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.