The first humans emerged long before our own species. So, who were they?

In other words, how far back in time must we go for our ancestors to not be human and be, instead, an ape walking on two legs? What’s needed to qualify as “human”?

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Short answer: it’s a silly question, since the definition of “human” is arbitrary, as with any other division of a continuum. And of course we are all still apes walking on two legs.


Homo Erectus was certainly human.

“If you leave off looking at books about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men then (if you have any humour or imagination, any sense of the frantic or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation. That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a roccoco style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with the material of many camel’s-hair brushes. Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society superior to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever found an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants? Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old? No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

So I would say that humans began with such distinctives, with arts and language and such.

Perhaps, based on whatever definition of “human” you’re using. But how do you know that’s the right definition? Isn’t this all hopelessly subjective?

The reason that people can do all the wonderful things you mention is because they build on the millions that came before and gradually developed our knowledge, culture and technology to the state where doing these things became possible.

Prehistoric art can be amazing, but mostly for the realisation of how long ago it was made by people who otherwise lived in caves and walked around in animal pelts. And that art wasn’t there when the first Homo Sapiens walked the Earth - it came much later. The oldest Homo Sapiens found dates back around 300,000 years, whereas the oldest artwork dates to around 40,000 - 50,000 years ago. All these dates are very approximate of course, and we could have endless debates about precisely when Homo Sapiens arrived and exactly when they started to produce artwork worthy of the name - but the gist is clear: for by far the longest part of Man’s existence they didn’t exactly produce loads of high quality artwork. So, their capabilities evolved and developed over a very long time from humble beginnings to modern masterpieces.

It isn’t as if for instance Beethoven suddenly arrived on an empty scene where nobody has ever produced any music before. Just like evolution, art and technology develops through a process of trial and elimination of less successful outcomes. And before you point out that intelligence is involved in this process, yes, of course it is - human intelligence.

I always find the blatant disregard for the long, long learning curve that our species has been climbing quite puzzling. Yes, there is a chasm now, but no, there wasn’t much of a chasm when this all started from humble beginnings hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago. Or do you dispute this?


I find it puzzling as well. If you nabbed someone out of a Starbucks, erased all their knowledge of modern technology, and set them down on an abandoned island somewhere I very much doubt they would have invented an iPhone after 20 years. I would be surprised if they even had a decently functioning bow.


A list off the top of my head.

  1. Ancestral to modern humans.
  2. Tool making and tool use.
  3. Abstract language.
  4. Sentience and sapience.

In general, if we sat down and interacted with them would we sense their humanity, and would they sense our humanity. Of course, we can’t do that test now, but I think it is a place to start.

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Let’s see.

  1. Why this limitation? If you couldn’t find any Denisovan genes in modern humans, would that make Denisovans non-human?
  2. Crows?
  3. I have, ironically, nothing to say.
  4. Are these binary enough to form a useful criterion?

In general, there are plenty of humans who don’t sense others’ humanity as far as I can tell.

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Good catch. My original thought was a descendant of the chimp/human ancestor, and I reworded it relative to modern humans. I forgot to check the relationships when I did that.

On the cusp. There are also cetacean and other primate species that might squeak in on this one. Also, they aren’t in our lineage so they are disqualified. However, they could be on the way to being another intelligent species like us. I don’t think we should define all intelligent species as human, just as we would not classify an intelligent alien species as human.

Maybe??? I would leave that one to the psychologists and cognitive scientists. We could probably set up some tests with a pass/fail.

Most people expect others to reason and act similarly to themselves.

Ah, perhaps I misunderstood what “sense others’ humanity” means.

How about the manufacture of high quality stone tools? This is not a human characteristic?

The quality of stone tools would be a subjective criteria, but we may be forced to use subjective criteria at some point. Evolution is a continuous process, so we may have to subjectively choose a dividing line, just as we do between old and young or short and tall.

Did Chesterton mention high quality stone tools? The quote talks about playing knuckle-bones or the violin; carving marble or carving mutton.

Lee Merrill says that “humans began with such distinctives, with arts and language and such”. Not high quality stone tools.

So I think your comment is a tangent at best.

Edited to say: Apologies, I now see that I responded to the wrong post. My comment was intended for @Patrick.

I do dispute this, I think humans started with language and art–partly because I believe that humans were specially created, and partly because the chasm is indeed vast. I would find your description more believable if chimps could manage elementary syntax.

Homo Erectus had language.

What is your evidence that humans were specially created?

The chasm is indeed vast now. Why does that mean that it always has been vast? Do things not change in your world?


I don’t know how we would know that, though.

The chasm between humans and apes, for one, the evidence for the soul in NDEs and out-of-body experiences, for another.

But as I have heard, human activity was like an explosion, not like a gradual increase.

Well, that settles it then.