Unfreezing the ice age: the truth about humanity’s deep past

In some ways, accounts of “human origins” play a similar role for us today as myth did for ancient Greeks or Polynesians. This is not to cast aspersions on the scientific rigour or value of these accounts. It is simply to observe that the two fulfil somewhat similar functions. If we think on a scale of, say, the last 3m years, there actually was a time when someone, after all, did have to light a fire, cook a meal or perform a marriage ceremony for the first time. We know these things happened. Still, we really don’t know how. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to make up stories about what might have happened: stories which necessarily reflect our own fears, desires, obsessions and concerns. As a result, such distant times can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies.

Let’s take just one example. Back in the 1980s, there was a great deal of buzz about a “mitochondrial Eve”, the putative common ancestor of our entire species. Granted, no one was claiming to have actually found the physical remains of such an ancestor, but DNA sequencing demonstrated that such an Eve must have existed, perhaps as recently as 120,000 years ago. And while no one imagined we’d ever find Eve herself, the discovery of a variety of other fossil skulls rescued from the Great Rift Valley in east Africa seemed to provide a suggestion as to what Eve might have looked like and where she might have lived. While scientists continued debating the ins and outs, popular magazines were soon carrying stories about a modern counterpart to the Garden of Eden, the original incubator of humanity, the savanna-womb that gave life to us all.

Many of us probably still have something resembling this picture of human origins in our mind. More recent research, though, has shown it couldn’t possibly be accurate. In fact, biological anthropologists and geneticists are now converging on an entirely different picture. For most of our evolutionary history, we did indeed live in Africa – but not just the eastern savannas, as previously thought. Instead, our biological ancestors were distributed everywhere from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope. Some of those populations remained isolated from one another for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, cut off from their nearest relatives by deserts and rainforests. Strong regional traits developed, so that early human populations appear to have been far more physically diverse than modern humans. If we could travel back in time, this remote past would probably strike us as something more akin to a world inhabited by hobbits, giants and elves than anything we have direct experience of today, or in the more recent past.


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