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First human laughter may be 35,000 years old

March 26, 2008 18:44 IST

One-liners, jokes and comic tradition is not something which developed in the New Age, says a leading scientist, who suggests that the ability to be amused by life's inevitable surprises goes back at least 35,000 years.

According to Joseph Polimeni, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists Louis Schulze and Charles Chewings became the first outsiders to record contact with Australian aboriginals, who had been genetically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world for at least 35,000 years.

They witnessed evidence of a comedic tradition that could date as far back, according to Polimeni.

Schulze and Chewings got caught in a terrifying thunderstorm they thought would scare the Australians. Instead, as they later wrote: "When the thunder rends the air in deafening claps...the natives show no fear. On the contrary, they will converse freely, make light of it, and even burst out laughing at an unusually loud or peculiar clap of thunder."

"Since archaeologists believe that modern Homo sapiens date to 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, it's actually not a very provocative statement. In fact, humour is probably at least as old as that," Discovery News quoted Polimeni as saying.

According to the researcher, the 35,000-year-ago mark is significant because many milestones in human evolution began to surface at that point.

Polimeni thinks people were beginning to develop the brainpower for more abstract thinking. One of the earliest symbolic pieces of art, a figurine with the head of a lion and the legs of a person, dates to this period.

He theorizes that humour and spirituality emerged together, perhaps as ways for humans to relieve stress, communicate and make social connections in lieu of grooming, roughhousing and other, more direct means used by our primate ancestors.

"Given that the basis of humour may conceivably be rooted in the same cognitive machinery that allows animals to play and tease, it is certainly possible that the cognitive processes that allow spirituality may have piggy-backed on this humor cognitive substructure," he said.

The study has been published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

Source: ANI