Picking up where we left off last week, we are considered to be the only survivors of that diverse group of primates, humans and human like apes, collectively known as hominins that includes, as shown confusingly already, around 20 species and probably dozens of as yet unknown species, the majority of them extinct. Except us. Sometimes one might wonder whether apart from the predicament of putting together then taking apart possible interbreeding and the thus far unnoticed addition of a bit of alien DNA owing to the shore leave of a passing extraterrestrial species, like that of early navigators in the human world planting the seed of people different to both sides of that procreation, that then becomes a separate group. Yet again, that is difficult because some of the finds precede even the ancestors of Homo sapiens, sending us up the same blind alley as more or less always.
We know now that Homo sapiens lived alongside an estimated eight, perhaps more that are as yet to be discovered, now extinct species of hominid: Erectus, Floresiensis, Habilis, Heidelbergensis, Luzonensis, Naledi, Neanderthalensis and Rudolfensis, of which several lived for much longer periods of time than we have up until around 300,000 years ago, before we began to interbreed with the two species closest to our own. They belong to our species of hominid, yet we get the most attention, with the discovery of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA adding a bit of interest. However, we are here and they are not, so we try to find something else constantly. There are people who really do believe in alien species colonising this planet or early, yet undiscovered societies, occasionally even before dinosaurs that inhabited this planet between 245 and 66 million years ago, with still the greater part of 60 million years until our ‘non-human’ primate ancestry split from what became bonobos and chimpanzees around six million years ago. Even then, Ardipithecus, the earliest well known hominin, had a brain a bit smaller than a bonobo which shares 98.7% of our DNA, but the human brain is about three times larger than theirs. We are primates, in simple terms Great Apes, and some species were far more like us than others: Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, Denisovans, Homo erectus, Homo habilis and Neanderthals. Just to make it that bit more interesting (or complicated) and certainly doing aliens-did-it theories no favours, along came Homo bodoensis that lived in Africa about 500,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene age, which it is now said is the direct ancestor of modern humans. Scientists say that the epoch is significant because it was when anatomically contemporary humans, Homo sapiens, appeared in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe. It is a period that palaeoanthropologists sometimes describe as ‘a muddle in the middle’ since human evolution during that epoch is poorly understood. If they cannot understand then you, poor reader, do not need to worry about how difficult this is and where civilisations come into it. So let us go there.
That is where we reach a point at which perhaps a civilisation before humans might just sneak in. What we can do on the basis of palaeontological research is say that they were not very bright if any of the finds thus far, skulls particularly, that give us the cranial capacity to tell us at least brain size are anything to go on. However, whenever these remains are found they tend to be far apart, thus not suggesting a larger society, and there are none of the artefacts or architecture of society. The absence of sophisticated settlements is perhaps a good one there, any form of settlement takes us a step further. If, as the suggested time spans for the existence of those hominins by many tens or hundreds of thousand years outstretch our own, then we would expect at least a nice little hut or two that suggest a proto-city, but there is nothing. Yet theories persist.
The timeline for these members of another civilisation before humans, even without any hint of people before dinosaurs. is enormously long. So what about the strange skeletons? Perhaps palaeontological evidence can help us get a clearer picture. They must look for female remains over several generations since males do not pass on their mitochondria, thus are an evolutionary ‘dead end’ for mtDNA given that there is a risk that accumulated mutations that harm males do not compromise mitochondrial inheritance. Children of ‘normal’ females breeding with ‘mutant’ males that begin to pass on further mutations might have bred what are strange in our terms but short lived subspecies. There is nothing to suggest that if that is the case they were civilised. The case falls apart since in evolutionary terms their survival after generations of mutation is short.
People often imagine the starting point for our species was first described by Charles Darwin in 1859 when On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published. It is still considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology but vastly built on and developed since. However it says little about human beings. There we really need to turn to his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, first published in 1871, which applies evolutionary theory to human evolution. It details his theory of sexual selection, a form of biological adaptation that is distinct from but interrelated with natural selection. That too has been overhauled by palaeontology after his time and now scientific mtDNA based findings. Nonetheless, Darwin rightly considered human evolution as part of the natural processes he was investigating, thus rejected divine intervention. In a rather oblique way, simply because there were still far fewer clues than evidence accrued since, nobody really knew where Homo sapiens came from and when, so it led to Erich von Daniken publishing ‘Chariots of the Gods: Was God An Astronaut?’ in 1968 when his hypothesis was that the technology and religions of ancient civilisations were presented to them by astronauts who were welcomed as gods during the time of now disappeared empires. It attempted to undo the process of human development as a natural, perhaps organic, sequence of events over many millennia to explain certain phenomena as no more than the gift of extraterrestrial visitors who actually left no evidence they were here. So, evolutionary biology misses a trick by forgetting extraterrestrial DNA sequencing. They were some kind of gods, teaching humanity to do certain things that in the overall scheme of things were quite trivial. That these visiting gods did not succumb to a bit of exploration of temptations we must assume their similarity with us that is suggested or, in turn, should suggest seems unlikely. So, where these artefacts and structures, a few brave but eccentric authors like von Daniken describe, are found, is there mtDNA suggesting a bit of hanky-panky that contributed to our species? Could it be that there are, or were, visitors who have no genetic traces? No DNA, no evidence. Given that even the most basic life forms carry DNA, unless those space people were non molecular, in which case not able to do much with us, therefore probably not recognisable as the human like pictograms of beings said to be those aliens dotted around the world, there will be no hybrids. So, science fiction gets even more fictional when we step off the evolutionary biology rocket.
That is, nonetheless, where the notion of far more ancient ‘people’ intervenes despite the fact there is no evidence, soft or hard, to connect such interventions to any of the civilisations in von Daniken’s hypothesis. He, like other alien influence theorists, also failed or ignored to look at where the people who founded those civilisations might have come from since they too would have had origins in the Darwinian sense. They would, presumably, have evolved or were perhaps bred by an even more sophisticated species out there in the vast wilderness of the stars that might still have very advanced mobility to enable them to have visited. If so, why are they not still visiting? If they still are, then apart from UFOlogists, do we not know they are around or are they the actors who play the monstrous alien roles in television and cinema productions? If they did that, they could be in our midst, known but unseen because we would put it all down to very good costumes and props departments in studios.
Featured image via Creative Commons Licence on Public Domain Pictures.