As the leading species of the animal kingdom, we often neglect the fact that we Homo Sapiens are technically also animals. And rightfully so, the evolutionary gamble of trading muscle for intelligence was a table-turning hand played by our ancestors.
In the blink of an eye, Sapiens jumped from hunting pigs with sharpened sticks to selectively breeding dogs based on cuteness.
Although these yells arm the group with important knowledge of their surroundings, it is still nothing compared to the language of Sapiens
How did we as Homo Sapiens ended up becoming the last species of the Homo genus?
As the leading species of the animal kingdom, we often neglect the fact that we Homo Sapiens are technically also animals.
And rightfully so, the evolutionary gamble of trading muscle for intelligence was a table-turning hand played by our ancestors. In the blink of an eye, Sapiens jumped from hunting pigs with sharpened sticks to selectively breeding dogs based on cuteness.
In todays industrial world, it is difficult to imagine that our far grandparents were part of the food chain, and not the dominating species.
However, it is more difficult to imagine that our far grandparents roamed the Earth with different human species, often causing conflict.
How did we as Homo Sapiens ended up becoming the last species of the Homo genus?
The Homo Genus
Firstly, a genus is a rank of biological classification just above species. For example, the wolf, Canis Lupus is in the same genus as the cayote, Canis Latrans. Think about the little differences between a wolf and a coyote and try to translate that into human versions. It is quite interesting to know that our species lived with at least 3 others at one point.
It is theorised that all Homo species evolved from a common ancestor known as the Australopithecine. Australopithecine were among the first mammals to adapt bipedal locomotion or to walk with 2 feet.
By walking on 2 feet, the other 2 limbs evolved to less powerful but more intricate movements. This allowed the creation of tools.
The first species of the Homo genus is Homo Rudolfensis with the oldest fossil dating about 2.4 million years ago. There it still debatable whether Rudolfensis belongs to the Homo or the Australopithecine genus, but it is clear that Rudolfensis bridged the gap that separated the 2 genuses.
With the way we have drastically transformed the Earth, it may feel as if Homo Sapiens have walked the Earth for the longest time. That trophy however, belongs to the Homo Erectus species, believed to exist for almost 2 million years. Meanwhile us Homo Sapiens have only existed for a mere 350,000 years.
A million plus years after the first Homo Erectus man was born, several other species emerged, including Homo Neanderthals, Heidebergensis and Sapiens.
Homo Erectus was among the first animals to create stone tools and use fire on a daily basis, a quality of enhanced brain power. Still, they existed for nearly 2 million years, more than 6 times the time that Sapiens have been on Earth. So, what lead to their extinction?
A study by Ceri Shipton in 2018 suggested that laziness may have been the cause. Archeologic findings found that Homo erectus lived wherever water and stones were found, as that was all that was necessary for living. They had no intentions for discovery.
This was also highlighted in Yuval Noah Harari’s novel: Sapiens A Brief History of Mankind where he stated that for the entire 2 million years of existence, the tools of Homo Erectus barely advanced.
When the riverbeds died out Homo Erectus did not seek the possibilities of water and new types of stone on the mountains. Compared to Homo Neanderthals and Sapiens who scavenged the outcrops for discovery, Homo Erectus stayed dormant and eventually, extinct.
Homo Neanderthals went extinct about 40000 years ago, they were taller than Sapiens, had a less globular skull shape and according to archaeologists, they had much stronger arms.
Sapiens had better cognitive ability especially in learning, communicating and remembering. But how did this cause us to be superior over Neanderthals? It has been speculated that our invention of language was the answer.
Domination by Communication
Harari’s book provides 2 theories. The first being how detailed Sapiens language is, zoologists have confirmed that monkeys can warm other monkeys of incoming threats by yelling. They have identified a yell that means “Careful! An eagle!” and another that means “Careful! A lion!”
Although these yells arm the group with important knowledge of their surroundings, it is still nothing compared to the language of Sapiens.
A Sapien can tell his group that he found a herd of bison being eyed upon by a lion this morning, he can describe the size of the lion and the size of the herd. Then, together the group can plan out methods to scare the lion away and hunt down the herd of bison.
The second theory is that the complexity of Sapien language allowed an interesting ability as social beings; the ability to gossip.
Within social groups knowing who to trust can greatly strengthen the bond and survivability of the group. Those who are a burden or a cheat must be kicked out in order for the group to function effectively.
There is plenty of evidence of this theory in the modern world. News, emails, and text messages are essentially gossip.
Nuclear physicists do not talk about nuclear physics over coffee, they talk about co-workers behind their backs. They share about who slept with who, who had a mental breakdown, who recently divorced, and then they go back to work.
If gossiping is considered sinful, why is it so addictive? Simple, it’s in our DNA.
Our presence in numbers proved superior over the Neanderthals, who commonly hunted in smaller groups. Moreover, a drastic climate change appeared that seemed to coincide with the disappearance of Neanderthals, whereas the more social and cooperative Sapiens prevailed the extreme cold better.
The Sapiens Fictional World
A more unrealised yet prevalent ability of our more cognitive brains is our proficiency to create fictional worlds. Legends, myths and religion never existed before Sapiens started creating them.
Harari, as controversial as he is, delivers valid examples on this.
Even if you could speak to a monkey, you could never convince that if it gave you a banana, you can promise him endless bananas in the monkey afterlife where monkeys swing freely from human captivity.
It goes further than religion, human imagination is imbedded so deeply it is considered non-fiction. When it is far from reality.
For example, money is just a mere agreement. From fancily coloured paper in wallets to the millions of electronic accounts. You believe that a piece of coloured paper is valued to $100 because your neighbour believes it, and so does every shop, bank and government believe in it as well. When in reality it is nothing more than coloured paper.
A more interesting view is the imagination of laws and human rights. It is nothing more than a list, nothing more nothing less. The invention of laws and human rights was to protect people. That there is a superior force protecting individuals from harm.
When, if someone were to kill you, the only truth is that you would be dead.
But then the whole cascade of fictional beliefs come to play. A policeman, recognised as a soldier of justice (when in reality is a man in a costume), will pursue this murderer as it is his duty written on a (scribbles on a paper), in exchange for an agreed form of currency (coloured paper), which he must give back partially to the government (a group of people), because he is promised that this agreed currency will go back to them as pension funds (scribbles on another paper). So that he can retire in Bali by getting a retirement visa (some stamp). And live happily ever after with his wife embraced by the sanctuary of their marriage (some metal loop with a stone).
This view upon society and imagination firmly portrays Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
We have achieved so much as a species and have created social groups larger than any other by creating fictional worlds. Now, we have social groups unrestricted by geographically due to our advanced communication, allowing groups in the size of billions. A first for the animal kingdom.
Indeed, with the little time we have spent on this planet, we have dominated the Earth so quickly many are calling it abuse. Perhaps looking back at how lucky we were at the evolutionary poker table will make us more grateful for our ability to imagine.
Hello! I am Yudhis, an Indonesian studying Medical Sciences at the University of Exeter. I am a science writer for iTHINK Magazine. In my free time, I do a lot of sports including rock climbing and boxing. I also enjoy reading fictions when I’m having my rest days.
Image respects to - Sutori, Ancient History Encyclopedia,