Where Did We Come From and What do We Have in Common?


The origins of human culture and the characteristics that all human beings have in common have interested me for a long time. I started thinking about this subject fifty years ago. While in the army in 1962 and 1963 I traveled in the Far East. I lived for six months in Laos and the next year for six months in Vietnam. In 1964 I went to Europe. My travels exposed me to a great deal of cultural variety and the differences between cultures led me to conclude that all values, cultural, religious, economic and social were relative. Cleary, there is no one right way to do anything. In the right context, one way is as good as the next as was evident in the cultural diversity that exists in the world.

Thinking about cultural diversity led me to wonder about the beginnings of human culture. Where did it start and what were the first cultures like? I had only my own experience to use, so I tried to intuit the beginnings from the present. I looked at the places I had been to find the ways people are alike and the characteristics we all share that might be inherent in our species. And I looked for the ways that we are different and the characteristics that are cultural, learned and arbitrary. In the fifty years since I first started to read and think about the origins of humanity, I have revisited the subject three or four times. Each time I was more mature, experienced, better read and slightly better equipped to think about the subject. And each time there was more to read.

Those fifty years were years of dynamic growth in knowledge and methods of data collection and analysis for all science. But for the people studying human origins, the period was explosive. Fifty years ago, the only method of studying human origins for paleoanthropologists was the study of fossils, but there were very few fossils to study. The list of fossils in 1964 was short, the Neanderthals were first found in 1823, Australopithecus Africanus in 1924 and the Mary and Louis Leakey finds after World War II, plus a few odds and ends. The only other way to infer early human culture was by studying people living in what we called a “primitive” state. The most famous of the early anthropologists who conducted those ethnographic studies was Margaret Mead. She became a minor celebrity because of her work in Samoa, but by today’s standards her studies were incomplete and limited. Unlike today, there was very little if any biological data available for comparing early humans with other species with which we share a common ancestry.

Today, we have a great deal more data and evidence to use in any inquiry into the history of human beings. There are thousands of fossils representing a wide variety of time periods, species and subspecies and there are numerous ethnographic studies. Most of the isolated cultures in the world have been studied in depth and some of the studies lasted as long as thirty or forty years; equally, there are long-term studies of other primates. The first long-term field study started with Jane Goodall in 1960 and continues still. Now, most primate species have been studied in depth, giving a detailed glimpse into primate behavior. Finally and probably the most important change in the study of human origins has come in genetics and the sequencing of the human genome. Until the human genome had been sequenced, the “out of Africa” theory was without any proof or mechanism. Darwin postulated that humanity must have originated in Africa, but there was no way to demonstrate how and when we spread across the planet.

Fifty years ago when I started to think about the origins of humanity and human culture, it was a philosophical exercise. There were not much data or many hard facts to use; it was an exercise in theoretical thought experiments. As with most theoretical philosophy, it was interesting and important to my intellectual development, but not more than that. However, this time, when I sat down to do the same exercise I had thousands of pages to read, DVDs to watch and an endless supply of lectures by leading scientists available on YouTube. Did it change my original premise? In a way it did. Clearly human beings are much more closely related to other primates than we imagined in 1964. We are not much different from chimpanzees, bonobos and other animals. They too have a social structure, use tools, make simple dwellings, hunt and communicate. We have refined and amplified their capabilities. We have adapted to living in very large communities; we have domesticated the plants and animals that provide our food; we have learned to make and use very sophisticated tools and control our environment; and we can articulate our thoughts and abstract ideas in a way other animals cannot. Our living systems are more sophisticated, complicated and refined, but they are not unique.

In 1964, I wondered what all of us sharing the planet had in common, but had little information except my own anecdotal evidence to use. I could see and think about our differences, but I had no way to understand our basic common nature. Today with the aid of the advances in science, it seems clear to me that all humans have same basic nature. It is a common nature rooted in a very long common history, much of which we share with other primates. Each culture may have slightly different nuances, but the essential elements are the same. We are the same species. It is probably time we started treating each other like brothers and sisters rather than as members of another species.

 

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