Ancient fireside chats may have produced the first bill of rights

Media release

March  2014

Ancient Fireside chats may have produced the first bill of rights

There is a good chance that the notion of a Bill of Rights was conceived right here in Swartkrans at the Cradle of Humankind Heritage site.  Swartkrans is the site where scientists found evidence to support the view that fire was being used and harnessed by our predecessors more than a million years ago.

“We know that the ability to harness and make fire was a major technological step in human development but it is very possible that knowing how to tame and use fire was of equal importance for our moral and social development,” says Dr. Morris Sutton, project archaeologist for the Swartkrans Paleoanthropological Research Project, and guide for the Swartkrans Walking Tours organised by Maropeng.

With Human Rights day (21 March) approaching it is good to reflect just what and why human rights actually exist.

Human rights are first and foremost moral principles which set out certain standards of human behaviour.  Though humans have lived together for centuries, it was only in the late 17th and 18th century, during the period called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, that the basic principles of being human were formalised resulting, for example,  in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen  and the United States Bill of Rights. Our own Bill of Rights, which is contained in our Constitution, was only documented much, much later (1996).  However, behaving with, and preserving the dignity of others dates way back into evolutionary times.

A prehistoric male skeleton, exhibiting a jaw without teeth, was found along with indications that this individual had lived for many years in this condition. The only way he could have survived was if others had helped to feed him by pre-chewing his food.  Other examples are bones from other excavation sites showing evidence of debilitating injuries with clear signs of healing.  This could only have happened by the care of others.  This surely is early evidence of some form of social contract that speaks to preserving one of the basic human rights – the right to life and dignity.

“By living in a community, hominids would have depended on other members of their group for assistance. This reliance would have helped complex relationships grow,” agrees Dr Sutton. “Living in society with others has advantages for survival such as protection, access to food, and care for infants and mothers.”

He adds that the evolution of the brain and the development of language contributed to the development of more complex social groups.

“Given the complexity of tool assemblages and the specialist skills that could be developed in foraging, scavenging, hunting and basic agricultural activities, some members of a community may have become experts at certain activities,” Dr Sutton explains. “This may have led to the development of more complex power structures within communities.”

Living within a community creates cultural capital or the accumulation of social knowledge over time. Following the development of language and the ability for complex planning, hominids would have been able to discuss and refine strategies for survival, and to teach their young about the threats and opportunities of their world. While this may have initially had practical applications, with time and the harnessing of fire, more complex social implications probably developed.

Dr Sutton says that the fireside may have provided the place to share food and experiences, and perhaps aided the development of abstract thought within a community. “The fireside could have sparked the emergence of culture, including song, dance and the groundwork for basic human rights,” says Dr Sutton.



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