Friday 22 May 2009

A brief history of Jokes (Part II)

More millions of years passed. The tiny shrew-like creatures in the trees turned into ape-like creatures, with a keen sense of sight, prehensile hands and a rubbish sense of smell. These ape-like creatures then came down from the trees, stood up on two legs, and developed ever more complicated vocalisations with which to communicate. It was the Dawn of jokes.

Surprisingly, the very earliest jokes appear to have been puns. In 1976 palaeontologists discovered the first evidence of puns as imprints in volcanic ash at Laetoli in Tanzania. These two tracks of punning, running side by side, were dated as 3.6 million years old and estimated to have been made by individuals, one 140, the other 120 centimetres tall.

However, the archaeological record for much of the Palaeolithic is notoriously thin on jokes. When we reach the Neolithic it becomes evident that puns have gone out of fashion and been replaced by the simpler joke of pointing at one thing and calling it something else. The plentiful evidence of artefacts allows for many entertaining reconstructions of this kind of joke:

(pointing to an aurochs): “ha ha ha mammoth !”
“ha ha !”
(pointing to a tree): “ha ha ha reindeer !”
“ha ha !”
(pointing): “Cave Bear!”
“ha ha !”
“No! Cave Bear!”
“aaa ... aaaah !!”

Meanwhile, in a stunning example of parallel evolution, crows were developing their own sense of humour. Of course, these jokes cannot be translated. (Just as, according to Wittgenstein, if a lion was to tell us a joke, we wouldn't actually understand it.*) Pictured are some of the highlights in the development of jokes among crows:

One result of this was that, as he listened in the evening to the cawing of crows and rooks around his encampments, Early Man would always have the feeling that someone, somewhere, knew a better joke than he did.

(*Alternatively, we might roar with laughter.)

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