Pondering on what makes us human: that would be shopping, then?


So what does make us human? What differentiates us from our closest relatives the great apes? These were some of the questions posed to us as students of Prehistory & Archaeology way back in the 1970s. Naturally, the philosophical framework of a course with such a title is going to be artefact-driven. Archaeologists deal in physical remains. Prehistory means there is no written record. Mostly all we are left with are bones, stones, post-holes, hearths, bits of wood (if we’re lucky), stains in the soil, and that prehistorian’s joy of joys – the rubbish pit and/or midden.

(After all, there is nothing so fascinating as poking through other people’s garbage – as long as it doesn’t smell too much. Just think what future archaeologists will make of our landfill sites, and what their contents will say about us. See WALL.E  the movie for starters.)

But back to that ‘what makes us human’ question.

In the early 1970s it was widely thought that the appearance of tools was a key criterion. Their construction suggested evolving cognition and the ability to forward plan. Tool-making further  presupposed the facility to walk upright, thus leaving hands free to access materials, and to fashion them for preconceived purposes.

For a time this seemed a useful marker, but then as palaeontologists delved ever further back through the remains of our pre-human ancestors (mostly in Africa’s Rift Valley) it became clear that even by 2.5 million years ago, pre-humans were making tools. The picture was further confused by the realisation that chimpanzees also make tools, albeit crudely fashioned ones – e.g. hammers to crack open nuts, or break into bee hives.

Large brain size was another criterion (judged back then on the basis of the cranial capacity of skull remains), this supposedly indicating a well developed intelligence. I’ve never liked this much, feeling it had a whiff of eugenics about it.  I also remember finding it perplexing to discover that Neanderthal brains were apparently larger than those of modern humans even though Neanderthals were supposed to be ‘inferior’.

None of this seemed to advance my understanding at that time, and besides, now we find that back in the Paleolithic, and  in two distinct phases hundreds of generations apart, humans of the northern hemisphere interbred with Neanderthals. The evidence is there in our genomes.


I left Prehistory behind long ago. As a discipline, I felt it never would be capable of revealing the aspects of humanity that are truly important. And while inferences might be drawn (read: guesses made) about social, religious, political and economic systems from the fragmentary remains of ancient humans, archaeology alone cannot retrieve the all important drivers of human development, the intersecting sets of shared beliefs that create human culture.

After all, we do not know why Stonehenge was built, or what people actually did there, or who organised its building and the activities that took place within the great stone arcades. We never will know. But we can date associated remains, source materials, conjecture on construction techniques, work out how long the place was used, and then we can admire it as an astonishing edifice built by people with an apparently limited technology.

The physical remains,then, are indeed important, but what I really want to know is what was the intention of  its builders; what beliefs led to Stonehenge’s conception and realisation.

By now you may be wondering why this post includes scenes from Dubai, including the 9th century pot above. Here’s a clue from the bazaar:


And another from the Gold Souk:


And at the Dhow Harbour:


And in the mall:


Yes, you have guessed it. Trade is the clue. And so, having ruminated on archaeology’s limitations, I can say that one of the things it does do well is reveal ancient trading  patterns across the globe. In fact only last week it was announced that a study of sediments from a waterlogged 8,000 year-old Mesolithic (ostensibly hunter-gatherer) settlement in the English Channel contained introduced wheat grains that suggest trade with European farmers.

In this regard then, the movement of goods, the origins and spread of food species can be tracked across the millennia. We can thus surmise that even 8,000 years ago humanity was already out shopping, and that, down the ages, this would seem to be one shared behaviour pattern that is exclusively human. We all do it, and probably always have, because whatever territory was commanded on a day to day basis, it probably did  not provide for all its inhabitants’ wants and needs.

There may have been the need to share with other groups a particularly good source of flint for tool making. Inland and maritime communities would have met to exchange materials and foodstuffs. There would also have been the pressing need to find mates well outside the group of related family members. And there might have been a yearning for salt or, in season, for honey or for a particular fruit, all of which might have involved negotiation with outsiders. Fresh water sources might also have been at issue, or the need for extra hands for some seasonal hunting or farming pursuit. And so, for these reasons and more, we would have traded, bartered, exchanged, made treaties and contracts, formed alliances, given and received gifts. This was also probably how some us of ended up with Neanderthal DNA in our genomes.

From the historical record we also know that when it comes to dealing in resources and commodities, hostilities may be instigated, or suspended depending on those whose interests rule. Safe havens, forums, fairs, markets, shopping centres, bazaars, souks, malls are places we all recognise. In the past such gathering points would have also provided venues for song and dance, spiritual and ritual observance, political rallies, exchanges of information and specialised services, the telling of tales.

Dubai, these days, is one of the world’s shopping capitals, reinvesting its wealth from oil refining and trade in the ’shop till your drop’ model. It brings together the concepts of the marketplace and the caravanserai, but on a mega, upmarket 5* scale. Yet it also draws on ancient roots, and on actual trade routes that go back to at least 3,000 BCE. Back then copper and the pearls dived for off Dubai Creek were the stock in trade. Later, as commerce between the Mediterranean and the East began to thrive, dhow merchants made the most of Dubai Creek’s favourable geographical position. The trade continues, only now it is western cars, refrigerators and Coca Cola going east, while the spices, as they have for centuries, come west.


Shopping then, provision and consumption, is, I suggest, what makes us uniquely human. And while I admit that this does not seem a particularly elevating pursuit for our time on this wonderful planet, it nonetheless engages pretty much all of us, from Manhattan bankers to Congo hunter-gatherers. Multifarious  mechanisms of exchange bind us in relationships of largely peaceable cooperation.  The squabbling over resources, and corporations’ drive to make profits at others’ expense threatens us and our planet. But either way, it is hard to see where this never-ending shopping spree will take us. Maybe we need to take a hard look at those landfill sites of ours, and consider what future archaeologists will have to say of us.  I’m not sure we will want to hear it.


copyright 2015 Tish Farrell


Inspired by Jennifer Nichole Wells and her One Word Photo Challenge: teal


50 thoughts on “Pondering on what makes us human: that would be shopping, then?

  1. You know, I think you’ve hit on something. Other creatures make war … of a sort. Torture their prey, though perhaps with less creativity than mankind. But I can’t think of any other species which shops. I lived in Jerusalem when they started digging out the Cardo. We always knew there was another layer under there. You could see the tops of arches underneath the modern Damascus gate. One day, they started Jerusalem’s version of The Big Dig. The Cardo runs across the entire width of the Old City. It’s a shopping mall. A Roman shopping mall. They fixed it up … and it’s a shopping mall again. I’m sure this means something.

    1. Your perspective on the Cardo is so apt. Shopping through time. Years ago I wrote a dissertation on the relationship between Mbuti (pygmy) hunters of the Congo forest, and the Bantu farming communities that were pressing ever closer into the Mbuti’s forest domain. To the Mbuti the forest is sacred place, since it provides for all their needs, and I think at first the villagers were treated to some poisoned arrows. But as time went on, both sides saw there were gains to be made from exchange and cooperation. The Mbuti found they liked village foodstuffs. The villagers wanted forest meat. It led to shared ritual practices, in particular the initiation of boys into adults – a village rite of passage in which the Mbuti took part, albeit often for show. There are many other examples of this kind of cross cultural relationship in Africa and elsewhere – especially between farmers and nomadic pastoralists They evolved rites, festivals, market places where they could exchange worlds. Then there is one of the biggest shopping malls on the planet – The Silk Road.

  2. I am sure there is truth in this Tish but this cutting, which I have kept for over forty years, offers another viewpoint:
    Eric Hoffer, the philospher, doesn’t own a car. For all I know he may not even drive. Nevertheless, in his latest book ‘First Things Last Things’, Hoffer wrote: “When grubbing for necessities Man is still in the animal kingdom. He becomes uniquely human and at his creative best when he expands his energies and even risks his life for that which is not essential for sheer survival”.
    It is from Road & Track magazine, 1968 – I keep it inside my first edition of Jim Clark – Portrait of a Great Driver. I am something of an obsessive :-).

    1. That’s an interesting perspective, Robin, but I’m going to have to disagree. The the anthropological evidence really doesn’t bear it out. Indigenous hunters have the most spiritually based cultures wherever they are in the globe – they just don’t have many artefacts.

  3. A beautiful place to be taken. Such an interesting question and response. I’ve often thought that a sense of purpose/self makes us uniquely human – rather than running full yon instinct. But I’ve never delved very far into the idea, and this certainly can’t be shown through artifacts. Shopping is a good point. In any case, gorgeous images. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Well that is very thought provoking Tish and certainly nothing i had ever thought about. Thank you for broadening my perspective. I shall remember your post next time I am out shopping that’s for sure.

  5. A very thought provoking and fascinating post, Tish. I think the acquisition of things which are wanted rather than needed, must be a uniquely human trait. If it weren’t for this relentless hankering after power and more and more ‘stuff’, man may be even be able to live in peace.

    1. I think you are so right about the endless hankering, Sylvia. It actually distracts us from more meaningful pursuits, or even listening to our inner selves.

  6. I don’t think we want to know what the future researchers will say about us and our life style. While I think there are other capabilities that make us uniquely human, this habit of acquiring more and more and throwing so much of it away is certainly a viable candidate…And doesn’t make me proud to be human.

    1. You are surely right, Tiny. There are other, non-materialistic characteristics that make us human – the capacity for reverence, empathy, foresight, thought, love, creativity, language and storytelling etc, but the acquisition of goods seems to be the one drive that unites us all – whoever and wherever we are – that is, once we have clapped eyes on them. Of course there were the North American cultures that had their potlatches, and at regular intervals destroyed all their acquisitions towards the greater communal spiritual good. Today’s producers would surely love this model, though I guess not for the same purpose. More like: more shopping everyone. I’m as guilty as anyone. 😦

  7. I don’t “buy” your argument about archeology. Combined with a host of other disciplines, scientists can now begin to trace human history – as well as the evolution of all the species and indeed the physical world – from beginning to end. The “why” may elude us (for now), but the picture is amazingly rich, without too many gaps in the timeline. Edward Wilson has a good book I’m reading now called Social Conquest of the Earth, 2012, which tells of man’s evolution. Wilson has a pretty good handle on the whole enchillada. As for malls, I try to avoid them.

    1. I quite agree you, Stephen, that there are now a host of amazing techniques to reconstruct aspects of the material past, and especially things like LADAR uncovering whole Egyptian cities. But, for instance, I don’t believe we will ever unravel the who and why of the paleolithic cave paintings, though they themselves are wonderful to look at, and should tells us that we are creatively closer to our distant ancestors than some of us would care to think. But thanks for the book tip. I will look out for it. Of course if we got into a bit of quantum mechanics that might throw more light on prehistory.

      1. Don’t get me started. I’m working, by the way on a piece on the golden proportion. I mention you because it was your post that made me think of it. So really it’s a thank you.

      2. I shall look forward to reading it. I like the way we set each other off on these assignments. I think we have our own wordpress university going here. So thank you, too.

  8. Riveting as per spec, dear Tish!

    On the archaeological front … and bearing in mind I inhabit the slow lane .. came across an article concerning the Pyramids and the hypothesis that they were constructed using a form a form of cement and built in-situ.
    You no doubt know of this so I was wondering, having the archaeological background you do, what’s your take?

    1. Not up to speed with this myself, Ark, but you’ve pricked my curiosity so shall have to go and google it. This is certainly a way better theory than the Express trumpeting the discovery of JC’s abode.

      1. Then I will not spoil your fun with Googling!
        Come back to me when you’ve had a squizz, okay?
        It is a fascinating topic and I was captivated and enthralled from the off.

      2. http://www.geopolymer.org/archaeology/pyramids/are-pyramids-made-out-of-concrete-1
        Was it this you saw – because it sounds perfectly feasible, and who am I to argue with a geopolymer professor. Brilliant presumption. Why haul rocks around the place (great waste of slave power) when you can reconstitute them on site. It is after all, an upscale version of making mud brick which was an existing technology, just using crushed limestone (which of course was also used for centuries in Britain as mortar). This is the fascinating side of archaeology, the kind that doesn’t maunder on about finding Troy or gazing on the face of Agamemnon, or flying kites about strange ritual practices that say more about us. Any road up, Ark, thank you for this interesting diversion from completing chapter 7 of my master work.

      3. Yes, this is the site! Well done.
        Interesting though that the idea received a lot of flak from the ”establishment” including Egyptologists, which I find strange, as I agree, other than Aliens, ( who we know really built them, right?) this seems the most plausible and common sense answer ever presented. And I am all for common sense.
        I am at a loss why this theory has not gained more recognition?

        Sorry to disturb your book – what are you working on , if I might ask. No need to divulge if it’s still ”under wraps”. 🙂

      4. Oh I can tell you a bit -it’s a very darkly funny yarn set somewhere in East Africa. And when I’m not on wordpress or in the allotment, I am inside the head of a ninety something year old medicine man who has lived many lives, and is suddenly experiencing a lot of interference with his perceptions of reality. I’ve been composting it for a few years, but it looks like something’s rooting. Tho never does to speak too soon on that front. Hoeing the ground hopefully though 🙂
        As for the Egyptologists – it may be comes down to funding – academics build their reputations by means of gaining high vis. sponsorship for costly excavations etc, and then writing up results in prestigious journals with associated PR. This has a petrifying effect on knowledge growth, I would suggest. It generally takes at least 20 years for some radically new notion to start gaining purchase. We’re back to shopping again here I’m afraid – and in all sorts of ways. I’ll buy the Egyptian concrete though. I mean they might have discovered this by accident what with all the Nile’s flooding seasons.

      5. Your book sounds intriguing. And I can so relate to ”composting”.
        Like the idea you threw into the mix (pun) about Nile inundation.
        If one considers how many ideas come about due to a ”light-bulb ” moment this has a ring of plausibility.

        Yes, the petrifying effect
        Look what the likes of Finkelstein and Herzog et al are up against with their findings.
        Yet the more you consider it the more the common sense answer appeals.

        Crumbs, 5 o’clock down here. Time for a cup tea and see if my lot want me to cook dinner.
        Catch you later?

    2. Forgot to thank you for your kind appreciation of post. Also, I wouldn’t put anything past the Egyptians – I mean the wondrous stuff they engineered – mindboggling.

  9. I loved this post, Tish… wonderful from beginning to end (including the pictures), and as a Jerusalemite, I have to support Maralyn’s observation about the Cardo, which existed before Roman times… But as a fellow with a large portion of pre-Neanderthal genes, I have to admit, that when we monkeys went into the supermarket, we would just grab the first thing on the shelves that looked eatable. It was the human being who started looking around for the deals… two for the price of one. That’s the key!

    1. Oh I love that as an evolutionary marker, not primate raiders but wheeler-dealing humans. I think you are absolutely right. I was just listening to a You Tube University of California broadcast by a medic who specialises in worry and stress. He made the point that humans lack the physical toolkit of other animals. Nor do they run or swim exceptionally well. In order not to become meat, they had to develop imagination and forethought. I think that would definitely include cutting a deal with the local competition.

  10. So – following your train of thought, we’ve probably reached the “epitome” of human civilization with our shop-until-you-drop mentality. Just in time, because all the landfills seem to be full. Those of us with lesser brain capacity are already beginning to downscale and use fewer resources….:-)

  11. What an interesting read Tish and it does sound so plausible. Do you think the present ground swell for reduce, reuse, recycle will affect the “shop till you drop” way of living in the future, and also what is going to be found in the rubbish tips a few generations on?

    1. I don’t think there are enough people recycling and re-using yet, Pauline. But I have heard of new approach to commerce where manufacturers, say of cars, only lease them and never sell them. This encourages makers into good eco-friendly design, long lasting products that can be revamped with spares, and when finally their life is up, they will be made of materials that the manufacturers can harvest and re-use. This is the plan anyway for the new hydrogen cars that are being developed in the UK.
      Materials scientists are also working on creating new enticing material for cell phones so we will love them longer (the shell colour will change with use and become personalized in that way, plus they are designing them with replaceable spare parts, all this to stop us continually upgrading and chucking old ones away, or leaving them in drawers, thus wasting valuable resources. The coltan needed in cell phones, for instance, has been one of the factors fuelling the war zone in eastern Congo for years.
      There are also clothes manufacturers who plan to make and sell clothes like a library, so once you are bored with your designer t-shirt it can go back to the shop and be revamped. This involves creating new fabrics that clean and wear well, and also ways of cleaning that involve very little water. So it is in these kinds of initiatives that I see the main hope – a new model for conducting business and manufacturing that meets everyone’s needs, and does not waste finite resources. We do not need to own so much stuff, but we do need to break our lust for the brand new model shoe/t-shirt, car, phone etc. Easily said of course.

      1. I do like the concept behind these ideas Tish. I am into minimalism and a library to change clothes, well we already, sort of, have one , it’s called op shops!!! Jack does get very annoyed when he can’t repair things because they do not supply spare parts any more, built in obsolescence. I have read of a scheme were communities share their possessions, ie lawn mowers, tools, etc. A small donation goes to the owner. It has a name but I can’t remember it. It is a complex subject. Could our society survive without consumerism driving the economy? If every one stopped buying “stuff” then manufacturing would grind to a halt, no jobs, no money, spiralling into economic depression. Surely there must be a middle way???

  12. Excellent article and photos Tish and you said it all so well. When I look around me at nature, I wonder why we do what we do? To what end? I guess we’ll never know the answer to that. 😀

  13. I love the fact that challenges take you into substance: you used this one wonderfully. Who’d have thought teal would take you here, via that beautiful pot? I’m curious now. Did you find a discipline that reveals “the truly important aspects of humanity”? Thanks for another great post.

    1. That’s a very good question. Which discipline does pin down what makes us human? I suppose we’re treading the realms of psycho-analysis to answer that. My other half who is a biologist by training, says we’d do better if we did not get so much above ourselves and instead remembered that we are part of the animal kingdom. One thought that does strike me, is that we have a huge capacity for self-delusion. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  14. Wonderful post! I think you are right Tish. It’s terribly worrying that our role as shoppers (well consumers) may well be what destroys not only our species, but so many others too. On a lighter note – my boy-child has a capacity to shop that his father and I totally lack; does that make him more highly evolved do you think?

  15. I honestly never considered shopping from this perspective. Of course, I hate shopping for the most part, so I don’t consider it at all until I’m forced to do so periodically. But I just may have to start looking at it with a whole new appreciation after reading your article.

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