The Quest for Human Origins

By Ina Belderis

Perhaps the most essential questions we can ask ourselves are Who am I? Where do I come from? and Where am I going? Scientists would have us believe that we developed from a cell-like entity through random genetic mutations and the continued survival of the fittest forms, which eventually evolved into apelike beings, then primitive hominids, and finally Homo sapiens. Most of us have seen pictures of a line of beings going from an apelike creature through various less stooping individuals to a fully upright modern human. Until recently most anthropologists presented this simple image as correct, but an increasing number of discoveries has confused this picture thoroughly.

Finds of prehistoric humans have been recorded as such for only the last 150 years. Before this the Bible and its creation story were relied on, so that remains of extinct animals and men were not recognized or acknowledged for what they were. Early in the nineteenth century Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology described uniformitarianism, a principle which Darwin used in his Origin of Species, introducing the idea of gradual evolution of one species into another under the influence of natural selection. In his Descent of Man Darwin suggested that man descended from an apelike being, probably in a tropical area.

The first recognized prehistoric human remains were found in Gibraltar in 1848 and in the Neander Valley in 1856. Initially their distinctive features were thought to be the result of disease, but when more complete remains were found in the 1880s scientists realized that Neandertals were an extinct type of human being, perhaps even a different human species. Around 1900 more Neandertal skeletons were discovered, mainly in France, as were the remains of another being, the Cro-Magnon -- anatomically modern -- from approximately the same period.

Under the influence of Darwin's ideas on human origins in the tropics, Eugene Dubois set out for the East Indies. Between 1891-93 he found a cranium and a femur in Java which he thought belonged to a giant chimpanzee, but later decided was a human ancestor, Pithecanthropus erectus (later called Homo erectus). There was much resistance to accepting Neandertal and Pithecanthropus as human ancestors. Some believed anatomically modern man had to be older than either Neandertal or Pithecanthropus, which were considered apelike evolutionary dead ends. Others accepted an evolutionary line going from Pithecanthropus, via Neandertal and Cro-Magnon, to modern man. In 1925 Raymond Dart and his co-workers found the skull of a young child in South Africa with both human and apelike characteristics, Australopithecus africanus. Much older than anything yet found, it was eventually placed at the beginning of the line of human ancestors, so that the theoretical sequence was Australopithecus, living a few million years ago; Pithecanthropus, about half a million years old; Neandertals, living between 100,000 and 30,000 years ago; and Cro-Magnon, about 40,000 years ago.

Louis Leakey, however, believed that modern man was older than generally postulated. In 1960 he found the remains of a being with a bigger brain than Australopithecus which also looked more human, and he called it Homo habilis. In the 1960s opinions were strongly divided: one group was convinced Neandertals belonged to the line of direct descent, while another group pointed to great differences between Neandertals and anatomically modern humans. Some considered Australopithecus a real human ancestor, others thought Homo habilis fit the pattern better. In time doubts were expressed about whether Homo habilis was one legitimate species or several different ones. While searching for more humanlike ancestors, Leakey discovered another species in 1959, which was later categorized as a more robust version of the Australopithecus-type found by Dart. In 1972 Richard Leakey and his team at Lake Turkana discovered the almost complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus-like being about 1.5 million years old, much older than those that had been found in Asia. This discovery made Homo erectus contemporaneous with Australopithecus, which did not fit the unilinear picture. Paleoanthropologists proposed that Australopithecus robustus was a dead-end specialization of A. africanus, but this hypothesis began to fall apart with the discovery of a robust type 2.5 million years old. The simple picture was beginning to blur.

Another important find was Don Johanson's discovery in Ethiopia in 1974 of Australopithecus afarensis, better known as Lucy, estimated to be between 3 and 4 million years old. Mary Leakey also made discoveries of early hominids, all archaic in appearance and between 3.6 and 3.8 million years old. Just as old are the so-called Laetoli footprints -- a trail of human-like prints preserved in volcanic ash. More and more hominid bones have also surfaced in Asia. Between 1985 and 1988 excavations in the Lunggupo Cave in Sechuan, China, produced Homo erectus-like remains dated by Chinese scientists as old as 1.9 million years, but some think they compare better with Homo habilis-like beings.

In the 1990s discoveries of new types of hominids continued to make news, such as Ardipithecus ramidus in Ethiopia, estimated to be 4.4 million years old, and Australopithecus anamensis in Kenya, 4.2 million years old. Additional finds of erectus-like hominids were located in Java, Indonesia, and in Dmanisi in Russian Georgia. In 2002 Michel Brunet and his team found a complete cranium in Chad's Djurab Desert, Sahelanthropus tchadensi, dated at nearly 7 million years old. He considers this the earliest human forebear, but experts do not agree how these beings are actually related to humans, and some doubt if they are related at all. Some scientists still believe in unilinear evolution, while others see many parallel lines. That Homo erectus turns out to be contemporaneous with the later Australopithecus is a hard nut to crack for those who want to have one species transform into the other.

In the twentieth century many more Neandertal remains were also found. Those in Western Europe have extreme browridges, a long head, and a heavy robust frame, while in Central Europe and the Near East this form is less extreme. In Western Europe they were contemporaneous with anatomically modern man for a short time and then seem to have disappeared quickly, while in the Middle East Neandertals and modern man coexisted for about 50,000 years. Some scientists continue to believe Neandertals evolved into modern man; others as adamantly say modern man had evolved elsewhere and replaced Neandertals. In the 1990s excavations in the Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain, brought to light two different finds: numerous remains of very early Neandertal-like beings, dated approximately 300,000 years old; and remains of hominids dated at about 800,000 to 1 million years old, with some Neandertal traits but also remarkably modern. Scientists have not decided whether the latter is a new species or a type similar to archaic Homo sapiens.

Where then did modern man evolve? The oldest finds of anatomically modern man come from South Africa (about 100,000 years old), closely matched in the Middle East (92,000 years old). He appears in Europe about 40,000 years ago. There are two main theories about the descent of modern man, both with staunch supporters. The Multiregional Model holds that modern man evolved out of Homo erectus in different regions of the world more or less simultaneously. It involves little population migration, and transitional fossils should be found everywhere. The other theory holds that modern man evolved somewhere in Africa, and from there spread all over the world, replacing existing archaic hominid populations. This Out of Africa Model implies that extensive migration took place.

If the Multiregional Model is correct, early examples of modern humans should appear simultaneously throughout the Old World, which is not yet seen in the fossil record. The Out of Africa Model also seemed supported in the 1980s by the mitochondrial DNA research of Allan Wilson, Rebecca Cann, and Mark Stoneking, which was used to show that all living humans could trace part of their genetic inheritance to a single female -- a Mitochondrial Eve -- who lived in Africa between 150,000 and 100,000 years ago. These results have been severely criticized, however, as too ambiguous and as supposing too fast a molecular clock rate. The researchers assumed it to be 2-4%, while others are of the opinion that 0.7% is more accurate, which would make the ancestral Eve 800,000 years old. Critics who repeated the tests have found other trees of descent, claiming that Asia was indicated or that there was no support for choosing one geographic area over another.

That the anthropoid apes are our direct ancestors is no longer held by scientists -- but the hypothesis of a common ancestor is very much alive. Molecular research in the 1960s claimed that humans and chimpanzees diverged from each other some 5 to 7 million years ago, and gorillas and orangutans diverged earlier. This was very surprising to paleoanthropologists who expected it to have happened about 15 million years ago. The earliest known hominid remains are about 5 million years old. Fossil monkeys have also been found dating from 16-18 million and 12 million years ago. This means there is an unexplained gap in the fossil record of many millions of years between the latest monkeys and the earliest hominids.

One major issue is why and how did bigger brained, tool-using Homo evolve from a group of apelike beings such as Australopithecus? One popular hypothesis is the impact of environment and climate. Between 2 and 3 million years ago the drier African climate shrank the rainforest-like areas in which these early creatures lived, partly on the ground and partly in the trees. Open savanna land was increasingly dangerous to the relatively defenseless Australopithecus, who consequently died out. But a small group, under tremendous pressure for increase of intelligence, adapted and survived by their wits, a process reflected in the increasing brainsize found in Homo habilis. This punctuational, abrupt divergence is believed plausible because of the lack of intermediate fossils between Australopithecus africanus and Homo habilis, and the absence of stone tools older than half a million years. Christopher Stringer, a defender of the Out of Africa Model, admits that the exact cause and timing of the evolutionary split of those apes who elected to remain in trees (the ancestors of modern gorillas and chimpanzees) from those who chose life on the plains and evolved into hominids remains a mystery. That environment and changing climate can force species to move to different areas or cause their extinction is one thing. That this change might induce species to become more intelligent and then turn into another species may be too big a step.

Hominid Family Tree showing a possible line of descent as proposed by Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz in Extinct Humans

How reliable are paleoanthropological finds and their interpretations? There are limitations to this kind of research. Discoveries are fairly rare and have often been made under questionable circumstances, especially in the early days. As soon as something is dug up and taken elsewhere, essential elements -- such as its exact position in the strata -- are destroyed and afterwards one is dependent on the testimony of the discoverers. Sometimes early field research methods were extremely unscientific, but the resulting finds were taken seriously. Modern chemical and radiometric dating also is not without its limitations. Contamination may influence the results, or preliminary calculated dates are sometimes rejected or accepted on the basis of arguments not always clearly stated or published. When a certain discovery fits the currently ruling theory or is expected on theoretical grounds, it will be accepted without much scrutiny. If something does not fit the pattern, it is either ignored or attacked and rejected, but not always on valid grounds.

The reconstruction of skeletons and skulls has often led to misinterpretations. How can scientists reconstruct a skeleton from fragments when no one knows what the original looked like? There is much prejudice and expectation in this field, and its history tells us more about the preconceived ideas of researchers than about the prehistoric people themselves -- witness the inaccurate image of a stooping, brutish Neandertal. Lewis Binford, among others, has challenged many of paleoanthropology's assumptions and forced his fellow scientists to look at their own prejudice. For instance, in the site at Zoukoudien Homo erectus remains, bones of extinct animals, and charcoal were found in layers, and the bones showed signs of being chewed on. Conclusion: the hominids made fire, hunted and ate the animals, and perhaps a few of their fellows. Binford points out that perhaps the fire was natural, and the animals ate other animals and a few hominids as well. One cannot easily assume one or the other conclusion without very thorough research.

In view of the confused state of anthropology, how does theosophy explain human origins? H. P. Blavatsky based her presentation on the esoteric tradition which she outlined in her Secret Doctrine. She describes how this tradition recognizes a spiritual evolution as well as a physical evolution. Considering humanity as a level of evolving consciousness, humanity does not descend from ape ancestors but forms the main stock from which all terrestrial beings are derived. Monkeys, she said, came into being after unions between early mindless humans and primitive mammals tens of millions of years ago when matter was more plastic and barriers between species were not as pronounced. Later, perhaps about 5 million years ago, this act was repeated by degenerate (but no longer mindless) beings of the human stock with the descendants of the earlier hybrids. The result was a variety of semi-human beings with more or less apelike traits. Esoteric tradition describes these beings as "apes" who resembled humans much more than anthropoid apes do. It also tells us that humans eventually waged war on these semi-humans and exterminated most of them, letting only the most beastlike live. Today's anthropoid apes are seen as the descendants of these beastlike hybrids. The results of certain chimpanzee research indicates that chimpanzees were much more like hominids in the past and that their presently restricted distribution and behavior are a result of competition with more successful humans. An evolutionary descent of this nature would explain why the human skull, nasal bones, tongue, feet, hands, and other physical features are relatively primitive compared to mammals and anthropoid apes, which show a higher degree of specialization. It turns out that Australopithecus, Homo habilis, and early Homo erectus have traits that are more apelike, while the patterns in later Homo erectus, Neandertals, and Homo sapiens are human.

Could the early hominids be the mixed forms of humans and apelike beings as described in theosophical literature? If so, then perhaps the search for the first apeman who stood up and behaved like a human is irrelevant. What if man is his own ancestor? Let us compare these hypotheses with the fossil record. According to theosophical ideas monkeys came into being about 20-25 million years ago. The fossil record shows fossil monkeys of 12 and 16-18 million years ago. Then there is a large gap. Humans and chimpanzees are supposed to have split about 5 million years ago. After that the fossil record shows apelike beings with human traits -- the first Australopithecus. Theosophical ideas also suggest that more or less modern humans as they look now came into being approximately one million years ago. Since then several fossil men have been found, such as later Homo erectus, Homo Heidelbergensis, Neandertal, Cro-Magnon, as well as fully modern man.

Scientists base the theory of an African origin for modern man on genetic research, especially mitochondrial DNA. Stringer points out in African Exodus that African people have slightly more mitochondrial DNA mutations compared to non-Africans, implying that their roots are older. Also humans in general are biologically highly homogeneous, and the interpretation is that mankind only recently evolved from one tight little group and as such is a very young species. The mitochondrial DNA of an Eskimo and an Australian Aborigine are more genetically alike than that of two unrelated gorillas from the same forest. Stringer also remarks that it remains unclear whether Africa's greater variation of human populations is a reflection of its deeper antiquity or of its earlier recovery in numbers from a bottleneck which preceded the global spread of modern humans. Alan Templeton has warned against the assumption that a gene tree is the same as a population tree. The former reflects the evolutionary history of a particular piece of DNA, while the latter indicates the movements of individuals and all the genes these groups carry. Thus there is certainly room for other hypotheses.

Blavatsky explains in The Secret Doctrine that over time large continents have shifted, emerged, and submerged. Before our present continental structure, a continental system referred to as Atlantis existed in the area of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans; before that a large continental system called Lemuria existed in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. When the Atlantean continents began to sink millions of years ago, many inhabitants perished, but some escaped to lands that are part of the current continental arrangement. Blavatsky also mentions in The Secret Doctrine that people of post-Atlantean days were isolated in several parts of the world for nearly 700,000 years, without any fresh infusion. They therefore had ample time to branch off into the most heterogeneous and diversified types. This is what appears to have happened in Africa: nowhere else does such a great variability of types exist, and Blavatsky attributes this to their prolonged isolation. Africans did not leave their continent for several hundred thousands of years. Could this explain the greater genetic variability in Africa?

When The Secret Doctrine was published in 1888, the only known prehistoric men were Neandertals and Cro-Magnons in Europe. Blavatsky writes that the Paleolithic men of the European quaternary epoch were the outcome of immigration -- Africo-Atlantean and Atlantean stocks. The Atlantean connection is supported by the discovery of fossil skulls in Europe reverting directly to the West Caribbean and ancient Peruvian type. The Cro-Magnon, the Guanches of the Canary Islands, and the Basques are also of the same type. African tribes themselves are supposed to be diverging offshoots of Atlanteans modified by climate and condition. It is interesting that one point of these hypotheses is corroborated by Milford Wolpoff, a defender of the Multiregional Model, in his college textbook Human Evolution (1996). He states that Neandertal contemporaries (such as Cro-Magnon) do not look European -- they lack diagnostic Caucasian features.

In the search for human ancestors, scientists focus on factors that supposedly show whether the remains are human or not. But bipedalism, brainsize, toolmaking, and language do not give a full explanation, and scientists have not fully defined what Homo sapiens is. Theosophical ideas claim that every living being is a throw-off of humanity -- the further away from the human kingdom, the farther back in time -- and that all these aspire to the kingdoms above them. Perhaps our division of the world into mineral, plant, animal, and human kingdoms is less than adequate. Moreover, can we consider ourselves fully human? Generally we claim reflective self-consciousness as exclusively human, but what if self-consciousness is not our fully-evolved state? Suppose being human involves a universal consciousness beyond self-consciousness: an awareness of our intimate connection with all life. That is the part of us that seems to be evolving now. What if all of nature's kingdoms have some degree of evolving awareness? Could humanity's true origin be the evolving awareness inherent in nature itself? The theosophical philosophy points out that an all-pervasive consciousness is the fabric of the universe and connects every living thing. Perhaps the fact that human beings can sense their interconnectedness with life implies that instead of subjugating and abusing other life forms because we have the power to do so, our task is to work with all beings in nature in their aspiration to higher forms and consciousness.

Ultimately, most of what makes us human is invisible. We will not find it in the excavated forms of the past. In the development of paleoanthropology with its evolution theory, there is something essential that scientists are not considering: the consciousness of our fundamental connection with all life -- a fully human consciousness that is totally humane. Without it we will never understand our own past nor know which way to go in the future. m


Selected Reading List

Binford, Lewis R. In Pursuit of the Past --Decoding the Archaeological Record. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.
Blavatky, H. P. The Secret Doctrine. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1999.
Boaz, Noel T. Eco Homo -- How the Human Being emerged from the Cataclysmic History of the Earth. New York: HarperCollins/Basic Books, 1997.
Denton, Michael. Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. London: Burnett Books, 1985.
Eldredge, Niles. Unfinished Synthesis --Biological Hierarchies and Modern Evolutionary Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Johanson, Donald C. & Lenora, & Blake Edgar. Ancestors -- In Search of Human Origins. New York: Villard Books, 1994.
Jones, Frederic Wood. The Problem of Man's Ancestry. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918
Kurten, Bjorn. Not From the Apes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
Leakey, Louis S. B. Adam's Ancestors -- The Evolution of Man and his Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.
Leakey, Richard E. & Roger Lewin. Origins Reconsidered -- In Search of What Makes Us Human. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Lewin, Roger. Principles of Human Evolution -- A Core Textbook. Malden: Blackwell Science, 1998.
Mellars, Paul. The Neanderthal Legacy -- An Archaeological Perspective from Western Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Potts, Rick. Humanity's Descent -- The Consequences of Ecological Instability. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996.
Purucker, G. de. The Esoteric Tradition. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1973
-------- Man in Evolution. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1977.
Stringer, Christopher & Robin McKie. African Exodus -- The Origins of Modern Humanity. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.
Stringer, Christopher & Clive Gamble. In Search of the Neanderthals -- Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Tattersall, Ian. Becoming Human. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1998.
Tattersall, Ian & Jeffrey H. Schwartz. Extinct Humans. New York: Perseus Books/Westview Press, 2000.
Tattersall, Ian. The Fossil Trail -- How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Trinkaus, Erik & Pat Shipman. The Neandertals -- Changing the Image of Mankind. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Wolpoff, Milford H. Human Evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1996.
Wolpoff, Milford H. & Rachel Caspari. Race and Human Evolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Wong, Kate. "An Ancestor to Call Our Own. Controversial New Fossils Could Bring Scientists Closer Than Ever to the Origin of Humanity," Scientific American, January 2003.


(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

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