New findings have been coming out 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, and point to the next leap in consciousness, whenever it occurs.
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 encounters unfamiliar groups, they most often are usually perceived as sub-human. Imagine then what an encounter between humans and actual sub-humans must have been like!
It’s important to realize that 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.
Neanderthals, on the other hand, while very capable and well adapted to their cold environments, almost certainly did not have the fully developed capability for symbolic thought and complex speech that modern humans have.
A leap in consciousness occurred in Africa about 100,000 years ago, a breakthrough in cognitive ability that enabled much more intricate and varied 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.
Neanderthals were keenly adapted humans, if cognitively, culturally and technologically primitive humans, people capable of bringing down the largest animals. 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? Probably meeting modern humans was as overwhelming to Neanderthals as if brainy humanoids with much superior technology landed on earth now.
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 over 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, 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 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. It is 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 replicate thought-consciousness 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 were embedded in and had a relationship with nature that prevented the hubris of thought from overtaking them.
All Homo sapiens possess the same basic capacity for symbolic thought. And it’s the capacity for so-called higher thought, unrestrained by insight into its nature and place, which is causing humankind to fragment the earth 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 attention and stillness, which people throughout the ages have experienced.
It is the state of insight, which does not rest on or arise from symbols and memory.
I’m not trying to make insight-consciousness into another dualism, since it’s only the negation of thought-consciousness that opens the door to it.
Just as thought-consciousness has reached the limits of fragmentation of earth and its ecosystems, psychological thought has reached the limits of accumulation in the human mind and heart.
Therefore the way ahead is not through more knowledge, scientific or otherwise, but paradoxically through the movement of negation in self-knowing.