begin to weigh on the even the most saintly soul (which I am certainly not). You get tired of almost being run over by vehicles while walking on the sidewalk (Koreans seem to believe that the sidewalk is an extra car lane). You get fed up with people cutting in front of you in line. You become frustrated when you get lost yet again because the English on the map is completely mangled. You get angry because you are treated as something to be exploited instead of as an employee.

So, having reached the end of my rant (I feel much better thank you, especially after escaping and returning to Canada), if you still decide to head off to Korea, I wish you all the best. However, in parting, remember this:

My experiences do not come close to some of the horror stories I heard from other foreign teachers in Seoul.

So You Want To Teach English In Korea

As Experienced Me


Here is the scenario: You have just finished your degree (I have 3: a BSc. in Psychology, a BA in Archaeology and an MA in Physical Anthropology. Really. If you're really bored, you can check out my MA thesis on the blog posts). You have amassed an outrageous student loan debt (which is nearing the end of its deferment period). The economy sucks, and there are no decent jobs beyond the minimum wage level (if you can get one).

Hang on a minute, you spot an ad (online or in the newspapers) or hear from a friend of a friend, why don't you teach English in Korea? They pay your airfare, provide accommodations, and you will be able to save a little over $1000 a month! Not to mention the one month completion bonus you receive at the end of your one year contract.

What a dream opportunity. You get to travel to a foreign country and get paid at the same time. Just think of all those other cool countries you can visit while you are there: Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Loas, Cambodia, etc.

The best part is that the only requirements are proof that you hold a Bachelor's degree (in any discipline) and that English is your first language!

Now, before you rush off and sign on with the first Korean agency you come across, I'd like to share my experience with teaching English in Korea. Remember, this is my point of view. There are many people who would violently disagree (please refer to Dave's ESL Cafe website under the Korean Job Discussion Board ) and others who can provide more insight (check out English School Watch ) but this is my tale, so take it or leave it.

I only wish that I had the information I know now before I accepted an ESL teaching position in Korea. If you choose not to read any further, just note this: Do not work for the Jung Chul English Language School in Seoul. The principal, Mr. Lee (I don't know his real Korean name) is an absolute idiot. He perfected the art of making my time in Seoul as hellish as possible and tried to get away with not paying my salary.

Okay, you have been mulling over the idea of teaching English in Korea. How hard could it possibly be? After all, since the idea popped into your consciousness, all you have heard are tales of people who have taught in Korea and, best of all, they have either returned home completely debt free or they have stayed on for years because they just loved the experience so much. If all of these other people have done it, certainly you can as well. After all, English is your first language and you have studied English in school...

These were my thoughts in October of 2001 as I sat staring at newspaper and online placement agency ads for jobs that I was either too qualified for (i.e. holding a Masters degree in Anthropology) or not qualified for (no surprise, holding a Masters degree in Anthropology). I had amassed a huge pile of "Thank you for your interest in our company" rejection letters and been sent on countless dead end placement interviews. Best of all, I was forced to live with my parents to save money since I had reached the end of my Masters fellowship and my student loan repayments were set to begin in November.

So feeling depressed, worthless and overwhelmingly in debt (I owed close to $40,000 in student loans for the last 4 years of my higher education), I sent off an electronic application to a Korean ESL advertisement on HotJobs.

To my surprise and deep seeded suspicion, I received an email response that very day from a placement agency in Vancouver. The email was just as vague as the job posting. It stated that airfare to Korea would be paid for, the salary would be $2,000-$2,400 Canadian per month, and a furnished apartment would be provided (with the school paying the monthly rent). All this for teaching children between 5 and 16 years of age.

Now I don't like children. Never have, and I seriously doubt that I ever will. This is not something that I say to be 'cool' (and no one takes you seriously anyway, especially when you are under 30 - which I no longer am, so people simply consider me a cold hearted freak). I really have no affinity with kids. You know how some people are just amazing with kids? They know how to keep kids interested and engaged, and kids love them? That is not me. I am the person who glares or rolls their eyes at the sight of children in public places (i.e. parks, restaurants, movie theatres, on the sidewalk etc.).

I also have absolutely no experience teaching small children (well duh, I hate kids, remember?). I have been a teaching assistant (for a third year physical anthropology course) and I've trained people when the work situation required, but teaching (and dealing with) small kids was, well, foreign to me.

Living in a foreign country didn't phase me at all. I have travelled through 30 or so countries on my own, for various lengths of time. So, while Korea had not been on my list of must see places on the planet, I was willing to take advantage of the opportunity to experience something new.

On a personal note, I found Korea to be extremely uninteresting both physically and culturally. There are millions of amazing things to see and experience on this planet but South Korea isn't one of them. The only other country that I have found to be as dull is Singapore.

The Unblemished Truth

I emailed an edited but honest version of these facts to the placement agency. I was hoping to teach in a university or tutor business people, so I was simply expecting the placement agency to refer me to another agency.

A couple of days pass by with no email response from the Vancouver placement agency. This was an early warning sign but I was deep into feeling worthless and unemployable, so I didn't pick up on it at the time.

To my surprise, I receieved a phone call from the rep, Michael. He was cheery and upbeat, just like a camp director or annoying pitchman should be. He expertly brushed aside all of my concerns, directing the focus of the conversation as to when I would be willing to leave for Korea.

Due to my efforts to be polite, and desperate for a job, I managed to allow myself to be convinced that, what the hell, teaching English to kids wouldn't be that horrible. I quickly found out how wrong that line of thinking was...

I made a concerted effort to ask all of the 'right' questions, but ultimately, you are screwed once you arrive in Korea. So here are some questions with REAL answers:

Can I teach only older students?

There is no bloody way that you will get out of teaching little kids. There is the mythical 'university position' with its 2 or 3 months of paid vacation, and less teaching time. However, unless you have your TEFL certificate or Masters in Education, better yet a PhD and a well thought out yearly lesson plan with an area of research in mind, there is no way in hell you are going to get one of these jobs. Especially when there are more than enough qualified foreign teachers in Korea.

You will be contracted to work at one of the hundreds of franchaise hawgwons (private schools) which 'specialize' in teaching English. These are run as kindergartens during the morning, and extra lesson courses in the afternoon/evening for elementary through high school students. That's right, extra lessons. These kids learn English in public school, take extra lessons and most of them also have private English tutors come to their homes (an illegal money making scam for foreign teachers). Can these kids read English? Yes. Can you understand their pronouncation? Sometimes. Can they write in English? Yes, albeit badly. Can any of them string a sentence together? For the majority of the students the answer to that is a resounding NO FUCKING WAY!

What does 'Teaching English' actually entail?

This is the question I really should have asked to begin with.

Teaching English is not as simple as the ads would have you believe. Just because you speak a language does not mean that you have the ability to share that knowledge with others. This is the biggest flaw with the whole ESL in Korea system.

The Korean government is trying to encourage its citizens to learn to communicate in English to allow the country to enter and interact with the global economy.

You are hired to teach children. Remember what it way like to be in school? Most of the time you simply didn't want to be there. Well, these kids are being forced by both their parents and ultimately, their government to learn a foreign language.

Most of the time they are bored, full of energy and have no interest in class participation. This means that you have to be thinking on your feet all of the time (literally, since you will be scolded for sitting down during class time - even if you are sitting at the same table as your students).

The first objective is to establish discipline in your classes. This is extremely frustrating since the kids will take advantage of you if you are too nice. As foreigners, we tend to be too informal with the students and we balk at the Korean standard of physical discipline.

The principal of my school continually complained that I wasn't 'active' enough with the students. By this he meant that I didn't sing songs and continually entertain the students. He couldn't care less that I was teaching new vocabulary, grammar, spelling, pronounciation and conceptual ideas.

The Korean way of teaching English is through memorization. The Korean teachers were provided with an exhaustive repretoire of FIVE workbooks for each language level. The kids would listen to and watch a CD-Rom of a particular lesson and spend 30 minutes repeating the dialogue and writing the same sentence over and over (usually 10 times).

This is a really lame way to learn a language since the kids never learn language rules, and are thereby unable to incorporate new concepts. For example, one day I asked a class of 11 year olds to name their favorite season. To my surprise, the entire class replied, "Winter". When I tried to get them to elaborate, they all replied, "I like snow'.

At the time I was amazed that they employed "I" since they typically say "Me", and I could understand the answer. However, I later learned that they were simply parroting a CD-Rom lesson.

The classes that I hated teaching the most were the so-called 'conversation classes' with the high school students. I had no teaching materials, no text book and completely uninterested students.

What pissed me off the most was the fact that 99% of the kids wouldn't interact at all unless we were playing a game. The nightmare of that is the fact that trying to teach them a new game (they don't understand a word you are saying) will take several days, if you are that persistant. The games that they will know are Hangman and Simon Says.

You try to do that for months at a time and not lose your mind.

Will there be a Korean teacher in the room with me to act as an interpreter?

You will be assured that yes, there will be an interpreter in the room (for a while anyway). In reality, you will probably have someone assist you for the first week or so and then you're on your own kiddo. In fact, it is better not to have a native Korean speaker in the classroom with you, since all of the children will naturally speak Korean and you are left standing there like a fool, ranting 'Speak English during English time'.

No joke, when you start your job as an ESL teacher in Korea, your one directive will be to ensure that no Korean is spoken. This rule is pretty much moronic, since it only applies to you, the foreign teacher. Every other teacher, being Korean, is allowed to speak to the kids in Korean. As a matter of fact, if I wasn't aware that I supposedly taught at an English Language Kindergarten, I would believe that I was the only person speaking English to the students.

That's the other thing. Once you have foolishly accepted this hellish job of teaching English, you suddenly become personally responsible for the financial success of the school. They actually don't care if you can teach English, they just want you to pose for pictures with the kids at the designated monthly 'field trips'.

It is a status symbol to employ a foreigner (that is, a non-Korean) to teach English. You are there to attract business (students) to the school. You are paid twice the salary of a Korean kindergarten teacher simply because you are a 'native speaker of English'. It's like getting someone from Paris tutor your kids in French.

Will I get some training before I have to start teaching English?

Excuse me while I pick myself off of the floor, where I was doubled up with laughter. I have been told that some schools do provide a few days of training, where you shadow another teacher and are given time to familiarize yourself with the school.

I was assured by Michael, the Vancouver placement rep, that I would get at LEAST a few days of training before I actually started teaching English. Huh. I arrived in Korea the evening of March 10, 2002, a Sunday. After being escorted to my new studio apartment in Seoul (more later), and meeting the principal and his wife (the vice principal), I was told that I was expected to start work the following morning at 10 am.

You have to understand that I had flown from Toronto to Vancouver, and then from Vancouver to Seoul (roughly 19 hours of flying time). It was now 10 pm. I was jet lagged, still had to unpack and didn't have a clue as to where I was. The Korean rep had to convince the principal that I needed to be picked up and driven to the school the next day (I was told that this was a big favour).

Actually, due to my work schedule, and lack of detailed English street maps of Seoul, I did not alter my route to and from work for almost a month due to the fear of getting lost. Actually, getting lost in Seoul is a given, even with all of the English signage.

The next morning I arrived at the school and was introduced to a Korean-American teacher, Marie. She became both my interpreter and life support for a few weeks (she quit and went to work for a better school). I was then told that I had to 'teach English'.

Really, those were the only instructions. I had been assured that I would get training and at least a day to recover from jet lag. All fucking lies. Luckily, Marie managed to convince the principal that I should shadow her for the morning lessons, which I did, but I was on my own for the duration.

I had to work from 10 am to 7 pm that first day. I had no idea what to do. There were no books to follow. The children didn't understand a word I said, and when they attempted to speak English, I didn't have a clue as to what they were saying. I wanted to run screaming out of there after the end of the first class.

Will there be teaching resources for me to use?

I was extremely pissed off to find out that not only did I have to make all of my own classroom teaching aids, but I had to beg for supplies as well. As a matter of fact, I had been teaching for a month before I was even SHOWN where the supplies were.

Most of the time I was told to draw picture examples on the board. While this is great for introducing new vocabulary, you cannot teach conceptual usage through pictures.

The most annoying thing is that the Korean teachers will not share their teaching aids. Even though we were all teaching the same lesson plan. Oh yeah, that's the other thing. The kids rarely learn anything new. I had to teach the 'parts of the body' lesson to kids aged 4 through 12. The sad part is that although the older kids have had the same lessons for years, they still couldn't name or spell the parts of the body.

What are the hours like?

There is no straight answer to that one. All of the schools are different. The one thing to remember is that this is a job and not a vacation. The most important point is that as an ESL teacher you will be expected to teach back to back classes with little to no breaktime in between. For example, Wednesday was my particular hell day. After lunch, which consisted of supervising a kindergarten class for an hour, I had one hour of free time before teaching my afternoon classes (2:30-8pm).

There were four kindergarten classes in the morning, each 40 minutes long, with no breaks in between. I used my one hour break to prep for the afternoon classes. This mainly consisted of photocopying for 60-70 students. Each afternoon class was 30 minutes long, the exception being the hour long conversation class (7-8pm).

I was working the following hours: Monday 9:50 am - 7 pm, Tuesday and Thursday 9:50 am - 1:30 pm (but I always ended up staying until 3:30pm or so preparing material for the next weeks' class), Wednesday 9:50 am - 8 pm and Friday 9:50 am - 7:30 pm. I met other teachers who had to work Saturdays or only worked from 2:30 pm - 7:30 pm during the week.

Most ESL teachers use their downtime to work as private tutors. This is all very cloak and dagger, since you will be deported if you are caught. You can't advertise your services, so it is a referral type occupation or sometimes mothers will hang around outside of the school and secretly offer you a job. I didn't do any tutoring, as I hated teaching in general. However, the money is great. I knew one Canadian teacher who pocketed an extra $3,500 Canadian a month from tutoring.

Will there be any other English speakers at the school?

I was the only 'native' speaker at my school. Some of the larger hawgwons have several 'native' speakers on staff. The other Korean teachers will more than likely speak a little bit of English (which you will be eternally grateful for soon enough) but don't count on the owner/principal being able to speak English.

I was told that the principal of my school could speak a little English. If you count 'Good morning' and 'Thank you' as being fluent, then I am just as fluent in Korean. Let's put this another way. The person to whom you are dependent upon to have all of your legal documents in order, whom you are contracted to work for (in English, mind you), does not understand a word that you say.

This means that you are completely dependent upon yet another person to act as your interpreter. Due to cultural differences, nothing that you really want to say is ever translated. Believe me, after 5 months of run ins with the principal, I began to understand the phrase, "This is Korea, and Sharon should act more like a Korean teacher". My (untranslated, I'm sure) response being,"If you wanted a Korean teacher, why did you hire a foreigner to teach English?".

Where will I be living?

I completely lucked out here. I had a small studio apartment in a brand new building. It was furnished with a single bed (haven't slept in one of those since I was 6 years old), a bar sized fridge, air conditioning (for which I was extremely greatful during the heat of the summer), a counter-top gas stove (no oven), a tiny tv, a table with one chair, and two storage units for my clothes. The bathroom was big enough (no tub, less to clean) and there was a washing machine (no dryer).

I was provided with one 'dinner' plate, one small plate, a cup, a fork, spoon, butter knife, and two small frying pans. There were dish towels (3), rubber gloves and cleaning sponges (3). I was also provided with two sets of slippers (Koreans always remove their shoes upon entering a home): one for the apartment and one for the bathroom. I had to purchase cleaning supplies (broom, mop, detergent, cleaners, dishwashing soap, etc.) and a drying rack for my clothes.

I met other foreign teachers who not only had hellish apartments but, to their complete surprise, had roommates. One Canadian teacher (she actually had a teaching certificate and had taught at kindergarten and elementary schools in Vancouver for 5 years) was shocked to find out that not only was she to live in a dingy, tiny, old apartment, but she had to share the one bedroom space with a male roommate. The one and only closet was jammed packed with the belongings left behind by other foreign teachers. I knew of three foreign teachers (2 New Zealanders and a Canadian) who were forced to share a one bedroom apartment. Luckily, they all got along.

The biggest benefit to having a roommate is that you have someone to talk to and hang around with while you get your bearings in Korea. I was on my own in my little area of Seoul for 3 weeks before I met any other foreign teachers.

The contract you sign is usually detailed but there is really no way for you to enforce it. The situation is hit and miss and once you are there, you are at the mercy of your non-English speaking principal to sort out your problems.

One other item that falls into a grey area is whether or not 'key' money (rental deposit) will be deducted from your salary. None was taken from mine, but some teachers had to pay $100 a month for the first 4 months.

How do I get paid?

You will be paid in cash. Yup, hard cash no paychecks, no receipts. The highest denomination in Korean currancy is 10,000 won. Your salary will range from 1.8 million to 2.0 million won - which turns out to be quite the wad of bills.

On the bright side, you get to be a multi-millionaire for once in your life.

As to when you get paid, that is completely dependent upon your principal. I was paid on the 11th of every month (since I started on the 11th), except when the 11th fell on a weekend or holiday, then I wouldn't get paid until the next working school day.

No matter where you work, at some point in time your school will try to get away with not paying you. The story will run along the lines of 'tough economic conditions' or some such bullshit. They are fucking with you. Don't put up with it. Refuse to work. Complain to the rep that hired you.

The sad thing is that you are on your own. No one cares. Fight back, gloves off, and give'em hell. Don't worry about being polite at this point, it's game over.

How will I pay taxes?

In 2001-2, the tax rate was 7% of your gross monthly pay ($200-250 Canadian) for Korean income taxes. However, you will still have to pay taxes in your home country as well, so contact your local taxation office before you leave.

What is the cost of living, and how do I pay for things like the phone bills?

The most important thing to know is that no matter what your good intentions of simply taking this job for all of the money you will be making (since you aren't paying rent) is the fact that the longer you stay, the more money you will spend out of shear boredom. That said, you should be able to send home at least C$1,000.00 a month, if you aren't drowning your sorrows in alcohol (in a bar, beer averages C$6.00 a bottle and hard liquor - sold by the bottle - will set you back C$120 or C$10 a drink).

The cost of living is equal to that of most Western countries. In other words, it isn't cheap. Food is extremely expensive (i.e. a half loaf of bread costs C$2.00, take out coffee starts at C$5.00). In the end it is cheaper to eat out than to attempt to buy food from the market and cook it yourself.

That said, as a Westerner, you will end up eating at one of the ubiquitous American chain restaurants (McDonald's, Burger King, Popeye's, etc.) since most of the Korean establishments won't have English menus. I did attempt to eat at restaurants where there were colourful pictures of the dishes to point to but I subsisted on fastfood for 5 months.

On the plus side, cigarettes are cheap which is a good thing if you are a smoker (which I am). The downside is that you will smoke alot due to stress, which really negates any savings.

With regards to paying your utility bills, the easiest option is to have your school deduct your payments from your salary. If you are really brave/patient/sadomasocistic, you can pay them at the bank.

Will someone meet me at the airport?

You will be met by the local Korean rep at the airport. If you are working in Seoul, you will be taken by bus/taxi immediately to the school where you will be working to meet the principal/owner. Then you will be taken to your new home. Then you will be taken out for a welcome to Korea meal (I passed on the offer due to jetlag).

If you are not working in Seoul, you will be taken to a bus station, loaded on board and sent off to fend for yourself. Good luck, brave soul.

How do I open a bank account?

Since you will be paid in cash, not by cheque, you really don't need to open a bank account. As a matter of fact, unless you have someone who will act as your interpreter while you go through the paperwork, don't bother.

How do I send money back to Canada / home?

You have 2 options: wire transfers or purchasing travellers cheques.

Any of the major Korean banks can do a wire transfer (there will be signs in English outside of the bank). You will need your bank's street address and your account number. Wire transfers usually take 2 business days to complete and cost roughly C$20.

Alternatively, you could purchase travellers cheques, sign them and mail them home (minimum 10 days) to be deposited (by a trusted friend or family member). This will cost you roughly 1% of the total dollar amount of your purchase ($20 for $2,000). The downside to this is that once you sign your travellers cheques it is the equivalent of mailing money - if it gets lost, there is no way to get it back. I doubt that AMEX will be sympathetic to your plight.

I chose the wire transfer option, simply because the money was deposited into my bank account 2 days later (which I could verify using online banking).

How much vacation time do you get?

Although your contract states that you get vacation time, you are at the mercy of your principal. You will get the government approved holidays (clearly marked in red on Korean calendars) but don't count on any extra time off.

Since I was the only 'native' teacher at my school, I wasn't allowed any time off at all. The one time I tried to call in sick, the principal hung up on me so I was forced to work. With regards to holidays, while all the foreign teachers at the larger hawgawns had 10 days off at the end of July/beginning of August, I received the one day government holiday (which, according to my principal counted as 3 days off since it fell on a Friday).

Archaic Homo Sapiens Narrative Background Notes and References

Sharon N. Solomon

Dept. of Anthropology

University of Toronto Dec. 2000


Research on Greenland and Antarctic ice cores (Hewitt 1999, 2000; Allen et. al. 2000) indicates that the Arctic ice cap became established approx. 2.4 mya (the beginning of the Quaternary). From then until approx. 900 kya, the ice sheets advanced and receded with a roughly 41 ky cycle. After that period, they have followed a 100 ky cycle (ibid.). The Croll-Milankovitch theory proposes that the regular variations in the Earth’s orbit around the sun are the controlling factors of the ice age cycles.

The main orbital eccentricity has a 100 ky cycle, variation in the Earth’s axial tilt has a 41 ky cycle and precession due to the Earth’s axial wobble has a 19-23 ky cycle. These factors, in conjunction with the energy transported by the oceanic circulation system, leads to significant climate changes (Hewitt 2000:907). There were 24 interstadials through the last ice age, with average temperatures rising rapidly by approx. 7?C over just decades (ibid.).

From approx. 130 to 71 kya, during and following the last interglacial, the climate was fairly warm, with some reversals (Hewitt 2000:912). This period is characterized with a predominance of temperate deciduous forests alternating with steppe conditions, in rapid succession (Allen et. al. 2000:740). During the forested periods, the mean temperatures were similar to modern values. However, during the steppe periods, they were approx. 12?C lower.

These severe climatic changes produced dramatic changes in species distributions. Species went extinct over large parts of their range: some dispersed to new locations, and some survived in biotic refugia and then expanded again (ibid.). Identified areas of biotic refugia include the southern peninsulas of Iberia, Italy, the Balkans, Greece and much of Turkey (Hewitt 1999:104). These refugia contributed to the post-glacial biotic colonization of Europe.

The Ice Ages lead to changes in vegetation patterns with forests disappearing and steppes and tundra opening up in their place. The colder climate, changing vegetation, and resulting migration of the animals had a great impact on the way in which our hominid ancestors evolved. Pleistocene vegetation displays a markedly lower degree of specific growth zones than is found today (ibid.). Prior to the end of the last ice age (approx. 10 kya), vegetation types, and their associated faunal species, appear to have been intermingled with each other (i.e. woodland, tundra and grassland) (Mithen 1996:244).

However, it is important to remember that the Ice Ages were not simply periods of extreme cold, characterized by windy steppes and tundra, and 2 km thick ice sheets. Within each 100 ky period, environmental conditions varied, dependent upon local geographic conditions such as latitude, elevation and topography (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:205).

Multiregional Theory

The Multiregional hypothesis states that there is no one single origin for modern humans. It attempts to explain not only the origin of Homo sapiens sapiens, but also the existence of anatomical diversity in modern geographical populations. According to the Multiregional hypothesis, this diversity resulted from the evolution of distinctive traits, through adaptation and genetic drift, in different geographical regions that became established in early populations of Homo erectus (Thorne and Wolpoff 1992:28-29; Wolpoff and Caspari 1997). This persistence is known as regional continuity.

Multiregionalism traces all modern populations back to when humans first left Africa approx. 1 mya, through an interconnected web of ancient lineages in which the genetic contributions of all living peoples varied regionally and temporally. The analogy used is that of several individuals paddling in separate corners of a swimming pool; although they maintain their individuality over time, they influence one another with the spreading ripples (which are equivalent to genes flowing between populations) (Wolpoff and Caspari 1997).

Proponents of this hypothesis believe that the fossil record provides the real evidence for human evolution. Unlike genetic data, fossils can be matched to the predictions and theories about the past without relying on a long list of assumptions. The mtEve theory makes five predictions that the fossil evidence should prove (Ambrose 1998:624-625; Thorne and Wolpoff 1992:28): 1) modern humans from Africa completely replaced all other human groups; 2) the earliest modern humans appeared in Africa; 3) the earliest modern humans in other areas should have African features; 4) modern humans and the people they replaced should never have mixed or interbred; and 5) an anatomic discontinuity should be evident between the human fossils before and after the replacement.

mtDNA and mtEve

The main premise behind the mtDNA research was based on the assumption that genes mutate at a constant rate. If the rate of gene mutation was known, then evolutionary changes can be dated. Human body cells contain not only the DNA that resides in their nuclei, they also carry a small quantity of DNA in their mitochondria. Mitochondria are structures in the outer part of the cell that functions as the ‘powerhouse’ behind cell operations. Mitochondral DNA is a small circle of DNA in the mitochondria. It is present in several copies per mitochondrion so that the overall there are hundreds of copies per cell. mtDNA has several important properties that make it suitable as a molecular marker (Cann 1987:31-33; Stoneking 1993:607-608; Tattersal and Schwartz 2000; Thorne and Wolpoff 1992:28-29; Holliday 1997:426): 1) It lacks the elaborate self repairing mechanisms of nDNA and thus accumulates mutations at a high rate. (Roughly 10 times that of nuclear DNA, which allows the main branches in the genealogy to be sequenced more easily); 2) It is largely free of noncoding DNA; 3) mtDNA consists of about 16,500 nucleotides as opposed to nDNA which has more than 3 billion, so it makes comparisons easier; and 4) It is maternally inherited so the gene tree is an estimate of maternal genealogy. The paternal contribution is apparently destroyed or subsequently lost. However, some allele positions in the DNA may undergo parallel or back mutation, as a result there are many different methods to gene tree construction.

mtDNA evidence for Out of Africa

In 1978 Cann, Wilson and Stoneking removed DNA samples from the placentas of 147 women of 5 different ethnic groups (African American, East Asian, Caucasian, aboriginal Australian and New Guinean). They then ran the data through a maximum parsimony program to produce a gene tree in which the geographic origins of the sample were indicated (Tattersal and Schwartz 2000; Thorne and Wolpoff 1992:28-29). The tree was divided into two main branches: one including only Africans and the other containing members of all five populations. This suggested that non Africans had an African origin. By calibrating the molecular clock against the archaeological date for the colonization of New Guinea, they estimated that the common ancestor in the tree lived 140-290 kya. The Out of Africa migration could have occurred at anytime between 13-180 kya (Cann 1987:31-33; Stoneking 1993:607-608). Africa seemed to be the source for human lineages not only because Africans contained the root, but because they were the most diverse region.

Early Modern Homo sapiens

Roughly 100 kya a new form of hominid appeared. It has been proposed that during this interglacial period, hominids belonging to an East African biotic community, expanded northward out of Africa, across the Sinai Peninsula and into the southern Levant (Holliday 1997:426; Ambrose 1998:625). This date is important because it suggests that modern humans left Africa during the generally warm, humid last interglacial period and it provides support for the Out of Africa hypothesis (ibid.).

The earliest anatomically modern humans are found in the Near East, in the caves of Qafzeh and Skhul (dating between 100 and 80 kya), Omo-Kibish, Ethiopia (approx. 130 kya), and in South Africa at Border Cave (approx. 100 kya) and Klasies River Mouth (140 to 20 kya). Questionable fossil specimens are found in Jebel Irhoud, North Africa; Dar es Soltan Cave, Morocco (approx. 40 kya); Singa, Sudan (approx. 133 kya); Laetoli, Tanzania (approx. 120 kya); Guomde, Kenya (approx. 180 kya); and Florisbad, South Africa (approx. 180 kya) (Mithen 1996:25; Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:225-227). Stature estimation ranges between 1.2 and 2 m, and cranial capacity ranges between 1370 cc and 2000 cc.

These hominids were robust (skeletally) but shared more derived features with modern Homo sapiens than with Neanderthals or other hominid species. These features consist of (Tattersall and Schwartz 200:203-204) :

1) a small face and a protruding chin: there is no clear consensus for the functional significance of the chin. It may be due to a reduction in face size, to reduce chewing stress of the mandible, or it may be an adaptation to speech production;

2) smaller teeth and jaws than other hominids: it has been proposed that anatomically modern humans did not use their teeth as tools to the same degree as earlier hominids, hence the reduction in size;

3) a rounded skull with high forehead and reduced brow ridges: the raising of the cranial vault has been associated with more complex cognitive functions and changes in brain structure, which seems highly unlikely since overall brain size was reduced;

4) a bipartite brow, or two component brow; and

5) Less robust post cranial skeleton characterized by long limbs with thinner walled bones, lightly built hands, short, thick pubic bones and distinctive shoulder blades. These features are said to reflect a greater dependency on tool usage instead of muscular strength.

This early group, with their derived features and mtDNA supported dates, are assumed to be the founding group for modern Homo sapiens, even though there is no archaeological evidence which indicates that they were intellectually different from the contemporary Neanderthals.


Both Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens appeared to have hunted similar fauna. These include eland, gazelle, several species of deer, rhino, horses, bovids, as well as small mammals and birds (Mithen 1996:246; Albert and Weiner 2000:933; Albert et. al. 1999:1249: Hockett 2000:715). There has been some evidence of seal and tortoise hunting, and shellfish collection in some coastal sites (Mithen 1996:246; Klien and Cruz-Uribe 2000:171-172).

However, even in modern human populations, meat rarely forms the bulk of the diet. Plant derived proteins and carbohydrates provide most of the dietary requirements. Additionally, the lack of fish bones found at these sites may have more to do with excavation techniques and parameters than the full dietary range of both Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens.

The Kebara Cave site (Israel) contains abundant visible hearths which range in size from 30 cm to more than 1 meter in diameter (Albert and Weiner 2000:934). Phytolith studies of hearth sediments indicate that a wide variety of plant materials, other than those used as fuel, were brought into the cave (ibid.). Occupants at the Tabun Cave site in Israel apparently used a natural opening in the ceiling as both an animal trap and a chimney for large hearths (Albert et. al. 1999:1250).


Discussions of hominid technologies focus on lithics and bone tools, simply because these tend to preserve archaeologically. However, ethnographic studies of modern hunter gatherers, as well as logical deduction, clearly indicate that the majority of ‘tools’ are either fabricated from perishable materials such as plants and animal skins, or are items which are not modified in any way to indicate its usage.

Another bias in the literature is the assumption that archaic Homo sapiens, by their very taxonomic identification, were superior to their contemporaries, the Neanderthals (and any other, as yet unidentified, hominid species). This is confidently stated throughout the literature, even though both employed the same technologies, lived in the same regions, ate a similar diet, had similar group sizes and practiced similar methods of burial (Boyd and Silk 1997:467).

Tool cultures did not remain static throughout human evolution. The change from one tool culture to another was gradual, with much overlap existing during the period of transition. Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens both used and manufactured Mousterian tools. This tool technology dates to 250 kya in Europe (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:207). Also known as the prepared core technique, this method allowed the tool maker to produce an instrument with a larger cutting edge in less time and from less raw material than before. A stone core was carefully shaped, to the point where a single blow would detach a semifinished tool or series of tools, of predefined form. This process has been proposed as a factor in developing cognitive complexity (ibid.).

There is no certainty that we can fully understand what function these flakes served. During the middle of the 20th century, an elaborate typology of Mousterian stone tool types was devised. More than 60 separate sorts of flakes were identified as well as a large number of handaxe types (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:207). However, further research suggested that some of these flakes were the result of retouching, wear from usage and geographic variations in tool making and resource availability.

During this time period small stone blades and ground bone tools first appear. While pieces of bone and antler appear at Neanderthal sites, they are assumed to have been used as opportunistic, not intentional, tools (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000: 208). The small flakes found at archaic Homo sapiens sites, have been interpreted as being designed for multicomponent tools, and the ground bones employed as fish hooks or harpoons (Mithen 1996:183). Both Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens may to have used short thrusting spears, with either fire hardened tips or attached stone points (Mithen 1996:180). Studies of wear patterns on Mousterian flakes have shown that some were used to ‘work wood’. This could encompass wiping the flake on a tree trunk, cutting wood or sharpening a stick or spear (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:208).



It has been proposed that sociability developed in several evolutionary steps: bonding and partner proximity, parental care, affection and friendliness (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989:167-169). Bonding and partner proximity may have developed as a means of predator avoidance and as a means to facilitate mating (i.e. schooling fish, flocking birds). Parental care is defined as individualized bonding between the mother and offspring, which developed in mammals whose young could move about shortly after birth (ibid.). The mother offspring relationship is reciprocal. Mothers understand the distress calls of their species’ young, and can recognize their individual young. Oxytocin production during the birth process has been proposed as a factor in the initial mother offspring bond (ibid.). The behavioural patterns of affection and infant appeals evident in the mother offspring bond, may have been a preadaptation for adult bonding and friendliness (ibid.).


Fear of strangers, xenophobia, is present cross-culturally amongst all modern human groups. It has been proposed that xenophobia is a phylogenetic adaptation which is mitigated through learning. It first appears in modern human infants around five to six months after birth (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989:170-175). After this time, they are able to distinguish between individuals they know and strangers. When confronted with a stranger, the child will first smile but then turn away and hide its face, after which the child will reinitiate visual contact (ibid.). Eye contact is used to signal that the channels of communication are open, but if eye contact is maintained too long, it becomes threatening.

Even children who are blind and deaf from birth display a fear of strangers (ibid.). If the stranger maintains a distance, the child can make friends. However, if the stranger approaches, the child’s behaviour turns to fear and panic. This reaction is stronger if the stranger deviates from the ethnic appearance of the child’s parents (ibid.). However, in the absence of the mother, the child will actively seek contact with the stranger.

Group size

During much of the Pleistocene, early hominids would have lived in small, mobile groups. Females and their children would be distributed in relation to food resources, and males would congregate near the females (Miller 2000:190). Group size estimates range from 20 to 200 individuals (Mithen 1996:248:). Group membership would have been variable, according the the availability of local resources (Miller 2000:181). The most basic model of group size divides environmental conditions into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ years (Klien and Cruz-Uribe 2000:172). During good years, higher birth rates, while innately risky, will tend to be favoured while the lower birth rates are favored during bad years (Madsen et. al. 1999:260).

Mathematical models predict that throughout their lifetimes, ancestral hominids would have come into contact with anywhere from several hundred to a thousand members of the same local population, from which sexual partners would have been selected (Miller 2000:181). Due to social pressures, the larger the group size, the higher the incidents of aggressive behaviours (Schaffner and French 1997:177).

Sexual selection and Mate choice

In an ethnographic survey of 849 modern societies, 708 (83.5%) were deemed polygynous, 137 (16%) monogamous and 4 were polyandrous (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989:235). While this gives the impression that polygyny is typical of modern human societies, only leaders and wealthy males within polygynous societies had more than one wife, with monogamous marriages being 2.5 times as frequent as polygynous ones (ibid.). Even in a polygynous marriage, males seldom have more than two wives (ibid.).

In monogamous societies, polygyny is expressed in the form of extramarital relationships or concealed by a pattern of serial monogamy (divorce, remarriage) (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989:235: Mace 2000:5). The polygynous inclination has been explained by the fact that males have a higher reproductive potential in comparison to females, since there is a restriction upon the number of children a woman can bear and raise (ibid.; Ihara and Aoki 1999:77-78; Cunningham and Birkhead 1998:1314; Low 2000:102). It has been proposed that the matrilineal family was the initial family group, with females bonded to children who were no longer physiologically dependent upon them (Tyrell 1978 cited in Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989:237). It has been suggested that the extended period of childhood and adolescence has evolved in response to social pressures associated with learning (ibid.; Joffe 1997:594).

However, early hominids would not have been as constrained by social pressures or cultural norms. Nonanthropological evolutionary models propose that these hominids would have had sexual experiences before puberty, and engaged in both short and long-term partnerships (Miller 2000:186). It would seem highly unlikely that there would be a desire for a ‘life’ mate when mortality rates were so high and group sizes were so small.

Based upon cross-cultural studies, the following female physical traits have been suggested to be preferred by males: lighter skin colour, lower waist to hip ratio, neotenous face, large breasts, full lips, and clear skin (ibid.; Mace 2000:5; Low 2000:80). Most studies equate these traits with youth. However, there is no reason to assume that ancestral hominids were so picky. As long as the female was still fertile there is no real hindrance, other than personal preference, to forming a sexual liaison (Miller 2000:212).

Ironically, when these same studies report what females desire in a mate, the responses tend to reflect economic rather than evolutionary adaptations (Low 2000:78-90). Studies which do attempt to look for evidence of phylogenetic sexual selection in males, they tend to focus on penis size and its connection to the female orgasm (Miller 2000:226-241).

Modern human females and males reach sexual maturity (puberty) at a much later date than other primates (i.e. 13 years instead of 9 years of age) before that time, they are infertile (Low 2000:94: Miller 2000:211). However, since modern humans have a longer life span, and the average interbirth intervals are shorter than that of the great apes, and the reproduction rate is much higher (ibid.). Reproductive scheduling in modern human females ranges from 2.5 to 3.5 year interbirth intervals, compared to 4-5 years for chimpanzees (Mace 2000:5). Birth intervals tend to increase with age even before menopause is reached. It has been proposed that this may be an evolved response, as well as part of the aging process, derived from sibling competition as well as the cost of parental investment in response to environmental conditions (ibid.; Low 2000:97). One rarely sees the acknowledgment that engaging in sexual activity does not automatically result in conception, and even then it is used to support the ‘long-term’ partnership hypothesis (Miller 2000:186; Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989:239).

Reproduction terminates with the programmed senescence of the reproductive organs, menopause, roughly 20 years before the rest of the body (ibid.). Other female mammals spend approx. 10% of their lives as postreproductive adults, while modern human females spend roughly 30% (Low 2000:94). The grandmothering hypothesis proposes that menopause may have evolved in order for older females to assist their children to reproduce, rather than to continue to do so themselves (Mace 2000:6).

Land use strategies

The dwelling sites of Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens were often located in rock shelters, the mouths of caves or open air sites (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:209). Rock shelters and near the entrance of caves were desirable places to live since they are light and airy, as well as sheltered (ibid.). These particular locations are more well studied, simply do to factors of preservation.

While it is accepted that Homo erectus was capable of building a simple brush covered dwellings, Neanderthals are assumed not to have the ability to build a shelter. However, at the site of Combe-Grenal, France, a natural cast of a ‘tent peg’, closely laid cobble ‘floors’ and shallow ‘storage pits’ have been found (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:209). At the Southern French beach site of Terra Amata, excavations revealed evidence of what might have been 21 separate oval living floors within branch and brush huts, attributed to archaic Homo sapiens (Galanidou 2000:274). These structures apparently were up to 22 m long and 10 m wide. Among modern foragers and horticulturists who employ rock shelters and caves as campsites, there appears to be no consensus as to the use of space (Galanidou 2000:274). Differences in the number, size, usage and location of hearths, sleeping arrangements, refuse disposal, activity areas, usage of open air sites and ‘furnishings’ were all deemed to be subject to individual group preferences (ibid.).

It has been proposed that archaic Homo sapiens occupied seasonal habitation sites based upon a ‘herd following’ adaptation (Kusimba 1999:167). This is based upon the assumption that hunters would have been able to easily kill sick animals as the grazing herd migrated (ibid.). However, ethnographic data suggest that modern hunter-gatherers rarely move their settlements since they rely on accessible plant foods for their dietary needs more so than upon grazing animals (ibid.).


The oldest grave sites have been associated with archaic Homo sapiens or Neanderthals. Almost all of these individuals have been found buried with something, for example flowers or jewelry. However, the appearance of burials in the archaeological record should not be used as an indication of cognitive advance or something uniquely human. There are millions of modern humans who do not bury their dead but still hold complex cognitive beliefs.

Secondly, these burials may simply have been a method of protecting the dead from scavengers or they may be taphonomic illusions (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:213). The conventional bias is to assume that if these were intentional burials, those assigned to archaic Homo sapiens are granted symbolic meaning while Neanderthal burials contain items which were just lying around the cave floor (i.e. animal bones and stone tools) and then “kicked or shoveled into the grave as part of the filling process” (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000:214).

In the cave of Qafzeh, a child was found buried with the skull and antlers of a deer (Mithen 1996:180). At Skhul, one of the burials contained a body which had been laid on its back, with the jaws of a wild boar placed within its hands (ibid.). The placing of animal parts within the burials has been interpreted as evidence of some form of totemic thought. There is also a significant increase in the amount of red ochre found at sites associated with early modern humans. Although it is not certain how the ochre was employed, some researchers have hypothesized it use in rituals as a body paint (Mithen 1996:182; Powers and Aiello 1997:153-154).

The European cave art seems to have been associated with ceremonies, which may have been accompanied by music. Drum sticks, flutes, and bull roarers were found near the paintings in Lascaux Cave. Some researchers have suggested that they were, in part, depicting their spirit world (Mithen 1996:182). The fact that footprints of both adults and children have been found in some of the caves near the paintings has also suggested that the art was connected with initiation ceremonies (ibid.). Some evolutionary psychologists view early ‘art’ as an expression of cognitive expansion and diversity while others propose that it serves as a sexual ornamentation for males (since only males would be producing art to attract females) (Miller 2000:258-275). It is important to remember that Europe was not the only part of the world in archaic Homo sapiens produced art. Depictions of animals were being painted in southern African, Siberia and Australia

Some cave walls and bone artifacts have sequences of incised marks or ticks, and have been interpreted as being calendrical systems. Such marks appear on bone artifacts made by late Neanderthals, but they did not become common until the Upper Paleolithic. If calendars were being made, it implies that some people were recognizing the cyclical nature of the seasons. To people dependent on seasonally available foods and migrating herds, a calendar would have allowed accurate predictions that would make the food quest more efficient. Also of great value to Upper Paleolithic hunter and gatherers would have been maps. A 16 ky old bone found at Mezhirich in Ukraine, apparently shows the countryside around an anatomically modern human settlement (Mithen 1996:182).

While the above examples fall within the Upper Paleolithic period, the precursors to these behaviours must have been laid during the preceding millennia. For example, rock art and carvings may have been placed on the outside of rock shelters and caves and eroded due to environmental forces. Similarly, if symbolic representations were created using perishable materials such as hides or wood, or were temporary creations, such as Tibetan sand paintings, there would be no trace of the actions or intent. The same would be true of body ornamentation in the form of tattoos and piercings. We are lulled into a false belief that all material objects will stand the test of time and taphonomy. However, even in our current material obsessed western culture, few items survive several decades without deliberate conservation intervention.


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Survivor: Archaic Homo Sapiens in the Time of Neanderthals

Sharon N. Solomon

Dept. of Anthropology

University of Toronto Dec. 2000

NOTE: This is a fictional evolutionary scenario written for a graduate seminar in Reproductive Ecology. While some human evolutionary data has been incorporated into the narrative, it is not intended to be viewed as anything other than an imaginative interpretation of the data

Life in the Tagi Tribe: Zhou’s Story

Zhou stood at the entrance of the rock shelter and looked down into the valley below. The sun was still shining brightly in the late afternoon sky, creating sharp contrasts of light and shadow throughout the landscape. Off in the distance, the light reflected off of the surface of a large glacial lake. Countless varieties of birds flocked and circled along the lake shore, raising and falling in spiraling patterns of flight and feeding. Great herds of migrating gazelle, antelope, bison, horses, aurochs, mammoth and wooly rhinoceros made their way across the valley, raising billowing clouds of dust. Squinting her eyes against the sun’s bright glare, she scanned for the hunting party.

Behind her, she heard the clamour of activity as cooking fires and young children were tended. From the corner of her eye she could see a small group of children chasing each other around some fallen rocks. They ranged in age from four to nine, still too young to be helpful with the cooking or hunting, but old enough to occupy themselves while the rest of the tribe was busy. She, of course, was beyond their simple play. Very soon, she knew, she would start her monthly cycle and join the ranks of the adult females. Once she shed her first menstrual blood, she would be taken into the women's shelter, and initiated into the ranks of adult females. Her ears would be pierced and she would receive a totemic tattoo. Until she bore her first child, she could only wear two braids in her hair. Afterward, she could do what she liked. But that would come in time. Until then, the only thing which identified her as female were the beads she wore in her long, braided hair.

She glanced over her shoulder at the activity behind her. There were several small fires and one large central cooking hearth. Both males and females were busy, either preparing the evening meal, making or repairing tools or tending to young infants. There were thirty people in the Tagi summer camp; twelve adults over the age of twenty, ten young adults between the ages of eleven and fourteen who had completed their rites of passage into adulthood, and eight children under the age of ten. The oldest adult was Qafzeh. At sixty-five, she was the matriarch and current leader of the tribe.

The physical characteristics of the members of the Tagi tribe were quite varied. Skin color ranged through several shades of light sandy beige to deep, ruddy browns. The older adults had deeply lined faces, although this was not an accurate indication of their true age. Some tribal members had low, prominent foreheads, deep set eyes, and large facial features. Others had relatively smaller, flat faces, with a high forehead and a protruding lower jaw. The remainder of the tribe exhibited a combination of these facial characteristics.

Hair and eye colour ranged in a plethora of combinations throughout the tribe. There were as many brown eyed blondes with tightly curled hair, as there were blue eyed brunettes with straight locks. The stature of the adults ranged from 1.5 to 1.8 m, with males and females roughly the same height. Body shape was also quite variable. All of the adults were leanly muscular, with well developed thighs and calves. Some Tagi members, no matter how much they gorged themselves, never seemed to increase in size. Others tended to increase in girth, even if they ate in moderation.

Childcare in the Tagi tribe was communal, although new mothers tended to spend most of their time fussing over their own children. Both males and females took as active a role as they desired in the raising of their young, dependent upon their individual personalities. Zhou's own mother, Hadar, seldom spent time with any of her three children. Hadar, at thirty-four, was one of the best hunters in their tribe. While she was well liked, she preferred to spend time away from the rest of the tribe, exploring the surrounding areas in solitude.

There were no formalized family units within the tribe. Liaisons and alliances formed and dissolved fluidly over time. As long as a new member attempted to integrate into the tribe, they were free to stay as long as they wished. In the case of consorts, these alliances seldom lasted more than a few years. Some breakups were more dramatic than others, of course. During the last full moon, Qafzeh had kicked her last consort out of the tribe, with a hail of rocks and verbal abuses.

On either side of the rock shelter were a variety of favoured berry bushes and fruit trees. These seemed to spring up in areas used by the tribe for defecation. Below the rock shelter, in a natural crevasse, animal bones and other food waste which could not be burned, were deposited. Beyond this area lay a thick forested region, broken occasionally by clearings and other rock shelters. The forest was home to a variety of animals such as red deer, rabbits, and boar. Heading down river, within a morning’s walk, slightly higher up the ridge, was the rock shelter occupied by The Oprah. Originally a member of the Pagong tribe, she was the spiritual counselor and medicine woman for both Tagi and Pagong tribes.

Continuing in the same direction, was the rock shelter of the Pagong tribe. Members of the Pagong tribe resembled the members of the Tagi tribe. The Pagong members were generally more heavily muscled, and appropriately strong. Their facial features seemed larger, and their eyes more deeper set, however, there was the same variation in stature, skin, hair and eye color, as found in the Tagi tribe. Their speech patterns were characteristically low pitched and husky, but easily understandable.

Pagong had been a trading and alliance partner with Tagi for as long as anyone could remember. Individuals frequently moved between tribes, for varying lengths of time, either as consorts or as new members. Both groups were trading partners with the tribes across the river, and as such, no tribe feared attack by any of the others. The biggest concern for all the tribes were fatal injuries sustained while foraging or hunting, mysterious wasting diseases, wounds which would not heal, and the dangers of childbirth and infancy.

Zhou returned to her look out for the hunting party. She scanned down the trail from the rock shelter to the valley. Then she spotted them. A group of seven men and women wearing light hide wraps around their hips, bare chested and carrying the day’s catch amongst them. At the front of the tribe, with a large pack on her back, strode Hadar. Zhou was still to far away to make out any conversation, but she could tell by their body language that the group had had a successful day from their animated gestures and crackles of laughter.

She hurried to collect her younger brothers. The rocks amongst which they were playing were covered with bright ochre hand prints and an assortment of squiggles, randomly placed at varying heights and locations. Two little boys with ochre stained hands were intently adding their contribution the rock face, while a group of little boys and girls nattered excitedly to each other as they fashioned flakes from a pile of stones. Unfortunately, just as she arrived, little Afar chose that moment to hit his big brother, Pith, on the nose with a small rock. Suddenly, in a domino effect, the rock shelter was pierced with screams from all of the little children as Pith’s nose dripped blood down his face and onto his chest. Her heart pounding with both fear and anger, Zhou grabbed both little boys by the arms and hauled them off to their sleeping area to tend to the damage.

Roughly placing Afar on his sleeping hide, Zhou turned her attention to the weeping Pith. Instructing him to sit still, she carefully cleaned away the quickly drying bloody with soft, damp bedding grasses. Placing a bundle of some sweet smelling herbs into a small bag, she told Afar to hold it gently against Pith’s nose while she went for some water. Making her way past the hide partitions of each sleeping area, Zhou entered the tribe’s storage area at the back of the rock shelter. Covered woven baskets were filled with a variety of nuts, fruits, berries, and dried meats. These baskets were placed in leather lined, natural depressions in the rock shelter floor to keep them cool and dry. Next to this area was a small, deep depression which was filled with fresh water. This pool was fed by the steady flow of water down the rear walls of the shelter. Collecting water in a hollowed gourd, and filling her sack with an assortment of fruits and dried meat, Zhou hurried back to her brothers.

The tribe did not eat communally but in small groups scattered in favourite locations around the rock shelter. While there were no assigned tasks, it was generally the younger adults and children who were responsible for trapping small animals, and the gathering of fruits, berries and firewood. All adults, were entrusted with group defense, cooking, tending the fires, hunting large game, and the care of young children. At night, the adults took turns tending the fire and keeping a defensive watch for strangers and predatory animals.The smell of roasting meat filled the rock shelter. The members of the hunting party had given their packs full of meat to those tending the cooking fires. The meat would be cleaned and seasoned with herbs. A portion of the meat was smoked and dried for storage. The remainder would be cooked and distributed amongst the tribe. The hunters headed back down the slope to the river to wash the day’s grime and blood from their bodies.

Birth: Koobi’s Story

Koobi closed her eyes and clenched her teeth to stifle a cry of pain as the contraction racked her body. She had been experiencing labour pains since before the sun came up that morning. The muscles in her thighs burned as she tried to retain her squatting position. She leaned back against the supporting body of Qafzeh, who murmured soothing noises into her ear while firmly massaging Koobi’s distended belly. The heat in the women's shelter was almost oppressive, and the smoke from the fire was beginning to sting her eyes. Fora wiped her daughter’s brow with a soft leaf, and stroked Koobi’s sweat matted hair in compassion. Turkana and Tanzania, Koobi’s birth mates, chanted rhythmically to the accompaniment of bone rattles. The flint flakes inside the leather pouches produced a high pitched tinkling sound as their bone handles were shaken in a precise semicircular pattern. Aromatic herbs smoldered in the fire, serving both to relax and cleanse Koobi through the birth of her third child.

Breathing slowly and deeply, Koobi gave one final push and placed one hand between her legs to catch her baby as it made its entrance into the world. The bed of dried grasses on which she had spent the last several hours squatting had become saturated with blood and other bodily fluids. While Koobi wiped her new son clean with a soft piece of hide, Fora quickly added a fresh layer of bedding grasses and waited for the placenta to drop. Qafzeh deftly freed the baby from its umbilical cord with a swipe of a small flint blade. She then wrapped placenta in a broad leaf and placed the bundle in the fire.

Koobi cooed softly to her son, cradling him against her engorged breasts. He waved his wrinkled fists in the air, and opened his eyes to stare at his mother for the first time. The other women had now gathered around Koobi to softly offer wishes of praise, but were careful not to touch the new baby. Slowly they moved to the far end of the shelter, leaving Koobi, lying on a fresh bedding of grasses and hides, to nurse her son.

Outside of the women's’ shelter, near the main living quarters of the rock shelter, Omo, Koobi’s current consort tended to her first born son, Nagadon. At six, Nagadon was a willful and spoiled child. He was rarely out of the company of his mother, and for the last few hours had been trying the patience of the entire tribe with a hysterical screaming fit. Usually, the children of the band were quite independent and social once they had been weaned. However, Omo had been allowed to nurse continuously since his birth, due in no small part to the miscarriage of Koobi’s second child the previous summer. Qafzeh lifted the flap of the shelter and moved to join the group sitting by the communal fire. The members of the Tagi tribe would not acknowledge the birth of a child until a complete lunar cycle had passed. At that point, there would be a naming ceremony and the child would be admitted as a member of the tribe. Until then, Koobi would remain inside of the women’s shelter, attended by her birth mates and mother.

Sex or Mating?: Hadar’s Story

Hadar silently made her way along the animal trail. The forest surrounding the rock shelter was full of a variety predators as well as prey. She scanned for the location of the boar trap she had set the previous day, while carefully noting different animal tracks and droppings lining the route. Towering trees filtered the afternoon sun, highlighting the colour palette of the countless varieties plants. The trail opened into a small clearing, which was lined by tall shrubs and thick berry bushes on all sides.

Suddenly, she sensed that she is being watched. Standing still, poised to either flee or attack, Hadar tensed her muscles and clutched her spear. Hearing a rustle in the bushes, close to the boar trail, Hadar raised her spear and took aim. From behind the bushes, a low pitched, husky male voice called out a friendly greeting. He identified himself as Tabun, a member of the neighbouring Pagong tribe. Raising both hands in the air, in a gesture of goodwill, he slowly entered the clearing and walked in Hadar’s direction.

Her heart still pounding from the adrenaline rush moments before, Hadar gaped at the male approaching her. He was about her height, with sun bleached, matted blond hair tied back with a leather strap. His deep set green eyes were framed by thick, dark lashes. He was a little fairer skinned than she was, but had the characteristic broad, heavily muscled build and strong facial features of the Pagong tribe. There was a rush of heat to her face, and a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach as she stared at Tabun. Her glance lingering on his broad chest, flat stomach, muscular arms and legs. Both of his arms were covered in tattoos, and scar ran from the tip of his left shoulder to the nipple.

While she had been intently staring at him, Tabun had performed his own inventory of her physical features. She was not as muscular or broad as the women in his tribe, and her face was small with a round forehead. Her hair was a wavy, reddish brown and cut to her shoulders. Her breasts were of average size, and her waist and hips were in proportion to the rest of her body. She had long legs and arms, which gave her the appearance of being much taller and slighter than the females of Pagong. He couldn’t tell what color her eyes were since the pupils were completely dilated. A flush had spread across her breasts up to her cheeks. He noticed that her nipples had hardened while he was approaching her.

Unconsciously straightening his posture and tightening the muscles in his abdomen, he patted his hair with one hand as he completed the final steps to where she was standing. Tabun stared directly into her eyes and smiled broadly at Hadar. She felt flustered, blood pounding loudly in her ears, her breathing quickened in excitement. It felt as though her heart would leap out of her chest. Flipping her hair, she dropped her gaze and muttered that she was checking her traps. Raising her hand to push the hair out of her eyes, she dropped her spear in nervous excitement.

They both reached down to pick it up at the same time and brushed up against one another. Slowly straightening, Tabun took a step back. Hadar closed the distance between them. She ran a finger along his scar, and slid her other hand under his hide wrap. Tabun leaned forward and placed his mouth on the nape of her neck. Using his lips and tongue, he traced a path to the sensitive skin at the base of her throat. His hands moved in long, slow strokes down her back to her buttocks. She pressed her body to his, and began to stimulate his penis with her hand. Both were now breathing heavily, faces flushed, blood pounding in their veins.

Hadar pushed Tabun to the ground, removed her hide wrap and straddled him. He assisted her by pushing his wrap aside, before placing his hands on her hips to position her onto his erection. Both uttered moans of satisfaction as Hadar slowly raised and lowered herself to meet Tabun’s thrusts. He fondled her breasts as she threw back her head in orgasmic bliss. After several minutes, Tabun grabbed Hadar firmly by the hips and with a few final thrusts, arched his back as he climaxed. She stimulated herself to orgasm one final time and then collapsed, spent but invigorated, onto the grass beside Tabun. When she had regained her breath, she stood up, brushed herself off and retied her wrap. As she bent down to collect her spear and pack, she gave Tabun a brief, hard kiss on the mouth, and then headed back to the Tagi rock shelter without a backward glance.

Death: Klasies’ Story

A small group of Tagi members, led by Qafzeh, carefully made their way across the valley to the leopard’s tree. A few days before, a group of young adults and children gathering firewood and tubers, had been attacked. The children, protected within the circle formed by the young adults, were not harmed but several of their protectors suffered deep cuts. With time, these wounds would heal, and they would bear a permanent testament of their bravery on their bodies.

However, one of the young male was not so lucky. At 14, Klasies was a tall, strapping adult. He was known for his gentle nature and delicate features. It was acknowledged by the tribe that, while he would never be a strong hunter, he was very innovative and well liked. It was Klasies who would teach the younger children nonsensical, rhythmic chants to help them remember the names of animals and plants. He had even fashioned a two-part spear to aid in the hunting of aurochs and horses, although only Hadar had been willing to test it.

The muscles in Klasies thigh had been severed during the attack.

children had related how the leopard, after delivering a fatal bite to the back of his neck, had carried off his body. Qafzeh now led a small group to try to recover Klasies’ head. Signaling for the group to fan out, she cautiously scanned for signs of the leopard. Motioning that the area was safe, the group approached the base of the tree.

There were broken bits of animal bones strewn in a wide area, some of which may have once belonged to Klasies. After several minutes of searching, Qafzeh recovered the skull. There were still bits of shriveled flesh clinging to it, but these were carefully cut and scraped off with a sharp flake. She widened the hole at the base of the skull and then, using a sharpened digging stick, dislodged and removed its contents. Placing the skull in a large leather pack, Qafzeh and her group made their way back across the valley toward the river. The skull was washed clean, and clay was collected from along the river bank.

When it was dry, the skull was covered in a thick layer of white clay. A simplified representation of Klasies’ features was then moulded. The skull was then wrapped in damp plant fibers, and placed into a shallow pit lined with hot embers and dried grasses. The hot pit was then covered with loose sediment and left to bake.

Two days later, the entire Tagi tribe, faces covered with streaks of charcoal, witnessed the ‘rebirth’ of Klasies, as his clay encased skull was removed from its burial. The skull was then passed to each member of the tribe to offer final words of parting and messages for members of Tagi who were no longer physically with the tribe. Qafzeh then lead the tribe, chanting, upriver to their ancestral cave. A large fire was lit at the mouth of the cave, and the tribal members chanted and sang until the sun began to rise. Qafzeh and the mother of Klasies, carried the clay shrouded skull deep into the cave where it was placed on a natural rock shelf in the company of the Tagi ancestors.

Hershkovitz et. al

In 1997, Hershkovitz et. al. examined the extent of the sagittal suture closure in 3,636 skulls from the Hamann-Todd and Terry collections (Hershkovitz et. al. 1997:393). The sagittal suture was chosen (Hershkovitz et. al. 1997:395)

as it is the only ‘end-to-end’ type suture in the calvaria (avoiding ‘‘pseudoclosure’’ due to overlapping of bone, as in frontal over parietal bone), and because its location at the midline neutralizes it from biomechanical influences.

Hershkovitz et. al. (1997:395) identified five sutural conditions, defined as: 1) totally closed (TC): no signs of the sagittal suture were observed on the ectocranial surface, from bregma to lambda; 2) partially closed (PC): less than 10% of the suture length was open; 3) totally open (TO): the suture line was clearly visible with almost no interruptions along its entire length, from bregma to lambda. Minor closure at the area of the parietal foraminae was ignored; 4) partially open (PO): between 10% and 90% of the suture length was open; and 5) premature suture closure (PMSC). PMSC was distinguished from pathological closure, which occurs very early in life (5 years or earlier), and which is characterized by sutural ridging (i.e., scaphocephally) (Hershkovitz et. al. 1997:395). In the PMSC category all skulls in which the sagittal suture was closed after the age of 5 years but before 18 years, were included (ibid.).

Hershkovitz et. al. (1997:398) provide the following conclusions: 1) the sagittal suture cannot be used for aging the skeleton; 2) although cross-sectional in nature, suture obliteration patterns are not temporary progressive stages on an age scale, but rather independent permanent phenomena; 3) some suture closure patterns are genetically inherited; 4) females and males manifest different suture closure patterns; 5) in all ages, the relative frequency of the ‘‘totally open’’ category is higher in females than in males; 6) the medical conditions (HFI, TB) examined in the present study are not associated with a suture closure condition; and 7) suture closure is neither a pathological phenomenon nor the result of normal aging process. Taken as a whole, the authors state that reliance upon cranial suture closure for age estimation is of no value for either forensic application or paleodemography studies (Hershkovitz et. al. 1997:397).


All of the previous anatomic studies of cranial sutures, prior to the work of Todd and Lyon in the 1920s, assumed that the appearance of these provided information of racial background, sex, age and intelligence. While these early studies attempted to examine as many crania as possible, from a variety of sources, there was no method to verify the reliability of ‘known’ age at death. Todd and Lyon (1925:35) stated that their work differed from all earlier studies in that they sought to establish a definite age relationship for suture closure, whereas earlier researchers, dealing with a number of crania of unknown and various ages, based their observations solely upon a general average which was termed a ‘closure tendency’. Moreover, it would be apparent that closure tendency would differ with every collection of crania, especially if one merely notes the occurrence of ectocranial sutures (ibid.).

Todd and Lyon (1924, 1925a, 1925b, 1925c) found no onset timing differences between endocranial and ectocranial closure, although endocranial closure was deemed to be more reliable since there were more occurrences of lapsed union in ectocranial sutures (Krogman 1962:81-82). They found no racial differences nor differences between the left and right sides of the skull (Todd and Lyon 1924:370). The assumption that anomalous closure of one suture correlated with anomalous closure of all sutures in a given skull became the basis of all future criticisms of the Todd and Lyon methodology. Since Todd and Lyon specifically eliminated ‘abnormal’ crania from their experimental sample, it should not be surprising that attempts to replicate their findings, using random samples which include such crania, should fail (Meindl and Lovejoy 1985:58).

Since the initial studies by Todd, there has been several changes in how published research is presented. First, when presenting supporting background information, Todd provided a detailed historical account as to both who conducted the study and how that research was conducted. Later studies merely provide a collection of references, with one or two notations as to the relevance of the previous study. Second, Todd provided a detailed account regarding the criteria of both how his sample was obtained and why certain crania were rejected from the final study (listing both catalogue numbers for each crania and a detailed account of any anomalies).

Third, Todd published his raw data as well as the ‘adjusted’ curve graphs. Later studies only publish results which have already been ‘adjusted’, or simply provide a text summary of the findings. Finally, one of the major changes in methodologies from Todd’s initial work, is the dependence upon random sampling, multivariate and regression analysis. In examining these studies, it seems, at face value, that this embracing of statistical methodologies has clouded the central issue, specifically, can cranial sutures provide a valid estimation for age at death?

As mentioned previously, Todd and Lyon eliminated aberrant skulls from their examination in order to produce a standard for estimating age at death. It seems surprising that later researchers attempted to incorporate deviant findings into averaged results. As stated in the conclusion of the 1924 paper, cranial suture closure, especially when employed in conjunction with other age markers in the post cranial skeleton, can provide an estimate of age at death within one decade of the ‘actual age at death’.


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