I had recently watched the movie Planet of the Apes. In the movie, chimpanzees are the dominant species and humans are at their mercy. Sadly, in this present reality, the great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans - are on the verge extinction. If evolution had taken a different turn, humans could have been the ones endangered, kept in cages, sold as pets, or hunted for food and sport.
Disease, lack of food, predators and other hominid species could have halted our climb up the evolutionary ladder. Would another human-like primate take better care of the planet? To say yes would be pure conjecture. Another species could treat humans as vermin or try to co-exist with us. In the movie Planet of the Apes, humans were oppressed by chimpanzee overlords. Our hominid family tree can provide two compelling alternatives: Homo erectus and Neanderthals.
The world was in the Pleistocene glaciation about two million years ago, and the northern hemisphere was covered by ice sheets, hostile conditions that initially restricted Homo erectus to Africa. Our archaic ancestor ate meat, made advanced stone tools and used fire. New variants of Homo erectus evolved 700.000* years ago according to the conventional timeline of human evolution, eventually giving rise to Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. In a different timeline, Homo erectus still gave rise to humans and Neanderthals but outnumbered them nine to one.
In the new timeline, the ice age has gradually loosened its grip on North Africa and Eurasia, paving the way for an explosion in Homo erectus numbers. Within six thousand years H. erectus had developed into regional types, living in sophisticated communities. The two remaining hominid species, Neanderthals and humans, were hunted and enslaved. Later, as Homo erectus society became fully urbanized, fringe human species were given special status and eating their flesh became taboo. However, hunting them for sport was allowed but regulated. Humans then became extinct due to a disease outbreak.
The ancestors of Neanderthals diverged from Eurasian Homo erectus approximately 350.000 years ago, and about two hundred thousand years later, true Neanderthals appeared. They roamed the harsh landscape of Europe and western Asia in small bands, hunting big game including ibex, wild boar, and mammoths, and there is evidence they ate cooked vegetables. Neanderthals were muscular and stocky, which made them supremely adapted for cold environments. They formed complex social groups, buried their dead, and made sophisticated stone tools. Low genetic diversity was one of the reasons Neanderthals became extinct. However, while their low overall genetic variability was low, early ice age and eastern populations were genetically more robust.
In an alternate paleo-history, the eastern Neanderthals survived population bottlenecks and with the bad genes weeded out, their numbers rebounded, allowing them to recolonize western Asia and Europe. Twelve thousand years before the present, buoyed by the warming climate, large bands of Neanderthals entered the Middle East from Turkey, Armenia, and northern Iran. Shortly thereafter, the settling of North America began via the Bering Strait, followed by South America. In the meantime, African remained relatively untouched as humans resisted contact with non-Africans. Neanderthals adapted and evolved over the millennia into a technological, multicultural, multiracial, and egalitarian society, showing tolerance towards other hominid species and living in harmony with the natural world.
Unlike Neanderthals, humans were destructive and greedy. They bred recklessly, overhunted prey species, and slashed and burned forests, much to the horror of Neanderthals. Fifteen hundred years ago, drawn by abundant resources, humans flooded into the Middle East, testing the tolerance of Neanderthals living there. After co-existing uneasily with Neanderthals for 500 years, Homo sapiens sapiens* overstayed their welcome and were wiped out. Other hominids like Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis lived peacefully until they were genetically absorbed by their Neanderthal cousins. Roughly four percent of the non-African genome of people is Neanderthal, which scientists attribute to human and Neanderthal interbreeding.
Humans are the top hominid in this planet of the apes, but it is bad news for all living creatures on this planet. There won’t be another hominid species to stop people from totally destroying the biosphere, probably within the next two centuries.
Image of a Neanderthal man, used under Wikipedia Creative Commons license
* All dates are approximate and are subject to change.
** Homo sapiens sapiens is the full name of the human species.