Did Humans Evolve to Dance?

I am in the final stages of writing a book about dance. Weaving together contemporary scholarship from a variety of fields, with accounts of the lived experience of dancing, I am arguing that dancing is a vital art; it is an activity that is vital to our health and well being as humans on this planet. Dancing is what our bodily selves know.

With this post, I begin a series that will introduce and explore the ideas in this book. First among them is the idea that humans evolved to dance. It is more radical than it may initially seem. People, I argue, need to dance in order to become human—that is, in order to grow brainy bodily selves with the ethical capacity, spiritual proclivity, and the ecological consciousness that mark us as human.

What is dance?

Dance is a human universal. There is no known culture in human history whose members do not in some way, move their bodily selves in rhythmic patterns to the sound of clapping, snapping, stamping, singing, or other musical expression. There are cultures without alphabets or systems of writing. There are cultures without books. There are no cultures without music and dance.

Moreover, for those hunter-gatherer cultures who have been around the longest—since before the dawn of agriculture—dance has been, at least until recently, a regular, central ritual, perceived as vital to the health and well being of the community. For the San bushman of the Kalahari, the Aborigines of Australia, or the Andaman Islanders of the South Pacific, periodic communal dances provide the occasion for the entire group to come together, often in a circle, and move their bodily selves in recognizable, learned patterns for hours at a time.

Nor are there any humans who have grown to be adults without dancing. Infants dance, and do so spontaneously, moving rhythmically in response to music, before they can walk, talk, or feed themselves. (It could be argued—and I will later—that humans are even born dancing.)

Given this universality, my case for dance as a vital art begins with a peek back before the emergence of the species homo sapiens (250,000 years ago), to try to discern where and when and why the practice of dancing took shape as human. Although it is not clear exactly which hominid line gave rise to homo sapiens, the most likely contender at present is homo erectus, which emerged 1.5 to 1.8 millions years ago.

Dancing leaves no fossil record—or not that we have yet discerned. The earliest artistic representations of human figures dancing date to 40,000 BCE, long after homo sapiens began walking the earth. Thus, much of what we must do is piece together a story from what scholars have been able to tell from hominid fossils, unearthed artifacts, and DNA analysis about the anatomy, physiology, and social practices of a distinctively human species.

While the evidence is scarce, models for making a case for dance as human are not. As the hominid fossil record grows more complete and complex, anthropologists are proposing candidates for the activity that catalyzed the evolution of homo sapiens. In today’s post, I look at one of those arguments, finding points of connection and support for the idea that the ability to dance may have played a critical role in the bodily becoming of homo sapiens.

Cooking

Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, in his book Catching Fire argues that cooking is the “signature diet” of homo sapiens (14). We are a new species, he writes, “tied to the use of fire by our biological needs, relying on cooked food to supply enough energy to our bodies” (17). It is the act of cooking, he argues, that created the conditions in which humans could develop our characteristic anatomy, physiology, psychology, and even social behavior—most notably, our big brains.

Wrangham bases his argument on a careful analysis of a human digestive system. Compared to other primates and mammals, he contends, the human features (aside from the small intestine) are small—60% smaller than those in equivalently weighted animals (44). Humans have smaller mouths, tiny lips, weaker jaws, smaller teeth, stomachs, and large intestines. This decrease in size results in a digestive cost of at least 10%. So how, he asks, could humans make up the difference?

Cooking, Wrangham proposes. The primary significance of cooking, he argues, is to increase the energy and calories available from food. Cooking gelatinizes starch; denatures protein, and softens everything, leading to easier, faster processing and absorption. In particular, heat turns collagen, the connective tissue of meat, into jelly (74). As  he writes, eating meat if it were raw would not explain our brain growth. We couldn’t get the calories from it without hours of chewing. “We are cooks more than carnivores” (53).

Seeking to identify when the changes in human physiology associated with eating cooked food occurred, Wrangham predicts that they occurred at the time of homo erectus, 1.8 million years ago, when the homo line indicates the largest proportional reduction in tooth size, the largest increase in body size, the disappearance of arms fit to climb, a smaller gut, a 42% increase in cranial capacity, as well as evidence of the ability to control fire.

Explaining why the cranial capacity of the homo line continued to grow beyond its erectus size into a sapiens size, Wrangham dismisses theories about more efficient hunting, and instead points to the discovery of new cooking strategies, such as earth ovens and cooking in containers (123). As he writes: cooking “helped make our brains uniquely large, providing a dull human body with a brilliant mind” (127).

In the final sections of the book, he hypothesizes that the advent of cooking also gave rise to a gender division of labor, seen in 97.8% of traditional societies, in which men hunt and women cook. Hunters who don’t cook their food would have to spend far too much time chewing to hunt enough. Cooking enables hunting (146). It enables hunters to range far and wide. With cooking, he adds, came the pair bond relationships between hunter and cook that support the slow development and education of the big brain that the pair’s cooperative arrangement fed.

When reading this account, several thoughts come to mind. For one, I want to make a similar argument for dancing. I want to argue that homo erectus or some equivalent began a practice of rhythmic bodily movement that proved critical in supporting the development of a human brain. Is there such evidence?

Second, I want to ask whether the process of learning to cook may have co-evolved with the ability to dance. Cooking takes time. It takes attention. Cooking creates a circle—a center around which humans may move, for warmth, for amusement, for display, while waiting for food, as well as tending the fire. Cooking would have created an occasion for creating the first circle dances.

Third, I wonder about the process of learning how to cook—experimenting and developing new strategies. For many other human actions, such as tool use and home construction, humans could and still do gather inspiration for watching other animals. A flint chip mimics the beak of a bird, or the action of our own teeth. At best, humans might have become interested in cooking after eating a carcass charred by a forest fire. But how would humans have learned to cook? Cooking requires a capacity to invent movement patterns along the trajectories of our own movement making. Could dancing have exercised the brain in ways that created the capacity for such learning?

Finally, given that cooking did increase the energy available for food, then why would that energy necessarily go to growing bigger brains? Scholars are fairly certain that homo erectus had not developed the capacity for using symbols or language. Wrangham dismisses the idea that the brain developed for warfare (chimps do it); or for mapping territories (scientists have found no correlation between brain size and range size). There must have been a reason other than cooking itself.

Dancing burns calories. As Wrangham notes, “Life is mostly concerned with energy” (81). If humans expended energy dancing, then it must have been important—and in ways that aligned with the trajectories at work in the hominid line, including the growing of big brains, the lengthening of human childhood, and the development of partner relationships. But how?

In the next post, some answers.

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