“They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.”
It was a typical Saturday night at the end of a typical week. Mo Basher, Deirdre Flowers and I recovered at the best table in our favourite café, The Ten Thousand Things. We ordered a second bottle of Chianti under the chequered light of the café’s wineglass chandelier. Mo taught World History at Concordia University. He displayed a special interest in Indian and pre-Socratic philosophy, medieval cosmology, Renaissance manners, and Deirdre Flowers. Deirdre Flowers was a emergency room nurse at the Montreal General Hospital.
“So the Neanderthals died out—” I inquired.
“Only 30,000 years ago,” Mo said, scratching his soul patch.
“Why?” asked Deirdre as she stroked a few mutinous strands of blond hair back behind a teaspoon ear.
“Disease, possibly,” Moe continued. “Or bad weather and starvation. Or, more likely—”
“Homo sapiens,” I said.
“Yes, genocide.” Mo narrowed his dark mirror eyes.
The second bottle of Chianti arrived and I poured out a round. Floral aromas, bright cherry fruit. I noticed that Deirdre’s cheeks flushed Tiepolo pink.
“In 2010,” Mo said, “a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome revealed that 1–4 percent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. This revelation stunned the scientific community.”
“Political dynamite,” I added.
“Why?” Deirdre asked, her pale blue eyes opening wide as windflowers.
“About 100,000 years ago,” Mo continued, “there were at least six species of humans wandering Africa, Europe, and Asia: Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo denisova, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo floresiensis.”
Lhasa, the enormous grey café cat, pattered to our table. She rubbed up against Deirdre’s long, rosy legs like a lion rubbing up against a Manketti Tree in the African savannah.
“Starting about 70,000 years ago, as Homo sapiens migrated out of East Africa to West Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, the local populations of Neanderthals, Erectus, and other human species began to die out. About 1.4 million years ago, long before we Sapiens evolved, Homo Ergaster went extinct. But Homo erectus survived for two million years, until they were suddenly wiped out, most probably by us.”
“How long did the Neanderthals survive?” I asked.
“About 500,000 years. We Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years. Before dying out 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs dominated the earth for 180 million years.”
“We’ll be lucky to make it to the next century,” I added.
Deirdre caressed Lhasa’s throat with her willowy fingers, slender as a book of poetry.
Mo cleared his throat and sipped his Chianti. The light of the wineglass chandelier discoed across his obsidian eyes, as if reflecting a schema or hologram inside his mind.
“There’s two theories about the more recent stages of our evolution,” he said. “The Interbreeding Theory argues that when Homo sapiens spread into the Middle East and Europe, we merged with the local Neanderthals. That means that today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens, but a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals. Similarly, today’s Chinese and Koreans are a mix of Sapiens and Erectus.”
Lhasa nudged her well fed cheeks against Deirdre’s sculpted feet. Greek sandals. Toenails lacquered red like a constellation of moons.
“The opposing view, the Replacement Theory, argues that Sapiens replaced all the previous human populations without merging with them. If the Replacement Theory is right, genetic and therefore racial differences between all living humans are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there are genetic differences between Africans, Asians, and Europeans that go back hundreds of thousands of years.”
“Feeding into explosive racial theories,” I added.
Deirdre’s long, lean fingers traced the rim of her wine glass. Crescents of light. Artemis the huntress and virgin, daughter of Zeus, sister of Apollo.
“Many people mistakenly think that Ergaster begat Erectus, who begat Neanderthals, who begat us,” Mo continued. “They think that all earlier human species were merely earlier models of ourselves. Of course, this is nonsense. The truth is that from about two million years ago until about 10,000 years ago, the world contained several human species. And why not? Look at Lhasa.”
Lhasa peered up at Mo, ears forward, her slitted cat eyes portals of mischief.
“All cats, from Lhasa to the most ferocious lion, belong to the same cat family. This family shares a common feline ancestor who lived about 25 million years ago. Likewise, we Homo sapiens belong to a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our family goes back about 6 million years.”
“When’s the reunion?” I asked. Deirdre tittered and flipped her hair like Kate Moss on a photo shoot for Vogue.
“For two million years, prehistoric humans had no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish,” Mo continued. “Then, a 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens jumped from the middle to the top of the food chain. But before we evolved into ecological serial killers by destroying most of the world’s plants and animals, we perpetrated the world’s most successful genocide, and likely exterminated all rival human species. The last of them, Homo floresiensis, disappeared just 12,000 years ago.”
“Who were Homo flors . . . flores . . . ?” Deirdre asked.
“Homo floresiensis was a dwarf species of man who lived on the small island of Flores in Indonesia,” Mo replied with a semiquaver of melancholy. “And now, for thousands of years, as consummate predators, we’ve dominated the earth. We’ve invented gods, demons, nations, prisons, money, debt, laws, terrorism, justice, nuclear warheads, and human rights. But we lack the majesty of top predators such as sharks and lions, whose millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. We’re more like a banana republic dictator, full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.”
“And here we are, headed toward our own extinction,” I added.
“An animal of no significance,” Deirdre concluded.