60,000 BP

Something happened maybe 60,000 years ago, maybe 50,000, but certainly by 40,000 years ago. An evolution in the brains of early modern humans brought a level of inquisitiveness and creativity that started rapid technological and artistic development.

Within a few tens of thousands of years of this the other hominins all became extinct. We know that humans interacted with these hominins because some of their DNA can still be found in modern humans, so it is a reasonable deduction to make that this evolutionary change in humans may have been the new factor that caused the populations of the other hominins to go into decline, after thousands of years of successful survival.

It could of course just be sheer chance that humans survived and the other hominins did not. The world may have gone through one or more periods when survival was extremely difficult and all hominins, humans included, suffered massive population decline, with humans being the lucky survivor. But if this was not the case and the reality is that humans out-competed the other hominins, pushing them into more difficult and marginal territories and maybe even killing them, we need to ask what it is about humans that sets us apart from these other very capable hominins.

Development of this exceptional thinking capability does not appear to be something that happened as a slow evolution in hominins. It is a mutation that had a much bigger impact than all the other mutations that must have happened. It is hard to see it as comparable to the kinds of mutations Darwin noticed in Galapagos finches or that man has caused in dogs by breeding-on mutations felt useful. The survival capabilities of early modern humans, and that of all the other hominins, had been proved over hundreds of thousands of years. They knew how to exploit a wide variety of land and water food sources. It is hard to see the human brain mutation as an evolution that gave humans an immediate survival advantage that would trigger survival of the fittest. The other hominins continued to survive for many thousands of years.

It is understandable that wading in water to exploit sea and river food caused bipedalism to evolve. It is understandable that the richer foods they then gained fed brain development to evolve ape-like hominids into hominins. It is understandable that homo-floriesiensis evolved because small stature was a survival advantage in the forest environment in which they lived, just as it is presumably for pygmy tribes today. But it is hard to see evolution of abstract and creative thinking, and technological capability beyond that of other hominins, being driven by an external factor. Either the sheer chance of this mutation or another factor that did not similarly impact on the other hominins must have been the cause.

And I cannot see any other point of such sudden and important evolution in the preceding hundreds of thousands of years, or any time since.

Read the story for more.