Modern humans are known as homo sapiens. We are a species that evolved in Africa — the cradle of the human race as we know it. Our closest evolutionary cousins, that still exist, are chimpanzees. There were also many other hominid species, apart from homo sapiens. And bioarchaeologists have gradually discovered them over the centuries.
We currently know of twenty different species that lived. What is also established beyond reasonable doubt is that at different points, multiple species coexisted together. Only recently, a new species from millenia ago was announced as being found in China; it was termed homo longi or the dragon man. The announcement marked the solving of an enigma that researchers had been engaged with since 1933, when a skull was found near Harbin City in north-eastern China. Researchers now suggest the homo longi might have been the closest predecessors in the modern human’s family tree.
There are possible connections to Denisovans as well, since this species lived across Asia. What is interesting is they were also known to interbreed with other races. One such excavation was termed Denny. It was the fossilised remains of a girl with a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother. Interracial unions then are nothing new; they happened even 90,000 years ago.
How did homo sapiens come to be?
Most other species became extinct without leaving much trace. The homo sapiens, meanwhile, evolved from a species known as Ardipithecus. This is the earliest known genus of the Hominidae family. In simple terms, this lineage then had two branches called Ardipithecus ramidus and Ardipithecus kadabba.
The Ardipithecus ramidus was bipedal and could stand erect. It lived in the Afar region of Ethiopia some 4.4 million years ago. Besides other advancements, it had a definite advantage over quadrupeds in terms of mobility. The Ardipithecus ramidus evolved, and over an estimated two million years, the homo erectus or the upright man came to be.
Current era humans like us, and even those from about five millenia ago, are direct evolutionary descendants of homo sapiens or the wise man. All other known species died out eons ago. The Neanderthals became extinct some 40,000 years ago, as did several other hominid species. Homo sapiens, meanwhile, continued to evolve and are today the dominant species. Today, we inhabit every part of the blue planet and we’re highest on the food chain. Fortunately, we have no natural predator other than perhaps threats from our own species.
The wise man and its current form
Now, humans became a dominant species because of the development of our brains. The neocortex, or the ‘thinking brain’ enabled our early ancestors to make better tools, communicate well and develop languages.
Similarly, it is commonly acknowledged that necessity is the mother of invention. And humans, with their cognitive brains, accelerated inventions over time. We had the capacity to think and work in social groups, and collaborate with one another. As we moved to different continents, we colonised them. Today, we know of four great civilisations that existed almost simultaneously — namely the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indus Valley and the Chinese civilisations. And thanks to trade routes and traders, all great civilisations reaped the benefits of one another’s innovations.
These cultural, material and even biological exchanges helped immensely in human kind’s evolution. While early man is often depicted with a spear in hand, this early form of dominance then yielded to knowledge. This facet has since come to be associated with power. Our ideologies underwent a sea change from when we were hunter gatherers, who foraged in forests, lived atop trees or within caves. With time, we moved to dwellings, created modern cities, and evolved into the contemporary humans of today.
With the quest to further our knowledge and explore the thresholds of both earth and beyond, humans followed their ideologies with grit, sparked by the limitless curiosity to know more. Besides, our curiosity has led us to arrive at ground breaking inventions that have conquered lands, the skies and the seas, both literally and metaphorically.
Human traits are common regardless of current origin
With that said, humans are like two sides of the same coin. Our darker side manifested in the form of tyrants, ruthless dictators or polarising figures. They wreaked havoc as they destroyed civilisations, often under the garb of it being beneficial or as furthering ambition.
All the same, the cognitive brain in humans have also held the capacity to make more rational decisions like preserving civilisations. They could, as some realise now, leave what they found a little better for future generations than how they received it.
There are innate human traits that draw us to love, to feelings of harmony that call for allowing other species to thrive. In many cases, it is perhaps divinity that started bringing species back from the brink of extinction. Over the millennia that humans have evolved, there have been more subtle elements that have also been acquired.
Unique qualities such as forgiveness, rational thinking and compassion make us an evolved species and ones far removed from other inhabitants of this planet. We are curious about the past, we study and analyse history, and we attempt to also forecast what lies ahead. We are now more aware of the environment around us and how our choices impact it.
We also marvel at nature’s wonders such as sunrises and sunsets, perhaps revel in morning dew or partake of more evolved forms such as poetry, dance or music. Emotions sway us when we see a new born or we become pensive when sufferings overwhelm us. But on a deeper level, these are all common traits that also bind us as a species. Our resilience to hardships have given us the ability to adapt.
Technology as a common denominator
Beginning with the invention of the wheel, man has progressed by leaps and bounds in the technology sphere. In fact, the first wheels were used for pottery and it was only around 3500 BCE that someone would actually use it to carry a load. But in the millennia since, we’ve made far greater technological strides.
In the last 200 years, technology has further accelerated growth, beginning with the onset of steam power that spurred the first industrial revolution. We have made giant leaps in manufacturing and sought frontiers in healthcare and energy generation. New learning never ceases and human kind, for the most part, has made tremendous progress with each successive generation.
We have, without doubt, come a long way from the early timid man. For millions, our roles are now more evolved than simply prioritising on how to sustain life. Today, we see in us adventurers, artisans, explorers, inventors, navigators, astronauts — more roles than we could imagine perhaps even two generations ago. And all of these diverse roles can actually be traced back to one single species — the homo sapiens.
Homo sapiens of the future
In the times to come, homo sapiens will evolve into ‘better models’ who go on to discover new galaxies and meet extra-terrestrial life. But while 7.9 billion people today trace their ancestry to a hunter-gatherer, spear bearing entity who lacked a neocortex, we seem to fail at acknowledging this commonality. We are no more than the extension of perhaps a passionate union between a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother or some similar inter breeding event.
But with equal passion, we seem all too eager to engage in politics of division, of ‘embracing’ differences in caste, creed and religion and we have one too many status quos arising from the free reign we give our egos. We forget we are a single species, that we are merely products of millions of years of evolution. In fact, if our species wants to survive another mass extinction, we must come together and fight for our preservation, and the environment that sustains us.
More importantly, we must also understand what led to other hominid species becoming extinct. Were they unable to adapt to change? Or were they simply averse to change? Connecting the dots to our prehistory and evolution has only just begun. There is substantial time before we unravel all of evolution’s enigmas.
And while we attempt to do so, let us pause and reflect. Let us dwell more on the traits that bind us rather than focus our energies on the differences. Why can we simply not embrace and practice compassion? Why do we seem to live as though we are immortal, with infinite time at hand? Would we be doing the same if we knew exactly how much time we had left?
Despite exploring the thresholds of nature’s destructive forces, Albert Einstein put it precisely when he said “Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” Let us exemplify the term we gave our kind; let us be wise men and women.