Did Early Humans have a Sense of Humor?

An enduring question for paleoanthropologists is, what life was like for our early ancestors. We can, to some degree, reconstruct their meals, hunting practices, and sex life, but what about the quotidian tasks that make up most of our lives? Did Homo naledi worry if she will find happiness? Did Neandertals tell jokes about modern humans? (counter question: Where there Neandertal hipsters telling their friends about how the Châtelperronian is really cool and underground but they probably never heard of it?)

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Questions like these are harder to answer, and some may be impossible to know, but recent theory and scholarship allows us to paint a broader picture of everyday life. In part, the work to understand what symbolic thought and human wisdom means for human behavior can shed light on these questions, since without this ability much of daily life would be impossible. I was thinking about these issues recently while attending a colloquium on “The Impact of Laughter and Humor in History and Today’s Digitized World” run by Dr. Otto Santa Ana of UCLA. As most parents find, making their baby laugh is one of the earliest memories in child-rising. Anthropological research suggests that laughter is a human universal found in all societies. Chimpanzees respond to tickling with ‘play-pants’ which seem to tell their partner to continue tickling or chasing them (Matsusaka, 2004). This suggests to some researchers that the roots of laugher go back to the Last Common Ancestor of human and great apes (Van Hooff, 1972; Provine, 2004; Gervais and Wilson, 2005). Provine (2000) notes that blind and deaf children laugh which suggests that it is not a learned behavior, but that laughter probably has a genetic basis. Yet apes don’t laugh the same way we do in part because of difference in anatomy. Being bipedal allows for a different type of sound-making and breathing. (If you ask five paleoanthropologists who the first bipedal hominid was, you would probably get six different answers, but by around four million years ago our ancestors were walking around on two legs.)

The Evolution of Humor

One of the participants at the colloquium was Matt Gervais, who co-authored a well-known article with Davis Sloan Wilson on the evolution of humor. They suggest a difference between Duchenne and non-Duchenne laughter. In humans, the former is a genuine response to something funny while the latter evolved later in human evolution in “aggressive, nervous, or hierarchical contexts, functioning to signal, to appease, to manipulate, to deride or to subvert” (Gervais and Wilson, 2005, p 418).

Just when this non-Duchenne laugher evolved is unclear. But I was reminded of a study by the anthropologist, Polly Wiessner (Wiessner, 2014), suggesting that night talk over the campfire is more about telling stories, dancing, and singing, while day talk consists more of economic matters and gossip. The use of fire, then, could have opened up a new niche; a new time to be productive due to firelight. Perhaps this allowed for joke-telling as well. It is unclear when humans first controlled fire (it is a hot topic, and I’m not going to fan the flames of the debate here, though I want to use this data to spark some new thoughts and shed light on these questions), but archaeological evidence suggests by 750,000 humans were using fire. Archaeological data also shows that humans were capable of making symbolic objects by this time, but the development of this behavior does not seem common till after 300,000. This matters because the ability to connect an object to an idea based solely on convention is the basis of symbolic thought. Provine (Provine, 2004) argues that laugher is the sound of play. Perhaps these early humans were able to engage in a different sort of play than is seen in non-human animals. Could we ‘get’ jokes if we didn’t have symbolic thought? Wynn and Coolidge (Wynn and Coolidge, 2004) speculate that it would have been tricky for Neandertals to get all kinds of humor, especially play on word and puns. Maybe they didn’t understand that something was a joke. But recent archaeological data suggests that Neandertals had a complex cognitive toolkit.

Humor as a tool for building community?

Perhaps the function of humor was, in part, as a social glue. Most laughter occurs in non-humorous situations and the simulant comes not from a joke but from another person (Provine, 2004).

Think of the viral videos of people laughing or the use of a laugh-track in sitcoms. Much like shell beads allowed the wearer to signal that they are a member of a community, joke-telling builds community. Victor Borge is credited with the saying “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”

Laughing Boy

Alongside the physical evidence of the expansion of human wisdom, perhaps laughter and humor is showing the increasing interconnectedness of human populations.

Rather than thinking that Neandertals didn’t find puns funny (and let’s face it, that might make them more cultured…), we can see humor as part of the larger question of how humans makes sense out of the world. Our large and expensive brains allow not just for the solving of subsistence problems, but for engaging with a large community. Living in groups is not easy and finding ways to assuage stress by laughing is just one way humor allows us to build these networks of connections that allow for wisdom to . We can see wisdom as the collective suite of behaviors that includes speculation, imagination, ritual performance, religious behavior, and other similar behaviors. In our future work, we hope to be able to bridge the gap between the work on laughter and on the evolution of human wisdom by utilizing the transdisciplinary nature of this project to better contextualize the processes of becoming human in biological and cultural terms.

Further Reading
Gervais M, Wilson DS. 2005. The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: a synthetic approach. Q Rev Biol 80:395–430.
van Hooff, Jan. 1972. A comparative approach to the phylogeny of laughter and smiling. In: Hinde R, editor. Non-verbal communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p 209–241.
Provine RR. 2004. Laughing, tickling, and the evolution of speech and self. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 13:215–218.
Provine, RR. 2000. Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. New York, Viking.
Wiessner PW. 2014. Embers of society: Firelight talk among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111:14027–35.
Wynn T, Coolidge FL. 2004. The expert Neandertal mind. J Hum Evol 46:467–487.