Approximately 200,000 years ago, archaic humans in significant numbers began to move out of Africa, according to recent DNA findings (Graber 2021). As they ranged further and further away from their home base, they were confronted with predators that far exceeded their number, strength, and ability to defend themselves. Surrounded by these predators, early hominins learned to walk cautiously, ever attentively, but most importantly, silently—they communicated principally nonverbally.
Everything that needed to be said in that dangerous environment was done with gestures and facial expressions (Morris 1969). Hunters around the world still practice these methods because they work.
Many of the behaviors that allowed early humans to survive have been passed down to us over millennia through our DNA. We know these are universal behaviors because when we study children who are born blind, they perform the same behaviors although they have never seen them (Navarro 2008).
Early hominins learned to freeze (like the deer caught in the headlight) when they saw a threat to avoid detection. When the first person in a small group saw a lion, they froze and virtually everyone else in the group did also—no need to ask, “What’s going on?” and alert the predator. This avoided detection, as most predators orient on movement; however, anyone that ran initiated the chase-trip-bite sequence that triggers feline attacks. These poor folks did not get to pass on their genes. This is a legacy behavior we see every day when we hear a loud noise and we freeze in place (Navarro 2008). Even when we get bad news, we feel incapable of moving. This is but one of several behaviors that heuristically helped us survive. But there were others.
Ever notice how, at a catastrophe, a scary movie, or even when a game is closely contested and there are just a few seconds left on the clock, fans cover their mouths with both hands with apprehension, fear, or disbelief? This is also a legacy behavior from our archaic past due to predatory animals. Early hominins, barely more than four feet tall, learned to cover their mouths when predators were nearby, dampening the noise we make as we breathe, which also served to limit the dispersal of aerosols from our breath on which felines could home in (Navarro 2017). Because our brains utilize heuristics, these little shortcuts, though not always perfect, helped us to survive then and remain with us today. This gesture serves little other purpose in modern times, and yet we still do it.
Then there are the ubiquitous two hands to the head we deploy when we can’t believe the ball just got turned over to the other team in the final seconds, or when you return to your parked car only to find someone has thrown a brick through your passenger side window to steal what few belongings you had inside. Those hands that press down on the sides of our head or even reach for the head, but don’t quite touch in disbelief, are also a legacy behavior. We learned early on to cover our heads when predators were near or attacking and we still do this out of habit, even though there are no predators nearby but rather the evidence of their mischief (Navarro 2017).
The last behavior associated with large felines and other predators is the covering, touching, or grabbing of our necks (Navarro 2008). When we are apprehensive, anxious, lack confidence, or are scared, we often clutch our own necks or cover the suprasternal notch (neck dimple) at the base of our neck. No doubt, having seen predators take down untold numbers of prey by attacking the neck, including many humans, we adopted and still deploy this tactic in seeming congruence when we see someone attacked, when someone is placed in jeopardy, when something is very disconcerting, or we are fearful.
And there you are. Four behaviors we see every day which we don’t even think about when we do them, full of meaning, once we understand their origin. They are reactive, immediate, subconscious, authentic, and permanently embedded in our DNA to help us deal with a threat that no longer exists for most of us; yet they reveal so much about what a person may be experiencing at that moment. While they are of little practical use now, except perhaps to comfort us, they remain with us, nonetheless.
And what about the large cats? Their numbers have tragically dwindled and they live in smaller enclaves. They have been supplanted by smaller ones that sit on our laps and purr contentedly until they see something move, ever ready to once more pounce as only they know how.
Graeber, David, 2021. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity Mlodinow, Leonard, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking Morris, Desmond, 1969. The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal Navarro, Joe. 2017. The Dictionary of Body Language. NY: HarperCollins. Navarro, Joe with Marvin Karlins. 2008 What Every BODY is Saying. NY: Harper Collins Panksepp, Jaak, Biven, Lucy, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) Porges, Stephen W., The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) Raff, Jennifer, Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas van der Kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma