Hassles Are Part of Being Human, Even for Our Ancestors

It’s never easy being human, or even almost human, but that hasn’t stopped us.

Being human is messy. Our lives are often filled with multiple hurdles and obstacles, often small, but nonetheless important. Whether it is social conflicts with our friends and co-workers, expectations and obligations to relatives, conflicts and challenges in our living spaces, health, and livelihood, or even the ever-present existential confusion about who we are and what our purpose might be. These road bumps in life are all part of the challenges of being human, and they shape who we are and how our societies work (or don’t work).

While today, in 2017, such challenges might be really, really complicated, they are certainly not new. In fact, some of these challenges go way back in time. Back before the earliest cities and towns, before the first gardens and livestock, back before the first glimmers of anything we might call modern human society. In fact, this messiness goes back to the time when we are not even sure whether to call our ancestors human or not. 

We should take solace in the fact that unruly relationships and stressful interfaces with the world have been part of the human experience for a very, very long time. And we can learn something from that.

Today there is only one species and one subspecies, of human (no, races are not different human biological lineages or groups, see herehere and here). But not too long ago, there was a whole bunch of populations of human-like folks, maybe even multiple species. Dropping back a few hundred thousand years and having a look around can help us understand that our human complexity, and many of the problems we face today, have deep roots.

The amazing recent discoveries of Homo naledi, a human-like member of the hominins (humans’ general evolutionary group) offer a good example. The remains of this cousin of humanity were found deep under the ground in small chambers, untouched by other animals. The researchers who found the fossils suggest that their location may be due to this species’ practice of interning their dead in such chambers. The catch? The chambers where they found the remains are very, very hard to get to. One must climb (or rather, crawl) deep down, in complete darkness, squeezing through think cracks in the cave walls barely larger than a small person’s chest. If these were indeed burials, then Homo naledi dragged their deceased comrades deep into the earth at great personal discomfort and danger, just to place them into a small chamber, and then crawl back out. The awareness of one’s eventual death is painful enough, but to have a social expectation that you must undergo physical and possibly psychological trauma in order to treat your group mates to a proper “burial”—well, that is asking a lot. What if some members did not want to? How did they negotiate this? Who decided and how did they come up with this practice in the first place? If you think that facing our own mortality and dealing with our own dead is difficult, imagine Homo naledi crawling into those caves nearly 300,000 years ago. Even our almost human cousins had difficulties in relationships when it came to death and the expectations associated with it.

For another case, take the Neanderthals from nearly 400,000 years ago at the site of Qesem Cave, Israel. The fossil teeth from this site are covered with deposits and marked and grooved with pits and striations…they were eating a wide range of foods and their teeth reflect that. The tartar of the teeth show that they were eating seeds, ancestral forms of pistachios and pine nuts. Researchers also found fungal spores (mushrooms?), traces of roots, pollen, strands of leafy plant material, and even insect exoskeletons, including a butterfly (Did it just fly into their mouth or did they actually hunt butterflies?) There is also evidence of meat eating—a very diverse and innovative diet. Who gathered and hunted? How did they share the food? Who got the best treats (and who ate the butterflies)? The conflicts over the distribution of labor and effort to gather, and make, dinner is nothing new. But the most telling remains embedded in the tartar on the teeth of the individuals at Qesem are microcharcoal fragments—they were inhaling a lot of smoke. So in addition to the great range of food gathering and sharing, they were also grappling with a new tool, fire, and likely sucking down enough smoke to possibly make them ill. Getting, making and sharing food is central to human existence, but the difficulties that come with it, the challenges we create by manipulating our local environments, is nothing new.

Finally, our ancestry itself is messy. People are constantly trying to figure out their ancestry, who they “are.” Paying cash to genetic testing companies, researching their genealogies, even fighting with relatives about where they are “really from.” In truth we are all mostly mutts. A recent article in Science point this out for contemporary humans (and so does any serious genetic analysis). We know that in the recent history of humanity there has been a ton of moving, merrymaking, mating, and some murder. And this continues today. But this too, is not new. Over the last million years or so there have been a lot of human-like populations, and there is great debate about which ones are our “real” ancestors. In fact, many of them are. Genetically we know that multiple populations (sometimes from things we call different species) mixed it up in the past, and left their marks on our DNA, bodies, and likely, our behavior. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans of many sorts found one another, fought, fornicated, feuded, and became friends…often all at the same time. Sound familiar? That means that the patterns of tricky relationships between people, and between ethnic, religious, political and other types of groups, while certainly more complex today, also have deep roots. And given that there are more humans today than ever in the past, it seems like the friendship (and fornication) outcomes have a slight edge.

Human life and human origins are messy despite our attempts to simplify them. So when you have troubles in your daily life, take heart. You are not alone. Your problems are part and parcel of the human experience. Most are surmountable, some are not. We’ve been dealing with these patterns in one way or another for hundreds of thousands of years. Sure, they are more complex and maybe more intense now, but the skill set to deal with most of them lies in each one of us: humans had, and have, amazing capacities for resilience and a knack for getting together to figure things out. Humans are diversity, camaraderie and conflict embodied, we are creative in every aspect of our social lives, for better and for worse. We should celebrate not diminish this. Being human, with all its messiness, is worth the hassle.

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