Angela Saini: Are we one human species, or aren’t we?

Angela talks to a rock art expert based at the University of Western Australia in chapter one of her popular science book Superior.

The Science Focus Book Club are reading Superior by Angela Saini this month. To get you started, 4th Estate have made the first two chapters of Angela’s book available, for free, to book club members.

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Chapter One: Deep Time

Are we one human species, or aren’t we?

Flanking a road dotted with the corpses of unlucky kangaroos, three hundred kilometres inland from the Western Australian city of Perth – and the other end of the world from where I call home – is what feels like a wilderness. Everything is alien to my eyes. Birds I’ve never seen before make sounds I’ve never heard. The dead branches of silvery trees, skeleton fingers, extend out of crumbly red soil. Gigantic rocks weathered over billions of years into soft pastel blobs resemble mossy spaceships. I imagine I’ve been transported to a galaxy beyond time, one in which humans have no place.

Except that inside a dark shelter beneath one undulating boulder are handprints.

Mulka’s Cave is one of lots of ancient rock art sites dotted across Australia, but unique in this particular region for being so densely packed with images. I have to crouch to enter, navigating the darkness. One hand is all I see at first, stencilled within a spray of red ochre illuminated on the granite by a diffuse shaft of light. My eyes adjust, more hands appear. Infant hands and adult hands, hands on top of hands, hands all over the ceiling, hundreds of them in reds, yellows, oranges and whites. Becoming clearer in the half-light, it’s as though they’re pushing through the walls, willing for a high-five. There are parallel lines, too, maybe the vague outline of a dingo.

The images are hard to date. Some may be thousands of years old, others very recent. What is known is that the creation of rock art on this continent goes back to what in cultural terms feels like the dawn of time. Following excavation at the Madjedbebe rock shelter in Arnhem Land in northern Australia in 2017, it was conservatively estimated that modern humans had been present here for around 60,000 years – far longer than members of our species have lived in Europe, and long enough for people here to have witnessed an ice age, as well as the extinction of the giant mammals. And they may have been making art at the outset. At the Madjedbebe site, I’m told by one archaeologist who worked there, researchers found ochre ‘crayons’ worked down to a nub. At Lake Mungo in New South Wales, a site 42,000 years old, there is evidence of ceremonial burial, bodies sprinkled with ochre pigment that must have been transported there over hundreds of kilometres.

“Something like a handprint is likely to have many different meanings in different societies and even within a society,” says Benjamin Smith, a British-born rock art expert based at the University of Western Australia. It may be to signify place, possibly to assert that someone was here. But meaning is not always simple. The more experts like him have tried to decipher ancient art, wherever it is in the world, the more they’ve found themselves only scratching at the surface of systems of thought so deep that Western philosophical traditions can’t contain them. In Australia, a rock isn’t just a rock. The relationship that indigenous communities have with the land, even with inanimate natural objects, is practically boundless, everyone and everything intertwined.

What looks to me to be an alien wilderness isn’t wild at all. It’s a home that is more lived in than any I can imagine. Countless generations have absorbed and built upon knowledge of food sources and navigation. They have shaped the landscape sustainably over millennia, built a spiritual relationship with it, with its unique flora and fauna. As I learn slowly, in Aboriginal Australian thinking, the individual seems to melt away in the world around them. Time, space and object take on different dimensions. And none except those who have grown up immersed in this culture and place can quite understand it. I know that I could spend the rest of my life trying to fathom this and get no further than I am now, standing lonely in this cave.

We can’t inhabit minds that aren’t our own.

I was a teenager before I discovered that my mother might not actually know her own birth date. We were celebrating her birthday on the same day in October we always did when she told us in passing that her sisters thought she had actually been born in the summer. Pinning down dates hadn’t been routine when she was growing up in India. It surprised me that she didn’t care, and my surprise made her laugh. What mattered to her instead was her intricate web of family relationships, her place in society, her fate as mapped in the stars. And so I began to understand that the things we value are only what we know. I compare every city I visit with London, where I was born, for example. It’s the centre of my universe.

For archaeologists interpreting the past, deciphering cultures that aren’t their own is the challenge. “Archaeologists have struggled for a long time to determine what it is, what is that unique trait, what makes us special,” says Smith, who as well as working in Australia has spent sixteen years at sites in South Africa. It’s a job that has taken him to the cradles of humankind, rummaging through the remains of the beginning of our species. And this is a difficult business. It’s surprisingly tough to date exactly when Homo sapiens emerged. Fossils of people who shared our facial features have been found from 300,000 to 100,000 years ago. Evidence of art, or at least the use of ochre, is reliably available in Africa far further back than 100,000 years, before some of our ancestors began venturing out of the continent and slowly populating other parts of the world, including Australia. “It’s one of the things that sets us apart as a species, the ability to make complex art,” he says.

But even if our ancestors were making art a hundred millennia ago, the world then was nothing like the world now. More than forty thousand years ago there weren’t just modern humans, Homo sapiens, roaming the planet, but also archaic humans, including Neanderthals (sometimes called cavemen because their bones have been found in caves), who lived in Europe and parts of western and central Asia. And there were Denisovans, we now know, whose remains have been found in limestone caves in Siberia, their territory possibly spanning south-east Asia and Papua New Guinea. There were also at various times in the past many other kinds of human, most of which haven’t yet been identified or named.

In the deep past we all shared the planet, even living alongside each other at certain times, in particular places. For some academics, this cosmopolitan moment in our ancient history lies at the heart of what it means to be modern. When we imagine these other humans, it’s often as knuckle-dragging thugs. We must have had qualities that they didn’t have, something that gave us an edge, the ability to survive and thrive as they went extinct. The word ‘Neanderthal’ has long been a term of abuse. Dictionaries define it both as an extinct species of human that lived in ice-age Europe, and an uncivilised, uncouth man of low intelligence. Neanderthals and Homo erectus made stone tools like our own species, Homo sapiens, Smith explains, but as far as convincing evidence goes, he believes none had the same capacity to think symbolically, to talk in past and future tenses, to produce art quite like our own. These are the things that made us modern, that set us apart.

What separated ‘us’ from ‘them’ goes to the core of who we are. But it’s not just a question for the past. Today, being human might seem so patently clear, so beyond need for clarification that it’s hard to believe that not all that long ago it wasn’t so. When archaeologists found fossils of other now-extinct human species in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they raised doubts about just how far all Homo sapiens living today really are the ‘same’. Even as recently as the 1960s it wasn’t controversial for a scientist to believe that modern humans may have evolved independently in different parts of the world from separate archaic forms. Indeed, some are still plagued by uncertainty over this question. Scientific debate around what makes a modern human a modern human is as contentious as it has ever been.

From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, this might sound absurd. The common, mainstream view is that we have shared origins, as described by the ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis. Scientific data has confirmed in the last few decades that Homo sapiens evolved from a population of people in Africa before some of these people began migrating to the rest of the world around 100,000 years ago and adapting in small ways to their own particular environmental conditions. Within Africa, too, there was adaptation and change depending on where people lived. But overall, modern humans were then (and remain now) one species, Homo sapiens. We are special and we are united. It’s nothing less than a scientific creed.

But this isn’t a view shared universally within academia. It’s not even the mainstream belief in certain countries. There are scientists who believe that, rather than modern humans migrating out of Africa relatively recently in evolutionary time, populations on each continent actually emerged into modernity separately from ancestors who lived there as far back as millions of years ago. In other words, different groups of people became human as we know it at different times in different places. A few go so far as to wonder whether, if different populations evolved separately into modern humans, maybe this could explain what we think of today as racial difference. And if that’s the case, maybe the differences between ‘races’ run deeper than we realise.

Download a sampler of Superior, free, and continue reading.

Superior by Angela Saini is out now (£8.99, 4th Estate).

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