I’m interesting in the question how we got here.
That’s not much of a surprise.
Which means I’m looking into the very broad strokes of what got us from there to here. Broadly remembered points where if you were to time travel and alter it, a radically different future would emerge.
I understand people will quibble about details. Some, for example, insist that the invention of abstract thought, like a law of gravity, inexorably leads a species towards its ultimate demise. I’m afraid I’m not that pessimistic. Personally, I started this adventure reading the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn and believing farming was the source of all evil. I’ve modified that, though, over time, understanding that while that time was a turning point, it wasn’t as simple as picking up a hoe damning the human race.
My current list of what makes us ‘us’ runs like this:
- Commensal Ectosymbiosis by Fire (Birth of the Family of Man)
- Mutualistic Ectosymbiosis (Coevolution) with Wolves (Birth of Homo Sapiens and the rise of Tribes)
- Parasitic Endosymbiosis by Grass (Post traumatic creation of Homo Civitatis)
- Vector-Trasmitted Parasitism (The Rise of ‘Science’ / Industrial Revolution, Homo Civitatis Terminal Phase / birth of an E.L.E.-Extinction Level Event)
Points 1 and 3 on the list recognize that two powerful forces (fire and grass) shaped their respective points in history outside of human control. Without their input, Genera Homo or Homo Civitatis could not exist. The other two turning points mirror each other: the inclusion of a strong relationship (with wolves) and the deliberate exclusion of a set of relationships (with Science).
At the beginning of time
Fire shaped us and changed us, lifting us from Deeptime about two million years ago. And yet, for the longest time, even as we traveled and explored and flourished in new and mysterious ways, we still moved in bands with few markers that would highlight the cultures to follow. It’s not that none of it was there. Just that the pieces were few and scattered.
Meanwhile, at another distant place and time, a powerful and ferocious predator was emerging at about the same time man was. Pack-oriented to a fault, inquisitive, with great adaptibility, they quickly spread and dominated a host of territories. Perhaps their only drawback was that they lacked opposable thumbs.
It was only a matter of time before the two species would meet and clash.
That happened a bit under a half-million years ago. The two met; the reverberations sent shockwaves across history. Stories still tell of the fear-invoking power that wolves brought into the night. But the unexpected happened as well; game recognized game. At first, the relationship was informal, larger animals brought down in combination and both sides fed.
Both sides got curious, though. And while it would be no surprise to find a human playing with puppies (under a mom’s watchful gaze), the reverse required two things. One, that the family would let a curious wolf get close enough. And two, that when a preserved meal was being prepared, someone was willing to share the food.
Now, this has been portrayed in media as a ‘lone wolf’, desperate to find food, and maybe a ‘lonely human’ too. But this is unlikely. I’m not doubting it may have happened a few times. But predominately desperate animals are not friendly and hostility is not likely to win you food by the fire.
You know who is likely to succeed? The teen. The one who is just old enough to not need to be protected by the pack. But also one who hasn’t shed their childhood curiosity mixed with the lack of experience that lets them try stupid stunts. Like grabbing some food from human friends of the pack.
And then treating it like play when the humans try to get the food back.
That kind of interaction can endear a single wolf to a human band at home and serve to strengthen their bonds. Play. Laughter. Joy. Until one day comes when an exhausted happy human tosses the scrap to his friend and the rest of the pack comes to see what’s up. That’s when things get really interesting.
Since this is an incidence that much have occurred thousands of times, it would not be beyond a stretch of imagination to say that it was the mothers who defused the situation and got the party started. They’d have an idea on what they had, what the wolfen guests might enjoy, and how to keep people on both sides safe.
Some new data coming out fills in this piece of the puzzle. Humans, digestively, have a problem feeding only on muscle meats. This has been called “rabbit starvation” and occurs when there is too much protein in the diet, without proper nutrients and fats to balance this out. Often this isn’t a problem, but winter-time is one of those rare times when it might pop up. Traditionally, human bands find a way to preserve the kill, eating the fat and organs when possible but not as much of the meat.
Wolves don’t have the same problem. They can live off of just meat without a hitch, and during a bleak winter, that opens up an opportunity. With a big preserved kill, the humans can eat the non-meaty bits and share the meaty-bits with their four-legged friends. Both sides end up well fed and, most importantly, not desperate.
As the band’s scent grew familiar and as they fed with the pack, they would be adopted by the pack. In return for the wolves’ protection, the humans would enable them to take down larger prey and even eat through rough times when food was scarcer. The wolves taught them — taught us– loyalty to those outside the family.
That resulted in our fight to keep all members of the clan alive, even the grandparents. And keeping those older experiences alive meant we could spread further than before, running into others and working alongside them. We went for Homo sapiens to Homo Floridus. No, that’s not a term you’ll find elsewhere. Taxonomy tends to stick us in one category, even though that is categorically wrong.
Seeds of Humanity
Homo Sapiens means (basically) the “clever man”. And that’s how scientists categorize us, despite evidence that many of the branches of humanity displayed the same cleverness as us. Their conclusion comes from the ‘fact’ that we’re the only branch apparently left, while the others went extinct. And from the idea that we made cities (big mistake, but that’s covered in the next post).
However, what they’re missing is that the immense flowering of our species that occurred after we cracked the code of co-existing with wolves. We swiftly went from an epigenetic species–reacting to stressors by genetically turning on or off gathered traits–to a memetic species.
A memetic species uses the invention of culture to adapt to an environment. It does this by leveraging different strengths within a group to accomplish this. While this can happen within a family unit, it most commonly occurs when adopting elements from other groups. Wolves led the way but they also showed how easily it could be done with humans.
From that came the seeds of Man. Cultural packets so intimately connected to their environment that the environment defined them. Within seven generations they would be irrevocably different than their past. No more singular narrative; a group of similar people moving across a landscape. Instead, like dandelions on the wind, Homo Floridus could end up anywhere.
And where they landed, time finally began.
The Spread of Tribes
Such an intimate fit meant that where they were other types of humans, we merged with them. Inside our bones contain the roots of Neanderthalis or Florensis or any a number of unnamed branches. In their place, unique tribes: homo lakota, homo tataviam, homo pecht, homo skolotai, homo !kung, homo xhosa, homo ylongu, and so many, many more.
Ten thousand cultures — ten thousand worlds — birthed across the lands. Surviving heartbreak and climate changes, sudden disasters and unexpected blessings. Growing, rooting. Meeting other tribes. Exchanging knowledge slowly and conservatively over time. Making wonders. At a minimum, forty thousand years or longer of known histories.
This validates the power of relationships and working laterally with different forms of live to successfully thrive. It gives rise to the powerful tool kit currently (and diminuitively) known as animism. But above all, it creates the potential for infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Farmers and gardeners and pastoralists and hunters and scavengers and vegetarians and carnivores and anything in between.
That should be the end of the story. All the rest is details. However, somewhere in the ten to twelve thousand years ago, there was a shift that left to 115 centuries of stable climate. A period that led initially to more diversity and opportunity but ultimately, in certain isolated periods of the world, led to tragedy.