When did humanity begin? This is not an easy or even realistic question. Unlike human individuals, there was no precise moment of conception or birth that we can all agree on. The exact moment the genus Homo diverged from its primate ancestors is murky and debatable at best. It’s even arguable exactly what “humanity” means in the first place. Does humanity include only our species Homo sapiens? Or does it include our many hominid precursors like the Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo australopithecus, and others?
There was no one inarguable birthday for humanity, no one moment when we emerged fully formed from our ancestors. No, our development has been a slow, gradual, murky process. Any answer we might give would be a story, a somewhat arbitrary line in the sand, much like when we transition from infants to children or from children to adults, or the shift from day to night. There is no precise moment marking these transitions. They are open to interpretation. But at some point they become unmistakable and undeniable.
But nevertheless, the question is important. Because underneath the question of when humanity began is a deeper, much more fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? What defines humanity and differentiates it from the rest of life on Earth? If we know what the essential characteristics of humanity are, then it becomes much easier to say when those characteristics first emerged, and therefore when humanity began.
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