The excitement began when bones were first discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. It was Homo neanderthalensis, a cousin that evolved in Eurasia about 450,000 years ago. Neanderthal People had been widespread in Europe and Asia, and living strong and long before our species arose in the cradle of humankind in East Africa about 200,000 years ago. Only later did we begin to migrate out, first into the regions of the Middle East. Perhaps to those oasis along ancient rivers bordering the Levant and the mountains of Iran. Lands where we encountered the Neanderthal People. Savage brutes, you say? Well, think on this. If you are of European descent, 1%-4% of your genetic structure is probably from Neanderthal People. And how do you think that happened? So what did these Neanderthal people look like? A little or a lot like you. But probably with a larger brain. What kind of tools did they make? “Mousterian” tools, we call them. Fine- edged flakes, points and scraper. And now attached to wooden spears or bone handles as knives. Beautiful tools. And weapons. Did they draw, make art? Look at the cave paintings in Spain dated to 65,000 years ago. We, Homo sapiens, did not arrive there until 20,000 years later. Did they bury their dead? At least some did. And not just to dispose of a corpse. Were they spiritual? These are questions that I leave for your own research. That’s how confident I am that I have caught some of your interest.
Until 2010, they didn’t exist. At least not in our minds. So arrogant is our hubris in the possession of limited knowledge. It was in that year that a single finger bone from a young girl was found in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia. Scientists, by then, had developed skills at sequencing all of the genes in a cell’s mitochondria⎯energy generating organelles inherited only from your mother. And when that was done for the still viable mitochondria found in that bone, a stunning discovery was made. That girl was from an entirely new species of humans! Homo denisova. Yikes! What is going on here? Oh, we have found a few teeth, too. That was enough to sequence more of her genome. And now we find that as much as 6% of the genes of Melanesians, Australian Aborigines, and Papua New Guineans may be of her Denisovan stock. From a few teeth and a finger bone? You’re kidding! No. The science is good. Your genome is your history, and that of those who went before you. And the structure of its basic code is not complicated. I teach it in my class and build models of its scaffold. Your genes bear a mystery that is not hidden. And, like the Mayan glyphs, we can read them. Glory to be. That is exciting! God’s handwriting, if you will.
We appeared in Africa by 200,000 years ago. We were surely smarter than Homo erectus. Made better tools. But were we smarter than the Neanderthal People? They had bigger brains, stockier frames, and were stronger. One-on-one, we mostly lose. But something happened about 70,000 years ago. Happened in the brain of one of our forebears. Maybe that is the time that God touched our species. No one knows for sure. But our larynx had settled further down in our throats. We know from the brain impression in old skulls that Broca’s area, the region of our brain controlling speech in our frontal lobe, was well developed. We were primed. Then something happened. Not just speech sounds now. Group action. Gossip. And out of Africa, we surged. 150,000 years ago, we shared the planet with at least four other species of humans. Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo denisova, and Homo floresiensis. More maybe? There might have been one million humans represented by multiple species alive then. But by 30,000 years ago, there was just one. Us. You. Homo sapiens. I wonder why. Gossip! You’re kidding. No, I am not. It is our ability to talk about things not before us, people that we know, that enable us to form larger groups of people that we trust. Groups who can work together. Groups with people that you can talk about behind their backs!
By 16,000 years ago, we invaded the American Continent to face the last remnant of Pleistocene megafauna that evolved there. It appears that, with the help of climate change, we did them in too. Sobering. Are there lessons here?
Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky.
He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography.
Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. Eighteen of his titles are available on Amazon in hardback, softback, and Kindle formats.