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Questioning the origin of human life is essential for our present-day existence, as uncovering mysteries of the past provide insight for the future. Though there are many unknowns about our human beginnings, one thing is certain: we are from Africa.

We Homo sapiens are the single surviving branch on an evolutionary tree full of previous dead ends. With offshoots and branches of extinct ancestors that failed to thrive, our success was the result of successive species possessing abilities that produced an adaptable and highly intelligent organism.

One of our earliest and best-known ancestors is Lucy, the skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis, which lived 3.2 million years ago and was discovered in Ethiopia. She was a crossover species, part hominid with a bipedal upright gait, but part non-hominin ape with a small skull. The first of her kind to stand upright gave her the advantage of free hands to carry things and a heightened posture that could ward off predators by appearing larger. Later came Homo habilis, meaning handy man, which lived in Kenya and Tanzania between 2.3 and 1.5 million years ago. He used tools, which increased his ability to kill game and led to eating more meat, providing more protein for a growing brain.

Homo erectus, upright man, existed between 1.9 million and 70,000 years ago. This species had large craniums with less protrusive features, was tall and very slender, with long arms and legs, and was the first to use fire to cook and make hand-axes out of stone. It is one of the longest living species of Homo and spread from Africa all the way to India and throughout Indonesia. Meanwhile, another species of Homo was evolving in Africa. Homo sapiens, wise man, evolved 200,000 years ago and were the first anatomically modern humans. Their physical attributes include a larger skull for housing larger brains an overall more lithe frame that became dependent on technology rather than raw physical power. 

Despite the great diversity and history of species, occurring over the period of ten million years, we possess 99% of the same genetic sequence as chimpanzees and bonobos. So at what point in our evolution did we become human? When did we develop the characteristics that define our unique species, allowing us to adapt and proliferate, build kingdoms and fly beyond our planet? When did we acquire the skills allowing us to solve problems, plan ahead, use symbols and written language, and express our unique identities? Where exactly is the origin of humanity as we know it?

Although there is considerable debate what distinguishes us from other Homo species, most scholars agree the characteristics and behaviors that are distinctly modern human are language, abstract thought, symbolism, creative expression and collective learning. Archeological evidence of behavioral modernity includes fishing, figurative art, pigment, jewelry, and fire to make tools. One such expedition in South Africa has uncovered a well-preserved archeological site, Blombos Cave, along the rugged coastline, dating to a coastal community of Homo sapiens that resided there 70,000-100,000 years ago.

The first piece of art ever documented was discovered in Blombos Cave. On a small piece of dried stone, the first use of symbols drawn by humans is a set of six lines criss-crossing carved into a rock. From 73,000 years ago, this forms the first symbolic expression yet discovered that was produced by "modern man." Artifacts with geometric representations are associated with modern human thought and cognitive complexity, noted before in zig-zag etchings from Gibraltar, Java and the Netherlands from 50,000 years ago. The Blombos Cave discovery predates this by 20,000, thus marking the earliest discovery of modern human behavior.

Other discoveries from Blombos Cave are the findings of collected crushed pigments (ochre, bone, charcoal) that were stored in abalone shells. Shells that had been carved into beads and strung together were discovered, potentially used for decoration, expression, or to indicate status. Hundreds of arrowheads (bifacial points) with different degrees of sharpness and designs are definite evidence of tool usage. Such sophisticated use of tools eventually developed into modern technology.

So what inferences about humans today can one make from rocks in a cave? Why does it matter where we came from, where we evolved, and where we are now? Does it even matter where we originated?

There was a time in human history when our success depended on every member of a tribe. There was an age when the wisdom from our ancestors was integral to the success of our species, when we learned the most from those who were about to die. Knowledge, passed down from generation to generation, from tribe to tribe, allowed humans to not only survive but to become the dominant species. Every human alive today emerged from one tribe that left Africa and went on to populate the rest of the planet.

A recent article published in Nature confirmed that all non-Africans today can trace their ancestry to a population emerging from Africa between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago. Three different teams of geneticists tested the genomes of indigenous populations around the world. As populations live in isolation, whether due to a river separating groups of people, a desert or an island, their genetic sequence experiences mutations over time and become localized and specific to their population. This is why different populations have different physical features. For example, darker skin protects the body from absorbing a harmful amount of UV rays. Tightly curled hair keeps hair off the neck and exposes more scalp, and larger lips increase surface area, both of which to help cool the body by evaporation of sweat. Broad noses retain more moisture and are better suited for hot and humid climates. Blue eyes allow in more light than dark-colored eyes and are better adapted for regions with reduced sunlight. Populations in the Arctic have layers of fat on their face for additional warmth. These genetic mutations have enabled our species to thrive and populate this planet, enabling the Inuit to survive in Greenland and the Tuareg in the Sahara Desert.

Africans have the greatest genetic diversity of all people. Genetic diversity helps a population sustain itself and give the body greater resistance to fight disease. It’s also an indicator of the age of someone’s genetics: the longer DNA has been passed down, the more genetically diverse a people are. The highest genetic diversity of any group of humans living today is possessed by the Khoisan, which comprise two tribes, the Khoikhoi and the San Bushmen, both pastoral hunter-gatherers indigenous to Southern Africa. Genetic data found in their genomes and mitochondrial DNA indicate they come from the oldest lineage of humans, thus have earned them the “first-people” status. The Khoisan, still living today, are the direct descendants of the tribe that inhabited Blombos Cave, the first people to exhibit modern human behavior, and we are a direct descendant of their lineage.

Once the dominant tribe of Africa and the forebearers of our species, today Khoisan numbers are greatly in decline. Stronger tribes, predominantly European colonizers, dominated and upended their peaceful way of life, doing little to respect and support their belief system and history. South African apartheid government labeled the Khoisan as “coloured”, intermixing them with other populations of mixed African, European and Asian ancestry and allowed for the disintegration of their culture. Today the South African government refuses to amend the constitution to acknowledge the Khoisan as indigenous people, granting them land restitution and access to their sacred historical sites. A report in 2014 in Nature stated that their population may be as low as 100,000 Khoisan living. 

From the time humans evolved 200,000 years ago, to the time that they left Africa 40,000-80,000 years ago, they developed their skillset in Africa. As a successive lineage of highly adaptable and genetically diverse organisms, prepared to conquer elements and use our growing brains for survival, we have come. Any barriers that divide and separate our species is not an initiative of our collective conscious and is an error of our existence, for there is no race, only the human race.

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