Recovering the past
History - World Released - Jan 14, 2013
It turns out the first humans to walk the earth was not that long ago. It wasn’t millions of years ago, or even hundreds-of-thousands of years ago, as once thought. It was as recently as 50,000 years ago. That’s when man as we know him first appeared. He could solve complex problems, create art, speak in complete sentences, and carried a sophisticated took kit that included a sewing needle made of bone. He was conscious of his appearance too. He combed his hair and wore tailored animal skins.
This original man--this Adam--didn’t appear out of the blue, but was the result of countless millennia of evolution. However, this crucial stage of man’s evolution--the ability to reason and to speak--occurred quite suddenly, perhaps within a 2,000 year period, which has researchers scrambling for answers.
The population was about 5,000 people when man branched out from his ancestral home in northeast Africa (present-day Ethiopia) and began to populate the earth. In fact, the number that departed Africa is estimated to be about 150. From these 150 people most of the world’s population sprung.
A curious thing happened as man spread throughout the world. Very large animals--wooly mammoths, huge bison, large tigers and cats and outsized crocodiles--became extinct, as did man’s two principle rivals--Homo-Erectus and Homo-Neanderthal. Apparently, anything that threatened modern man’s survival was hunted to extinction. For 35,000 years, man was a hunter-gatherer, never settling anywhere but forever roaming. His diet was a heart-healthy 70-percent plant stuffs--nuts, roots, wild grains, berries--and 30 percent cooked animal flesh.
The first modern humans to leave Africa probably crossed the Red Sea at its southern end and stepped bravely into Arabia. Reaching India, the growing population went separate ways. One group traveled along the coasts of southeast Asia, arriving in Australia some 46,000 years ago. In fact, he walked to Australia as the oceans were low due to the ice age. Another group explored the land route northwest from India, reaching Europe. Then, about 20,000 years ago, a climatic catastrophe occurred--a final glacial advance that emptied Europe and Siberia of people. Several thousand years later, descendants of the survivors spread north again. Some of these new northerners, the Siberians in the eastern half of Eurasia, domesticated the dog, and discovered the land bridge that joined Siberia to Alaska and to the Americas.
Around 15,000 years ago, in the Near East, people at last accomplished a decisive social transition, the founding of the first settled communities. Domestication of wheat, sheep, goats and cows occurred here between 9,000 and 12,000 years ago, and to this day we don’t know how they did it. The only animal to be domesticated in recorded history is the rabbit, and this was done 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
Much of the above is the result of recent study. Geneticists have long contributed to the study of the human past, but since the full sequence of DNA units in the human genome was determined in 2003, progress has stepped up considerably. The genome (a.k.a. gene and chromosome) is a vast archive or stored information, and it's helping researchers create a new and far more detailed picture of human evolution, human nature and history. From a great darkness, a surprisingly full narrative is emerging. I suspect that before too long they’ll have the whole evolution thing figured out. To learn more, check out “Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors“ by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade.