Saturday, December 20, 2008

Homo floresiensis

The discovery that there might have been another intelligent species existing at the same time as Homo sapiens, and that they interacted with each other, was, I recall, a moment of confusion and clarity. It meant, I suddenly realized, a large number of rather remarkable things, and changed the understanding I had of man’s place in the world (such understanding was, and is, limited, confused, and quite likely to be wrong, but it changed nonetheless).

One thing that it is important to appreciate is that Homo sapiens of 24,000 years ago was almost exactly like us in his cognitive ability, and therefore in his understanding of social organisation and his ways of trying to make sense of the world and his place in it. There would have been great variety in these things then, as there is now, but it was the same variety, stemming from the same source. Human cognition was at the same level as ours, and it asked itself the same questions.

The stimulus for all of this reflection in the mind of man, and the creation of artificial answers to the questions that plague him, is death. Reason, as in conscious thought, is a great thing, but it allows us to be terribly aware of our own mortality, and we have to use that same power of reason to justify continuing to live when we know it is ultimately pointless. The ways we do this will be the subject of another article, but for the moment, back to H. sap 24kya.

They had language, fully developed language, like us (they were us, is the point of all this). It was not primitive language, it was language. There is not, anywhere in the known world today- which is nearly all of it- a people speaking a primitive language. All known languages are structurally complex and can freely express new ideas. This was also true 24kya. They had art, examples of which have survived from different areas of the world, largely in the form of cave paintings, which are unambiguously forms of creative expression, whatever their immediate purpose. Other, much older objects may also indicate art. Writing was not so far away, nor were civilisation, farming and other signs we attribute unmistakably to modernity.

24,000 years is not so long, and it takes but little effort of the imagination to place oneself in that time and live alongside them. You can choose anywhere in Europe or Asia except the far north, anywhere in Africa or Australia, but probably not the Americas. Having made your choice, and learnt their language (or if you are English, once they have learnt yours), you will discover that they are as much like you and as much unlike you as any other random group on the planet today, but you will recognise them as human.

They felt special, as we do, they recognised that they were different from all the other animals. They could use tools, invent new ones when they had to, talk to each other about things that only existed in their heads, perhaps even cure wounds and sickness with plants, control the world and their idea of it just a little bit, in other words; something no other creature had the power to do. They were special, the chosen ones. And they would die. So they started finding ways of explaining where they were from, and where they would go, and how death was not really death, at least not if you did the right things, and how you could control more aspects of the world than you thought, if you did more of the right things.

But imagine if you happened to live in Central or Southern Europe, near groups of Homo neanderthalensis. Now not so much is known about them, whether they had a similar cognitive ability to H sap, whether they had fully developed language, whether they could reason in the abstract, whether they used plastic self-expression, and so it is very hard to imagine exactly what the reaction of such people would be to the Neanderthals, but it is certain that they would not have seen them simply as animals, and unlikely they would have seen them as people like themselves. Their carefully constructed understanding of their place in the universe, and the individual purpose of their lives, depended entirely on being unique, and they have been forced to discover that they are not. Another species, another creature, shared at least part of what have been unique to man; other creatures had will, memory, cognition, creativity, symbolic behaviour, a sense of self, and a form of language.

The religion, the mysticism, the magic, the sense of purpose, would all be very different for the men who lived with Neanderthals. Perhaps something similarly happened again more recently to those societies which have reached a collective acceptance of the fact that the Earth is not literally the centre of the Universe, although I think the vast majority of people retain an unquestioned assumption that we are both the centre of the Universe’s attention and it’s purpose in being, as well as the final purpose of evolution.

Remarkably few people are even capable of conceiving that in a million years we will not be what we are, if our descendents have survived at all. Or that it won’t matter in the slightest. Sometimes things are just the way they are. Why does it all have to mean something?

The title isn’t a mistake, by the way. I’ll get to floresiensis, but not today.

My thanks to John Hawks and Mundo Neanderthal, who have taught me most of the little I know about all this.

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