Between the ages of Aristotle and Darwin, Europeans envisioned the universe as a “Great Chain of Being” from Earth all the way up to God. Every form of matter and life was ranked on this chain. Humanity was a unique link, the highest creature with flesh and simultaneously the lowest being with a spirit. The Great Chain is a fitting metaphor for this juncture of prehistory when humans became spiritual and separated themselves from the animal kingdom.
We call ourselves Homo sapiens, and one of our favorite perennial questions has been, “Where did we come from?” Just a few centuries ago, there was no evidence to refute the nearly-universal belief that God or gods recently created the first few humans out of magic willpower. Science now tells us a frankly much more interesting story. There is no such thing as the first modern human. Modern features emerged gradually in early humans, mostly Africans like Homo heidelbergensis. As the braincase continued to grow and human bodies became more gracile, our ancestors gradually approached the anatomically modern form that we assume today. We owe most of our genetic diversity to about 90,000 individuals scattered throughout Middle Stone Age Africa. Their descendants dispersed throughout the Old World 50,000 – 70,000 years ago and have come to occupy all frontiers of the globe since then.
Anatomically modern humans were tenacious survivors. They expanded their habitat at the expense of their predecessors, early humans such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals. The two-million-year-old Homo genus, which once teemed with skeletal diversity, was homogenized to just one hyper-successful form by 30,000 years ago. We can take some consolation knowing that the other species did not entirely vanish but were partly assimilated. Modern humans mated with Neanderthals and Denisovans, and most of us still carry a trace of their genes.
The success of Homo sapiens owes much to sophisticated behavior. Although the humans of 50,000 years ago lived a much more primitive lifestyle than ours, all evidence indicates that their brains and minds were just like ours. They lived simpler lives because they were just starting the tradition of cultural accumulation that has reached such miraculous levels by today. They created art and ritualistically buried their dead. They invented cultural adaptations like spear tips, boats, and clothing that allowed them to survive in all environments. We suspect that the blossoming of advanced behavior paralleled the development of spoken language.
When the human mind was ignited with language, it also became a spiritual mind. Humans have such a well-developed imagination that we speculate about invisible causes. We are so adept at seeing our minds reflected in others that we suppose the universe to be imbued with willpower. Pre-scientific people had no viable alternatives to spiritual beliefs; in fact, dreams and drugs served as reasonable evidence for the otherworld. Religion then assumed a vital social role for every small community, long before the organized world religions that we know today.
Animated by the spirit of language and projecting his spirit into the universe, man created gods in his own image. The inner world of the human psyche became perceived as an external reality. Fascinatingly, over the next 100,000 years this supernatural world was to play as large a role as the real one in shaping human affairs.
Back to Section 5.IV: Behaviorally Modern Humans
Continue to Section 5.VI: Archaeology Gallery
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