The Great Leap Forward

It’s that time of year again, Raya season hooray!

For us modern humans we are lucky. We know what to expect and have been planning forward, saving a few extra ringgits, fasting (for the faithful), making preparations, buying new clothes and much more. After all we know the routine every Hari Raya: the same thing happens every year at around this time. But to our ancestors, just because an event happened again and again in the past, it didn’t mean that it was going to happen again in the future. Although homo sapiens has been around in its current physical form since a hundred thousand years ago, our minds are much-much newer.

A hundred thousand years ago, we made no art, we didn’t decorate or paint our bodies, we had no belief in an afterlife and we didn’t project from the past into the future. Things stayed that way for a thousand years and then suddenly, 40,000 years ago something happened. Anthropologists (people who studies humans past and present) call it “the Great Leap Forward” and it was a turning point in human history. Neil Armstrong's giant step for mankind would pale in comparison. When the Great Leap Forward occurred, we suddenly started painting cave wells which is still evident in many places around the world today. That was our first art form and expression. Then we began adorning our bodies with jewelry - the first indication that we had any idea of of ourselves as individuals. And perhaps, most significantly, we started to believe in god and the afterlife.

Until about 40,000 years ago, homo sapiens did not bother to bury the dead. To keep the awful stench from attracting scavengers and predators, they just shove the bodies into holes in the ground. However starting from the Great Leap Forward, we began adding stuff into the holes, things what archeologists call “grave goods” such as food supplies, clothes, spears that could only mean to be used in the afterlife. It was as if a switch had been turned on in our brains, turning on our consciousness - letting us remember the past and wonder about the future.
Homo neanderthalensis, our long lost cousin
Interestingly though, the turning on of consciousness only happened to us - the homo sapiens not to any other human species. You see, we were not the only kind of humans that existed back then. We had our burly cousins the Neanderthals who lived together with us across Europe to Asia. The Neanderthals just went along without ever taking the great leap. They had no art, no religion and as far as we can tell, no true consciousness. And that means that even if something happened every year in the past like rainy seasons or Hari Raya or the balik kampung rush, the Neanderthals would not assume that it was going to happen again this year. How do we know that? Salmon migration. Every year at exactly the same time, salmon fishes swim upstream to lay eggs. Ever since the Great Leap Forward, homo sapiens have always been waiting for them, reading to catch the fishes as they go by. But the Neanderthals never noticed the pattern. We can tell by the distribution of fish skeletons they left in their caves. They were caught unaware it seemed by the returning salmons every year. It just did not occur to our cousins that what had happened each spring in the past was likely to happen again next spring. Is it any wonder why homo sapiens thrived but homo neanderthalensis perished? All because a switch for consciousness was turned on and we learned to adapt with the environment better.
A typical homo neanderthal family
But for us, ever since the Great Leap Forward 40,000 years ago, planning ahead has come naturally. We plan for animal migrations, harvests, rainy seasons and floods and according to star constellations. And since our switch for consciousness was turned on, we started to think more of ourselves, be more artistically expressive (paintings, drawings which lead to language and technology), wonder about the future and the afterlife which eventually lead to the creation of religion. And the rest as everyone knows it, is history.

Modified from Robert J. Sawyer’s The Great Leap Forward

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