The truth about humanity’s deep past

The truth about humanity’s deep past

David Graeber and David Wengrow write:

In some ways, accounts of “human origins” play a similar role for us today as myth did for ancient Greeks or Polynesians. This is not to cast aspersions on the scientific rigour or value of these accounts. It is simply to observe that the two fulfil somewhat similar functions. If we think on a scale of, say, the last 3m years, there actually was a time when someone, after all, did have to light a fire, cook a meal or perform a marriage ceremony for the first time. We know these things happened. Still, we really don’t know how. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to make up stories about what might have happened: stories which necessarily reflect our own fears, desires, obsessions and concerns. As a result, such distant times can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies.

Let’s take just one example. Back in the 1980s, there was a great deal of buzz about a “mitochondrial Eve”, the putative common ancestor of our entire species. Granted, no one was claiming to have actually found the physical remains of such an ancestor, but DNA sequencing demonstrated that such an Eve must have existed, perhaps as recently as 120,000 years ago. And while no one imagined we’d ever find Eve herself, the discovery of a variety of other fossil skulls rescued from the Great Rift Valley in east Africa seemed to provide a suggestion as to what Eve might have looked like and where she might have lived. While scientists continued debating the ins and outs, popular magazines were soon carrying stories about a modern counterpart to the Garden of Eden, the original incubator of humanity, the savanna-womb that gave life to us all.

Many of us probably still have something resembling this picture of human origins in our mind. More recent research, though, has shown it couldn’t possibly be accurate. In fact, biological anthropologists and geneticists are now converging on an entirely different picture. For most of our evolutionary history, we did indeed live in Africa – but not just the eastern savannas, as previously thought. Instead, our biological ancestors were distributed everywhere from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope. Some of those populations remained isolated from one another for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, cut off from their nearest relatives by deserts and rainforests. Strong regional traits developed, so that early human populations appear to have been far more physically diverse than modern humans. If we could travel back in time, this remote past would probably strike us as something more akin to a world inhabited by hobbits, giants and elves than anything we have direct experience of today, or in the more recent past.

Ancestral humans were not only quite different from one another; they also coexisted with smaller-brained, more ape-like species such as Homo naledi. What were these ancestral societies like? At this point, at least, we should be honest and admit that, for the most part, we don’t have the slightest idea. There’s only so much you can reconstruct from cranial remains and the occasional piece of knapped flint – which is basically all we have.

What we do know is that we are composite products of this original mosaic of human populations, which interacted with one another, interbred, drifted apart and came together mostly in ways we can only still guess at. It seems reasonable to assume that behaviours like mating and child-rearing practices, the presence or absence of dominance hierarchies or forms of language and proto-language must have varied at least as much as physical types, and probably far more.

Perhaps the only thing we can say with real certainty is that modern humans first appeared in Africa. When they began expanding out of Africa into Eurasia, they encountered other populations such as Neanderthals and Denisovans – less different, but still different – and these various groups interbred. Only after those other populations became extinct can we really begin talking about a single, human “us” inhabiting the planet. What all this brings home is just how radically different the social and physical world of our remote ancestors would have seemed to us – and this would have been true at least down to about 40,000BC. In other words, there is no “original” form of human society. Searching for one can only be a matter of myth-making. [Continue reading…]

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