Pre-Humans: A Primer
Does anyone else find ancient hominids to be really creepy? Like, look at this face. And this one. And this and this. That’s some uncanny valley stuff. I feel like when I was looking up American cryptozoological whatsits and learned about Melon Heads, which are literally (allegedly) just big headed people who live in the woods, but for some reason I just couldn’t handle the idea.
But onto the topic at hand: pre-humans! Here’s what I learned about each of these guys.
I’ve seen a few species of Australopithecus listed, but I think this is the most important one where modern humans are concerned. I think. It’s definitely the longest lived, and from what I’ve read the most likely to be our ancestor. It looked ape-like, it walked upright but also climbed trees, it ate a lot of stuff, and it apparently reproduced consistently enough to eventually accrue some pretty choice mutations. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Homo habilus means “handy man,” and its main claim to fame is making stone tools that archeologists call hand axes, although that might bring to mind something more complex than it was. “Hand axe,” in this case, means sharpened stone. Still, though, that’s a pretty huge deal, evolutionarily speaking. It let them cut up and bust up food way more effectively than before, which means way more nutrition. And brains take enough energy to power that, without all that hard-to-get meat and marrow for a few thousand generations, we might never have existed.
I will admit to laughing at this when I was 13. But just for the record, no, there’s no evidence that their erections were especially noteworthy.
Unlike its ancestors, Homo erectus didn’t just hang out in Africa. Fossils have been found in Europe and Asia, and dated from nearly two million years ago to less than two hundred thousand, which makes it probably our most successful recent ancestor, if success is measured in longevity. We’ve been around for barely more than a tenth as much time. They also figured out fire, which is a pretty huge deal, or so I’ve been told.
Homo heidelbergensis, it seems, expanded throughout the world sometime after Homo erectus did, and evolved in a different way on each continent: neanderthals in europe, denisovans in asia, and Homo sapiens (us) in Africa. It’s also the first species that used spears, and the first to use them to hunt large animals. There’s also evidence that it was the first to build shelters out of wood and stuff. And not that it matters to most people, but I think these guys had the most caveman-like skulls I’ve ever seen. Seriously, look at these brow ridges. So robust.
The first thing to know about neanderthals is that we’re not descended from them. The second thing to know about neanderthals is that some of us are descended from them, but only a little. See, they didn’t evolve into us. They evolved into being extinct – or didn’t evolve, I guess? But before they vanished, some of them got jiggy with some of us, just enough that more or less everyone except sub-saharan africans have some neanderthal DNA floating around in them somewhere.
What else? They were the first pre-human fossils discovered, and the first identified as such, although those two dates were like 50 years apart. And they were way smarter than people think – there’s evidence that they made jewelry, clothing, and spears, and they buried their dead. Plus, at least some of them had red hair, which means there were actually teams of heavy-set, fire-haired, fur-clothed, spear-wielding people roving around primordial Europe and western Asia. How badass is that?
You could count the total number of Denisovan fossils we have on one hand (and probably hold them all in one hand, too). But since they were found after we invented DNA testing, we know way more about them than we might otherwise. For instance: a whole lot of humans have at least a few Denisovan ancestors, especially humans from southeast Asia and Oceanea. As far as what they looked like, I have no idea. Based on what we’ve found, the only thing we can say for sure is that they had at least one finger, and least one toe, and probably some teeth. We can probably assume that they had arms and legs and all that, too, but until I see some more fossils, I’m holding out hope for semi-sentient fingerbeasts.
I really wasn’t sure whether to say they were the second to have sex with homo sapiens. Because one, there’s DNA from neanderthals and denisovans in most modern people, except for sub-saharan africans, with the neanderthal DNA mostly in europeans and the denisovans mostly in oceaneans and pacific islanders, and a bit of both in asians. So which got there first? And that’s ignoring the whole chicken-and-egg problem you get to when you ask who the first individual homo sapiens got with, if not with their immediate ancestor species. I get that evolution is a gradual process and we probably couldn’t point to *the* first of any species, but still.
Homo floresiensis was only discovered a couple years ago, in the form of several skeletons recovered from a cave in Flores, Indonesia. It was tiny, standing only 3 foot 6 inches, and it seems equal-parts adorable and badass. Here’s a quote directly from the Smithsonian: “Despite their small body and brain size, H. floresiensis made and used stone tools, hunted small elephants and large rodents, coped with predators such as giant Komodo dragons, and may have used fire.” If we can make six hobbit movies, we can make at least one out of tiny people fighting elephants, rats, and dragons. Right?
Turns out there actually was a movie about them (sort of), which was going to be called Age of the Hobbits but was eventually changed to Clash of the Empires after a legal dispute with the Tolkien estate.
This one almost deserves a comic of its own. It one of those things that’s so strange and silly and bizarre and horrible and wonderful that it seems fictional, but it’s not. But I should get to the story.
It all starts with Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist with an uncanny (and in retrospect, unbelievable) knack for finding objects of major historical importance in the English countryside. In 1912, he presented the world with his greatest find yet: a skull from the “missing link,” midway between ape and human in evolutionary history. It had a big brain but an ape-like jaw and teeth, which seemed to prove prevailing theories that said humans had probably evolved big brains before small teeth. Never mind those increasingly common australopithecus skulls with the little brains and little teeth.
Piltdown man was a hoax, of course. All it actually proved is a human skull looks kind of goofy when you shove it full of teeth and glue it to an orangutan’s jaw. But it helped derail archeological research until 1953, when an increasingly-skeptical archeological establishment used newly-developed tests to prove it was about a good bit younger than Mr. Dawson had claimed.
But another aside: I’ve been thinking about early human clothing, which was probably mostly animal skins. It seems normal to us now, but can you imagine if we found some ape somewhere who was killing things and wearing their skin? We’d be impressed, sure, but also at least a little creeped out. You just know the headline would be “Bonobo Bill” or “Orangutanibal Lecter” or something.
Next comic, for some reason, I’ve decided to do something about a philosopher. Or I did. It’s written in my calendar for some reason. I have an idea of what I’ll do, but if you have any excellent philosopher stories, please don’t be shy about sending them my way. VeritableHokum (at) gmail (dot) com.