Children of Extremes


I watched a fascinating show on CBC television The Nature of Things. It was called The Great Human Odyssey: A World of Extremes.  This was the first of a series of 3 shows. The first show was the story of the evolution—the deeply interesting story—of human evolution.

The story was written, produced, narrated and directed by Niobe Thompson, anthropologist. He asked many important questions: Where did we come from? How did we survive near extinction? And why did we become one of the world’s very few global species? This is the human story. It is an indigenous story.

The makers of the series benefited from recent scientific research that has led scientists to revise nearly every chapter of human story. On the show, Thompson talked to some of the worlds’ leading researchers into the origins of humans. Thompson actually participated in the lives of some the world’s few remaining nomads and hunter/gatherers in Africa.

One of the interesting things about the evolution of humans is that humans are the only form of life, according to Thompson “unhitched from the natural limits of an ecological niche.” I am not sure I agree with that statement. Is anyone or any creature actually delinked from its ecological niche? I don’t really believe that.  Yet it is clear that humans have been able to adapt to new environments and even change those environments when it suited their needs. To that extent they were unhitched from that niche. Yet every one and every creature is intimately tied to our environment. We are a part—a vital part—of that environment.

Humans as a species evolved in  very harsh environments. That is why it was necessary for our species to adapt. If humans could not have adapted they would have failed like all the other species of hominids disappeared. As Thompson said, “ ‘evolution of adaptability’ is our inheritance from our difficult past.” It may be our most important trait.

In fact recent scientific research has confirmed that at one time Homo sapiens literally stood on the brink of extinction numbering only a few thousand individuals somewhere in Africa.  According to Thompson, there was such a population bottleneck that there might have been only 600 breeding pairs of Homo sapiens left on the planet. All of them were in Africa at that time. We are all descendants of that small group of humans.  We are all Africans. Imagine that: Homo sapiens were an endangered species.

Yet somehow the early humans managed to survive. They found a way to regroup and rebuild. From that small group Homo sapiens colonized the entire world, becoming the most dominant species on the planet in a virtual geological blink of an eye. How did they do it?

Climate change had created very difficult conditions in much of Africa where Homo sapiens could be found. Africa, in some places, experienced a serious drought for 40,000 years. That was the mother of all droughts.

There was only one way Homo sapiens could have survived such severe conditions with such small numbers.  Homo sapiens had to learn to work together.  They could have some rugged individuals. Some bright geniuses. They were important. But even more important, were the people who worked together to solve problems and then to pass on what they learned to the next generation of Homo sapiens. Both individuals and co-operators are crucially important to our success. This was a vital insight I gained from watching this television show.

Homo sapiens were at the time hunter/gatherers who needed to work together, co-operatively—to hunt their prey and gather food such as nuts, berries and other edible products. Without co-operation, I unreservedly believe, our species would have run out of gas and gone extinct like all the other hominids.

Because we could adapt we could survive. It is important to think about this now that we face an existential crisis. We can change, adapt and survive. But continuing on as we have done is not the right approach.

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