Ancient fireside chats may have inspired the first Bill of Rights

  • March 20, 2014

Dr Morris Sutton says prehistoric communities in the Cradle of Humankind could very well have laid the foundations for the establishment of modern basic human rights

There is a good chance that the notion of a Bill of Rights was conceived right here at Swartkrans in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Scientists have found evidence at Swartkrans to support the view that fire was used and harnessed by our predecessors more than a million years ago, and have theorised that fire was a central component of societal development.

"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 Palaeoanthropological Research Project.

With Human Rights Day approaching, it is worthwhile pondering some possible ways that human rights may have come into existence.

Human rights are first and foremost moral principles that set out certain standards of human behaviour. Though humans have lived together for centuries, it was only in the 17th and 18th centuries, during the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, that the basic principles of being human were formalised. This process resulted in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and the United States Bill of Rights (1791), among others.

The South African Bill of Rights, which is contained in our Constitution, was only documented much, much later, in 1996.

However, evidence that humans behaved with dignity and were conscious of preserving the dignity of others can be found way back in prehistoric times.

According to Sutton, who is also a guide on the Swartkrans Walking Tours organised by Maropeng, a prehistoric male skeleton exhibiting a jaw without teeth was found in Swartkrans, 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.

Bones have also been discovered in other excavation sites that show evidence of debilitating injuries with clear signs of healing. This could only have happened through the care of others.

“This surely is early evidence of some form of social contract that speaks to preserving one of the most fundamental human rights: the right to life and dignity,” says Sutton. "By living in a community, hominids would have depended on other members of their group for assistance. This reliance would have helped complex relationships to grow.”

Sutton says the evolution of the brain and the development of language contributed to increased complexity in social groups.

"Given the sophistication of tool assemblages and the specialist skills that developed in foraging, scavenging, hunting and basic agricultural activities, some members of a community may have become experts at certain activities," 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 to plan, 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 initially have had practical applications, in time and with the harnessing of fire, more complex social implications probably developed. Sutton says 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 certain elements of human culture, including song, dance and the groundwork for basic human rights," concludes Sutton.

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