This archived article was written by: Nathaniel Woodward
Holiday season is finally here. Having survived Thanksgiving and in preparation for the Christmas holiday, it is appropriate to discuss something many have a natural discomfort for, embarrassing relatives. What are the holidays for if not recounting the history of your family and their adventures (and misadventures)? So in this final article of this semester, let me tell you the story of your most immediate family members, the primates and how their lives set in motion a domino chain reaction that lead to us.
You are a member of a unique group of organisms, familiarly known as Homo sapiens. Being one is truly a miraculous stroke of good luck, as we are the only remaining member of the hominin clade which is one branch of the great ape’s family.
Distant grandparents include hominins, like H. erectus and H. habilis, and our cousin H. neanderthalensis. We look back at the fossilized evidence of these remarkable creatures and see striking similarities with ourselves. The Neanderthals (by our best evidence), went extinct between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago and shared many things some claim to be uniquely human including tool making, art, burying their dead, and even language. I can’t help but wonder how we would react to another species of humans if they were alive today.
If we reach farther back into our history, past Australopithecine species like the famous “Lucy” 4.5 million years ago, to a time before our ape-like ancestors descended from the trees, farther and farther still before those primates ascended into the canopy, we arrive some 50 million years ago and to a possible ancestor of many mammals on Earth. A small mammal/early primate named Notharctus discovered to have lived millions of years ago in what is now Wyoming, had developed a new trait that would set in motion the existence of all apes and even you, a divergent thumb. This mutation allowed Notharctus to grab onto fine tree limbs, reach previously unreachable food, and stay high above most predator’s grasps. This single trait greatly improved members of the primate family’s ability to survive, reproduce and continue evolving.
For the first time in Earth’s history, an animal had a hand that looks nearly identical to our own. The hand is a powerful symbol of the human lineage. When we are sad, it wipes away our tears; when we are in love, we use it to hold the hands of others; when we are pleased, we slap them together to show approval and when we are angry or in danger, we use them to defend ourselves. The hand may be the seat of all human emotions and actions. It is the hand, after all, that we use to shape the world around us.
With the ability to eat more, have more offspring and live longer lives, ancient primate brains began to evolve fascinating new traits. Eventually with these more adaptable (smarter) brains, they could decide when to leave the trees to search for more food, find mates or new range.
After millions of years and drastic climate changes, our ancestors in prehistoric Africa were forced to leave their arboreal homes, but as selection would have it, the primates of the time gained the ability to stand erect.
Remember an organism cannot struggle to develop a new trait, but those with mutations gave them an advantage such as being able to walk upright for long periods of time and see over long grass were much more likely to be passed on. And so the dominos that will lead to modern humans continued to fall.
In the Homo lineage, we have a long list of grandparents we can be proud of, long extinct tool makers and wanderers who left their marks all over Africa, Europe and in Southeast Asia that blazed a trail and left clues for us to follow. Then it happened, unceremoniously the first true modern humans, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, came into existence some 200,000 years ago in what is now Central Africa. You, I and every other person on this planet’s ancestors began life in the heart of the African continent.
It wasn’t until nearly 50,000 years ago that we even left and began our own journey to shape the planet, to make it the planet of the Humans. The process of natural selection can explain, how with our well-developed forebrains, we began choosing what we wanted to pass on, not just in our species, but those we control, like plants and animals.
So here we sit, modern day, a distant domino being struck by the countless numbers before us. Standing on the shoulders of giants, we gaze out on the amazing beauty of the cosmos and turn our gaze on the dominos yet to fall. The first creatures truly capable of organizing those dominos and choosing which will fall we hold an unmatched power in our wondrous hands.
No longer bound to the treetops, we can soar into the skies, dig deep into the Earth, plant our feet firmly on the ground and think critically about what inspires us. Wherever your journey may take you my friend, gaze up into the skies with wonder, look to the past through your remarkable hands, hold firm to the evidences all around you, and make your lives remarkable.
Perhaps I’ll see you along the way, also unafraid of the dark.