On Human Origins
The more we learn, the more we learn what we don’t know
Learning about the origins of humankind is not the kind of knowledge that will make your life any easier tomorrow, or even the day after, let alone right now.
It’s not like learning how to balance your household budget, or how to cross a busy street without being flattened by a passing truck.
And yet they are some of the biggest questions we face as a species. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
It’s a story that keeps changing. Palaeoanthropologists, archaeologists and assorted zoologists, field biologists and amateur bone collectors have ascertained that early humans migrated from the volcanic soils and ancient riverbeds of Africa’s Great Rift Valley between 2 million and 1.8 million years ago, give or take a millennium or two.
Palaeontologists are geologists who dig up dinosaur bones; archaeologists study ancient people, societies and cultures. Anthropologists study people.
Scientists who specialize in all three have determined the origins of humankind using a combination of carbon dating and soil analysis, and by digging up ancient bones.
It’s an inexact science, even though the actual work of excavating is by definition intricate and demands precision. Shattering an ancient bone, a heartbeat away from being an untraceable powder as it is, is not like dropping dishes on the kitchen floor. Dishes are easy to replace.
We’re living in the year 2021, and many of us are only now coming to terms with the horror that was 2020.
For many of us, it’s still a little too soon to start contemplating the meaning of life.
Science marches on, though. New discoveries in the field of palaeontology continued to emerge in 2020; we just didn’t hear about them because they were lost in the more urgent, timely news headlines of the day. Only those who pay close attention to cause and effect, for example, understand the link between clearing rainforests for food — soya bean plantations and cattle ranches in the main — and zoonotic viruses that unleash human pandemics, like SARS, swine flu, Ebola and, yes, Covid-19.
Some of the findings made in human origins studies in the past 12 months have the potential to flip much of what we thought we knew about early humans.
Here are a few:
• Analysis of a woman’s skull found in Mongolia, estimated to be 34,000 years old, revealed DNA from both Neanderthals and Denisovans. Why does this matter? Because it was previously assumed that different subspecies of humans didn’t live at the same time — and were separated by thousands of years, in some case — and so they could not have co-existed. It was assumed Neanderthals were surly and unfriendly and had no neighbours. Now, we’re learning they not only co-existed, but in some cases intermingled, married and made out.
• Humans were not the only ancient beings that migrated. A fossil find of an early primate in northern India in September was dated at 13 million years old — give or take a million years — and pushed back the fossil record of gibbons by five million years. More interestingly it provides hints of exactly when gibbons migrated from Africa — like early humans — to Asia. That’s remarkable, because it suggests monkeys moved from Africa to Asia at the same time, give or take a million years, as early humans.
• Those monkeys were hard to keep down. In April four monkey teeth found in the Peruvian Amazon suggested the existence of a new monkey species no bigger than a soup can. The teeth were found to be genetically similar to an extinct family of African primates, which suggests they may have crossed the Atlantic to South America from Africa, possibly on floating rafts of vegetation. Or not. As we keep learning, theory — even a sexy theory — is a theory until it’s proven fact.
• Breakthroughs in digital technology keep happening at a rate faster than those annoying Apple updates — at least, it seems that way at times. Entire archaeological collections are being digitized, which helps academic institutions share knowledge in real time, without having to rely on the post office or courier company not to lose the package. Also, sharing digital information is pandemic-proof.
• Some of this is really cool, too. The Smithsonian, for example, is using VR technology to allow a visitor to see the world through a Neanderthal’s eyes — and get up close and personal, if you will, with a giant woolly mammoth.
The Smithsonian is now making 3D reconstructions of fossil remains with the National Museums of Kenya, which is helpful because Kenya is one of the countries in Africa’s Great Rift Valley where we began.
There are no mammoths today in Kenya. There are elephants, though — real elephants.
Makes one think.