How Did We Became Humans?

One of the great mysteries of prehistory for me is how intelligent apes became modern humans. There are many fascinating books on this topic; most of them just guessing as the scientific evidence is slim to non-existent. However in recent years, breakthroughs in analyzing ancient DNA have given us some tantalizing hints.

A chimpanzee in the San Diego Zoo (my photo)

First off, our closest ape relatives have 24 chromosome pairs while we have 23. Our chromosome 2 is a fusion of two chromosomes found in other primates. This is not as uncommon an occurrence as it might sound. All the same information is there, just repackaged. Thus the first 23 chromosome person could have children with a 24 chromosome mate. Wild horses and tame ones also have a one chromosome difference and can have offspring.. Plus there is wide variation in numbers of chromosomes among certain butterflies. Click here for an excellent article on this.

So how did having 23 chromosomes spread in the human population so that it became the norm? The answer is still unknown. Perhaps founder effect, genetic drift, or maybe there was an evolutionary advantage as yet undetermined.

So how did we start to think analytically, speak complex languages, and organize politically? Well a gene that is critical in language development was discovered a few years back – FOXP2. And the human one is different from apes. According to the wikipedia article (click here): “previous genetic analysis had suggested that the H. sapiens FOXP2 gene became fixed in the population around 125,000 years ago. Some researchers consider the Neanderthal findings to indicate that the gene instead swept through the population over 260,000 years ago, before our most recent common ancestor with the Neanderthals.” The sources for these statements are footnoted in the original article.

I really enjoyed reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a fairly easy read, well written and not too long. It talks about the development of humankind via the Cognitive Revolution followed by the Agricultural Revolution and then the Scientific Revolution. That humans are the only creatures with myths and imagined realities and of course writing.

I am currently working my way through The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow. It is far too long and could use better editing, but it is also fascinating. I enjoy the way it uses archeological and anthropological evidence to refute the generally accepted but simplistic view of the development of human society from hunter gatherer bands to tribes to states. It also takes some pot shots at Sapiens.

The book I recently read and enjoyed the most was about our genetic history: Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich. Fascinating to discover how mixed our ancestry really is including some “ghost populations.” If you prefer the quick overview click the image below for the youtube video.

Personally I don’t think that Neanderthals went extinct, rather that they were subsumed into us. None of us are pure anything in our genes according to Reich. I was once walking through an airport in France and saw a man who truly looked like a Neanderthal and no it was not for some advertising campaign!

Where do I find the time to read such books? I listen to them on my road trips. Thank you Audible (and Amazon Prime for those Audible credits)!

16 thoughts on “How Did We Became Humans?

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  1. Kitty,

    You may want to look into cooking. One theory is that human brain growth occurred in two bursts, the second temporally linked to the discovery of fire. Cooked food requires significantly less energy to digest and, the theory is, that leaves extra energy for our brains … which use a lot of energy. I have my own idea about what was behind the first burst …. cooking with hot water. Perhaps this is the reason humans evolved in the Rift Valley where there is an abundance of geothermal hot water? I can envision an ancient ancestor falling asleep, tired after killing the wildebeest, awakening to find it had fallen into a hot spring … hum, that tastes good!

    Evolution is not just about genes!

    While interesting, this theory is not proven and indeed has been challenged: The link provides other hypotheses.

  2. On a somewhat related topic, I think that many highly educated researchers do not comprehend the imagination and creativity of our ancient ancestors. When meeting giant prehistoric animals I can see a young “man” jumping on the back of a young and small animal then a bigger and bigger one then using a sharp stick to blind the biggest one and then “steer” it over a cliff or into deep water and getting off in time to survive… Just remembering things that happened on the farm when I was the oldest of four busy boys!

    • Barbara – try the video before reading the book. It should help. Yes the book assumes a fair amount of genetic knowledge which those of us using DNA for genealogy may or may not have.

  3. All good thoughts, thanks all. I know that when I play serious tournament bridge I always get quite cold. Perhaps that is due to blood being detoured to my brain …

  4. Hi,
    I also read the David Reich book “Who we are and how we got here”. It was fascinating, however it was very dense and I had to concentrate and re-read parts of it to understand.

    Another book I can recommend, in a similar vein,although more specific to Britain is “Digging up Britain” by archaeologist Mike Pitts. The team apply recent technology to study old sites and come up with new, fascinating data.
    It’s way easier to digest 🙂


  5. “The Dawn of Everything” is a biased disingenuous account of human history ( ) that spreads fake hope (the authors of “The Dawn” claim human history has not “progressed” in stages, or linearly, and must not end in inequality and hierarchy as with our current system… so there’s hope for us now that it could get different/better again). As a result of this fake hope porn it has been widely praised. It conveniently serves the profoundly sick industrialized world of fakes and criminals. The book’s dishonest fake grandiose title shows already that this work is a FOR-PROFIT, instead a FOR-TRUTH, endeavor geared at the (ignorant gullible) masses.

    Fact is human history has “progressed” by and large in linear stages, especially since the dawn of agriculture ( ). The book’s alleged major “fundamental” insight is “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” (the first part of that statement is hardly a great insight because a perceptive child can recognize that) YET fails to answer why we do NOT make it differently than it is now if we, supposedly can make it “EASILY” different, why we’ve been “stuck” in this destructive sytem for a very long time. THAT is really where “the ultimate, hidden truth” is buried and the answer is… it is because of the enduring hegemony of “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” ( ) which the fake hope-giving authors of “The Dawn” entirely ignore naturally (no one can write a legitimate human history without understanding the nature of humans)

    A good example that one of the authors, Graeber, has no real idea what world we’ve been living in and about the nature of humans is his last brief article on Covid where his ignorance shines bright already at the title of his article, “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep.” Apparently he doesn’t know that most people WANT to be asleep, and that they’ve been wanting that for thousands of years (and that’s not the only ignorant notion in the title). Yet he (and his partner) is the sort of person who thinks he can teach you something authentically truthful about human history and whom you should be trusting along those terms. Ridiculous!

    “The Dawn” is just another fantasy, or ideology, cloaked in a hue of cherry-picked “science,” served lucratively to the gullible ignorant underclasses who crave myths and fairy tales.

    • Yeah I have read critiques of Graeber too but asserting that you have the “facts” and your opponent is a fool is not an argument.

  6. Reich book is good. Good point about the cooking in reply above.
    The ability to sew hides together is probably also important. As well as the stages of tool making.
    Have just finished “The Dawn of Language: How we came to talk” Sverker Johansson (transl. Eng. 2021). Makes sense that brain organization and language development went together somehow. Have not yet seen a review or other author to be able to judge what he says on the finer points. But an interesting read. Especially on how communication is different between humans and apes. And yes, he does take FOXP2 into consideration.

  7. I think the obvious answer is that there must be a creator who made people as people and apes as apes and not much has changed. Except unfortunately the behavior of people who act more and more like apes.

  8. Hi Kitty

    Its a fascinating area. You might like ‘Big History’ by Australian academic David Christian – which was the one that started it all.

    I enjoyed ‘Sapiens’ but obviously its thematic and like most of us once we move out of our area of speciality we come up against our own unthought assumptions. I guess I have a sociological bias but I feel like it would help if there were more sociologists involved. This would also help avoid a lot of reductionist thinking ie that history can be reduced to genes or biology or even what happened in evolutionary time scales.

    I am big fan of Graeber, he was an anthropologist, but he can run hot and cold. Someone said his book ‘5000 years of Debt’ has great insights and some awful errors and similar things have been said of ‘The Dawn of Everything’. There’s a nice discussion on YouTube

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