Have you ever noticed that almost every other animal group has a plethora of species; goats, cats, dogs, cows and a million more families with a million more species under them? This however, isn’t the case with us human beings. The Homo sapiens sapiens is the only human species to be found today but if we look back some 50,000 years ago, this wasn’t the case. Our blue planet was overrun but a diverse and almost unimaginable variety of human species, so what changed? How did it come to be that we gained monopoly over the planet while our many sibling species are nowhere to be found?
Our species evolved approximately 200,000 years ago, when numerous others occurred as well, but the first human species evolved after separating from the ape family around 2.8 million years ago. Following which, there were quite a few human species that predated Homo sapiens sapiens, or the species known as Modern humans. Homo is the name of the human genus, Homo sapiens sapiens is the last standing (pun intended) subspecies of the Homo genus. They were here way before we were: Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, and Homo rudolfensis.
Remember: Extinction is a standard share of evolution. It is not actually astounding that human-esque species – known as “hominins” – are no more to be found.
Art & fiction brought us together
As our numbers expanded, we started developing more intricate social elements, and required more erudite and flexible ways to communicate. Although all organisms can communicate, our species was the only one that formulated the idea of an “idea”: art and fiction are unique to our species.
Around 40,000 years ago, humans in Europe were making art which further indicated the gradual building of
Fiction: One of the most prominent is a wooden statuette of a lion-human figure, called the “Löwenmensch” (found in a cave in Germany). This ability to imagine what doesn’t exist has been found solely in the artifacts of the Homo sapiens sapiens.
Comparable figures from more or less the same time have been found all over Europe. This proposes that we were exchanging cultural and fictional material across socio-cultural tribes from different areas, and it appears that fiction was a vital aspect of our identity and helped keep various groups organized.
These symbols were thus, a lot like religion – something many groups used as a basis for trust and a figure to gather behind. It worked towards establishing social and economic order in larger groups.
On the other hand, Neanderthals didn’t seem capable of fiction or symbolic figures. They did their hunting, cooking, sleeping, eating, sex and recreation. They didn’t need a whole arsenal of symbolic artifacts to get the job done.
For humans, the exchange of symbols has been key to our successful survival. Every new bit of knowledge or imaginative piece we are able to conceive of has the opportunity to attain immortality as it is passed down along the generations. This is the beginning of history.
This capacity towards comprehending what we cannot actually see helped our adaptability. As our environment, clan size and daily living requirements changed, we were able to grow and change our behaviors and social structures along with it.
“We do everything more than one distinct way,” says John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, US. “Often, the solutions we devise for one problem, we can repurpose to solve a different one. This is something we do exclusively well.” Other ancient hominins seemed to do the same thing over and over again. “They found a rut and were stuck in it.”
It is quite a popular view that this is due to what some like to call a “superior brain” and this theory has seemed to have quite a lot of evidence behind it for all its modesty.
Here are some videos we collected to help you explore the vast field that is evolutionary biology:
Now that we know how we got here, lets look forward.
PS. If you have the time, this Nat Geo documentary on evolution is really worth watching.