|Featured Columnist – Meditations
New findings and theories have been coming out recently regarding the clash in Europe between Neanderthals and the first fully modern humans, the Cro Magnons, tens of thousands of years ago. These findings speak of the last great breakthrough in human evolution, highlight the darkest impulses in human nature, and point to the next, urgently required leap in consciousness.
When the Cro Magnons encountered the Neanderthals in Europe over 40,000 years ago, it was a clash between the primal human consciousness, which had existed for hundreds of thousands of years, and modern human consciousness. Undoubtedly there was conflict, just as there has been between groups of Homo sapiens ever since.
After all, throughout history when Homo sapiens encounter unfamiliar groups, they most often were perceived as sub-human. What would an encounter between humans and actual sub-humans been like?
Cro Magnons were every bit as smart, and human, as we are. Indeed, they may well have been smarter and more human, if smarts are measured by the ability to master new environments, and humanness pertains to social and emotional richness.
A leap in consciousness occurred in East Africa about 100,000 years ago, a breakthrough in cognitive ability that enabled complex languages and cultures, sophisticated art and music, and rapidly expanding knowledge and technology.
Neanderthals, who were not part of this leap, became the ultimate ‘other.’ Whatever humans are capable of doing to each other since the beginning of ‘civilization’ (by believing other groups as less than human, or not human at all), Cro Magnons were capable of doing to the Neanderthals.
Though Neanderthals were keenly adapted to their environments, capable of bringing down the largest animals, they were cognitively, culturally, and technologically primitive humans. After being the only human species in Europe for tens of thousands of years, what would the encounter with modern humans have seemed like to them?
If brainy humanoids with much superior technology and colonizing plans landed on earth now, we would probably feel like Neanderthals did in meeting modern humans 40,000 years ago.
Human evolution is like the bifurcating branches of a tree. The juncture where the descendents of the Neanderthals split from the rest of the human line occurred nearly half a million years ago in Africa.
When glaciers descended upon Europe and Asia, the proto-humans living there evolved adaptations for colder climates, including short, massive limbs, and huge chests and noses. Neanderthal brains also increased in size, and actually became larger than our own on average, though their cognitive and linguistic abilities were not as advanced as modern humans.
Ian Tattersall is the Curator at the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the author of “The Last Human—A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans.” He says “if there is one single thing that distinguishes [modern] humans from all other life forms, living or extinct, it is the capacity for symbolic thought, the ability to generate complex mental symbols and to manipulate them into new combinations.”
When symbolic thought emerged, so too did complex language, diverse cultures, art and music, and the rapid expansion of knowledge and technology. Neanderthals were human, but they didn’t have our cognitive ability. All modern humans, including the Cro Magnon people in prehistoric Europe, do.
It’s this increased cognitive ability that eventually allowed humans to domesticate plants and animals during the Agricultural Revolution; to replace the ox and horse with the steam engine and automobile during the Industrial Revolution; and now, to replicate thought during the Computer Revolution.
Until recently, there were many indigenous people who did not follow this path of ‘development,’ and yet they maintained highly complex cultures, and amassed tremendous knowledge about their environments. They were, and are, fully ‘modern humans.’ Indeed, in a deeper sense, the Agricultural, Industrial, and Computer Revolutions have made us less human, not more, because indigenous people had a direct relationship with nature, which prevented the hubris of thought from overtaking them.
All Homo sapiens possess the same basic capacity for ‘higher thought.’ And it is the capacity for symbolic thought, unrestrained by insight into its nature and proper place, which is causing man to fragment the earth, and humanity, to the breaking point.
Symbolic thought is the basis of consciousness as we know it, arising from the storehouse of experience and memory. But there is another kind of consciousness altogether, arising from mindfulness and stillness, which people throughout the ages have experienced to some degree.
This kind of consciousness, which I’m not setting up as another dualism (because the negation of thought-consciousness opens the door to insight-consciousness), does not rest on or arise from symbols and memory.
Thought-consciousness has reached the limits of accretion in the human mind and heart, and the limits of fragmentation of earth and its ecosystems.
Therefore the way ahead is not through more knowledge, scientific or otherwise, but through negation and non-accumulative learning based on self-knowing.