Who Are We and What Does It Mean to Be Human Anymore?

Neanderthals and Denisovans in our genes, sentient mollusks, and speaking cats and bats

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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neanderthal
neanderthalCredit: Rovsky/Shutterstock.com, Daniela
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

We are not what we thought we were. Nor were other human species, we have been discovering over the last 20 years.

In fact, animals are not what we thought they were. Not even the dog, cat and cephalopods have escaped the rigors of scientific makeover in recent years. Based on new research, the British decided lobsters, other arthropods and mollusks too are sentient, and it’s becoming clear that everybody from cats to bats to mole rats have speech, in their own way.

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So what does that say about the earliest humans? What does it mean to be human today? Do we merit more consideration than marine arthropods?

For much of our image makeover in recent years, we can thank breakthroughs in genetic analysis, which began with the 1984 discovery that a 150-year-old dead quagga retained some DNA. The breakthroughs continued with the extraction and study of DNA from a million-year-old frozen mammoth.

Among human species, analysis of alternative types has been confined to Neanderthals and Denisovans, so far. And we have discovered that the Wonder that is We are not purebred. We're mostly sapiens but our pedigree is mutt.

We have learned that up to roughly 2 percent of your genes come from Neanderthals. We may also have genes from Denisovans (a sort of eastern Neanderthal), especially if we are Negrito Filipinos, in whom 6 percent of DNA is Denisovan. Tibetans also have relatively high Denisovan contributions, and, more startlingly, it turns out that so do Icelanders. Did some Denisovan get spectacularly lost tens of thousands of years ago? (There are other possibilities; their actual range remains a mystery.)

We even learn that some modern humans have faint genetic hints from past crossbreeding with an unidentified archaic human – meaning, a hominin. The archaic signal is strongest in some West Africans, but we too may harbor genetic whispers from this “ghost,” which split off from the sapiens line about half a million years ago, the relevant scientists estimate.

Anybody else lurking in our bodies? Maybe. There is nothing in recorded human history, or police records, to indicate that humankind is fastidious in mating choices. But in the last 20 years, our image of ourselves has forever changed.

Some suspect the interbreeding interactions may have been violent. Perhaps, but it need not be so. Not even a shared tongue seems to be necessary for love to flower. Many lovers today communicate in a third language, such as shattered English, because they don’t speak each other’s tongue. Or maybe the early modern humans and other species could understand “Would you like to see my etchings” in other dialects.

If they spoke. We’re confident of knowing what speech is, but for all our progress, we still have no idea when or in whom it evolved. Hence the studies hailing analysis of the Neanderthal inner ear, voice box and whatnot, and its potential for speech comprehension. This said, some anthropological circles are confident that earlier humans had to have had speech. Neanderthals heated tree sap to make glue to affix stone spearheads to shafts. And a million and two and three million years before that, archaic humans, hominins, were making tools. How would they pass these techniques down the generations? By grunting? What are we, monkey see monkey do?

Which begs the question: do monkeys believe? Who knows – do ask some if you like, but there's no sign of it. Some researchers think that one difference beyond the non-Homo and the Homo is that archaic humans may have had a spiritual, reflective side; that they may have lived in harmony with nature and had respect for it. Evidence of this mind-set is frustratingly indirect – for instance, somebody in Paleolithic Israel defleshed a swan wing 400,000 years ago. Why would anybody bother to do that? If you want to get at the scanty meat on a wing, toss it into the fire and when it’s cooked, Og’s your uncle. So, it is suspected – the early humans coveted the feathers.

Why would early humans want feathers? Could it be, to emulate that magnificent avian, the swan? And why would anybody make tools out of bone, which breaks a lot more easily than the good old flint? One possible answer: to show respect by utilizing the hunted animal in full.

But for all the speculation, we know little about how people behaved before writing developed, and modern hunter-gatherers can only tell us so much, if anything at all, about life before the modern era.

That said, by the time we come to modern humans, we find clear signs of faith of some sort: in southeast Turkey, at least, it turns out that complex settlement and community existed 12,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture. That upturns the assumption that crops and the domestic beast came first. What specifically the people at Göbekli and the other hilltop “temples” actually believed, we cannot know.

Meanwhile, beyond genetic bombshells about our ancestry, there are other studies showing some startling facts. For instance, our wondrous sapiens brain didn't just grow, it also shrank. Our brains are, on average, smaller than a Neanderthal’s. Which means what? Fittingly, we don’t know.

More startlingly, one study claims the sapiens brain shrank 3,000 years ago, which means the legendary clever King Solomon may really have had a bigger brain than you did – if he existed. There’s no evidence for that to date.

But why would our brain shrink just as civilization as we know it was taking shape? Maybe because it could. Our brains are energy hogs, and once we could communicate more effectively, i,.e., in writing, once we developed what the kids call “hive mind,” however rudimentary, we could forgo some of that piggish brain matter and still reach for the stars, and for truths about alternative human species. Which are all, but for us, extinct.

So how special are we? Well, there’s one area where a stark truth remains intact. None but Homo sapiens has been shown to produce figurative art as opposed to handprints and possible proto-doodles. None.

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