What does the first true humans mean? It means people just like us: the same bodies, the same psyches, the same spirits. We are surrounded by a media barrage about hominids: Australopitecens, Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, etc., meant to tell us something about the first true humans. And it is easy to confuse these prehumans with genuine humans. But they are not. It might have been on the way to us, but they are not us yet, and this distinction is very important especially from a theological point of view. What we want to know is who are genuine humans from a theological point of view so that they belong to the realm of grace, and are those people about whom we will talk about original justice and original sin.
I. Anthropology. In recent decades anthropology has made remarkable progress in determining the time and place that modern human beings appeared. It debated, for example, whether these modern humans appeared in numerous places, or first in Europe, until the evidence both archaeological and genetic became more and more certain that Africa was their true home. In an article that appeared in Nature in 1989, for example, Rebecca Cann, Mark Stonehill and Alan Wilson analyzed the DNA evidence that pointed in that direction, and later Christopher Henshilwood uncovered beads and slabs of ochre in Blombos Cave near Still Bay in the southern cape region of South Africa. In this particular case it was a question of 39 Nastarius kraussianus, or tick shells, which were dated to 75,000 years ago. These shells were deliberately perforated by people of that time, and the pieces of red ochre were inscribed with designs. These activities point to symbolic and abstract thinking, which is likely to have been going on for some time previously, and thus to culturally human activity.
For any number of anthropologists culturally human behavior appeared suddenly, so it is possible to speak of a Great Leap Forward, and they speculated on the cause of this transition. Perhaps, they reasoned, it was brought about by a genetic change that altered the ability of these hominids to handle complex abstract language. Above Lake Naivasha in central Kenya is found Enkapune Ya Muto, or Twilight Cave where the archaeologist Stanley Ambrose found fragments of ostrich shell beads. These beads were found elsewhere, as well, in Mumba and Kisese II in Tanzania, and Border Cave, and Boomplaas Cave in South Africa. The anthropologists and archaeologists, reflecting on what they had learned from modern hunter-gatherers, came to the conclusion that these beads likely had a special meaning, and represented a kind of reciprocity between distant bands symbolizing a deep bond between these different groups. In summary, the picture that begins to arise is that at a particular point more than 75,000 years ago and rather suddenly anatomical humans began to become cultural humans, as well.
II. Philosophy and Theology. Now what would happen if we were to take these tentative anthropological ideas and use them to stimulate philosophical and theological reflections? After the Second Vatican Council the old speculations about the original state of our first parents and about original sin began to fade away, but new ideas did not arise to take their place. But these anthropological possibilities could help us rediscover a new way to encounter our philosophical and theological ideas. It is certainly worth trying.
The philosophy of Aristotle and St. Thomas is based on matter and form. It envisions a hierarchy of forms starting with the inanimate, then the vegetative, and the animal form. What is striking about this hierarchy is that it is immanent. A vegetative form, for example, is encompassed by an animal form. All the powers of the vegetative form are taken up within the animal form. The vegetative powers do not disappear, but become virtual within the animal form. The animal form reaches a certain perfection as a hominid which strives for greater intelligence. These hominids have an animal intelligence that goes beyond the limits of animal intelligence, not that it can reach a spiritual intelligence, but that it strives for a spiritual form without reaching it.
Maritain proposes an interesting idea about prehumans, that is, hominids that existed before the first spiritual creatures. These prehumans, he imagines, were more intelligent than the prehumans that exist today, that is, gorillas, chimpanzees, and so forth. Once spiritual creatures were created, however, there was no need for the prehumans with their intelligence which was meant to lead to spiritual creatures.
At this point God intervenes to infuse a spiritual soul, and we have a hominid with a spiritual soul. And the other hominids fall away, as it were, and became hominids with animal souls with that spiritual striving no longer present. In the case of the Great Leap Forward what we have, if we looked at it in philosophical terms, is a sudden gift of a spiritual soul, sudden because the spiritual soul is given once and for all. In the same way, it is given in a particular place. The spiritual soul allows us to understand why a cultural human is capable of having an abstractive intellect. The anthropological perspective coincides nicely with the philosophical one. In short, the Great Leap Forward = the advent of the spiritual soul.
From a theological point of view the advent of the spiritual soul is the beginning of the life of grace, and the life of grace requires our free assent. If that assent is not given, then we have the situation of original sin. Therefore, the spiritual soul comes with the beginning of the life of grace, and the refusal of that grace leads to original sin. Thus we are left with looking at the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, and end up saying that we are in the situation of a fallen nature.
Who Are the First True Humans?
From an anthropological point of view the first true humans are those who are not only anatomical, but also culturally human, as well. From a philosophical point of view it means those who have a spiritual soul. From an anthropological point of view the first true humans appeared more than 75,000 years ago in Africa. From a philosophical and spiritual point of view they had spiritual souls created at a particular time and place, possibly in Africa, and more than 75,000 years ago. When advanced hominids were given spiritual souls the anthropological and the philosophical and theological perspectives, while distinct, tend to come together.