Metamorphosis

In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man's nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere. CHARLES DARWIN, THE DESCENT OF MAN

FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, in the northeastern corner of Africa, a small and beleaguered group of people prepared to leave their homeland. The world then was still in the grip of the Pleistocene ice age. Much of Africa had been depopulated and the ancestral human population had recently dwindled to a mere 5,000. Those departing, a group of perhaps just 150 people, planned to leave Africa altogether. Forsaking their familiar habitat was a serious risk since, as hunters and gatherers, their survival depended on intimate knowledge of local plants and animals. Nor is long distance travel ever easy for foragers who own no pack animals and must carry every necessity —weapons, infants, food and water.

The emigrants faced another danger in the world beyond. The lands outside Africa were not unoccupied. About 1.8 million years ago, during a warm interlude before the Pleistocene ice age began, early humans had left Africa in one or more migrations. Once separated from the main human population in the African homeland, these archaic people had followed their own evolutionary paths and in the course of time had become the distinct species known as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. Erectus settled in East Asia. The Neanderthals occupied Europe and intermittently parts of the Near East. The Neanderthals in particular were formidable adversaries. They had large brains, larger in absolute size even than those of contemporary people, and were heavily muscled. They had developed serious weaponry, including stone-tipped thrusting spears. They surrounded or occupied the main exit point from Africa at the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean, including the area that is now Israel. The human lineages evolving in Africa may have tried many times to escape into the world beyond. But none had succeeded, and the Neanderthals' encirclement of the exits from northeast Africa seems a likely reason.

Why was the little group that left 50,000 years ago able to succeed when all earlier emigrants had failed? What drove them to take such a chance?

What ties bound these people together and gave them the means to prevail?

To address such questions requires stepping back to the point in evolutionary time when the human line of descent split from the chimpanzee line. This is the moment at which our ancestors started to acquire the first of the adaptations that differentiated them from apes. These changes affected not just physical form but also the set of behaviors that together make up human nature. Of particular importance are the social behaviors, because both apes and people survive not as individuals but in social groups. In this sense the essence of human evolution is the transformation of ape society into human society. Given the acute social intelligence of chimpanzees and bonobos, the emergence of the human society was perhaps not so great a leap. But the human lineage had the fortune to move down evolutionary paths that enlarged the brain and made possible the acquisition of language. The reason the ancestral human population was eventually able to burst out from its homeland seems to have been that 5 million years after having parted company with apes, it had at last perfected this critical component of human sociality.

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