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What makes humans stand out?

Who were the Neanderthals, and what happened to them?

Homo neanderthalensis were a group of archaic humans. They emerged on Earth perhaps 400,000 years ago, and inhabited Europe and Asia. They were the archetypal “cavemen”—hunters and scavengers who nonetheless had a culture, and advanced stone technology, and lasted 100,000 years.

Then we arrived, modern Homo sapiens, and Neanderthals became extinct. What happened?

One theory was that they were our closest extinct relative—our precursors, rudimentary humans—and that they evolved to become full humans. But we know that Neanderthals existed concurrently with humans, and that we likely had a common ancestor. We also know that these hominids had their extinction hastened by the arrival of humans. Given our subsequent penchant for mass exterminations, could it be that we humans committed genocide soon after coming out of Africa, and wiped them out?

New fossil finds suggest that we may not be guilty. The two species seem to have co-existed for longer than previously thought. Our own ancestors may have reached Europe earlier than initially estimated—and we may have overlapped for many millennia. Professor Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum told the BBC recently that humans did not quickly overwhelm Neanderthals, nor was their replacement by us a quick event. There was an ebb and flow of the two species, based on other factors.

They were not so far removed from us, these cousins. They were omnivores who had a decent balanced diet; they may have cooked food using roasting, boiling and smoking; they developed a complex language; they cared for their injured and buried their dead; they wore loose-fitting garments stitched from animal hides. So what did them in?

Neanderthals were of course subject to the vicissitudes of their environment—disease, wild animals, extreme temperatures, food scarcity—just like early humans were. They were, however, also a threat to themselves. Evidence shows that they were cannibals; and that they interbred, thus propagating genetic abnormalities. In the end, humans were able to outcompete them for limited resources.

What made humans superior? Our bigger brains, perhaps? Prof Stringer believes it is because we were better organised: we created and managed large social groups with shared purpose; we built networks; and (perhaps most crucially) we generated, stored, and applied knowledge. Right there is a clue about the human advantage: we learn, we learn as we go, and we share the learning amongst large groups. As a learning species, humanity progresses and gets better.

Or rather, it does that most of the time. Let us not forget how we use knowledge and organisation to distort truth; to fight and exterminate others; to engage in mindless destruction of our habitat; to live lives of ridiculous self-absorption. In our capacity for survival and advancement also lies our propensity for self-destruction.

Our past tells us what the future should hold. I, for one, am delighted that I wound my way towards the generation, recording, and dissemination of knowledge as my main pastime. For that is the unique mechanism we humans hold in our grasp: to observe and try; to learn from success and failure; to record the learnings and share them; and to unlearn and relearn as we go.

We write books and blogs, tweets and tomes, prose and poems. We study things and fixate on phenomena. We cogitate and speculate. We teach, coach, and mentor others. That is probably the key reason Homo sapiens outcompeted Neanderthals; and why we humans of today are in a far better place than we were all those millennia ago. Shared learning is our superpower. Education should be our greatest investment.

How’s that going, though? In our part of the modern world—the place where humans actually originated—are we investing enough time and resources in continuous education? Are we electing those who understand this fundamental point? And those of us with the privilege of advanced education, are we committed to assisting others to learn? Those who have acquired some special insights and wisdoms, are they giving that knowledge out, as effectively as possible?

As we build and rebuild our governments and our careers, we all have a responsibility to focus on the institutions and practices of learning. We have to spend time on scholarship and study, on elucidation and enlightenment. What should we study, and what should we teach? Anything and everything! The tapestry of human activity is richly varied and diversely textured. I study leadership and strategy; you study medicine and zoology. Some can run simultaneous equations in their heads; others can work magic with a chisel and a block of stone. Some cast magical spells with their play of words; others run efficient and healthy homes.

It all matters, but what matters most of all is that we are generous with what we know, and radiate it outwards. If we hoard everything we learn, our own extinction will loom.

(Sunday Nation, 14 August 2022)

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