Well, once upon a time, Adam and Eve were made by God. According to the creation myth of the Abrahamic religions, they were the first man and woman. Okay, okay, I’m just messin’ with you, but for the longest time this story and others (where we all came from one pair) was the only answer we would get when asking about our origins? I mean, how could we possibly imagine what it really was before hard scientific work was put to it. After all, as magical as creation myths are, they don’t really answer the question, do they? So where did we really come from? Some fun folk suggest, or imagine, that we were once Martians before we nuked the atmosphere and fled to Earth. That’s why we have back pain and childbirth can be so lethal, because we were once from a planet that had less gravity. But, that still doesn’t work with what we know about reality, does it? So, where in the heck did we TRULY come from?
Most people can clearly see that we hold several similarities to chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas. They have opposable thumbs, expressive faces, and bipedal tendencies. The reason for these similarities is because… of these four great apes, we are the fifth! That’s right. There are five great apes on Earth and humans are one of them. An ape, or great ape, is any tailless primate, and seeing how we are primates and tailless, we fit in that category. So how did we come to be so clearly different from our discursive species cousins?
Wayyyyyyyyy back 85 million years ago, before the extinction of the dinosaurs, a common ancestor for every primate existed: Purgatorius. Then evolution did what it does, as it had always been doing, and diversified. Purgatorius migrated to separate areas and occupied different environments. These hominoidea then mutated through hundreds and thousands of generations, and completely new species developed. This is where a separation from monkeys and apes began. Certain primates stayed small with long tails while other grew big. Lemurs and Lorises were the earliest ancestors to branch out, around 60 million years ago.
Tarsiers split from our common ancestors 55 millions years ago.
Then 30 million later the final connection between monkey species and ape species would be forever separated. New world monkeys then old world monkeys (Yes it’s in reverse) continued to diversity on their own. Let’s take a moment to press ‘f’ in the chat to pay respects, and wave goodbye to all the monkeys we will forever drift further away from in lineage.
Gibbons were the next species to delineate, being labelled not as monkeys but as the one and only lesser ape, most closely related to orangutans.
Which means orangutans were the next species to splinter from our common ancestors, nine million years ago. Then gorillas parted ways around eight and a half million years ago, putting us closer and closer to human-looking creatures. The present day is catching up to us quick!
Six and a half million years ago, the genus ‘pan,’ which became bonobos and chimpanzees, forever delineated from our common ancestor. For this reason, they are our closest inter-species cousins. There are many physical mannerisms and sociological traits that mirror humanity’s because of this. If you’ve ever had the luxury of seeing these guys in action you can catch them doing things we would do, like flinging feces- wait, wait… actually… that is something people have done throughout history. Okay, chimps, you do you.
At this point our ancestors were the hominin category of species that we are still connected to today, but our lineage kept changing. Human still wouldn’t exists for another five million years. The famous ‘Lucy’ fossil was from around three million years ago from the species Australopithecus. They were still very chimpanzee-looking but at that point only led to us. Homo habilis came about one million years ago, leading to homo erectus. Homo erectus as the name suggests were the first stages of a purely upright species. They were around from one million to 600 000 years ago, leading to homo sapiens.
Now you might be thinking, “We made it! It’s us- who we are today! Hooray!!” And listen, I don’t wanna rain on your parade, but I’m just gonna stop you right there! Take a step back from that cheer and calm down, partner! We’re not there yet. Homo sapiens are discovered to have come about around 400 000 years ago, but it’s still early days. Believe it or not, the ancestors we refer to as cave-people: Neanderthals, actually came about more recently than homo sapiens!; around 200 000 years ago. However, they no longer exist today. Some would suggest it was due to their inferior communication skills to the homo sapien sapiens- whos’ anatomical ability to form vowel sounds (with their larynx lower in the throat, allowing for better resonance of vocal waves) kept them going. I am not one of those people, though. I haphazardly subscribe to another theory, as it is currently undecided in the scientific community, one which brings us to an uncomfortable truth about ourselves: our capacity for genocide.
According to Canadian scholar Adam Jones, if a dominant group of people had little in common with a marginalized group of people, it is easy for the dominant group to define the other as subhuman. As a result, the marginalized group might be labeled as a threat that must be eliminated. He writes, “While history today is generally written with some fealty to ‘objective’ facts, most previous accounts aimed rather to praise the writer’s patron (normally the leader) and to emphasize the superiority of one’s own gods and religious beliefs.” Hypotheses which suggest that genocidal violence may have caused the extinction of the Neanderthals have been offered by several authors, including Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright. This capacity for brutality can be found in our cousins, the chimpanzees, so it’s not a uniquely human trait, but it is nonetheless one- if not THE- worst trait we possess. 30 000 years ago, after homo sapiens spent thousands of years interbreeding with Neanderthals, they went extinct. All we have to go on is fossil records so it’s not like we have detailed accounts of a great war being fought, but it is clear that they were blinked out of existence and we were not, so it’s unlikely they suffered some rare disease or environmental disaster because it would have happened to us as well.
Moving on from the darkness, we will pedal backwards to 40 000 years ago. Cro-Magnon appeared; the most human-looking ancestor yet, and even this subspecies faded from time about ten thousand years ago. Now for one final backward pedal, our current lineage of humanity: homo sapien sapiens first came about 120 000 years ago, though it’s still debated if it could be older. For a long time, ancient structures like the lining of houses gave us hints at human-kind’s first civilizations back around 100 000 years ago in Africa, but that too is in debate as more recent findings might point us literally double as far back in prehistory, around 200 000 years ago. Our inability to glimpse the past other than through bones and scraps makes it all so mysterious.
What exactly was it like back in the earliest known civilizations? As we find ourselves now, humanity records everything. We created religions, migrated across the globe, created businesses, and governments. If anything jumping into the question of ‘where did we come from?’ grants, it’s a scale of time that we rarely glimpse and still won’t be able to comprehend even after going over these biological facts. The vastness of time dwarfs humanities entire history. Everything we currently know through teaching, from philosophy, to art, to mathematics, and physics, all comes from this long trial and error effort of survival from our countless ancestors. The world we know today has been given to us by great minds and everyone else who did their best to utilize the knowledge and spread it across the world.
Our quest to understand where we come from is not done, however! The vastness of what brought us to being biologically human is complete, but what about our lost civilizations to our current recorded history? I shall make that a part two of this! So stay tuned for that article to know when it comes. Until then, I appreciate all of your time, wish you nothing but love in your life, and ask you to remember, to keep on thinking! Byebye.