JERUSALEM POST BLOG 14 – The missing link.
From 10 to 8 million years ago there lived in Africa a common ancestor to the four species of Great Apes, to wit; gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and hominids, the latter being the root from which hence our human precursors were to branch. The man/ape split then occurred roughly in the next two million years, a period known as the fossil gap. As the name suggests, little to nothing is known about this stage.
Before it, we’re all monkeys, and afterwards, as if we’ve partied so hard that our genes have mysteriously upgraded, a creature emerges, smaller than our current selves, but endowed with the unmistakable human trait of bipedalism. It walked upright.
It is, by the way, a common misconception to ask; “Why did apes not evolve, then?” In fact they did. Evolution does not appear to be a linear progress. In stead it branches, like creeper, probing constantly for a path to extend its reach. Ever since Humanoids undertook a separate career, at least 5 million years ago, Great Apes too continued to evolve, and probably look as different from our common ancestor as we do.
From that time on, a well-documented picture emerges, featuring evermore humanlike specimens like the Ororin Tugenensis, the Ardipithecus Ramidus, and of course –with star status- the Australopithecus Afarensis, better known as “Lucy”. Heck, there’s even an Oreopithecus, but among boffins, other than an endearing reference as the “Cookie Monster” little consensus exists about this creature.
As we tiptoe back from the past, and trace the African landscape peppered with pre-humans finds, suddenly another dark age appears, casting a million year shadow between 3 and 2 million years ago. Once gain, between the Australopithecines of yore, and the newer, brainier Homo Erectus, we don’t know what the hell happened. Afresh, it appears these ape-men and women had partied hard, imbibing some sort of inverse-alcohol, adding instead of destroying brain cells.
In all seriousness, it is said that these nifty creatures began to cook tubars, drawing from this the extra energy needed to grow a bigger head. The recruitment of grandmothers to provide for the grandchildren supposedly played a role as well, along with the effect of endurance running on the human body, possibly whilst hunting for a richer, often tusked and wooly, diet. Given the paucity of concrete evidence there exist in this matter as many opinions and theories as there are anthropologists.
This Homo Erectus finally leaped from the cradle, moving out of Africa toward Europe and Asia, spreading there to become the archaic species of Java man, Peking man, and the European Neanderthals. Then, about a hundred thousand years ago, a second wave emanated from Africa, this time of Homo Sapiens, or modern man. There’s much debate about whether Homo Sapiens simply killed the Neanderthals, Java and Peking men, competed more successfully for precious resources, or interbred with the indigenous populations, swamping older, less successful genetic traits.
Whatever happened, not a single trace of the older Neanderthal DNA remains present in current humans. In fact, there is frighteningly little variation among humans today. A scientist by the name of Woodruff sums it up succinctly: “There’s more diversity in one social group of 55 chimps than in the entire human population.” The full human lineage, it is inferred, went through a bottleneck, teetered, in other words, on the brink of extinction, according to some at around the eruption of Mount Toba in Sumatra some 71.000 years ago.
The third missing link this time is not the lack of explanation for an evolution that has taken place, it’s for an evolution that didn’t take place, but should have. After millions of years of experimenting with flint stones, the pace of human discovery has quickened tremendously. A mere 12.000 years separate the first bow and arrow from the international space station. And yet….
Man still possesses the unhealthy urge to compete for territory. Indigenous populations today are still trampled on like an inferior species that needs to yield to the smart newcomer. We have bigger spears! The twentieth century has seen the first industrial attempt by one group of wiping out another belonging to the exact same species. The tremors of this horrible act are still felt today, and its survivors have delegated to unwise leadership the onerous task of preventing its recurrence. For lack of better ideas, ever-bigger spears are used to trample on an indigenous population as if it were an inferior species that needs to yield to the formerly oppressed newcomer. Well, the locals don’t seem to be budging much, and now they too have spears that fly –not in a private jet like Britney but just about as wayward and hard to predict.
“We’ll clobber them back then, harder this year than the last, and the one before that, and before that,” says a minister of defense to his leopard rug, “now, where did I put my cuff link?” It’s the original Itchy and Scratchy Show. Nothing’s changed, and yet humans, for the past 70 millennia, have never been more alike. Less cousin than actual brother. The realization, though, seems a bit slow in coming, or to quote the great Peter Griffin; “Seriously, I can’t tell who’s who.”