The Human Journey

What Does it Mean to be Human?

Vitruvian Man
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

The future depends on our understanding who we are, and how the past has made us so: what is unchanging about Human Nature, and what we can and must change to face a world that is far different from our ancestors’ world.

Where and when did humanity begin? Follow a long line of early ancestors, a line that is constantly updated by new findings. Then discover the new characteristics that around 100,000 – 75,000 years ago began to define our early ancestors as “human”. We cannot be precise about where or when since the evidence is scattered throughout the world, but the evidence is clear.

If we don’t know our history, social, psychological and biological, we can’t adapt fully to a world that we made.

Plato and Aristotle by Raphael
Plato and Aristotle by Raphael

Where humanity once was a straggling ragtag bunch, we are now in danger of becoming a monster capable of devouring all life.

What to do? First we need to know what the human journey was and to understand the paths we took and why.

Even before the first modern humans (homo sapiens) evolved, their ancestors reached what is now Georgia. Then, about 100,000 years ago, modern humans appeared in East Africa and the Middle East. Research in fields such as genetics, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and linguistics helps us follow the major routes taken by modern humans in their expansion from these areas to the present day.

The Zoroastrian Temple at Yazd, Iran. Krishna and Radha: Hindu Religion. Jews Praying in the Synagog by Gottlieb. The Sermon on the Mount by Bloch: Christian Religion. Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem: Muslim Religion

Moving beyond our inheritance; who we are and what we might become
The human story is one of movement and adaptation to our own movement—individually and collectively, psychologically and physically.

People who have not seen two-dimensional images
have no difficulty reproducing this image
from memory – can you?

The process has been the evolution of perception under different circumstances. 75 percent of the human brain develops after birth, so the different “worlds” we inhabit—family, language, culture—actually complete the brain’s development. As a result, people from different “worlds” are wired up differently because our brains have been exposed to different influences. That is one reason why individuals in different cultures have such difficulty understanding each other: even their visual systems are not the same.

A vivid example, that helps to keep this phenomena in mind, comes from the late cultural anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s wonderful book about living among the African Mbuti Pygmies:

Kenge looked over the plain and down to a herd of buffalo some miles away. He asked me what kind of insects they were, and I told him buffalo, twice as big as the forest buffalo known to him. He laughed loudly and told me not to tell him such stupid stories. ... We got into the car and drove down to where the animals were grazing. He watched them getting larger and larger, and though he was as courageous as any pygmy, he moved over and sat close to me and muttered that it was witchcraft. … When he realized they were real buffalo he was no longer afraid, but what puzzled him was why that had been so small, and whether they had really been small and suddenly grown larger or whether it had been some kinds of trickery. (Colin Turnbull, The Forest People, 1961).

As our contact with other cultures increases, it’s vital to understand differences in human development to appreciate better what we share and can learn from each other. We need to evolve more accurate views of our world and ourselves from which we can develop a more complete understanding of who and what we are, and what we might become, individually and humanity as a whole. We human beings inherit much, and the most important thing we inherit is the ability to go beyond our inheritance.


Follow those who left
Starting from our beginnings in Africa and the Middle East, follow those who left, consider what factors mitigated their leaving, and see where they went.

Stages of the human journey:

  • The journey started from Eastern Africa and the Middle East. Where did it take us? How did we change along the way? How did our journey affect us all so differently and in so many ways: skin color, languages, cultures, customs, and beliefs?
  • Humanity’s movement began with small groups splintering off and beginning their individual evolution, developing perceptions of the world in response to different circumstances.
  • Eventually peoples crossed paths, influenced each other, and began to come back together.

Navigate through these stages to see what adaptations/choices were required/selected in various circumstances, how these and adaptations to various environments lead to specific changes in culture, diet, world view, perception, social organization, language, math, and forms of communication.

As human beings, we not only adapt, we make choices.

Apollo 7

What are the real goals, stated or unstated, driving these choices? What, in the perception of the community or its leaders, were the reasons why something needed to happen? What were the perceived problems and their possible solutions?

See which solutions were selected in different communities and why. How did these solutions affect the community and change people's perceptions of themselves and their world? See how the accumulation of such creative adaptations makes our cultures and us so different from each other.

Explore how we are all the same. What are the “Human Universals,” the things we all have in common with which we began the journey and which continue to unite us as human beings?

Nations with largest populations (in red)

Key Questions About Mankind

Along the way, confront some of the most basic questions about mankind.

Who are we, really?
How did our myths about ourselves develop? Which myths are useful and which stand in our way? What tendencies in us made us select and cling to the stories we chose to represent our histories? Are there patterns running through these histories we can recognize because of our exposure to psychology, both traditional and contemporary?

What is the basic “package”?
What do we all share—e.g., nervous system, language ability?

Why do we always form groups?
What is the role of the small group in fostering new adaptive change? As groups became larger and began to move, what structures and institutions developed to handle the changes and keep society organized? How and when do institutions begin to serve themselves instead of the people and begin to lose their adaptive value? What patterns, similarities and differences do we see in the development of our various cultures, myths and stories, religion, language, diet, emotions, art and architecture, music?

Communication: Sumerian text (2400 BC), the Gutenberg Bible (1455)
and a map of the internet

Problem-solving and specialization
Human beings were always problem solvers. But once out of the immediate danger of large predators, how good were we at selecting the real problems that needed solving? Or did we focus on the problems that attracted us: the emotionally satisfying ones, or the easy ones?

How did dealing with expanded territory and community contribute to specialization? Did specialization contribute to an emphasis of some views and skills over others?

How accurate is our view of ourselves now?
How accurate is our view of our thought as “rational,” our emotions as “true” our speech as “honest,” our choices as ethical, our God or not-god as “right”?

Once we begin to answer these questions, like a master chess player, we can better predict outcomes and make moves to ensure a better future.


Turning Points in Thought: Pre-Axial Thought, Axial Age Thought, Post-Axial Thought Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society | Creating a Sustainable Future Our Nearest Relatives | Discovering Our Distant Ancestors | Human Universals The Evolution of Language | Out of Africa