The Greatest Discovery of the Decade

As the 2010’s come to a close, we reflect back on the last ten years. All over the world in every discipline new and important discoveries have been made. We as a collective race have leaped forward in some ways and fallen behind in others. One area in which we have made great strides of progress is that of Anthropology. Specifically in this case, Biological or Paleoanthropological Anthropology. There have been so many important discoveries in the last decade, filling in missing holes, creating new branches and streams and the like. We thought we knew alot but what we learned has only shown us that there is so much more out there to explore.

Today we will be going over what I think is the most significant discovery of the field in the last decade. While this was a tough decision, and there are many that were tied for final place, the chosen event that we are going to be discussing today is just too perfect and fascinating to not be the greatest discovery of the decade. So lets get talking about Homo naledi.

Let’s start with the facts of the discovery and then go into my opinions (and others) on why its so important.

H. naledi first discovered in South Africa in 2013 by Prof. Lee Berger and his team in the Rising Star Cave System outside of Johannesburg is a first of its kind for many reasons. This discovery was unlike any other that we had made before, and the way in which it was handled changed the field forever.

Dating to about 250,000 years ago, these skeletons were unlike anything we had seen before.

Here is the full story:

So now we have this new species of human ancestor. Not only that, we have them in a range and number never seen before in the field. In addition to that we have the unique disposition of the bodies. Buried. Laid down with care. Not just washed into the cave.

A creature with such a mosaic of features could find its stem at the start of the Homo lineage, and yet we find them so late in the fossil record. Were they around the entire time? We may never know.

But how amazing could that be, that a creature so primitive could be observing a concept that is so advanced. Burial is something only observed in modern humans, and our closest relatives the Neanderthals, all of which were around as late as forty thousand years ago, having burial by non advanced species 250,000 years ago is just astonishing, it is nothing we felt we would observe.

Finding an animal in such quantity, buried in a cave, with no other animal remains present, or signs of flooding or other entrances, H. Naledi seems to be the earliest candidate for ritualized burial. This changes everything that we know of and think about human culture and evolution. Along with that, we have the fact that every age group is represented and well.

Fifteen individuals were discovered, as of the writing of this article, (more could be found any day), finds like this are near unprecedented. Nothing since the First Family has been found like this. Each individual opens up a window into the past to show us all that we can glean from these ancient treasures.

So why is all of this so important? Well, first of all finding a new hominid is always a critical moment for anthropology, finding one in such a remote, and desolate place is extremely rare, not even considering the fact that there were over fifteen individuals found that could have been buried by their relatives. This is just all so unprecedented.

To top it all off, how all of this information was divulged, shared and explored by the scientific community was something new. The discoverer, Lee Berger is a strong believer in open education. No more anthropologists finding fossils to keep them hidden for twenty years while they study them and no one else. Mr. Berger is about sharing that information from the get go to cast the widest web and bring in the most opinions expert or otherwise.

This new method of education in the field is something that has been a long time coming but took a great push to finally roll out. It is thanks to these discoveries that the future is laid out for the next discovery of a hominid fossil.

There you have it! Brief and to the point. There is alot more to this story but we can save that for another time. The discovery of Homo naledi is the most important in the field of paleoanthropology of the decade because of how rare, unusual, and important the find was.

What do you think was the most important discovery of the 2010’s?

The Missing Link?

April 24, 2019

The Missing Link

Who, or What is it?

There are those of us that are on the search for something so valuable that there cannot be price placed upon it. What we are talking about are the fossils of early hominids. The beings that came before us but put us on the evolutionary path that we know today. But who are these individuals and institutions that are searching for these extremely rare finds? Well, they would be Paleoanthropologists.

It is the Paleoanthropologists job to not only find fossils, but to get the most complete picture of them as possible, identifying the species, the date, practically everything they can about the discovery. The way they lived, and sometimes more importantly how they died.

There have been many discoveries the past ten years, and the naming of at least two new species of ancient hominid. These finds led to the timeline of our evolution to be filled out more, but of course not completely.

Each time we find a new fossil hominid, we think well this must be it, there are no more out there to be found. Well, as Prof. Lee Berger who made the Rising Star discoveries, likes to say, “Never Stop Exploring”. And what a true statement, there are probably more and more fossils out there to be found, but only the future will tell exactly what those finds are.

So what is this famous missing link that has been the greatest question for Anthropologists for hundreds of year? Well the idea behind it is that we have all these fossil hominids, save the one that changed us from “ape to man”. Many such finds have had this moniker, until a new, more fitting specimen was found. For years this is how the Paleoanthropology world was shaped.

But where was the missing link to be placed? At the start of the species Homo, or farther back in time between our last common ancestors with chimps? Is there such a species to be found that just makes it all make sense?

It is this missing link, that is the secret to all of human origins, finding this being, or examining what has already been found; is the dream of all young Paleoanthropologists. But will we ever find it? Only the future holds that truth. Funny we must look to the future to see more clearly in the past

Perhaps the missing link has already been found and is just not identified yet, or is it lost in the Cradle of HumanKind, who knows where else!

Okay, now it’s time to be honest with you. There is no such thing as a missing link. There, I said it. You’re probably asking yourself now, “so why am I reading this paper?” Well there are many reasons for the tale of the missing link to be told, and we are going to go over those today. From misconceptions to down right trickery, the tale of the missing link is one that continues on today.

So now we will discuss why there is in fact, no missing link and then go into some of the shenanigans that have taken place in the field. So why is there no missing link, in fact it makes perfect sense, we have chimpanzees which share 98% of their DNA with us, then there is a big gap and then there is us. Now things start to unravel. So there is supposed to be one being that bridges the gap between our last common ancestor and us. How could only one being exist?

It turns out that it does not. We in fact have an entire tree of familial relations vs. just one was never the answer. There are many hominids in our past that show a distinct line of evolution. From the Australopiths, to the early beginning of Homo, and a few here and there. While of course we cannot know with certainty how many species there were, when they lived, and even if they had interactions with modern humans. Now are you beginning to see how there is not a single missing link? It’s more of a chain, each link connected to each other, but more than that, there are chains sprouting outwards like the branches of a tree or a braided stream.

“Well hold on, Ive heard stories about the missing link being found last century, what happened to that?”

Ah yes, the wonderful Piltdown Man, possibly the greatest hoax in scientific history. As we all should know, human evolution sprouted and continued on from Africa, but a hundred years ago this answer was not sufficient for many European scientists who wanted to find the missing link in their own backyard.

“When Piltdown Man was unveiled before a meeting of London geologists in 1912, he was heralded as paleoanthropology’s “missing link,” the long-sought transitional form between modern humans and our great ape ancestor. He had a smallish skull, a chimp-like jaw, and a mixture of primitive and modern teeth to boot. Plus, he was a local; to this gathering of Brits, it would have seemed completely right and proper that humankind got its start just down the road in Sussex.

There was just one problem, he was fake.”-The Washington Post. Who would go to such lengths fo create this lie? Well there were a few culprits, and it was in 2016 that scientists made a announce,meant that they think they know who the culprit was. Long dead of courses there is not much to do about it, and the mystery will never be completely resolved.

While Piltdown Man was a fake. He did teach the scientific community a great deal. That everything is not always as it seems, and thorough investigation should be done into anything that seems odd or out of place.

It turned out that Pilddown Man was actually one of the greatest forgeries in scientific history, leading people to believe early man started out in Britain, for 40 years., Consisting of a Homo Sapiens skill, and an orangutan mandible munch work was done on the fake to make it all appear as realistic as possible. And it sure worked.

So what does the future hold for the missing link? Hopefully nothing, its an idea that needs to stop being spread around and shared. All those in the scientific community at this point know that there is no such thing. But that does not mean there is nothing to learn from it.

From hoaxes, to true science we have learned a lot about the missing link today, you are of course free to make up your own mind, but one cannot ignore the evidence.

From H. Habilis to H.Naledi and a few scattered here and there, our picture of human origins grows clearer each day, but at the same time more questions arise with each new discovery. While there may be no missing link, there is still a lot out there to discover, and the best way to do that, in the words of Paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger, once again “never stop exploring!”

Cave of Forgotten Dreams a Review

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary created and led by Werner Herzog in 2011. It is one of if not the only documentary films about the glory that is Paleolithic art especially those of Chauvet Cave in France.

This is a documentary for all kinds of people, but the most targeted audience would have to be A. Filmmakers and B. Anthropologists of all kinds as well as curious individuals.

a. The cinematography found in this documentary is jaw draping. The music paired with the scenes, (with or without the camera crew in them) meld so perfectly together you feel as if you are there in the cave with them, seeing through their eyes. It is a remarkable experience, although it is one that compares not at all to the real thing. The camera work, and editing is fantastic, any documentary film maker would do good to watch this and use it as a template for their own documentaries.

B. The historical and cultural importance of this documentary is one that should be shown in every classroom across the world. This history pertains to our history, our shared human history dating back to near 40,000 years ago. (The documentary says 30 but new research has revealed some of the cave paintings are even older than perviously thought).

The chance to see these paintings, even in 2D on a monitor is worth more than never seeing them at all, as unfortunately most of us never will. It is awe inspiring and dare I say soul touching to see these paintings, and think, “What was going through their mind? Why here?” and so many other questions. The documentary goes into the details of the why’s and how’s, and explains in detail the artistic, and cultural importance.

This documentary is a must see for those of all interests and aspects. If you’re a human, you should see this film at least one time. To learn something about yourself you never knew.

The beautiful film will occupy your mind days after watching it, there are just so many questions and so few answers that come up when one is presented with such information. But through this film, there is so much to be seen, heard, learned, and almost felt.

IF you have not seen this film, I highly recommend watching it today, I know its on iTunes, I’m not sure about other streaming services, it did used to be on Netflix but not any longer.

If you have any questions please feel free to comment below! Here or the on the post you are seeing this on!

Ten Thousand Likes

Welcome one and all scientists alike!

We at The World of Paleoanthropology are having a give away once our Facebook Page reaches Ten Thousand Likes.

We are less than 50 likes away! Lets do this today and reach our goal!

Once we have reached our goal, a winner will be chosen at random to receive a Zinj keychain courtesy of The Leakey Foundation.

Help us get 50 likes today and enter for your chance to win!

Here is the link to our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/paleoanth/

Don’t forget to check out The Leakey Foundation either at https://leakeyfoundation.org.

Have a great and Happy Thanksgiving!

What is Paleoanthropology?

What is Paleoanthropology?

Introduction:

The world as we know it, and especially how we do not know it, is an amazing thing. We discover new things each and every day. About our present world, the future of that world, and it’s past. The more we learn, the more questions we find need answering. From the start of life on earth, to the very first of humankind, there is just so much we wonder, and do not know about. Science, is a way of looking at the world where things are proven by testing, by curiosity and the people who forward this research. For many, science almost has qualities found in the place of religion. While many scientists are religious, and maintain a connection to the divine, following the rules of science can be quite common as well.

One specific area that we strive to learn so much more about, is our own history. Yes one could follow our history back to the first one celled organisms surviving in pools of water But where most people go, is to our own history. They wonder, “Where did I come from? Where did we come from?” When studying Human Origins, what we focus on, is when we split from our closest cousins, the apes, and what the common ancestor may have been. Anthropology is the study of humans, and everything that humans do, or have done; previously, presently and into the future of where our species is headed is Anthropology. From Cultural Anthropologists who study the amazing and varied cultures of the world past and present, to the good people in the lab, using air scribes to blast dirt and rock from fossils and bone. There is so much to learn about this world, and about ourselves. It is through science, education, and Anthropology that we have any hope of learning of our origins. To learn the past, is to build the future.

So then, what is Paleoanthropology?:

So what are we even talking about here? What is Paleoanthropology? To be specific, it is the study of the origins of man. While we may look to modern, and ancient apes for clues on how our ancestors acted and survived a great deal, it is specifically the human lineage that we are referring to. From the earliest bipeds that some refuse to call human, right up to our modern-day bodies, a span of about seven million years of evolution. This time period is very gray, we know very little about this period, even less than we know about dinosaurs which lived sixty-five million years ago! There are so few fossils and tangible evidence of fossil apes and hominins, or bipedal apes that belong to our braided stream of a family. The reason for this, is while the dinosaurs were all over the earth, providing many various circumstances to preserve fossils, hominins are strictly from Africa, and the environment is not prime relegate for the creation of fossils. What we know from Paleoanthropology one day, can completely change the next.

At this point, we know more about Human Evolution than we ever have, in fact, for the first time in United States history, over 51% of the population agrees with the Theory of Evolution, but that means nothing, as new finds destroy previously held beliefs. It was once said in 2001, that there was nothing left to find, since then, multiple entirely separate species have been named and accepted.

Paleoanthropology is an ever-changing field with new information coming out weekly, if not daily. As we study Human Origins, we begin to understand ourselves, and the world we created better. Human Origins, the search for possibly the most valuable and precious items we know of, fossils, is an amazing journey that one can undertake. Either from their armchair at home, or deep in the African wilderness, searching for these fossils yourself, the adventure is never ending. “The road goes on and on, down from the door from which it came…”

In short, Paleoanthropology is the study of Human Origins, where we came from, using the Fossil Record and new DNA technology, we are learning more about ourselves than ever before. Paleoanthropology is one of the most interdisciplinary fields in science. Requiring team work between geologists, chronologists, anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, cavers, and so many more experts, it really takes a team to come to the proper conclusions. Or, as close as we can get.

Now, some of you might be asking yourself, why does it matter? Many people explain our origins through religion and spirituality, but many depend on the modern, accepted versions of the Theory of Evolution. For some, there just is no interest, they do not ponder nor wonder where our species came from and that is ok. For those of us who care, its like an ever pulling sensation to learn more, to learn as much as you can. To learn of our origins, how we came to be on this earth, and following the evolutionary path of our ancestors, is what allows us to see our future. Knowing where we came from, can show us where we are going.

Those who find themselves in awe of this evolution, cannot learn enough. Knowing where we came from is a gift to these anthropologists. It is what their life work is about, and it can change the way in which we see the world and our place in it. Why are we so special and so different from any other animal alive today? Why are we the only hominin species to survive? (At least up to the last ten thousand years in some cases). These are the holy grail of questions. To answer them, one needs to know not only the history of Paleoanthropology itself, but the tools and methods that are used therein.

There are few things more important the grand scheme of things than where Homo sapiens came from. It is us, our past and our history, Through amazing hardships and trouble, our ancestors in one way or another survived, thrived and led themselves to where we are standing today., Ancestry is all, and that is why Human Origins is important, to understand that, and how important this information is for our species.

So where did it all begin?

The study of Paleoanthropology is a relatively new science, even when compared to other fields of Anthropology and evolution. Who knows how many thousands of years these fossils and evidence of our current situation have been lost. But it all started with a find in the Neander Valley, in Germany. Where the skull cap and leg bone of some sort of mysterious human were discovered. This was before Darwin’s very famous book The Decent of Man. Which laid the foundation for the ideas of Natural Selection and Common Decent.

We had no idea about where we came from or what these old strange fossils meant. Well, scientifically of course, there are plenty of people who had a religious explanation. But since the time of the renaissance, (not including an individual here and there), some people began to question the physical world around them, and wondered less on what lay beyond life, but rather what lay in front of them. There was the idea that we were related to the great apes of Africa, as suggested by Darwin. But no one at the time wanted to think that they were “Descended from monkeys”. One has to remember that during this period of time during the 1800s, the world was changing vastly, and Europeans were pulling ahead in the field of science, and wanted the glory of having the missing link in their very own back yard. Today, we know the damage that this superiority complex and colonial take over has caused for the study, the biases and incorrect work that has been done since that we are still trying to fix and work out to provide a better picture of the actual data.

The idea of the “missing link” came across when anthropologists and archaeologists first started to believe that we had a common ancestor with chimpanzees and other great apes, one believed that there had to be some sort of link, or connecting species that made it possible for our evolution. This did nothing to quell the fears or the hatred of the idea that we came from the apes.

As we know today, Human Evolution is not linear, and is a braided stream rather than a straight line. There is no one missing link, they are all links in our evolutionary past. Species genetic information comes in, and out of our history, in our own DNA we show traces of other species, appearing at different times and in different locations.

This want for glory by the Europeans, especially the British ended with a massive hoax that lasted for over fifty years. (If you are reading this on the night of it’s republishing, it is actually the anniversary of the unmasking of said hoax!) Piltdown man, was supposedly the missing link itself, it had the features of a modern man, and that of an ape. The scientific community went crazy, and to top it off it was found in Britain! What better luck! There was a general consensus that this was indeed what they were looking for when it came to the missing link. Fast forward half a century, and new technology revealed that this missing link was indeed fake. Using a human cranium and a mandible from an orangutan, while filing the teeth, this skull was created, and it fooled even some of the most esteemed scientists for a long time. No one is sure who pulled the hoax, but there are a few candidates; but its unlikely we will ever find out the absolute truth in this situation.

Fast forward a little more, and we have the discovery of Australopithecus africanus in South Africa, by the notable Raymond Dart. Not only did this shock the world, but it began to show that possibly, as Darwin suggested, our roots were to be found in Africa, along with the great apes. Since that time, more and more early human species have been found throughout the continent of Africa. Proving that is where we originated. None of these early humans, Australopithecines, were not found anywhere in the world save in Africa. These first bipeds and somewhat chimp/human-looking creatures are found nowhere else. The only fossils we begin to see elsewhere around the world is Homo erectus. The first species to leave the continent after their development millions of years later.

Homo erectus then began to evolve in situations to match their needs, and we have splits and other species branching off of them, leading up finally to more contemporary species, such as the Denisovans, Neanderthals and Us. It has been a long journey and the world of paleoanthropology has gone through some major changes. From scientists hiding the finds in their labs until they were ready to show them to the world, to free access publication in online journals, and the publication of free 3D files, and models.

Lee Berger, is at the fore front of this initiative, and has helped spread education far and wide with the help of notable educational professionals such as John Mead from Texas.

In short, that is a very basic introduction to the history of Paleoanthropology, there is so much more to learn and discuss of the history of the search for Human Origins I implore you to go out and do some research on your own. If we included it all here, this would be a much longer article. So go! Explore!

The Present Day and Future of Paleoanthropology:

The way in which we go about our studies of our origins, has changed much over the last few decades, from only being able to rely on the fossil record, to DNA evidence that has helped decipher some of the many codes and questions that we have about our past. Each year it seems, if not more, a new method of testing, examining and describing these fossils and DNA evidence appears. Some are more controversial than the other, but these methods not only shed light on things we did not know, but help to clarify some of the questions that we have. Even things we thought we knew about, are viable to change and to alter. As we learn more it’s apparent that we truly do not know much about where we came from. There is simply too much wonder out there in the world to properly say we know where we originated.

This leads to even more discoveries, and allows puzzle pieces to come together. As new technologies are developed, the better tools we have to study these amazing specimens. The future of Paleoanthropology, and Anthropology, in general, is very bright. New discoveries lend lifeblood to the field, and just bring up so many other questions that we may never have the answers to. But the only thing we can do is to continue exploring, and doing the research that must be done.

Conclusion:

The World of Paleoanthropology is truly an amazing one. It some of the most active scientific explorations going on in the world right now. Until recently there were more students than fossils to examine, with recent finds this has changed things in a positive way, as there is just so much research to be done. What role our origins play for you? If it works for you great. But there are some that cannot sit idle, the wanderlust is just too strong of a force, and it is because of these people that we know anything about our past at all.

The important role of knowing where we came from, is the key to our future, and where we go from here. As we understand evolution and its cause and effect not only on us but all living beings, we begin to see the connection. Yes, we are different than any other animal today, but it ways not always so drastically as one thought. It is only for the last forty thousand years that man has gone unchallenged (save in a few specific and until recently, unknown areas, aka Flores).

There is just so much left to learn that the only way is to keep exploring, and to never cease our efforts to find where we come from.

Remember, there is always more to learn!

The Importance of Lucy

The year was 1974, and a young man named Don Johanson was surveying land in Hadar, in the Afar region of Ethiopia, Africa. The day was November 24th and the scientific community would never be the same.

“They had taken a Land Rover out that day to map in another locality. After a long, hot morning of mapping and surveying for fossils, they decided to head back to the vehicle. Johanson suggested taking an alternate route back to the Land Rover, through a nearby gully. Within moments, he spotted a right proximal ulna (forearm bone) and quickly identified it as a hominid. Shortly thereafter, he saw an occipital (skull) bone, then a femur, some ribs, a pelvis, and the lower jaw. Two weeks later, after many hours of excavation, screening, and sorting, several hundred fragments of bone had been recovered, representing 40 percent of a single hominid skeleton”(https://iho.asu.edu/about/lucys-story).

This discovery is mind-blowing in so many ways. While Lucy is no longer the most complete hominin skeleton every found, she is still the most complete skeleton from 3.2 MYA. Nothing else compares to her completeness and age. (Ardi comes in at about 4.5 MYA and I was unaware of that at the time of this writing).

We can learn a lot about this A. afarensis specimen about not only their species, but about the roots of humanity all together. Getting this glimpse into the important time of around three million years ago reveals many secrets of the past, but if nothing else adds even more.

We have learned about bipedalism, diet and habitat, growth and life cycles. Sexual Dimorphism, the list goes on and on. We know more about Lucy’s species than probably any other out there. (I’d change this to Neanderthals) Why is that? Because Dr. Don Johansson is a genius.

Creating the most public and publicity driven discovery of the century, Lucy went on trips around the world, and Don is a great orator and story teller. He captivates audiences with his tales and stories from when he found afarensis. Even now, 45 years later, his story captivates the minds of the older generation down to the youngest.

As a science communicator Mr. Johanson as made great leaps in the sharing of data, and the story behind his find. There are restaurants, hotels, and sports teams named after Lucy, also known as Dinknesh in the language of Ethiopia. Which means something along the lines of marvelous one. There are few people in this day and age who have not at least heard of Lucy, and considering this discovery is almost half a century old, that is something to be proud of. Even extremely important and new finds such as Homo naledi in Rising Star, is eclipsed by the famous Lucy. (This is arguable is the Neo, and Leto announcements).

Known as an ambassador from the past, this specimen is something truly stunning to behold. Rarely are complete or near complete skeletons found, and it is unheard of prior to Lucy to find one so old. Covering over 40% of her entire body, we can reconstruct this afarensis and see not only what they would have looked like morphologicaly, but as well as how they would have moved, which gives insights to their daily and overall lives.

Lucy is often what brings people into the field, they hear her name and get curious and BAM you’re sucked into the world of Paleoanthropology.

To this day there is so much we can learn about this species, and Lucy in particular that there never seems to never be an end to the research, which is as it should be. Even today Dr. Johanson is going around giving lectures and sharing his, and Lucy’s unique story, explaining her importance, and more about what she means for the anthropological world, and our common lives all the same.

Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis has shined a light on a time period we know very little about, and has shed light on our earliest ancestors, in a direct line, allowing us to learn and learn. Work on Lucy will probably never be finished, and that is ok. With answers come more questions and hypotheses.

The best way to keep Paleoanthropology alive, is by fueling the next generation to be as excited about the past as many of us are today. Lucy is a great starting place and a place where young ones can truly begin to get a grasp of how we got here, answering the age old question of “where did we come from?”.

Only the future, despite her long past, holds the keys to Lucy’s secrets, and the future of the science in general.

Never forget Lucy or the significance of her find, as they have shook up, and continue to shake up the walls of what we know about what it means to be human. Lucy was not human, far from it, but from her skeleton we can glean so much about our own past.

Dinknesh is truly marvelous.

Please enjoy this lecture from Dr. Johanson, recorded only this last month.

Welcome!

Welcome!

Are you a fan of Paleoanthropology and Human Evolution? Want the latest news from the world of Human Origins? Look no further!

This page will be a home for articles from a wide range of sources, on current events in the Paleoanthropological, and archaeological communities. General anthropological posts may find their way in as well.

We hope you enjoy, learn something, and remember, never stop exploring!

The Role of Imagination in Human Evolution

The Role of Imagination in Human Evolution

Introduction:

We humans have had a very long, tumultuous, and at times bleak history. Over the last seven million years, our genus, the Homo genus, has experienced an amazing amount of change. Today, when we look at our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, and bonobos, we often feel a great gap between us. How could we be so closely related, and yet so different? What separates us from them, and vice versa? Seven million years ago, we and the chimpanzee and bonobo split off evolutionarily; them taking one path, and us taking another. Our last common ancestor died some seven million years ago, which is a great amount of time to change, and change we did.

From our humble beginnings with Sahelanthropus tchadensis, to modern day Homo Sapiens Sapiens, change has been the name of the game. But when we look at our cousins, they seem to still closely resemble those forebears who died and are forever lost in the mists of time. What spurred our evolution, while theirs stagnated? What allowed us, simple apes barely different from the others, to gain control of fire? Build cities that sprawl for miles across the surface of the earth, and leave behind masterful works of art that last for thousands of years? Why is it us, and not chimpanzees, gorillas, or orangutans who are orbiting the earth in spacecraft created and built by our own two hands? Is it our physical, or mental differences that have allowed us to come so far? What caused these differences to arise? It is in imagination, that the possible answer may be found. Imagination, a quality that only we modern humans possess, has been a key component in our evolutionary history; a major factor in the development of our mental and physical capabilities.

Without imagination, we would not be recognizable today. Despite what you may think when one first considers this, it is the role of imagination that has created the spark of our being, and has led us to what we are today. Let us embark on a journey, down the road of human evolution, and explore the immensely important, but undervalued role of imagination in human biological evolution.

What Makes Us Different?

When one looks into the eyes of a great ape, be it a gorilla, chimp, bonobo, or orangutans, we see something that we do not see in the eyes of any other animals. We see ourselves, a deep reflection of the past can be seen starring right back at you. It is these creatures whom we share the earth with, that are closest to us genetically, physically, and possibly even mentally. At one point in history, we were in fact the same creature; until we diverged that is. Today, there are key differences between us and the great apes. In both mental and physical senses. Of course, we possess much grander intellectual capabilities, walk upright, and have language skills that are unmatched in the animal kingdom.

It is easy to see how we are different. But when one considers that we arose out of the same source only seven million years ago, it really begs the simple, although hard to answer question of “Well, what happened”? There are as many answers to this questions, as there are anthropologists to answer it. However, one theory that is sorely overlooked, is the role of imagination in human evolution. What is meant but this, is how our cognitive ability to create, observe, and understand things that are not physically before us, has led us to some of the greatest cognitive advancements in our history. It is these advancements that led to many of our physical changes. It is imagination, thoughts for the future, that have allowed our genus to grow, and prosper where our cousins have dwindled and failed. It was the cognitive power, and the thought process to overcome fear of fire, to master it to do our bidding. Without fire, we would not be who we are today, and without imagination we would have never tamed fire.

Take for example, one of the prevailing ideas on how our brains developed into the powerhouses that they are today. It is with Homo Erectus, that we believe fire was first used, and it can clearly be supported by a variety of factors including archaeological evidance, as well as the fact that the brain of Homo Erectus nearly doubled over that of Homo Habilis, its believed predecessor. But why is this? To explain why the use of fire, and cooking is so crucial to the development of the human brain, we can turn to Harvard University’s Richard Wrangham, and his cooking hypothesis.

He states that mastering fire was one of, if not the most crucial event in human history. The use of fire, and the cooking of our goof allowed our ancestors to more easily digest what they were eating, as cooked food is much easier for our stomachs and as our guts shrank, for lack of needing so much power, our brains were then freed to grow, and use up more of the energy we consumed. As our guts and teeth shrank, our heads were able to change shape, providing room for our growing brains. It was then these brains that went further and faster into what we know today.

But what caused us to start cooking in the first place? No other animal, ape or otherwise has ever even attempted to master fire, and cook their food. If chimpanzees were able to master this ability today, it indeed would most likely set them on a evolutionary path mirroring that of our earliest ancestors.

It was imagination, the thought that the combination of this burning, unknowable and untamable power, with the raw meat of an animal, to create food, that allowed this phenomenon to begin in the first place. It can clearly be seen in animals that lack imagination, that there is no hope for something of this magnitude to occur.

Imagination brings beings out of the world of chance, and into the world of creation. It is this key component that separates us from all other animals, it is imagination that put our ancestors on a path of evolution that no other creature could follow. It is imagination, that made us who we are today.

Imagination


What is imagination? Defined by Merriam Webster as “the act of power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality” is our ability to manipulate, understand, and change the world around us to better benefit us. No other creature has ever existed that has possessed the cognitive abilities that we modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens are privileged to enjoy. But it cannot be overlooked that while of course our imagination today is far grander than that of Homo Erectus, it cannot be ignored that such advanced cognitive abilities must have been present, and even earlier in our history in fact.

To create anything at all, be it a simple stone tool, or an iPhone, one must have the ability to see in their mind something that is not there. Something that they cannot see, touch, or hold. While this may seem like nothing to you or me, imagine living your life wholly at the moment. Not capable of thinking of what is about to happen, or how one could make the situation better. Instead, you are there, and you must act on instinct and past experience alone. This is how our cousins, the great apes, see the world. It is what has held them back, while we grew and prospered despite our physical and genetic similarities.

But where did this ability arise? Tracing something like imagination is not easy, and while it can be seen everywhere one looks today, just five thousand years ago the written record ends entirely, and all that we have left is archeological evidence. After ten thousand years, even this is scarce and all that we have left is inference. We know what was going on to a certain extent, and we know our ancestors were successful for we would not be here today. We know how they hunted, and in many cases how they lived. We know in fact much about them, but in the scheme of things, it is so little. To try to understand the minds of humans that died millennia ago is like understanding the mind of a dog today. While we can get glimpses of what they are thinking and understanding, the exact workings are not known to us. We can assume that our ancestors, modern humans, going back to a certain point around fifty-thousand years, would have felt, and thought the same as we do today.

While it is believed that fully modern cognitive humans emerged only fifty-thousand years ago, anatomically modern humans emerged in Morocco near three hundred thousand years ago, and even before that the various branches of the human family tree lived, and died across the continent of Africa and Europe. Very little is left behind of these early hominids and almost nothing that gives light to the way they thought. It is only after the cognitive revolution, that we begin to see traces of art, and decoration. But these are obvious examples of imagination. It is long before this that the roots of our cognitive abilities began to form. What made us first strike two stones together to make tools? What made Homo Habilis, a creature so ape-like it is argued to even be human, do something that no other creatures are known to do?

Something in its mind, allowed it to visualize, conceptualize, and then create something. Stone tools, first made by Homo Habilis, were the first things that we brought into the world, and they would not be the last by far. But it is these stone tools, that set the precedent for everything we would, and will ever do. Imagination is our ability to create, and bring things from our minds into the world; something no other creature can do. How and why we did this, we may never know. From the earliest stone tools to the masterpieces of Lausxou and Chauvet, we have contained to invent and create. It is this that separates us from all other creatures, including our closest relatives.

The Role of Imagination in Human Evolution:

At this point, it should be quiet clear, how important imagination is to our development. Without our ability to conceptualize things that were not real, and bring them into our physical world, we would never have created our first stone tools, never have butchered animals to provide our growing brains the nutrients they need. We would never have conquered fire, and began cooking our foods, releasing the important and vital nutrients in our expanding diets. Without imagination, we would not have had the food we needed to allow our brains to grow and expand our cognitive powers.

Our guts would not have shrunk, and our teeth would have stayed the same exaggerated size, not allowing our jaw muscles to shrink giving room for our brains to expand. With the expansion of our brains, we began to have even more grand ideas, and the story goes on until we reach where we are today. It is the crucial role of imagination that has led to our cognitive development. Whatever caused the first spark of imagination in our earliest ancestors is unknown, but we must be thankful for whatever in our DNA, or environment caused this sudden change; sparking our development for millennia to come, and setting our path apart from all other animals on this planet.

Conclusions

It is vastly underestimated, the role in which imagination plays in human evolution. We would not be the creatures that we are today, had not a spark occurred in our earliest ancestors, allowing us to bring into reality that which had never even been conceived. It is our ability to see something in our mind and bring it into this world that has allowed us to gallop ahead of the others in terms of evolution.

Without the idea to manipulate the world around us, we would never have been able to provide for ourselves, and our ever-growing and demanding brains. Imagination has pathed the way for us to become what we are today, just as it will lay the way for our futures as well. It is only our imagination that limits what we can do, and those limits expand with each and every generation. The future is bright, as long as we understand the role imagination plays, and embrace it to its fullest.

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