PQC: This is chapter I in “Superior: The Return of Race Science” by Angela Saini. I will post subsequently chapter by chapter as soon as I finished reading each of them. I invite you folks to read this book and judge it by yourselves.
Are we one human species, or aren’t we?
I am on a road dotted with the corpses of unlucky kangaroos, just under two hundred miles inland from the western Australian city of Perth—at the other end of the world from where I call home. It feels like a wilderness. Everything is alien to my eyes. Birds I’ve never seen before make sounds I’ve never heard before. The dead branches of silvery trees, skeleton fingers, extend out of crumbly red soil. Gigantic rocks weathered over billions of years into soft pastel blobs resemble mossy spaceships. I imagine I’ve been transported to a galaxy beyond time, one in which humans have no place.
Except that inside a dark shelter beneath one undulating boulder are handprints.
Mulka’s Cave is one of many ancient rock-art sites dotted across Australia, but this one is unique in this particular region for being so densely packed with images. I have to crouch to enter, navigating the darkness. One hand is all I see at first, stenciled within a spray of red ochre illuminated on the granite by a diffuse shaft of light. My eyes adjust, more hands appear. Infant hands and adult hands, hands on top of hands, hands all over the ceiling—hundreds of them in reds, yellows, oranges, and whites. As they become clearer in the half-light, it’s as though they’re pushing through the walls for a high five. There are parallel lines, too, maybe delineating the vague outline of a dingo.
The images are hard to date. Some may well be thousands of years old; others, very recent. What is known is that the creation of rock art on this continent goes back to what in cultural terms feels like the dawn of time. Following excavation at the Madjedbebe rock shelter, in Arnhem Land in northern Australia in 2017, the duration of modern human presence here was set conservatively at around 60,000 years—far longer than members of our species have lived in Europe, and long enough for people here to have witnessed an ice age, as well as the extinction of the giant mammals. And they may have been making art at the outset. At the Madjedbebe site, I’m told by one archaeologist who worked there, researchers found ochre “crayons” worked down to a nub. At another Australian site, this one 42,000 years old, there is evidence of ceremonial burial, bodies sprinkled with ochre pigment that would have to have been transported there over hundreds of miles.
“Something like a handprint is likely to have many different meanings in different societies and even within a society,” I’m told by Benjamin Smith, a British-born rock-art expert based at the University of Western Australia. It may signify place, possibly to assert that someone was here. But determining meaning is not always simple. The more experts like him have tried to decipher ancient art, wherever it is in the world, the more they’ve found themselves only scratching the surface of systems of thought so deep that Western philosophical traditions can’t contain them. In Australia a rock isn’t just a rock. The relationship that indigenous communities have to the land, even to inanimate natural objects, is practically boundless—everyone and everything is intertwined.
What at first looks to me to be an alien wilderness isn’t wild at all. It’s a home that is more lived in than any other that I can imagine. Countless generations have absorbed and built upon knowledge of food sources and navigation. They have shaped the landscape sustainably over millennia, built a spiritual relationship with it and its unique flora and fauna. As I learn slowly, in the thinking of Aboriginal Australians, individuals seem to melt away in the world around them. Time, space, and object take on different dimensions. And none except those who have grown up immersed in this culture and place can quite understand. I know that I could spend the rest of my life trying to fathom it and get no further than I am now, standing lonely in this cave.
We can’t inhabit minds that aren’t our own.
I was a teenager before I discovered that my mother might not actually know her own birthdate. We were celebrating her birthday on the same day we always did in October when she told us in passing that her sisters thought she had actually been born in the summer. Pinning down dates wasn’t routine when she was growing up in India. It surprised me that she didn’t care, and my surprise made her laugh. What mattered to her instead was her intricate web of family relationships, her place in society, her fate as mapped in the stars. So I learned that the things we value are what we know. I’m obsessed by dates, but this is because I went to school in Britain. I compare every city I visit to London, where I was born. It’s the center of my universe.
For archaeologists interpreting the past, deciphering cultures that aren’t their own is the challenge. “Archaeologists have struggled for a long time to determine what it is, what is that unique trait, what makes us special,” says Smith, who as well as working in Australia has spent sixteen years at sites in South Africa. It’s work that has taken him to the cradles of humankind, where he has rummaged through the remains of the beginning of our species. And it’s a difficult business. It’s surprisingly tough to date exactly when Homo sapiens emerged. Fossils of people who shared our facial features have been found that date from 300,000 to 100,000 years ago. Evidence of art or at least the use of ochre is reliably available in Africa far further back than 100,000 years, before some of our ancestors began venturing out of the continent and slowly populating other parts of the world, including Australia. “It’s one of the things that sets us apart as a species, the ability to make complex art,” Smith says.
But even if our ancestors were making art a hundred millennia ago, the world then was nothing like the world now. More than forty thousand years ago there weren’t just modern humans, Homo sapiens, roaming the planet, but also archaic humans, including Neanderthals (sometimes called cavemen because their bones have been found in caves) who lived in Europe and parts of western and central Asia. And there were Denisovans, we now know, another archaic human whose remains have been found in limestone caves in Siberia; their territory possibly extended to Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. There were also at various times in the past many other kinds of human, most of which haven’t yet been identified or named.
In the deep past we shared the planet, even living alongside each other at certain times, in particular places. For some academics this cosmopolitan moment in our ancient history lies at the heart of what it means to be modern. When we imagine these other kinds of human, it’s often as knuckle-dragging primitives. We Homo sapiens must have had qualities that they didn’t have, something that gave us an edge, the ability to survive and thrive as they went extinct. The word “Neanderthal” has long been a term of abuse. Dictionaries define it both as an extinct species of human that lived in ice age Europe and as an uncivilized, uncouth man of low intelligence. Neanderthals and even Homo erectus made stone tools like our own species, Homo sapiens, Smith explains, but as far as convincing evidence goes, he believes none had the same capacity to think symbolically, to talk in past and future tenses, to produce art quite like our own. These are the things that made us modern.
What separated “us” from “them” goes to the core of who we are. But it’s not just a question for the past. Today being human might seem so patently clear, so beyond need for clarification, that we forget that once it wasn’t so. The boundaries are still plagued by uncertainty. Scientific debate around what makes a modern human a modern human is as contentious as it has ever been. There are even quiet doubts about just how much the “same” all Homo sapiens living today really are. One old scientific theory claimed that, since we know there were other types of human alive tens of thousands of years ago in various parts of the world, maybe different races are in fact the descendants of these separate archaic forms?
From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, this might sound absurd. The common, mainstream view is that we have shared origins, as described by the “out of Africa” hypothesis. Scientific data has confirmed in recent decades that Homo sapiens evolved from a population of people in Africa before some of these people began migrating to the rest of the world around 100,000 years ago and then began adapting in small ways to their own particular environmental conditions. Within Africa, too, there was adaptation and change, depending on where people lived. Overall, however, modern humans were then and remain now one species, Homo sapiens. We are special. It’s nothing less than a scientific creed.
But this view isn’t shared universally within academia, nor is it even the mainstream belief in certain countries, including China. There are still scientists who ask, with perfectly serious faces, whether different populations actually evolved separately into modern humans—maybe leading to what we think of as racial difference. There are those who think that rather than modern humans migrating out of Africa, populations on each continent actually emerged into modernity separately from ancestors who lived there as far back as millions of years ago. They tell us we only need to travel into deep time to find our answers.
As unconscionable as it may seem, some suspect that population groups—perhaps equating to “races”—may have evolved into modern human beings in different ways.
In one early account of indigenous Australians by a European, a seventeenth-century English pirate and explorer, William Dampier, called them “the miserablest people in the world.”
Dampier and the British colonists who followed him to the continent dismissed their new neighbors as savages who had been trapped in cultural stasis since they had migrated or emerged here, however long ago that was. Kay Anderson and Colin Perrin, cultural scholars based at Western Sydney University, document how the initial reaction of Europeans in Australia was sheer puzzlement. “The non-cultivating Aborigine bewildered the early colonists,” they write. The Aboriginals didn’t build houses, they didn’t have agriculture, they didn’t rear livestock. The colonists couldn’t figure out why these people, if they were equally human, hadn’t “improved” themselves by adopting these things. Why weren’t the Aboriginals more like them?
There was more to this than culture shock. Bewilderment—or rather, an unwillingness to try and understand the continent’s original inhabitants—suited Europeans in the eighteenth century because it also served the belief that they were entering a territory they could justly claim for themselves. The landscape was thought to be no different from how it must have been in the beginning, because they couldn’t recognize how it might have been changed by the people living there. And if the land hadn’t been cultivated, then by Western legal measures it was terra nullius—it didn’t belong to anyone.
By the same token, if its inhabitants belonged to the past, to a time before modernity, their days were also numbered. “Indigenous Australians were considered to be primitive, a fossilized stage in human evolution,” I’m told by Billy Griffiths, a young Australian historian who has documented the story of archaeology in his country, challenging the narrative that once painted indigenous peoples as evolutionarily backward. At least one early explorer even refused to believe they had created the rock art he saw. They were viewed as “an earlier stage of Western history, a living representative of an ancient form, a stepping stone.” From almost the first encounter, Aboriginal Australians were judged to have no history of their own, to have survived in isolation as a flashback to how all humans might have lived before some became civilized. In 1958 the distinguished Australian archaeologist John Mulvaney wrote that Victorians saw Australia as a “museum of primeval humanity.” Even at the end of the twentieth century, writers and scholars routinely called them Stone Age people.
It’s true that these are cultures that have long connections to their ancestors, a continuation of traditions that go back millennia. “The deep past is a living heritage,” Griffiths tells me. For Aboriginal Australians, “It’s something they feel in their bones. . . . There are amazing stories of dramatic events that are preserved in oral histories, oral traditions, such as the rising of the seas at the end of the last ice age, and hills becoming islands, the eruption of volcanoes in western Victoria, even meteorites in different times.” But this doesn’t mean that ways of life have never changed. European colonizers failed to see this, and it would take until the second half of the twentieth century for that view to be corrected.
“There was certainly little respect for the remarkable systems of understanding and land management that indigenous Australians had cultivated over millennia,” explains Griffiths. For thousands of years the land has been embedded with stories and songs, cultivated with digging sticks and fire and by hand. “While people have lived in Australia, there’s been enormous environmental change as well as social change, political change, cultural change.” Their lives have never been static. In his 2014 book Dark Emu, Black Seeds writer Bruce Pascoe argues, as other scholars have done, that this engagement with the land was so sophisticated and successful, including the harvesting of crops and fish, that it amounted to farming and agriculture.
But whatever they saw, the colonizers didn’t value. Even now, for those raised in and around cities, industrialization is what represents civilization. Respect for and pride in indigenous cultures has only started to build in the last few decades, but even then, there is resistance among some nonindigenous Australians—especially as it has become clear from archaeological evidence that Aboriginal Australians have been occupying this territory not for thousands of years but for many tens of thousands. “The mid-twentieth century revelation that people were here for that kind of depth of time . . . was received in many ways as a challenge to a settler nation with a very shallow history. There are cultural anxieties wrapped up in all of this,” says Griffiths. “It challenges the legitimacy of white presence here.”
For those with a deeper sense of the past, Benjamin Smith says “the idea of ranking, say, an industrial society higher than a hunter-gatherer society is absurd.” It’s not easy to accept when you’ve grown up in a society that tells you concrete skyscrapers are the symbols of advanced culture, but when viewed from the perspective of deep time—across millennia rather than centuries, in the context of long historical trajectories—it becomes clearer. Empires and cities decline and fall. It is smaller, indigenous communities who survive throughout, whose societies date to many thousands rather than many hundreds of years old. “Archaeology shows us that all societies are incredibly sophisticated, they are just sophisticated in different ways,” Smith continues. “These are the world’s thinkers, and maybe they thought themselves into a better place. They have societies that have more leisure time than Western societies, lower suicide rates, higher standards of living in many ways, even though they don’t have all of the technological sophistication.”
Clearly, this wasn’t the view of nineteenth-century European colonists. There was a failure to engage with those they encountered, to accept them as the true inhabitants of the land, combined with a mercenary hastiness to write them off. Like the native people of Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America, whose nakedness and apparent savagery shocked biologist Charles Darwin when he saw them on his travels, indigenous Australians and Tasmanians were seen as occupying the lowest rungs in the human racial hierarchy. One observer described them as “descending to the grave.” They were seen as doomed to go extinct, Griffiths tells me: “That was the dominant concept, that they would soon die out. There was a lot of talk of smoothing the pillow of a dying race.”
“Smoothing the pillow” was bloodthirsty work. Disease was the greatest killer, the forerunner of invasion, he notes. But starting in September 1794, six years after the first fleet of British ships arrived in what was to become Sydney, and continuing into the twentieth century, hundreds of massacres also helped to slowly and steadily shrink the indigenous population by around 80 percent, according to some estimates. Many hundreds of thousands of people died, if not of smallpox and other illnesses brought to Australia, then directly at the hands of individuals or gangs and at other times of police. Equally harsh was the cultural genocide, says Griffiths. There were bans on the practice of culture and use of language. “Many people hid their identity, which also contributed to the decline in population.”
In 1869 the Australian government passed legislation allowing children to be forcibly taken away from their parents, particularly if they had mixed heritage—described at the time as “half-caste,” “quarter-caste,” and smaller fractions. An official inquiry into the effects of this policy on the indelibly scarred “Stolen Generations,” finally published in 1997, is a catalogue of horrors. In Queensland and Western Australia, for example, people were forced onto government settlements and missions, and children were removed from about the age of four and placed in dormitories, before being sent off to work at the age of fourteen. “Indigenous girls who became pregnant were sent back to the mission or dormitory to have their child,” says Griffiths. “The removal process then repeated itself.”
By the 1930s around half of Queensland’s Aboriginal Australian population was living in institutions. Life was bleak, with high rates of illness and malnutrition, and the people’s behavior strictly policed for fear that they would return to the “immoral” ways of their home communities. Children were able to leave dormitories and missions only to provide cheap labor, the girls as domestic servants and the boys as farm laborers. They were considered mentally unsuited to any other kind of work. The historian Meg Parsons describes what happened as the “remaking of Aboriginal bodies into suitable subjects and workers for White Queensland.”
Among those forced to live this way were the mother and grandmother of Gail Beck, an indigenous activist in Perth who was once a nurse but now works at the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, fighting to reclaim land rights for her local community, the Noongar. When I visit her at her home in the picturesque port city of Fremantle, speaking to her as she cooks while awaiting a visit from the Aboriginal Australian side of her family, I find someone who has few ways to quantify the pain and loss.
Gail is sixty years old, but her true family story is still fairly new to her. Until she was in her thirties, she didn’t even know she had any indigenous ancestry. She had been raised to believe she was Italian—a lie to explain her olive skin, her mother terrified that if she told the truth, her daughter might be taken away by the authorities as she herself had been. So Gail lived under a conspiracy of silence, shielded from the fact that her grandmother had been one of the Stolen Generations, a “half caste” taken from her family to live in a Catholic missionary home in 1911 at the age of two. There, she had been abused, physically, mentally, sexually. “She was put out to service at thirteen. Didn’t get paid, nothing like that. And she stayed there until she was an adult.” A similar fate fell on Gail’s mother, who was under the supervisory care of the nuns in the home from the day she was born, beaten and burned by them when she grew older. The Sisters of Mercy “were very cruel people,” Gail recounts.
Learning about her family’s past, and having it confirmed by her grandmother’s papers, was a bolt from the blue. “I cried an ocean of tears.” At once Gail gained a new identity, one that she was desperate to understand and build a connection to. It took her six years to find the part of her family that had been hidden from her, and she has devoted herself to absorbing their culture ever since. She shows me her blankets and pictures, adorned with the prints for which Aboriginal Australian artists have lately become famous. She has tried to learn an indigenous language, but it has been a struggle. She lives like most white Australians, in a nice house in a nice suburb, her knowledge of her great-grandmother’s way of life, as it would have been, piecemeal.
“We are constantly in mourning, and people don’t understand that,” she tells me. “The young children that were lost, that doesn’t just affect the nuclear family, that affects the community.” And this is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, that the way of life she might have had, the knowledge and language she could have been raised with, the relationship to nature, all of this was trodden beneath the boot of what considered itself to be a superior race. After the arrival of the Europeans, even the creation of art sharply declined. It took until 1976 for Aboriginal people even to be able to gain legal rights over their land. Throughout, the victims had no choice. “They weren’t allowed to practice their culture, they weren’t allowed to mix, and they weren’t allowed to speak their language.” Having been told they were inferior, that theirs was a life to be ashamed of, they adopted different ways of living—ways they were told were better.
“It was a real shameful thing.”
I don’t cry easily. But in the car afterwards, I cry for Gail Beck. There is no scale of justice large enough to account for what happened. Not just for the abuse and the trauma, the children torn from their parents, the killings, but also for the lives that women and men like her didn’t have the chance to live.
In recent decades, as scholars have tried to piece together the past and make sense of what happened, as they share with Australians in the long process of assessing the damage and its impact, we see an overarching story about how to define human difference. It is about where people have drawn boundaries around other groups of people, about how far inside us and how far back in time the disparities are thought to stretch. These are the parameters of what we now call race.
I meet with Martin Porr, a German archaeologist at the University of Western Australia whose work focuses on human origins. He feels, as do many archaeologists nowadays, that his profession is weighed down by the baggage of colonialism. When the first European encounters with Australians occurred, when the rules were drawn for how to treat indigenous peoples, science and archaeology began to be woven in. And they have remained interwoven ever since.
For Porr, this tale begins with the Enlightenment, at the birth of Western science. The Enlightenment reinforced the idea of human unity, of an essential biological quality that elevated humans above all other creatures. We live with this concept to this day, seeing it as positive and inclusive, a fact to be celebrated. There was a caveat, however. As Porr cautions, this modern universal way of framing human origins was constructed at a time when the world was a very different place: when European thinkers set the standard for what they considered a modern human, many built it around their own experiences and what they happened to value culturally at that time. To be fair, this was their lens through which everything was refracted in the same way that I compare every city to London. Those who lived in other lands, including the indigenous people of the New World and Australia, were at that time often a mystery to Europeans.
A number of Enlightenment thinkers, including influential German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, defined humanity without really having much of an idea how most of humanity lived or what it looked like. “A universal understanding of human origins was actually created at the time by white men in Europe who only had indirect access to information about other people in the world through the lens of colonialism,” explains Porr. So when they went out into the real world and encountered people who didn’t look like them, who lived in ways they didn’t choose to live, the first question they were forced to ask themselves was: Are they the same as us? The problem was that, because of the narrow parameters they established of what constituted a human being, setting themselves as the benchmark, other cultures were almost guaranteed not to fit. In universalizing humanity by seeing themselves as the paradigm, they had laid the foundations for dividing it.
“If you define humanity in some universal sense, then it’s very restrictive. And in the eighteenth century, that was totally Eurocentric. And of course, when you define it in that sense, then of course, so to speak, other people do not meet these standards,” Porr says.
“When you look at these giants of the eighteenth century, Kant and Hegel, they were terribly racist. They were unbelievably racist!” Kant stated in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime in 1764, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.” When he met a quick-witted carpenter, he quickly dismissed him with the observation that “this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” While a few Enlightenment thinkers did resist the idea of a racial hierarchy, many, including the French philosopher Voltaire and the English thinker David Hume, saw no contradiction between the values of liberty and fraternity and their belief that nonwhites were innately inferior to whites.
And here lay the flaw at the heart of modern science, one that would persist for centuries—arguably to this day. It is a science of human origins, as the British anthropologist Tim Ingold observes, that “has written the essence of humanity in its own image, and that measures other people by how far they have come in living up to it.”
By the nineteenth century, those who didn’t live like Europeans were thought not yet to have fully realized their potential as human beings. Even now, Porr notes that when scientists discuss human origins, he still catches them describing Homo sapiens as “better” and “faster” than and “superior” to other human species—easily interpreted as economic terms. There’s an implicit assumption that higher productivity and more mastery over nature, the presence of settlements and cities, are the marks of human progress, even of the evolution of mankind. The more superior we are to nature, the more superior we are as humans. It is a way of thinking that still forces a ranking of people from closer to nature to more distant, from less developed to more, from worse to better.
History shows us that it’s only a small leap from believing in cultural superiority to believing in biological superiority, that a group’s achievements result from their innate capacities.
What Europeans saw as cultural shortcomings in other populations in the early nineteenth century soon became conflated with how they looked. The cultural scholars Anderson and Perrin explain how, in the nineteenth century, race came to be everything. One writer at the time noted that the natives of Australia differ “from any other race of men in features, complexion, habits and language.” The fact they had darker skin and different facial features became markers of their separateness, a sign of their permanent difference. Their perceived failure to cultivate the land, to domesticate animals, and live in houses was taken part and parcel with their appearance. This had wider implications. Race, rather than history, could then be framed as the explanation for not only their failure, but for the failures of all nonwhite races to live up to the European ideal that Europeans themselves had defined. An Aboriginal Australian—just by virtue of having darker skin—could now be lumped together with a West African, despite their being continents apart and possessing different cultures and histories.
Whiteness became the visible measure of human modernity—an ideal that went so far as to become enshrined in Australian law. The historian Billy Griffiths explains: “When Australia federated in 1901, when the states came together as a nation, one of the first pieces of legislation to pass through Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act, which formed the basis of the White Australia policy (strikingly similar to US policies against non-Northern European immigration around the same time). It sought to fuse the new nation together with whiteness by excluding non-European migration and attempting to assimilate and, ultimately, to eliminate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity.” What happened to Gail Beck’s family was part of these attempts to remove the color from Australia, in her case to breed it out of her mother’s line over generations. “There was this horrible language of ‘breeding out’ the color from full-bloods to half-castes to quarter-castes to octoroons,” Griffiths tells me. The goal was to steadily replace one “race” with another.
At the same time as this state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing was taking place, a crisis was emerging within scientific circles. For more than a century, most European thinkers had united around the Enlightenment idea that humankind was one, that we all shared the same common capacities, the same spark of humanity that made it possible for even those of us condemned as “miserable” by Europeans to improve, with enough encouragement. Even if there was a racial hierarchy, even if there were lesser humans and greater ones, we were all still human. But as Europeans encountered more people in other parts of the world, as they began to see the variety that exists across our species, and failed to “improve” people the way they wanted to, some began to seriously doubt this cherished belief.
Scientists ventured to wonder whether we all really did belong to the same species.
The course of the nineteenth century saw some take an intellectual shift away from the Enlightenment view of a single humanity with shared origins. This wasn’t always just because of racism. Scientists had been funneled into a certain way of thinking about the world partly because of where they happened to be based. In the early days of archaeology, Europe was the reference point for subsequent research elsewhere. Before anyone was sure about humanity’s African origins, human fossils in Europe provided the first data. According to John Shea, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York, this created an indexing problem: setting European archaeological finds as the reference point for future discoveries, thus inadvertently placing Europe at the center of the story. “If you have a series of observations, the first observations guide you more so than the latter ones. And our first observations about human evolution were based on an archaeological record in Europe.”
The first movements out of Africa were eastward, not westward. This is why you see elephants in both Africa and Asia, but not in Europe. Europe isn’t where humans originated—in fact, its climate being so inhospitable back then, it was one of the last places humans migrated to, long after they arrived in Australia. But since Europe was where the first archaeologists happened to live and work, this geographical outpost became the model for thinking about our species’ past.
Some of the very oldest human sites in Europe bear evidence of fairly sophisticated cave art. So as a result of indexing, early archaeologists digging on their doorstep logically assumed that representational art must be a mark of human modernity, one of the features that make us special. But the first Homo sapiens arrived in Europe only around 45,000 years ago. When researchers later excavated far earlier sites in Africa, some as old as 200,000 years, they didn’t always find the same evidence of representational art. “The archaeologists came up with a way to square this,” says Shea. “They said, well, okay, you know these ancient Africans, Asians, they look morphologically modern but they aren’t behaviorally modern. They’re not quite right yet.” They decided that although they looked like modern humans, for some reason they didn’t act like them.
Rather than rethinking what it meant to be a modern human—perhaps taking out the requirement that Homo sapiens must have had symbolic thought immediately upon the emergence of our species—researchers made the rest of the world’s history a puzzle to be solved. It’s a misstep that continues to have repercussions today. If representational art is what sets our species apart from Neanderthals and others, then at what point did we actually become our species? Did we do it 45,000 years ago when we see representational art in Europe, or 100,000 years ago, when we now know people used ochre for drawing, rather than 200,000 years ago? And if Neanderthals or other archaic humans turn out to have had representational art, will we then have to call them modern too? “Behavioral modernity is a diagnosis,” says Shea. All the archaeologists can think to do is “rummage around looking for other evidence that will confirm this diagnosis of modernity.”
In the nineteenth century this uncertainty around what constituted a modern human being took a leap further. If people weren’t cultivating the land or living in brick houses, some asked, could they be considered modern? And if they weren’t modern, were they even the same species?
Australia in all its strangeness posed a particular challenge to European thinkers. Anderson and Perrin argue that the discovery of the continent helped shatter the Enlightenment belief in human unity. After all, here was a remote place, with its own animals not seen elsewhere, kangaroos and koalas, and with its own plants and flowers and an alien landscape. “Based on observations of the uniqueness of Australian flora and fauna” there were “suspicions that the entire continent might have been the product of a separate creation,” they write. The humans of Australia were thought to be as strange as everything else there.
Indeed, after Neanderthal remains were first discovered in 1856, Martin Porr and his colleague Jacqueline Matthews have noted, one of the first things anybody did was compare them to indigenous Australians. Five years later the English biologist Thomas Huxley, a champion of the work of Charles Darwin, described the skulls of Australians as being “wonderfully near” those of the “degraded type of the Neanderthal.” It was clear what they were insinuating. If any people on earth were going to have something in common with these now-extinct humans, European scientists assumed, it could only be the strange ones they called savages. Who else could it be but the people who were closest to nature, who had never fit the scientists’ definition of what a modern human was?
We are forever chasing our origins.
When we can’t find what we want in the present, we go back, and back further still, until there, at the dawn of time, we imagine we’ve found it. In the gloomy mists of the past, having squeezed ourselves back into the womb of humanity, we take a good look. Here it is, we say with satisfaction. Here is the root of our difference.
Once upon a time, scientists were convinced that Aboriginal Australians were further down the evolutionary ladder from other humans, perhaps closer to Neanderthals. In 2010 it turned out that Europeans are actually likely to have the most drops of Neanderthal blood, metaphorically speaking. In January 2014 an international team of leading archaeologists, geneticists, and anthropologists confirmed that humans outside Africa had bred with Neanderthals. Those of European and Asian ancestry have a very small but tangible presence of this now-extinct human in our lineage, up to around 4 percent of our DNA. People in Asia and Australia also bear traces of another known archaic human, the Denisovans. There is likely to have been breeding with other kinds of human as well. Neanderthals and Denisovans, too, mated with each other. Many in the deep past, it seems, were pretty indiscriminate in their sexual partnerships.
“We’re more complex than we initially thought,” explains John Shea. “We initially thought there was either a lot of interbreeding or no interbreeding, and the truth is between those goalposts somewhere.”
The discovery had important consequences. It raked up a controversial, somewhat marginalized scientific theory that had been doing the rounds a few decades earlier. In April 1992 an article had been published in Scientific American magazine with the incendiary title “The Multiregional Evolution of Humans.” The authors were Alan Thorne, a celebrity Australian anthropologist, who died in 2012, and Milford Wolpoff, a cheery anthropologist based at the University of Michigan, where he still works today. They hypothesized that there was something deeper to human difference, that perhaps we hadn’t all come out of Africa as fully modern humans after all.
Although this notion had been mooted before, for Wolpoff, this idea became cemented in the seventies. “I traveled and I looked, I traveled and I looked, I traveled and I looked,” he tells me. “And what I noticed was that in different regions, big regions—Europe, China, Australia, that is what I mean by regions, not small places—in different regions, it seemed to me there was a lot of similarity in fossils.” That is, they were “similar” in their difference: “They weren’t the same and they all were evolving.”
His big realization came in 1981 when Wolpoff was working with a fossilized skull from Indonesia slightly to the northwest of Australia, dated at roughly a million years and possibly older. A million years is an order of magnitude older than modern humans, hundreds of thousands of years before some of our ancestors first began to migrate out of Africa. It couldn’t possibly be the ancestor of any living person. Yet Wolpoff says he was struck by the similarities he thought he could see between its facial structure and that of modern-day Australians. “I had reconstructed a fossil that looked so much like a native Australian to me I almost dropped it,” he says. “I propped it up on my lap with the face staring at me. . . . When I turned it over on its side to get a good look at it, I was really surprised.”
Teaming up with Alan Thorne, who had done related research and shared his interpretation of the past, they came up with the theory that Homo sapiens evolved not only in Africa, but that some of the earlier ancestors of our species spread out of Africa and then independently evolved into modern humans, before mixing and interbreeding with other human groups to create the one single species we recognize today. In their article for Scientific American, which helped catapult their multiregional hypothesis into the mainstream, they wrote, “Some of the features that distinguish major human groups, such as Asians, Australian Aborigines and Europeans, evolved over a long period, roughly where these people are found today.”
They described these populations as “types,” judiciously steering clear of the word “race.” “A race in biology is a subspecies,” Wolpoff clarifies when I ask him about it. “It’s a part of a species that lives in its own geographic area, that has its own anatomy, its own morphology, and can integrate with other subspecies at the boundaries. . . . There are no subspecies anymore. There may have been [human] subspecies in the past—that’s something we argue about. But we do know there are no subspecies now.”
Many academics found Wolpoff and Thorne’s idea unconvincing or offensive, or both. According to Billy Griffiths, the multiregional way of thinking about human origins, which undercuts the fundamental belief that we are all one species and nothing else, has echoes of an earlier intellectual tradition. “Wherever we are in the world we look at the deep past and these immense spans of time through the lens of our present moment and our biases and what we want,” he tells me. “Archaeology is a discipline that is saturated by colonialism, of course. It can’t entirely escape its colonial roots.” Multiregionalism was a response to the available evidence at the time, but it also suggested that there must be something that profoundly sets “races” apart, that the roots of human difference aren’t recent, but actually run deep in time and, consequently, also in our minds and bodies. Its gives rise to the possibility that our origins aren’t quite so shared. “That’s the ugly political legacy that dogs the multiregional hypothesis,” he says.
Wolpoff has always been sensitive to the controversy he helped to stoke. He faced down plenty of criticism when he and Thorne published their work. “We were the enemy,” he recalls. “If we were right, there couldn’t be a single recent origin for humans. . . . They said, you’re talking about the evolution of human races in separate places independently of each other.”
And their theory remains unproven. Academics in the West and in Africa today generally accept that humans became modern in Africa and then adapted to the environments where they happened to move to fairly recently in evolutionary time—these are only superficial adaptations, such as skin color. But not everyone everywhere agrees. In China, there’s a common belief among both the public and leading academics that Chinese ancestry goes back considerably further than the migration out of Africa. One of Wolpoff’s collaborators, Wu Xinzhi, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has argued that fossil evidence supports the notion that Homo sapiens evolved separately in China from earlier human species who were living there more than a million years ago, despite data showing that modern Chinese populations carry about as much of a genetic contribution from modern humans who left Africa as other non-African populations do.
“There are many people who are not happy with the idea of African origin,” I’m told by Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford who researches human origins. “They have co-opted multiregionalism to make a claim that this is a simplistic idea, that races are real, and that people who have come from a particular area have always been there.” She tells me that this thinking appears to be prevalent not only in China but also in Russia. “There is no acceptance that they were ever African.”
For some, an unwillingness to accept African origins may be motivated by racism or nationalism, but this isn’t the case for all. There are those for whom it’s simply a way of squaring old origin stories with modern science. In Australia, for instance, Billy Griffiths tells me, many indigenous people favor the multiregional hypothesis because it sits closer to their own belief that they have been here from the very beginning. Indeed, this is an origin myth shared by cultures in many parts of the world. Until further evidence comes along (and maybe even after it does), the theory of a people’s origins can be to some extent a matter of choice, affected as much by personal motivations as by data. The past can never be completely known, so the classic multiregional hypothesis may hang on, despite its lack of support among scientists. It still has power.
While classic multiregionalism seems unlikely to be the story of our past, the fact that we now know our ancestors bred with other kinds of archaic humans does have implications. It gives nourishment to those who would like to resurrect the multiregional hypothesis in full. It’s a factual nugget that feeds fresh speculation about the roots of racial difference. Some dogged supporters of the multiregional hypothesis can rightly claim that at least one prediction made by Wolpoff and Thorne has turned out to be correct. The pair suggested that other now-extinct humans such as Neanderthals either evolved into modern humans or interbred with them. And on interbreeding, we now know from genetic evidence, the pair got it right. Some of our ancestors did mate with Neanderthals, although their contribution to our DNA today is so tiny that this couldn’t have been particularly widespread. But it did happen.
When I ask Wolpoff if he feels vindicated by this, he laughs. “You said ‘vindicated.’ We said ‘relief’!”
Genetics has done the unthinkable, says the rock-art expert Benjamin Smith. “The thing that has worried me is the way that genetics research has moved. . . . We thought that we were basically all the same, whether you’re a bushman in southern Africa, an Aboriginal Australian living in rural Western Australia, or someone like myself who is of European extraction. Everyone was telling us that we were all identical, all the modern science.” The latest discoveries appear to move the story a little closer back to the nineteenth-century account. “This idea that some of us are more interbred with Neanderthals, some of us are more interbred with Denisovans . . . and Aboriginal Australians had quite a high proportion of Denisovan genetics, for example. That could lead us back to the nasty conclusion that we are all different,” he warns. “I can see how it might be racialized.”
Indeed, when the Neanderthal connection was revealed by geneticists, personal ancestry-testing companies were quick to sell services offering paying members of the public the opportunity to find out how much Neanderthal ancestry they have, presumably in the expectation that this might mean something to them. The finding also had a peculiar effect on scientific research. Fairly soon after it was found that it was modern-day Europeans who have the closer association to Neanderthals—not, as it turned out, Aboriginal Australians—the image of the Neanderthal underwent a dramatic makeover. When their remains were first discovered in 1856, the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel had suggested naming them Homo stupidus. But now these same Neanderthals, once the dictionary definition of simple-minded, loutish, uncivilized thugs, became oddly rehabilitated.
Svante Pääbo, the director of the genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, who spearheaded some of the research that led to the discoveries of ancient interbreeding in the first place, was among those to marshal efforts to compare the genomes of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, in the search for what differs as well as what is present in both. And this was accompanied by plenty of speculation from others. In 2018 a set of researchers in Switzerland and Germany suggested that Neanderthals actually had quite “sophisticated cultural behaviour,” prompting one British archaeologist to wonder whether “they were a lot more refined than previously thought.” An archaeologist in Spain claimed that modern humans and Neanderthals must have been “cognitively indistinguishable.” A few even raised the possibility that Neanderthals could have been capable of symbolic thought, pointing to freshly discovered cave markings in Spain that appear to predate the arrival of modern humans (the finding failed to convince Benjamin Smith).
“Neanderthals are romanticized,” John Shea tells me. They’re no longer around, and we don’t have a great deal of evidence about what they were like or how they lived, which means they can be whatever we want them to be. “We’re free to project good qualities, things we admire, and the ideal on them.” In reality, whatever they were like, he says, “The interbreeding thing is more like a symbolic thing for us than it is of evolutionary consequence.”
Yet researchers haven’t been able to help themselves from looking for evolutionary consequences. One team of scientists claimed that the tiny peppering of Neanderthal DNA may have given Europeans different immune systems from Africans. Another published paper linked Neanderthal DNA to a whole host of human differences, including “skin tone and hair color, height, sleeping patterns, mood, and smoking status.” An American research group went so far as to try to link the amount of Neanderthal DNA people have with the shape of their brain, implying that non-Africans may have some mental differences from Africans as a result of their interbreeding ancestors.
For more than a century the word “Neanderthal” had been synonymous with low intelligence. In the space of a decade, once the genetic link to modern Europeans was suspected, that all changed. In the popular press, there was a flurry of excitement about our hitherto undervalued relatives. Headlines proclaimed that “we haven’t been giving Neanderthals enough credit” (Popular Science), that they “were too smart for their own good” (The Telegraph), that “humans didn’t outsmart the Neanderthals” (Washington Post). Meanwhile a piece in the New Yorker whimsically reflected on their apparent everyday similarity to humans, including the finding that they may have suffered from psoriasis. Poor things, they even itched like us. “With each new discovery, the distance between them and us seems to narrow,” wrote the author. In the popular imagination, the family tree had gained a new member.
In January 2017 the New York Times ran a story headlined “Neanderthals Were People, Too” and asked, “Why did science get them so wrong?” This was indeed the big question. If the definition of “people” had always included archaic humans, then why should Neanderthals so suddenly and so generously be accepted as “people” now? And not just accepted, but elevated to the celebrity status of sadly deceased genius cousin? It wasn’t all that long ago that scientists had been reluctant to accept the full humanity even of Aboriginal Australians. Gail Beck’s family had been denied their culture; treated in their own nation as unworthy of survival; their children ripped from their parents to be abused by strangers. In the nineteenth century Aboriginal Australians had been lumped together with Neanderthals as evolutionary dead ends, both destined for extinction. But now that common ground had been found between Europeans and Neanderthals, now we were all people! Now we had found our common ground!
If it had turned out that Aboriginal Australians were the ones to possess that tiny bit of Neanderthal ancestry instead of white people of European descent, would our Neanderthal cousins have found themselves quite so remarkably reformed? Would they have been welcomed with such warm hugs? It’s hard not to see the public and scientific acceptance of Neanderthals as “people like us” as another manifestation of the Enlightenment habit of casting humanity in the European image. In this case Neanderthals have been drawn into the circle of humankind by virtue of being just a little related to Europeans—forgetting that a century ago, it was their supposed resemblance to indigenous Australians that helped cast the latter, actual living human beings, out of the circle.
Milford Wolpoff is clear with me that he doesn’t think there is any biological basis to race, that there are no separate races, except as social categories. He comes across as honest and well meaning, and I believe him. The more we speak, the more I like him. But one obvious implication of his multiregional hypothesis is that if different populations became modern in their own way on their own territories, then maybe some became what we today recognize as human sooner than others. “A modern human from China looks different than a modern human in Europe, not in the important ways, but in other ways,” he tells me. “So did one become modern earlier than the other one?” It’s a line of thinking that opens a door for the politics of today to be projected onto the past, that gives rise to racial speculation even if that’s not what he intends.
There is still not enough evidence that any humans became modern outside of Africa in the way that classic multiregional theory suggests. Even Wolpoff concedes that Africa must remain at the heart of the story. “I will never say that all of modernity is African, but you’ve gotta think that most of it is,” he tells me, if only because in our deep past that’s where most people lived. It is impossible to airbrush Africa out of the lineage of every living person. The genetic evidence we have to date confirms that some version of an “out of Africa” scenario must have happened.
But over time, the picture inside Africa has changed to incorporate the growing scientific realization that our origins might have been a little fuzzier than we imagine. In the summer of 2018 Eleanor Scerri, at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, together with a large international team of geneticists and anthropologists, published a scientific paper suggesting that rather than humans evolving from a single lineage that can be traced to a single small sub-Saharan African population, perhaps our ancestors were the product of many populations across a far wider area within Africa. These Pan-African populations might have been isolated by distance or ecological barriers, and could therefore have been very different from one another. It is multiregionalism, if you like, but within one continent.
“Gradually we started to emerge from the occasional mixing of the populations that were spread around,” Scerri tells me. “The characteristics that define us as a species don’t appear in any single individual until much later. Before that, the characteristics of our species were distributed across the continent in different places at different times.” Modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged from this “mosaic.” “We need to look at all of Africa to get a good picture of origins.” This version of our past still puts Africa at its center, as the first home of our ancestors, but it also concedes that modern humans didn’t appear suddenly in one place looking and sounding sophisticated and producing representational art. There was no sudden moment at which the first modern human emerged. The characteristics of humans existed in various others before us.
John Shea agrees: “Humans evolved in Africa first. Not in just one garden of Eden, but among a broadly distributed population more or less like stops across a subway system. People were moving around along the rivers and coastlines.” In short, according to this view we are a product of longer periods of time and space, a mixture of qualities that incubated in Africa.
According to Martin Porr, the archaeologist in Australia, this version of the past is more plausible given the way that fossil evidence is scattered across the African continent. For him personally, it also resonates with indigenous Australian ways of defining what it means to be human. Up north in the Kimberley where he has worked most of the time, he says, rock art is not thought of as just images upon rock. “The rock is actually not a rock but it’s a formation out of the dreamtime that is alive, that is in the living world, that people inhabit. And people themselves are part of that.” Human and object, object and environment, are not separated by hard divisions the way they are in most Western worldviews.
“You can oscillate in and out of humanity just as objects and animals can oscillate between being human.” An inanimate object can take on human qualities, the way a doll does to a child. In that sense, too, Porr suggests that what made a being human in the past also oscillated.
“I think there’s nothing essential about human beings at all.” This, he explains, is how he has come to think about our origins. Not that our evolutionary journey was one big leap, but that we are the gradual products of elements that already existed, not only in our African ancestors but also in Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other archaic humans. Perhaps some of what we think of as purely human characteristics exist in other living creatures today, too.
It’s a radically different way of thinking about what it means to be human—ditching the European Enlightenment view and taking a cue instead from other cultures and older systems of thought. It’s a challenge to researchers who have dedicated their careers to identifying the first modern humans and defining what they were like, chasing the tail of the European Enlightenment philosophers who thought they already knew. Archaeologists are still trying to hunt down the earliest cave art, the earliest sign of symbolic thought, in the hope of pinpointing the magic moment at which we emerged, and where. Geneticists, too, hunt for magical ingredients in our genome, the ones that will indicate what makes us so remarkable. Yet increasingly the evidence suggests that it was never that simple.
“Very few people like looking at human origins from a postcolonial context, but there is a broader story,” says Porr. There are other ways of picturing humanity than as a uniquely special entity far removed from all other living things. Eleanor Scerri agrees that fresh scientific findings are forcing a rethink of what it means to be human. “Popular science needs to get away from this idea that we originated, and that was us. There’s never a time that we were not changing,” she says, “the idea of these immutable forms, and that we originate in one place and that’s who we are, that’s where we’re from.”
What does this mean for us today? If we can’t agree on what makes a modern human, then where does that leave the idea of universal humanity? If our origins aren’t crystal clear then how do we know that we’re all the same? What does it mean for race?
In a sense, it shouldn’t matter. How we choose to live and treat each other is a political and ethical matter, one that’s already been decided by the fact that as a society we have chosen to call ourselves human and give every individual human rights. In reality, though, the political tentacles of race reach into our minds and demand proof. If we are equally human, equally capable and equally modern, then there are those who need convincing before they grant full rights, freedoms, and opportunities to those they have historically treated as lesser. They need to be convinced before they will commit to redressing the wrongs of the past, before they agree to affirmative action or decolonization, before they fully dismantle the structures of race and racism. They’re not about to give away their power.
And if we’re honest, maybe we all need to be convinced. Many of us hold subtle prejudices, unconscious biases, and even just popular beliefs that betray our suspicion that we’re not quite the same. We cling to race even when we know we shouldn’t. A British friend of mine, of mixed Pakistani and white English ancestry, who has never been to Pakistan and has no real ties to the country anymore, told me recently that she believed there is something in her blood, something biologically deep within her that makes her feel Pakistani. I feel this way sometimes about my Indian heritage, although in my case I have strong cultural ties to the country of my parents. But where does culture end and ethnicity begin? Those of us who cherish our ethnic or racial identities, perhaps we, too, whether on the political left, right, or center, have some commitment to the idea of racial difference. Whether it is those supporters of President Donald Trump who speak of white supremacy, or whether it is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who apparently felt the need to prove her Native American ancestry through a DNA test when it was questioned by Trump, people everywhere of all political persuasions find it easy to buy in to the idea that biological race means something.
This is a problem for science. When Enlightenment thinkers looked at the world around them, some took the politics of their day as the starting point. It was the lens through which they viewed all human difference. We do the same today. The facts only temper what we think we already know. Even when we study human origins, we don’t actually start at the beginning. We start at the end: with our assumptions as the basis for inquiry. We need to be persuaded before we cast aside our prior beliefs about who we are. The way new research is interpreted is always at the mercy of the old ideas.
“You can either use the present to explain the past. Or you can use the past to explain the present,” John Shea tells me. “But you can’t do both.” To make sense of the past—and of ourselves—is not a simple job of gathering scientific data until we have the truth. It isn’t just about how many fossils we have or how much genetic evidence. It’s also about squaring the stories we have about who we are with the information we’re given. Sometimes this information becomes slotted into the old stories, reinforcing them and giving them strength, even if it needs to be forced like a round peg into a square hole. Other times we have to face the uncomfortable realization that a story must be ditched and rewritten because however hard we try it no longer makes sense.
the stories we’re raised on—the tales, myths, legends, beliefs, even the old
scientific orthodoxies—are how we frame everything we learn. The stories are
our culture. They are the minds we inhabit. And that’s where we have to start.