Saturday, August 2, 2014

Who were our cousins?

When I went to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, there was a display on Neanderthal Man. The display revealed that the Neanderthals not only buried their dead but even marked the graves with flowers. This is kind of a big deal because it shows that they had at least some degree of ritual to their lives, and it also indicates that they may have had a primitive sort of religion/belief in the afterlife. It's tough to say, of course, because they're not around anymore (haven't been for about 28,0000 years now) to tell us one way or the other.

What's fascinating about Neanderthals is that they're human beings but not quite human beings like us. They're different enough to be considered a different species, but they're close enough to have bred with us, as has been revealed by studying our DNA. (From what I understand, this is more likely if you're of European ancestry.)

I don't know enough about this subject to have anything profound or original to say about it, but it's a topic that fascinates me. I suppose it fills me with questions, and it gives me a more profound sense of just who I am and what it means to be a human being in the first place. Most religions teach that we were specially created by a deity. The evidence shows us that there was nothing special about our origin, but that doesn't mean there's nothing special about us now.

I have to wonder though, what if the Neanderthals or another one of our cousins from the human family tree became the dominant species on the planet? If Neanderthals had a proto-religion, would they have gone on to develop ones that are more complex like the ones that we have today? Would they create art, poetry, and music? Some of our cousins, like homo erectus, seemed to have the right equipment to allow them so speak at least. Could they have done the rest?

And if our cousins could have done all of this, would they have done it better? Thinking that evolution is about the survival of "the best" is to misunderstand it. It's about the one that's best able to survive. Art and music aren't things that we need to survive (although they help to make life worth living). What if our fellow homos could make art that would put ours to shame? And what about government? Would they have done a better job of it than we did? Would they have figured out that slavery was wrong? Would they have equality of the sexes? I'm sure somebody more studied in this could give some educated guesses, but I'm not sure if anybody can answer for sure.

These thoughts have obviously entered the head of Jeff Smith, the writer/artist best known for Bone and Rasl, as his new series, Tuki, features a homo erectus protagonist, and there's a homo habilus as one of the supporting characters. Obviously, with a work like this, there's a decent amount of conjecture going on, but Smith takes the time to explain some of the science behind the story (like why he thinks it's reasonable to have Tuki speak).  It debuted as an online comic, but the first issue has hit the stands. If you like comics and this concept intrigues you, you should check it out.

I like it because it deals with something that already interests me. When I think about our distant cousins who have long since vanished from the Earth, I have a lot of feelings going on in me at once. I feel curious to know more. I feel sad that we may never know as much as I'd like. I feel appreciative that it was my particular branch that managed to survive and bring me to this point. Overall, I have a greater sense of respect for who I am and what my place is in this world.

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