What Happened Before History? Human Origins


The world we live in feels normal, ordinary. It feels like this is just how humans exist and always existed. But, it’s not. Never before have we humans lived in a world as sophisticated and engineered to our needs as today. Giving us the luxury to forget about ourselves and not worry about survival. Food, shelter, security – all of this is, more or less, taken for granted. But we’re a special few; for more than 99.99% of human history, life was completely different.

And there’s no such thing as just one human history. Our story begins 6 million years ago, when the tribe of hominini split and our relationship with the apes ended. 2.8 million years ago, the genus of homo, the first humans, emerged. We like to think about ourselves as the only humans, but this is far from the truth.

When we, homo sapiens sapiens, came into existence 200,000 years ago, there were at least six other human species around. Cousins of comparable intelligence and ability, which must have been incredibly scary, kind of like living with aliens.

Some of them were very successful. Homo erectus, for example, survived for 2 million years. Ten times longer than modern humans have existed. The last of the other humans disappeared around 10,000 years ago.

We don’t know what caused them to die out. Modern humans have at least a few percent of neanderthal and other human DNA, so there was some mixing, but certainly not enough to be a merger between species.

So we don’t know if our cousins went away because they lost the battle over resources, or because of a series of minor genocides. Either way, only we remain. Back to the beginnings of humanity. 2.8 million years ago, early humans used tools, but did not make a lot of progress for nearly 2 million years.

Until they learned to control fire. Fire meant cooking, which made food more nutritious, which contributed to the development of our brain. It also produced light and warmth, which made days longer and winters less gruesome. On top of that, it not only scared predators away, it could also be used for hunting.

A torched wood or grassland provided small animals, nuts and tubers that were pre-roasted. From 300,000 years ago, most of the different human species lived in small hunter-gatherer societies. They had fire, wood and stone tools, planned for the future, buried their dead, and had cultures of their own. But most importantly, they spoke to each other. Probably in a kind of proto-language, less complex than ours.

If we had a time machine, how far would we be able to go back, steal a few babies and raise them today without anyone noticing that they’re a bit different? There is much debate. Anatomically, modern humans emerged 200,000 years ago, but probably 70,000 years is as far as we could travel back and still snatch a behaviourally modern human.

Before that, the babies would probably lack a few crucial gene mutations. Necessary to build a brain with modern language and abstract thinking abilities. At some point, around 50,000 years ago, there was an explosion in innovation. Tools and weapons became more sophisticated and culture became more complex, because at this point, humans had a multi-purpose brain, and a more advanced language to communicate information with each other effectively, and down to the last detail. This allowed much closer cooperation, and is what really makes us different from any other creature on Earth. Not our comparatively weak bodies and inferior senses, but the ability to cooperate flexibly in large groups, unlike, for example, rigid beehives or intimate, but tiny wolf packs.

As our brain evolved, we became able to do something, life had been unable to do up to this point. One – expand knowledge quickly. Two – preserve the knowledge gained over generations. Three – build on past knowledge, to gain even deeper insight.

This seems daft, but until then, information had to be passed on from generation to generation, mostly through genetics, which is not efficient. Still, for the next 40,000 years, human life remained more or less the same. There was little to build upon. Our ancestors were only one animal among many.

Building a skyscraper without knowing what a house is… is hard. But while it is easy to be arrogant in our attitude to our ancestors, this would be ignorant. Humans 50,000 years ago were survival specialists. They had a detailed mental map of their territory, their senses were fine-tuned to the environment, they knew and memorized a great amount of information about plants and animals.

They could make complicated tools that required years of careful training and very fine motor skills. Their bodies compared to our athletes today just because of their daily routines, and they lived a rich social life within their tribe. Survival required so many skills that the average brain volume of early modern humans might even have been bigger than it is today. As a group we know more today, but as individuals our ancestors were superior to us. But then around 12,000 years ago, in multiple locations, humans developed agriculture.

Everything changed very quickly. Before, survival as a hunter and forager required superb physical and mental abilities in all fields from everybody With the rise of the agricultural age, individuals could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival. This meant that some of them could specialize. Maybe they worked on better tools, maybe they took time to breed more resistant crops or better livestock, Maybe they started inventing things. As farming got more and more efficient, what we call civilization began. Agriculture gave us a reliable and predictable food source, which allowed humans to hoard food on a large scale for the first time, which is much easier to do with grains than meat, the food stock required protection, which led to communities living together in tighter spaces first, early defense structures were built, the need for organization grew.

The more organized we got, the faster things became efficient. Villages became cities, cities became kingdoms, kingdoms became empires. Connections between humans exploded which led to opportunities to exchange knowledge. Progress became exponential. About 500 years ago the Scientific Revolution began Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy, Biology, and Chemistry transformed everything we thought we knew.

The Industrial Revolution followed soon after laying the foundation for the modern world As our overall efficiency grew exponentially, more people could spend their lifetime contributing to the progress of humanity revolutions kept happening. The invention of the computer, its evolution into a medium we all use on a daily basis, and the rise of the Internet shaped our world It’s hard to grasp how fast all of that happened It’s been about 125,000 generations since the emergence of the first human species.

About 7,500 generations since the physiologically modern humans saw the light of day 500 generations ago, what we call civilization began 20 generations ago, we learned how to do science. And the Internet became available to most people only one generation ago Today we live in the most prosperous age humanity has ever experienced. We have transformed this planet, from the composition of its atmosphere to large-scale changes in its landscape and also in terms of the other animals in existence.

We light up the night with artificial stars and put people in a metal box in the sky. Some have even walked on our moon. We put robots on other planets. We’ve looked deep into the past of the universe with mechanical eyes. Our knowledge and our way of acquiring and storing more of it has exploded.

The average high school student today knows more about the universe than a scholar a few centuries ago. Humans dominate this planet, even if our rule is very fragile. We are still not that different from our ancestors 70,000 years ago. But your lifestyle has existed for less than 0.001% of human history. From here on, there’s no saying what the future holds for us. We’re building a skyscraper, but we’re not sure if it’s standing on a solid foundation or if we’re building it on quicksand.

Let’s leave it with that for now. The next time you miss your train, your burger is not hot enough, or someone cuts in line. Remember how special this made-up human world is…

Maybe it’s not worth being upset about all those little things.

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