Hundreds of thousands of years ago, there were at least seven different species of humans in existence. That number has since been whittled down to one, as Homo sapiens is the only human species to have survived all those years of evolution. However, a new study suggests that there’s a reason why our species is the last of its kind, and that it wasn’t just evolution at work when Homo sapiens survived for much longer than other hominoid species did.
According to Patrick Roberts and Brian Stewart, who published their findings on Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Homo sapiens was able to survive in the long term because we are “generalist specialists” who combine the characteristics of generalist and specialist species
“A traditional ecological dichotomy exists between ‘generalists’, who can make use of a variety of different resources and inhabit a variety of environmental conditions, and ‘specialists’, who have a limited diet and narrow environmental tolerance,” explained Roberts, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
“However, Homo sapiens furnish evidence for ‘specialist’ populations, such as mountain rainforest foragers or paleo-arctic mammoth hunters, existing within what is traditionally defined as a ‘generalist’ species.”
Roberts and Stewart made this conclusion based on an extensive review of existing archaeological studies, which covered data from as far back as 300,000 years ago to as recently as 12,000 years ago.
As explained by ScienceAlert, humanity was once much more diverse. As mentioned, there are seven known species within the Homo genus that existed during prehistoric times, including Homo sapiens. Approximately 30,000 years ago, our species officially became the last one standing within the genus, following the extinction of the Neanderthals. Due to this, humans are not very genetically diverse, in the sense that we are alone in our genus, unlike most other animals.
Through the years, there have been different explanations that have sought to answer the question of why Homo sapiens survived and other human species didn’t. While superior intellect has often been thrown around as a simplistic, yet plausible explanation due to our various languages and dialects and ability to develop technology, other human species might not have been as intellectually challenged as once thought, according to ScienceAlert. For example, Neanderthals knew how to cook food with fire and create art, and even had a “social healthcare” system.
As illustrated in the study, the Homo genus was still at a very diverse point in its history around 3 million years ago and remained that way as certain species such as Homo erectus migrated to various parts of the world some 2 million years later. At that time, different human species thrived on similar forest and grass-based landscapes, and once the Ice Age hit, Neanderthals from eastern Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean were doing well as they hunted woolly mammoths and many of the other wild animals of the time.
According to Metro, things began to change significantly about 80,000 to 50,000 years ago when Homo sapiens “expanded to higher ground” and eventually began to take over a number of tropical rainforest areas, deserts, mountains, and paleo-arctic settings from Asia to the Americas with its “novel colonizing capacities.”
There have been many discoveries in recent years that provided more clarity as far as our history as a species is concerned. Researchers stress that it might be just as important to consider the “behavioral implications” of new fossil or genome discoveries, rather than the finds themselves, as these could help explain why Homo sapiens has survived like it has, said Stewart, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan.