By Felix Liang (‘20)
Are Homo sapiens really that special? So much of our religious, political and social ideologies revolve around this question. The claim that we are is common, because for as long as WE can remember, we have been the only human species on Earth. Sure, there are different races– Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, and Australoid (each of which contains its own subdivisions)– but all of the present human races fit within both the genus “Homo” and species “sapiens”, roughly translating into “wise man” in Latin. The animal closest to the Homo sapiens today in terms of genetic makeup is the chimpanzee, which falls under the “Pan” genus, and is thus not a human. To the surprise of many, however, we were not always this special. From about 2 million years ago until 10,000 years ago, multiple human species inhabited the earth. Homo sapiens was accompanied by the bulky Homo neanderthalensis, the upright Homo erectus, the dwarf-like Homo floresiensis, and the relatively obscure species, Homo denisova. We have been so accustomed to being the only human species on Earth that the thought of ever encountering other human species seems eerily peculiar. However, history is rarely black and white, and the fact that we weren’t always the only humans on Earth doesn’t necessarily detract from the validity of the idea that we are a relatively extraordinary species. In fact, in some ways, it seemingly substantiates that idea. However, this substantiation may actually highlight the contemptible qualities of mankind, not the admirable attributes.
Perhaps the least notable of the aforementioned non-sapiens human species was the Homo floresiensis, or “Flores Man” from Latin. Their name comes from the Indonesian island of Flores, where the Homo floresiensis inhabited. They had reached the island when the sea level was low, but were trapped on it once the sea level rose back up. Resources were scarce on the island, and the bigger humans, who required more food, perished first. Eventually, the Homo floresiensis became a species of dwarves, reaching a maximum height of about a meter and weighing no more than about 25 kilograms. Their short stature earned them the nickname of “hobbit” after J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional diminutive humanoid species popularized in the novel The Hobbit. They managed to create stone tools and prosper well enough to survive for over 100,000 years.
The most well-known of the aforementioned non-sapiens human species was the Homo neanderthalensis, who was publicized by popular media as the “Neanderthal” or “caveman.” The full name Homo neanderthalensis roughly translates to “Man from the Neander Valley” in Latin. Neanderthals evolved and lived primarily in Europe and western Asia. These humans were far more muscular and bulky than us, as they had to adapt to the cold temperatures of the Ice Age in western Eurasia. They were intelligent, despite the contrary belief perpetuated by modern media that portray them as dull-minded animals. Although they weren’t as intellectually apt as modern sapiens, they had a relatively similar mental capacity. Neanderthal and sapiens brains were roughly the same size at birth, with the former’s brain size beating out the latter going into adulthood. In fact, if one were to witness a Neanderthal juxtaposed with a Homo sapien during the time period in which they coexisted, there would be a negligible difference in terms of sophistication and intellectual behavior. Both were relatively primitive at the time; the sapiens had simply managed to outlive the Neanderthals and survive into a period in which their mental capabilities and potential could be fully explored and utilized. Both the Neanderthals and the sapiens made stone tools, hunted, and foraged, but the sapiens were eventually given the opportunity to do so much more.
East Asia was populated mostly by the Homo erectus, or “Upright Man” from Latin, noting its accomplishment of being the first human to walk in an upright position. The Homo erectus predated both the Homo sapien and the Neanderthal on the lineage tree, but they were arguably even more impressive. They are the ones credited with the discovery of fire; they tamed an element of nature itself. To this day, not a single creature outside of the Homo genus has utilized fire like we have. On top of that, Homo erectus was the longest-surviving human species to date, having lasted for two million years. This figure dwarfs the approximately 200,000 years that we sapiens have existed for. In fact, we will likely never best this figure: we’re only a tenth of the way in, and with the growing threat of climate change caused in part by our very ways of life, sapiens may not even live to see another 100 years. Using a formula established by Nicolaus Copernicus, astrophysics professor at Princeton John Richard Gott estimated a disturbingly stark figure regarding how much time sapiens have left: “if our location within the history of space travel is not special, there is a 50 percent chance that we are in the last half now and that its future duration is less than 48 years.”
The least is known about the Homo denisova, or “Denisova Man” from Latin. However, the little knowledge that we have about the Denisovan has proved to be worthy of a discussion. The Homo denisova was discovered quite recently in 2010, when an excavation into the Denisova Cave in Siberia led to the discovery of a fossilized finger bone, which was later linked through genetic analysis to the previously unknown species of the Homo denisova. Today, we’ve managed to link the DNAs of the Homo denisova with a group of Pacific Islanders living in Papua New Guinea known as the Melanesians. Three to five percent of the Denisovans’ genetic material was found to have been contributed to the genomes of Melanesians, suggesting that interbreeding between the Melanesian sapiens and Denisovans had taken place. This discovery raises extensive implications, as it supports the theory that different races within the sapiens species have different genetic makeup due to the plausibility of interbreeding occurring between sapiens of different regions and their non-sapien human neighbors. This suggests that sapiens across different races may not be as similar biologically as we had previously thought. Despite the numerous findings upholding this theory, it has largely been swept under the rug and out of the mainstream due to its controversial nature. Although it is fascinating, such a weighty topic will have to warrant its own composition.
Although all five of these species proved themselves to be fierce hunters, advanced toolmakers, and excellent team workers, eventually, all but one perished. Despite all of the accomplishments of the other species, have we really proven ourselves to be rightfully at the top of the evolutionary pyramid? Perhaps, but this shouldn’t provide any validation to us. Yes, it’s possible that the other humans vanished partly due to the interbreeding and merging with the sapiens species, but even with that explanation, it is still clear that the genetic material of the Homo sapiens has monopolized the Homo genus today. It seems almost certainly true that the Homo sapiens played a direct role in extinction of the other humans: to some extent, a genocide. We shouldn’t be shocked if this turns out to be true. We’ve already seen what Homo sapiens have tried to do and have done to other sapiens for the sake of even minor differences in physical appearance and/or characteristics: the Holocaust, Holodomor famine, and Armenian Genocide are just a few instances out of many. Imagine what sapiens would do to an entirely different human species. Homo sapiens have survived and come out on top, but not without blood on their hands. The diprotodon first appeared in Australia more than 1.5 million years ago and managed to survive ten ice ages, including the peak of the last ice age, which was around 70,000 years ago. But, approximately 45,000 years ago, the diprotodon disappeared, along with 90 percent of Australia’s megafauna. Homo sapiens arrived in Australia at almost exactly that time. The megafauna of New Zealand suffered a similar fate, having survived for ages unscathed, but disappearing suddenly, along with 60 percent of all bird species just around the time that the Homo sapiens reached the island about 800 years ago. Creatures have spent many, many millennia adapting by learning to avoid Homo sapiens. Perhaps due to similarities in appearance, the other human species failed to do the same, which led to their downfall.
Homo sapiens are undeniably unique. We have not only survived, but thrived for many ages, outlasting all of the other human species; it is no wonder why we think so immodestly of ourselves. However, our success came with immense sacrifice; we have temporarily come out on top at the cost of ecological disaster. We have driven countless other species to extinction, including most of our relatives, the other humans. Upon thorough examination of our past, it will become clear: arrogance is a naive approach to the question of how we got to where we are.