Homo (Latin for Man) is the genus descended from the now extinct genus Australopithecus about two million years ago.
The genus includes Homo sapiens (Modern Man, originating about 200,000 years ago) as well as the 14 other subspecies that have been identified so far. These include Homo erectus, (School children have been tittering about these terms for generations but you, dear reader, are far more sophisticated…still ‘Erectus’?) Homo neanderthalensis and Homo floresiensis are two of the others. The Floresiensians, sometimes called the Hobbit People, lived as recently as 18,000 years ago on an island in Indonesia. They were just three feet tall due to what’s called ‘island dwarfing’ where limited resources in a confined area can lead to large animals evolving to become smaller.
Back when I was a tittering schoolkid (about when Kennedy was president) there was conclusive evidence of human habitation in the New World all the way to lower South America about 13,000 years ago. This coincided with an Ice Age that dropped the sea level by 600ish feet and allowed Asians to stroll on over the land bridge spanning from Siberia to Alaska. These folks became known as the Clovis culture named for a ubiquitous stone knife technology favored by ancient peoples all over the New World.
We often think of cultural implements and techniques as having evolved from groups over time but more than one of these tools and ideas sprung from the minds of a single person just inventing it on a random Tuesday at 3pm. It is generally thought that the Greek alphabet (from which emerged the English) was the work of a single person. Likewise algebra and calculus (though calculus was actually two people, Newton and Liebniz).
As we move relentlessly into the future, our understanding of how long humans have been in the western hemisphere keeps getting pushed back. In 1975 at Monte Verde in Chile a cave was discovered with remains pushing the date back to 17,000 years therefore predating the Clovis culture by a greater time span than today is to ancient Egypt. Some studies date Monte Verde to 33,000 years ago though this is in dispute.
What isn’t in dispute is the new find in White Sands, New Mexico where hundreds of human footprints were discovered in petrified mud. There were also mammoth tracks and those of the giant sloth, dire wolves and birds. This is the largest prehistoric footprint find to date; the footprints go for miles and includes 16 people of various ages. This site is dated to 23,000 years ago.
Then in 1992 a site was uncovered 10 feet below the surface while workers were digging for a new freeway on ramp near San Diego. Center for American Paleolithic Research archaeologist Steve Holm found what has proved to be an ancient campsite where humans left behind stone tools and mastodon bones that had been shattered for their marrow and were covered with abundant scratches from butchering. Stones used as anvils and hammers were found to be chipped with the shards adjacent. This was not unlike many kill sites that have been found in Siberia and Africa where similar mega fauna roamed. The researchers didn’t find any burned wood remains to carbon date but instead they used a uranium/thorium decay dating method. They were shocked to discover that the bones were over 130,000 years old. It seemed so unlikely that the team studied the site for 24 years before presenting their findings in Nature Magazine (not a publication known to make bold claims lightly). Home sapiens didn’t even leave Africa until about 70,000 years ago. Lacking any human remains leaves the question as to what species of Homo these people were. Some speculate this is evidence of Neanderthal or Denisovan Man.
In a world where some people who say they believe that the world is flat or that a race of flying humans is living in the hollow Moon it’s nice to realize that some magnificent authentic mysteries are yet to be discovered.
About 70,000 years ago the world’s population of Homo sapiens dropped to just a few thousand people. Some scientists speculate that it could have been as few as 40 breeding pairs. We know this by studying the genetic drift. The cause of this severe reduction in population is not certain. At that time a pretty big volcanic eruption called Toba could have been the cause. Or perhaps it could have been disease. These few number of people lived on shellfish in southern Africa. We are all, in fact, African.
Today we are at inflection point possibly as life threatening as ol’ Mt. Toba. Some call our era the Anthropocene which means Man is influencing the entire planet. Me, I call it the Technocene because it’s runaway technology that has the potential to bring us a long, long winter. I doubt if there will be enough shellfish this time.