Creation myth update #3: Maybe we are not in Mr Rogers’ neighborhood anymore Toto.
Before returning to the story about the genetic history of humanity described in some of the recently published books on the subject I have read during the past few months, I thought a slight detour would be appropriate.
While most people who study the subject generally agree that a small group of anatomically modern humans, probably about 20 or so, left Africa sometime between 60,000 to 45,000 years ago and populated the rest of the planet, for many years it was assumed that except for an odd Neanderthal or two, the world outside of Africa was unpopulated allowing Homo Sapiens Sapiens to walk in and take control of the vast open spaces of the earth. After all, the only creatures that walk upright, use tools and talk on earth today are we Homo Sap Saps.
Alas, recent paleontological and genetic discoveries seem to indicate that the huge landmass called Eurasia was chock full of upright walking, tool using, trash talking hominids most of whom were bigger and stronger than the puny creatures that made up that forlorn little band containing the ancestors of most of us that had left Africa about 50,000 years ago.
As far as can be determined by anthropological, paleontological and genetic discoveries so far, our band of Homo Sapiens Sapiens (Very very smart people) faced not only Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Denisovians who we discussed last chapter, but also Homo Erectus (upright people), Homo floresiensis (sometimes referred to as the “Hobbits”), maybe a few Homo heidelbergensis (people from Heidelberg who auditioned for “The Student Prince” and have scars on their cheeks.) and possibly others we do not know about yet.
That is a lot of people whose neighborhoods H Sap Sap was about to invade. Some of them like the Neanderthals and the Denisovans had larger cranial capacity (bigger heads) than HSS and may very well have been smarter. They all could speak, use fire and appear to have developed languages. Also they all used tools similar to those used by HSS and lived in small hunter-gatherer groups. Finally, except for the Hobbits which were pygmies living in Indonesia, they all were larger and a heck of a lot stronger than Sap Sap. Here is a comparison between a Neanderthal skeleton and a fully modern human one:
Neanderthal skeleton on the left and modern human on the right.
Neanderthals had massive, broad shoulders, about 8% larger than their modern human contemporaries. Their pec muscles were enormous, up to twice the size of today’s average human. Neanderthals had shorter, wider muscular upper arms. The bones in their forearms were actually bowed from muscles that must have powered a grip that could crush stone. Neanderthal fingers and thumbs had upwards of twice the strength of modern humans. All of this upper body musculature was anchored on a solid foundation of massive quads that specialized in explosive power and side-to-side movement. Neanderthals were probably better at throwing than their modern contemporaries (It has been suggested that some Neanderthals escaped extinction and have been recruited by professional football and rugby teams around the world).
So, given that they were bigger, stronger, perhaps even brighter than our ancestors and mothers and possessed comparable technology, how did our ancestors manage to get rid of them all and take over the world?
Some theorized we dazzled them with our technology. The problem with that is we all began with about the same technology – rocks. At some point we made our rocks a little sharper edged than they did with their rocks, which some argue shows that we were really smarter than they were. On the other hand, our ancestors initially lived by combing the beaches where they probably used shells for scraping and cutting things. The edges of shells are pretty sharp. It is just as likely that we were used to sharper tools and formed the edges of appropriate rocks to mimic them. There is no need to postulate an act of genus when most people in fact try to hold on to favored technologies as long as they can. In any event, the neanderthals adopted the new technology pretty quickly anyway. And, certainly simply wielding a sharper edged stone tool was not going to make the difference in a fight with someone who was capable of bringing down a giant mastodon armed only with a rock and who could break your bones with his bare hands.
Some others say we were physically better able to handle the extreme climate changes of the time. Unfortunately for this theory, these various hominids had been dealing successfully with even greater climate shifts for hundreds of thousands of years before they ran into HSS.
Another theory is that we out-competed them for food. This makes no sense to me because if we killed all the game we would die also.
There must have been other reasons why the last few of the Neanderthals ended up reduced to sitting in a cave in Gibraltar chewing on uncooked seal meat waiting patiently to expire as a species.
The guests are gone from the pavilion high,
In the small garden flowers are whirling around.
Along the winding path the petals lie;
To greet the setting sun, they drift up from the ground.
Heartbroken, I cannot bear to sweep them away;
From my eyes, spring soon disappears.
I pine with passing, heart’s desire lost for aye;
Nothing is left but a robe stained with tears.
Li Shang-Yin, ninth century BCE
Consider this, although the remains of the other early hominids often show broken bones and other injuries from their incredibly hard and difficult lives, it is rare that their remains are discovered with their head crushed in with a rock, or with a spear point up its rectum or tied up, beaten with clubs and thrown into a bog like is only too often found among human remains.
I think perhaps at least part of the answer, lies in understanding the difference between our nearest non-hominid cousins the chimpanzees (pan troglodytes) and the bonobos (pan paniscus). The bonobos are a pretty peace-loving, although by even human standards a stunningly over-sexed, species. The chimpanzees, on the other hand, seem to be the only species other than HSS who kill for the hell of it.
Like a rotten log
half buried in the ground –
my life, which
has not flowered, comes
to this sad end.
Minamoto Yorimasa, 1104-1180
(Part 2 of Mister Rogers Neighborhood to be included in next post.)
- More Hobbit Fossils Confirm Existence Of Species (dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com)
- More Fun with Neanderthals (23andme.com)
- The Irony of the Projectile [Greg Laden’s Blog] (scienceblogs.com)
- Neanderthals May Have Sailed to Crete (news.discovery.com)
- Stone me! Spears show early human species was sharper than we thought (guardian.co.uk)