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28 April 2008

Extinct Human Species Smarter Than Us?

Over a hundred centuries ago in a dusty corner of Mother Africa, human evolution may have leaped instead of crawled. Do the remains of Boskop Man foreshadow the future of humanity? And if so, why aren't these ultimate humans here now, instead of us?

The path of human evolution has been anything but a straight line from past to present. Much like a growing tree or a flowing river, branches and tributaries appear off the main trunk and either thrive, or taper off and peter out. When the game is survival of the species, evolutionary adaptations are mercilessly judged by nature, red in tooth and claw.

Evolution is also punctual in character. Change is often sudden, provoked by a beneficial mutation or a rapid change in the environment. When we look at the human family tree, all of the aforementioned trends can be seen. Neanderthal Man appears, thrives for a time in the glaciated terrain of prehistoric Europe, then fades out just as modern man appears on the scene. Further back in time, a plant-eating hominid called Australopithecus Boisei branched out from the main Australopithecine line. Robust in frame with huge teeth and mighty jaws, A. Boisei was perfectly adapted for lush, tropical conditions with abundant flora... until the climate changed and the flora died off. The gentle giants did likewise.

Specialized adaptations like the Neanderthal's ruggedness and A.Boisei's plant-eating were exceptions to the general trend of human evolution - that being an increase in brain size and a corresponding reduction in jaw size. This trend is coded in our genes, but is still subject to the influences of environment and mutation. This brings us to a group of skulls and skeletal remains found in the early years of the 20th century, in a part of South Africa known as Boskop. Could it be that in this isolated African backwater, a genetic mutation appeared that jumped human evolution ahead... not just by a page or two, but by several chapters?

One might think that a brainier, presumably smarter human population would make mincemeat out the local carnivores while out-competing any "normal" Homo Sapiens who ventured into their territory. Not necessarily. A sudden shift towards a futuristic physiognomy - without the accompanying societal, mechanical and technological framework needed to support it - would have left the Boskopoids much like babes in the woods. Balancing oversized heads on slim, gracile bodies, they would be at a pronounced disadvantage when running down prey - or running away from predators.

A scientific analysis of the Boskop fossils, "Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence," was recently published by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, neuroscientists from the Dartmouth Brain Engineering Laboratory. A more poetic reflection on Boskop Man entitled "Man of the Future" was written in 1958 by science writer Loren Eiseley as a chapter of his larger volume, "The Immense Journey". It makes for intriguing reading, as the following excerpt indicates:

"The man of the future came, and looked out among us once with wistful, if unsophisticated eyes. He left his bones in the rubble of an alien land. If we read evolution aright, he may come again in another million years."

Was Boskop Man, a man out of time... stranded in a rough, predatory world without the tools needed to master it. Or is there another possibility, one which demands you open your mind to things that fly in the face of what we've so far taken for granted.

What if the Boskopoids not only survived, but thrived? What if they used their advanced intelligence to "leave the cradle", as it were. Where would they go? Well, the universe is a big place. If they left Earth for bigger and better things, one might assume they would leave as little trace of themselves as possible out of respect for their more primitive yet upcoming cousins - us.

All right, if you've taken this leap of faith, consider what it means and where it leads. Boskop Man suddenly appeared, used his big brain and superior intelligence to create a technology so advanced that it allowed them to leave the Earth entirely, but... would they forget the place of their birth so easily? Consider what a Boskopoid would look like: huge, rounded heads, big wide eyes set into small, child-like faces - sound familiar? To paraphrase FDR, "we have met the aliens, and they are us!"

I will admit, the curious combination of facts and speculation in this article read like something out of a sci-fi fantasy. It's much more likely that the remains of Boskop Man represent only a few members of prehistoric modern Homo Sapiens whose cranial capacities are at the far upward limits of the average. However - stranger things have happened and the current level of our archeological knowledge is by no means the be all and end all. The recent discovery of tiny "hobbit" humans on the Indonesian island of Flores is a perfect example. So keep an open mind, and remember... nothing is impossible, only improbable.

Article by Steve Levenstein from Inventor Spot. Submit your thoughts - click here!

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