The more I learn about anthropology, the more I am astounded by racism. When I say racism, I mean colour prejudice. I realise there are many forms of racism, some are merely overzealous forms of national pride and competitiveness, others more hateful and harmful. But colour prejudice really confounds and infuriates me, and the more I learn about human evolution on Earth, the more it gets my back up. Let me break this down, so you understand what I am talking about.
Life on Earth
First up, me need to start with a quick potted history of life on Earth.
Planet Earth is roughly 4.6 billion years old (that’s 4,600 million years old).
The first 4 billion years were all gas and fire and water and at most, bacterial life and a few very basic plants. What we think of as life, animals and fish and birds, began about 500 million years ago.
This is not a history lesson, so we’ll skip the dinosaurs and all that, and let’s get to the bit where apes climbed down out of the trees and started standing up on two legs to see further and use their hands for other tasks. This all first began about 7 or 8 million years ago, on the African savannah. For a few million years, from 7 million years ago, until about 2.5 million years ago, we slowly evolved from something very much more like an ape, into something very much more like what we think of as a human. At 2.5 million years ago, what you might think of as human beings had evolved. For a couple of millions years, we hunted, ate, spread. Various dips in and out of ice ages kept numbers outside Africa suppressed, and various variants of humans came and went.
Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, estimates suggest approx 180,000 years ago, the modern human, Homo sapiens, came into being. In Africa. Some early modern humans left Africa about 120,000 years ago, but were wiped out years later by changes in climatic conditions. Finally, modern humans then made it out of Africa again 85,000 years ago, and spread along the Asian coast to India and beyond. From this spread, modern humans then colonized the whole planet over a period of 65,000 years. 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, the very first signs of agriculture started to appear, and humans began to settle and build fixed communities. The last 10,000 years have seen us shape the world into what it is today, and in fact the vast majority of what we accept as ‘the shape of the world’ now, has all come about in just the last 3000 to 5000 years. In many parts of the world, agriculture was not widespread until as recently as 5000 years ago, and in terms of religion, boundaries, structures, industry, commerce, borders, etc., most of that is very recent, just the last 3000 years or so.
If you drew a 12-hour clock face to represent the history of planet earth, from 12 noon at the top, nothing living moved on earth until 10 o’clock, dinosaurs finally appeared at 11 o’clock, the apes climbed down out of the trees at 11:59 and modern humans showed up 11:59:55 seconds.
So that was the quick potted history of life on earth.
Next we need to understand a little bit of genetics, and a little bit of anthropology.
Picturing the big human family tree
I’ve tracked the last 4 or 5 generations on my family tree. That takes us back 200 years, and after that it starts to get harder to find information myself. But if I COULD go back further…and build a family tree for every human on earth today, yes, EVERY single human alive, our findings would reveal some interesting facts.
- Go back just 400 generations, and we ALL had brown skin.
- Go back just over 2000 generations, and we ALL came from India and Pakistan.
- Go back slightly less than 3000 generations and we ALL came from East Africa – the Horn of Africa, which is Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda.
- Homo sapiens (humans as we would recognise them) are about 85,000 generations old, before that, were other members of the hominin family, pre-homo sapiens.
You need to know, the colour of our skin has largely been determined by the weather and climate. As ice ages have come and gone, so humans have colonised different parts of the planet. Between ice ages, we have moved north and when the ice closed in again, we retreated south. As the last ice age retreated, so modern humans pushed right into the last northern spaces in Europe and crossed into North America. White skin is a reaction to living in more northern climates for a few thousand years. It only takes a few thousand years for skin colour to change, as an adaptation to changes in habitat and climate.
I often blog about health, so I can see how these genetic adaptations fit with several facets of our biological make-up. Subcutaneous fat (under the skin) serves four main purposes in the human body. One of them is to keep us warm. This is why black African men are typically naturally lean and carry very little body fat, while Inuit men tend to be quite fat even if they are fit and healthy and lead active lives. Have you ever noticed, living in a cool country like the UK, how it is easier to shed excess weight and feel lean in summer, but harder in winter. That’s your body trying to tell you something – it’s saying “it’s cold out there, can we keep some fat on please, to help us stay warm.”
Our bodies adapt to climate conditions. People living in cold places tend to have flatter faces and smaller noses, adapted to maximise the head’s efficient job of keeping the brain warm, while people in warm places often have larger noses, allowing more cold air up with each breath in. That’s one of the reasons you yawn…it helps draw cool air in to your brain, waking you up and keeping you alert when you feel drowsy. So nose size and shape is a genetic adaptation to climate. Dark black skinned African men often have big broad noses, while Chinese people tend to have small noses, and smaller, rounder faces. Our facial features have been determined by genetic adaptation to climate, geography, diet and weather patterns, as humans have spread out and settled all over the planet.
Skin colour is just one more genetic adaptation to environmental conditions.
In terms of biology and anatomy, as humans spread out from India to colonize all parts of the globe, over millennia, they changed in adaptation to their environments. White skin only really appeared at the begging of the period we think of as recent history, the agricultural period starting between 9000 and 13000 years ago. As humans settled permanently in cold Northern places like Europe, so their skin finally adapted to the coldest weather and weaker sun.
I also blog about environmental issues.
Well informed environmentalists know that there is nothing terrible to fear from the next ice age, an event as inevitable as day is after night. The Earth has been in and out of ice ages repeatedly for millions of years, and in fact, statistically, the next one is due ‘soon’, which might mean any time in the next few thousand years, or it might still be twenty thousand years away. Many scientists suggest that, rather ironically, the slight global warming effect caused by human use of fossil fuels, may actually be the only thing holding off the next ice age coming.
When it does come, it won’t be like we see in dramatic Hollywood movies, some great wall of ice advancing on New York and London and Paris like an invading monster, not at all. It will be a gradual change, taking hundreds of years, giving everyone living in northern places plenty of time to up roots and move. You may think, worryingly, that if most of North America and Northern Europe and Northern/Central Asia is covered in ice, that there will no longer be anywhere for us all to live. With a shortage of space, there will be wars over land, apocalyptic Hollywood movies come to mind again.
In reality, it won’t be like that. In fact, far from it. It’s called an ice age because there is a lot of ICE. Ice, just like the ice in your Scotch-on-the-rocks, is made from water. Where do you think we find enough water to make a million trillion tons of ice? The ice caps suck up the oceans, vast amounts of water are locked up in ice for five or ten thousand years, maybe longer. This causes the OPPOSITE of what current eco-warriors worry about, this causes global sea levels to DROP massively. In the Southern hemisphere and around the equator, vast land masses lie in shallow sea waters, and these land masses become completely habitable as sea levels drop.
Global warming scientists worry that further sea level rises of 3 meters from year 2000 levels will see Bangladesh, New York, The Netherlands, half of Florida and London all vanish under the water.
About 65,000 years ago, the coldest time on Earth over the last 100,000 years, sea levels were more than 100 meters LOWER than today. A major ice age on earth actually locks up so much sea water in polar ice, that earth ends up with MORE habitable land than we have today, not less.
Over the next 300 generations of human life, it seems extremely likely, almost a total certainty, that we will begin entering another ice age.
What has all this got to do with racism?
OK, OK, it’s all relevant, stick with me. Now, let’s bring all this together and you’ll see the bigger picture that I have been trying to build.
Planet Earth began to form about 4.6 billion years ago…the rest of the universe was already 11 billion years old. In 300 to 400 million years, our Sun will grow, rapidly, and we will be fried and blasted into oblivion.
If we equate the life of this beautiful and amazing planet into a 12-hour clock face, animals and trees came along at 10, dinosaurs at 11, apes climbed down out of the trees at 11:59 and humans showed up at 11:59 and 55 seconds.
Now if we take those last 5 seconds, the human bit, and turn THAT into a 12-hour clock face of its own, we will see –
- From 12 noon til 11, we Homo sapiens were dark skinned and quite hairy and we came and went in and out of Africa with the coming and going of cold conditions.
- At about 11:10, anatomically modern humans appeared.
- At 11:35 we, modern humans, were ALL African. Every one of us was black, we all lived in Africa.
- By 11:41 we were ALL Indians and Pakistanis, apart from a few who were still in Africa.
- In the last 19 minutes, we have spread out and hunted and gathered our way around the whole planet.
- The first WHITE people appeared at about 11:56, 4 minutes ago.
- Between 2 and 3 minutes ago, we stopped hunting and gathering, settled down, began cultivating plants and domesticating animals.
- At 11:58, agriculture was beginning to reach all areas of the world.
- Somewhere between 11:59:40 and 11:59:50, white Europeans first settled in the Americas.
Now, if we pushed our clock face BEYOND 12 midnight, into the future, we can make some future predictions.
It seems highly likely to me that through racial interbreeding, the ongoing rise of international travel and migration, and through different rates of population growth around the world, we are gradually mixing blood lines and merging skin colours. I believe this will continue over the next few hundred years, such that by 12:01 on our clock face, almost everyone on earth will either be black or mostly some kind of Asian-Indian-Chinese kind of brown colour.
It also seems almost unquestionably certain, that by 12:04, vast swathes of the Northern Hemisphere will be under ice once again and the ten billion humans on earth will ALL live in and around Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, and parts of Latin America.
- The first white people appeared at about 11:56
- We’ll all be brown again between 12:01 and 12:05
- We were ALL African until 11:35
- We were ALL African, Indian or Pakistani (or Bangladeshi) until 11:41
- We will once again almost ALL live in Africa and Southern Asia by 12:04
Now, with this much broader historical context laid out, I find myself utterly infuriated by colour prejudice. We live in the ‘information age’ and the data that was required to piece together the understanding detailed here, has become available over the last few decades. Now we can look back and see the bigger picture, I hope racism of this type will completely die out. The ‘age of the white man’ is but a brief chapter in the history of our species, and one that will not exist for many more generation. I understand that the aggressive dominance of white men over the last thousand years has been as much about power, politics, resources and money as it has been about colour, but those historical details are lost to the handful of ignorant fools who cling to colour prejudice in the 21st century.
Historical ‘big picture thinking’ shows us that really, until very recently, we were all African, all Asian, all black or brown. Once we study a little anthropology, and we put racism in modern history into the broader context of time, it seems incredulous that people with dark skin have ever been treated with disrespect solely because of their colour.
White Europeans should not have landed on the shores of West Africa and taken their black brothers and sisters as slaves. They should have landed on those shores and embraced their distant forefathers with awe, respect, tidings of goodwill and gratitude. The fact that colour prejudice still exists today is a disgrace, a failure of modern man. We should have the intelligence to see that in fact, being white is simply odd, quite out of character with the rest of humanity, and really just a temporary state of being, unlikely to last. 100,000 years from now, white skin may be gone forever and long forgotten.
I like to write my thoughts, such as this, and I like to learn more. I do not know what I do not know, so please accept my apologies for any gaps in my understanding, and please feel free to comment or contribute to this post if you have any feedback for me.