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Buried in Time: Ancient Humans and our Missing Family Tree

The anthropological record of life on Earth which led to modern humans continually seems to surprise us. For instance, while the Neanderthal were once believed to have lacked the complexities of thought which modern humans possess, by as early as 1908, evidence had begun to emerge which suggested that these beings may have buried their dead.

The burial of the dead, of course, seems to indicate some adherence to ritual and symbolism. “It is novel evidence that Neanderthals were able to develop, by themselves, some complex symbolic thought,” said William Rendu, a paleoanthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, referencing the latest study suggesting there was more depth to the Neanderthal and their burial habits. “The behavioural distance between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans seems to become even thinner.”

In addition to the notion that ancient hominids may have behaved more like humans than we realize, there is also the strong possibility that our knowledge of their existence, along with the existence of other early human ancestors, is far from complete. While those mysteries may be right under our noses–buried in the literal sense–their elusiveness has caused us to question our past, and formulate a fractured view of human evolution amidst a lineage where numerous varieties of hominids might have existed, or even coexisted, throughout time.

The recent discovery of a thigh bone in Spain, dated back to 400,000 years ago, managed to cause quite a stir following genetic tests which stood contrary to expected results, based on knowledge of early human ancestry. It was thought that the sample would hail from the predecessors of the Neanderthal, whereas studies confirmed that it more closely resembled the Denisovian line, for which previous evidence had indicated a lineage dating back approximately 80,000 years to parts of Siberia, nearly 4000 miles away from where the find was uncovered.

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Of the startling find, Carl Zimmer’s article in the New York Times included the following compelling statements:

The mismatch between the anatomical and genetic evidence surprised the scientists, who are now rethinking human evolution over the past few hundred thousand years. It is possible, for example, that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover.

The notion of there being numerous extinct varieties of early humans is both compelling, and refreshing. It suggests an ancient ancestry that is not only incomplete, but perhaps also far more complex than what we know to exist today. However, the notion that there might be missing elements to our family tree isn’t new at all, as Suzan Martinez, Ph.D. notes in her book The Mysterious Origins of Hybrid Man:

Louis Leakey believed that most lineages have their dead branches, which quietly moved on to extinction… most of our collected fossil types are simply “aberrant offshoots” from the main stem. American anthropologist Loren Eiseley concurs, deferring to the school of thought that “the true origin of our species is lost in some older pre-Ice Age level and that all the other human fossils represent side lines and blind alleys.”

Of the earlier study hailing from Spain, researchers have begun to speculate that an early union between Neanderthals and the Denisovan line are likely the culprits… in other words, as Martinez terms things with the title of her book, we are effectively dealing with an ancient ongoing hybridization between different species that were genetically similar enough to crossbreed, producing hybrids that flourished throughout an ancient past amidst other groups who eventually became “dead branches.”

The notion of there being multiple varieties of hominids existing on Earth at a given time is compelling to us for a variety of reasons, especially when we put this into a modern context involving the mythology surrounding alleged “wild men” such as the American Sasquatch, the Tibetan Yeti, and the Russian Almasty, among other geographic variants stemming from cultures worldwide. As a mere thought experiment alone, it does seem odd that there is so much derision cast upon the possible existence of these beasts, when our ancient past seems to show us that varieties of hominids had existed alongside one another for hundreds of thousands of years in much the same way; it becomes easy to fathom that the persistence of the wild man myths in our cultures around the world might bear some connection to the known “dead branches” that exist in our ancient family tree.

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Add to that the knowledge of burial customs that may have existed among primitive early human ancestors, and the elusiveness of these supposed beasts may be afforded an additional layer of complexity. In essence, the presumed existence of such creatures seems to differ very little from earlier instances where humanlike beings have evolved and flourished for a time. The problem with belief seems to stem far more from the attitudes about their presumed existence, and the misunderstanding of the history and mythology surrounding them.

With or without supposed “wild men” living in our midst today, our scientific knowledge of those who came before us is more compelling now than it has ever been. The old world that we have studied based on bone fragments and fossil finds brought forth from the earth presents a story that is constantly changing, and with the changes, there are surprises that continue to emerge as well. Our understanding of where we come from remains elusive… and our notion of what we are, versus what we once were, become more compelling with every challenge that is brought against our conventional knowledge of human history and the ancient past.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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