Becoming Human…

Homo Habilus, two million years ago

The other day, on “Cat in a Dog’s World“, Sarah takes to task the originator of “The Neanderthal Theory”, Leif Ekblad.  His theory is the result of his desire to justify his ideas of Aspie Supremacy, and not based on any sort of fact.  I commented there, and made reference to a PBS show I had seen recently.  Please watch it, if you are at all interested in the subject of evolution, because it encompasses all that we know on the subject, and that’s quite a lot.  There are also links to Parts 1 and 2.
It’s really very informative, it tells about how half a million years ago, a creature called Homo Erectus began to leave Africa, slowly spreading across Asia as far as Indonesia, and also going up into Europe, becoming Homo Heidelbergensis.  This breed developed into Neanderthal man, while those who remained in Africa evolved into Homo Sapiens.  About 60 thousand years ago, some of these too began to leave Africa, and for quite a while, they co-habitated Europe along with Neanderthal man.  They had many advantages, and began to push Neanderthal into marginal areas.  The last evidence of Neanderthals was on the island of Gibraltar, and that only 28 thousand years ago.  They had existed for about 400 thousand years.

Our scientists have the Neanderthal genome all mapped out, and are certain that there was no cross-breeding between the two.  And now I’m going to do a little reckless speculation.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if they could reconstruct the Neanderthal DNA, put it in a human egg, and create a test tube Neanderthal baby?  (I’m not saying it would be ethical, but it sure would be interesting.)  We could find out all that we want to know about them.  At some point, it may be possible to do.

And if it were possible to create such test tube babies, there’s another experiment that simply must take place.  I’d like to see the same experiment done with DNA taken from the skeleton of a 20 thousand year old Homo Sapiens.  What would that show?  Well, Homo Sapiens has been around for 200 thousand years, and for the first 190 thousand showed very little progress.  It was only in the last 10 thousand years that we developed any kind of civilization, and the bulk of that only in the last 3 or 4 thousand years.

What changed 10 thousand years ago?  The North American glaciers melted, releasing cold fresh waters into the Atlantic, changing the climate in Europe and the Near East, making agriculture possible.  The first remnants of civilization are in Jericho, where they say cultivation of wheat began.  Was it the change in diet, or the cultural change from hunter/gatherer to agriculture that made the difference?  The change in diet wouldn’t have been complete, I’m sure they still ate meat, as they couldn’t subsist on only wheat, but they ceased to be nomadic.  Still, I wonder, if they made a test tube baby from a 20 thousand year old skeleton, would they find any significant difference?

No, I’m not selling any theories, like “intelligent design” or even “divine intervention”, I’m just looking for a rational explanation of why Homo Sapiens went 190 thousand years without making much progress, and then suddenly progressed in leaps and bounds.  At what point in our evolution did we cease to be mere animals, and become “human”?  Was homo erectus human, or Neanderthal, or that early homo sapiens?  I don’t know, that’s why I’d like to see the results of that experiment.  Or maybe Nova will address it in a Part 4.

Comments are welcome, as always.

Becoming Human first appeared at Comet’s Corner, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

on 01/27/10 in Evolution, featured | 7 Comments | Read More

Comments (7)


  1. Sarah says:

    Hi Clay:
    Even if people didn’t change much, maybe the population needs to reach a critical mass for specialists in certain areas to develop and invent exciting new things, and for that information to be distributed. If any of us were left in the wilderness, would we really do much better than cavemen (see Survivor?) So maybe the changes are not about major biological changes at all, just enough people with enough time (and maybe enough autistic traits to obsess enough to invent things).

  2. Clay says:

    Hi Sarah,
    I recently learned that “they” have figured out that Egyptian civilization began in 4241 BC. That’s probably close to the first written language. We have no idea when “oral” language actually began. It may not have been all that long ago, despite Jean Auel’s speculation in her “Earth” series.

    I kinda do believe in “divine intervention”, (though not “selling it”), and the Qur’An says that we were “made in the best of molds”. I think that “language” is key to “thought”, and that language may not have been around much prior to 10,000 BC. Without “thought”, what is there, instinct?

    I’m open to discussion.

  3. KWombles says:

    Actually, homo sapiens dates back even further, to around 400,000 years ago. Modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, date back to 120,000 years ago. The shift from nomadic to agricultural, stationary communities and the technological shifts may be in ways comparable to the snowballing of technological breakthroughs we’ve made in the last 100 years. Perhaps, from an anthropological perspective, community numbers hit a threshhold number that allowed technological advances (the pooling of the intellectual resources: the more bodies, the more intellectually gifted simply because of the numbers). Each advance is exponential, with no need for an originating cause or divine intervention. It is a construct of complex organisms to go on forming even more complex structures.

  4. Clay says:

    But by all accounts, that “shift” from nomadic to agricultural happened no sooner than 10,000 years ago. A uniform, community-wide language might have only developed after the sociological change engendered by the aggregation of large numbers of people. Small groups of 20 to 40 people may not have needed language, but groups of 100 or more would need to develop standard communication.

    Alan Alda has been the voice of a PBS offering, “The Human Spark”. I’d say the “spark” was - language itself.

  5. KWombles says:

    It’s quite likely that groups as larger as 20-40 people would have needed to be able to communicate, and since the hunting of large animals would have been a collaborative effort, it’s likely that language predates agrarian communities significantly (potentially as far back as modern man). Here’s an interesting article that examines the likelihood that there was symbolic communication dating as far back as 200,000 years ago.

    Perhaps written language helped to foster technological advances (and the subsequent neuronal rewiring). It’s a fascinating subject and one I touch on in the psychology courses I teach. :-)

  6. Clay says:

    @KWombles - That’s an excellent and informative link, and I’m glad you’ve introduced it in this discussion. I’m going to have to admit though, that it appears to be written at a post-grad level, several grades above my own level. But I think perhaps the writer missed his calling, and should have been a lawyer writing boilerplate contracts instead, because he achieves maximum verbosity to explain that indeed, true thought was required to design these tools, and since language is a prerequisite for thought, the tool designer must have been capable of speech. In other words, I prefer a more succinct explanation, is what I’m sayin’. 😉

  7. Bob Dole says:

    Now that scientists have confirmed the admixture happened and have found two neanderthal gene variants in the modern human genome that are directly implicated in autism… perhaps a retraction is in order?

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