The idea hit you like a catapulted Dodo bird. You were at the Natural History Museum the other day, and you couldn't help but notice a striking resemblance between the Neolithic Man display and half of your in-laws. The Alpha Male, spearing a 15 foot Mammoth in the buttocks, bore a striking resemblance to your brother-in-law waiting in line at the barbecue. Same gaping mouth, same crazed eyes, same thick, sweat-filled back-hair.
"But" you openly cry into the air, beckoning to the great tourist spirit "I thought we were genetically different than our ancestors! I mean, how long have humans been, well, humans? Isn't there something about Neanderthals being pushed out? And most importantly, did cave-women wear leather bikinis?"
These are all interesting questions, and in order to save you from future embarrassing outbursts at the museum, here are some facts for you. Well, facts depending on who you talk to.
- How old are we? It depends on how you look at it. Homo sapiens as a distinct species started appearing approximately 200,000 years ago, however there are millions of years of protohumans running amok before this. Australopithecus, a group of hominids which existed as early as 4 million years ago, were considered for a long time our ancestors, however there is debate about the actual direct connection. Homo Habilis, the earliest fellows in our particular genus, began appearing about 2.4 million years. So where do "we" begin? Perhaps it depends on whether or not you would date a 4-foot hominid with no car. At any rate, probably your safest bet is to say "Homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago" and hope the early hominids aren't offended.
- How long have our ancestors walked upright? Probably somewhere between 4 and 6 million years (those early hominids again). Walking, of course, was invented when "Ook-Ook the Flea Master" tried to impress the good-looking hairy chick down the way. This led to the first "romantic walk on the beach," which ended in disaster as the couple was dragged screaming into the sea by a now-extinct species of sea-cow.
- Tools: How long have we been using them? The earliest stone tools we have found date to around 2.5 million years ago. There may have been bone tools used earlier, but this is...you guessed it...debated!
- Fire: How long? Fast forward a million years, lots of evolution, lots of crazed whooping, and around 1.5 million years ago we started using fire - or more accurately one of our ancestors, Homo erectus, did (hey, no smirking at the name).
- Clothing? Unknown. There are estimates of between 100,000 and 600,000 years ago. However, it is known that the first childish tantrum thrown by a fashion designer followed the very next day.
- Neanderthals: What are they? Okay - now pay attention. Neanderthals started appearing around 250,000 years ago. It is confusing because Homo sapiens started appearing around the same time (remember - 200,000 years ago), and we share many similar characteristics. There is a debate over whether Neanderthals are a subspecies of human, or a completely separate species. However the current consensus is that they are indeed separate, we just shared a common ancestor.
- Cro-Magnon: What are they? Cro-Magnon are indeed modern human, they are simply the group that lived in Europe, named after the cave in France where the first fossil was found. SO...you got your first Homo sapiens appearing in Africa around 200,000 BC, they hang out there for awhile, then about 50,000 BC they start migrating out. The ones that went to Europe? We call 'em Cro-Magnon.
- Did modern humans and Neanderthals come into contact? Yes. there is evidence that in certain areas Neanderthals and modern man co-existed as modern man emigrated into their territories (50,000 BC). However, Neanderthals began slowly being pushed out, and by about 24,000 BC Neanderthals were extinct. Cooiiinciiideeeence??
- Could they mate? DNA evidence suggests no (sorry, Darryl Hanna). But, if you really wanted to, you could have a nice evening with a Cro-Magnon. Ladies, talk about your "real" man (don't put fingers near mouth)
- What exactly then, is a "caveman?" This is simply a pop-culture term for early hominids, particularly Neanderthals and Cro-Magnan. It is not used in scientific terminology, unless the professor is....well...an actual caveman.
- So, did they...(drum-roll)....live in caves? Well, if there was a good one around, sure. There are lots of archaeological sites in caves, or overhanging rocks for shelter. But they also had huts made of branches and animal skins, and weren't "confined" to caves. As the Cro-Magnon used to say "Hut good. Cave Better. Cave with jacuzzi, best."
I know what you are thinking. 'This is all well and good, Jarod, but what about the cavewomen in leather bikinis?!' I'm sorry to report that there is no evidence of bikinis. There is, however, evidence of leopard speedos invented by Gakk-Gakk the Impressive (made out of actual leopards). Ironically, it may have been the tight-fitting speedo which drove the Neanderthals to extinction by causing the females to throw themselves off cliffs in masses. To be sure, something happened to the Neanderthals, and it wasn't pretty.
At any rate, the next time you are visiting your in-laws, have pity. They can't help the grunting, the bad posture, or the odor. They are the result of millions of years of evolution, and guess what, millions of years from now they will be saying the same thing about us. At least, as long as the leopard speedo stays in Europe.