Friday, June 15, 2012

Our Humanity

The last 150 years have not been a good for Homo sapiens. We are a proud (if insecure) bunch. We relish in highlighting distinctions that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We are especially sensitive to features that we believe distinguish us from closely related primates, both extant and extinct. When the first hominid fossils were discovered in the mid 1800’s, they revealed an organism with a brain the same size, or bigger, than ours. These fossils (later identified as Neanderthals) were first thought to be us; to be human. What else could we think? Our large brains clearly distinguish us from the great apes. Our brains were responsible for those uniquely human qualities such as language or art. It was the seat of our intellect, our morality. It made us human. So, that first hominid fossil had to be a human, albeit slightly deformed with a protruding face and large brow.

Over the last 150 years we’ve come to discover a lot about our origins, and even more about Neanderthals. And, our discoveries have systematically knocked down each and every feature and characteristic we cherished as uniquely human. Neanderthals actually had larger brains, used language, wore clothes, manufactured and used complex tools, controlled fire, coordinated and hunted in groups, built shelters, and ritually buried their dead. But they are not us. They are not Homo sapiens. They are not even our ancestors. We did not come from Neanderthals.

This was a relief for some; a problem for many. How could a non-human hominid embody so many human characteristics? How could anything, other than human, speak to each other, plan for the future, live in complex social hierarchies, and hope for an afterlife? There had to be something that was all ours. There had to be something that clearly distinguished our humanity. We thought there was.

Neanderthals never made art.

Cave art was uniquely ours. Every drop of pigment ever applied to a wall was done by a Homo sapien. Art spoke directly to our humanity because it demonstrated abstract thought. The representation of real world objects on a flat 2 dimensional surface could only be done by organisms that understood symbolism. It took time, patience, planning, preparation and, most importantly, a vision. You had to see inside your own mind and recreate what you saw. And the recreation had to be good enough so others understood what you saw. Other humans could look inside your mind and see what you see. Perhaps art is the first evidence of empathy. No matter what, the mind that painted the first cave painting was a human mind.

The problem is, Neanderthals painted too.

Recent evidence suggests that we might not be the only artists to ever walk the earth. Evolution by natural selection may have resulted in the origin of another type of hominid species that also painted. If true, that last bastion of humanity must too fall. We were not the only hominid to imagine a world different from our present. Others could also fantasize, dream, hypothesize and wonder. Our humanity is not uniquely ours. It may have been present in another, different hominid, that happened to live along side us. You see, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals coexisted. We lived side by side for about 20,000 years.

So, what happened to our brothers, the Neanderthals? The leading hypotheses regarding their fate fall into three categories. Since Neanderthals were adapted to ice age conditions, some argue that they went extinct as the last ice age rapidly receded. Others argue, based on DNA evidence, that they may interbred with some local populations of humans and disappeared through hybridization. There is one more hypothesis; one that may finally speak to a last remaining vestige of our unique status among hominids. Neanderthals may have been victims of genocide; we may have exterminated them. Maybe this feature, more than any other, is the true mark of our humanity.

It would make for an interesting work of art.

Copyright 2012 by theBIOguy

No comments:

Post a Comment