Every other year it seems we are presented in the African American community and the world at large with a new unearthed chapter of our human origins by scientists working in the fields unearthing skull fragments and the lost tibias of some remote ancestor. Its commonly believed that the pre-human and ape line went their separate ways some 6 million years ago after arising from a common ancestor and that what eventually became modern humans started out as little Australopithecines of various forms and classifications, etc., Ardipithecus Ramidus, Anamnesis, Afarensis and so on, all several million years ago, mostly in East Africa.
All of these forebears were our cousins in some sense and, like us, they dwelled in family units. All arose under the African sun. Out of that African rooted tree-line eventually came our distant “Homo Genus” or familial line, Homo Habilis the tool maker, Rudolfensis, Ergaster, etc. Eventually Homo Erectus arose on all fours, and went through further refinements until one of her descendants walked out of Africa. She is also credited with the discovery and mastery of fire.
We were still totally immersed in nature, bodily, in consciousness and in our moment-to-moment concerns. Our story continued to evolve, however, and after about a million+ years we eventually tipped over the line and emerged into archaic homo sapiens in the forms of Heidelbergensis, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon and so on. The African root consciousness out of which we had emerged had created enough branching to create a real diversity in our species. We were certainly conscious and began to reflect on the nature all around us in order to survive if nothing else. Gradually we all began to bury our dead with rituals and so obviously had collectively reflected on nature enough around us, saw its cycles and patterns to allow some dim intuition of the spiritual cosmos to emerge into the mystery of our consciousness. Indeed, like the tides, electromagnetism and gravity, our ancient forebears did not create spirituality, they discovered it.
In between these developments there were lots of family tree branches that split off, some no doubt unknown and still buried in the earth. This all occurred over a span of millions of years of experimentation with nature, climate changes and the shifting vagaries of fate and chance.
Then maybe anywhere from 270,000 to 300,000 years ago our own modern type, Homo Sapiens Sapiens or so-called thinking man emerged and again began to travel out of Africa. Pieces of her show up in Israeli caves from over 100,000 years ago. The most recent of these origin reports came, like many, out of a region in South Africa called Rising Star cave. However, this remote cousin, Homo Naledi, arose much earlier, 335,000-236,000 BCE, flourished, then died out. Apparently, she was part human with some earlier Australopithecine capacities and features. Given the large number of bones stored in the cave suggests she may have developed some early form of funerary rites. So she too had some self-reflection and experimented with consciousness.
Indeed, while our bodies experimented with its capacities during these times, our minds and consciousness were also evolving from a deep stream of consciousness that moved up through this African rootwork of the species. However, bone and teeth fragments tell us little about the more subtle unfoldment of our brain and consciousness, but surely it was as wide, deep and revolutionary as our bodily adaptation and expansion on this fundamental African template. This river of consciousness flowed continuously under the surface of our various adaptations and permutations over the eons. It was and is the deep structure and has paralleled our physical or morphological development. It is the tacit cognitive foundation on which, as a species, we learned how to think! This is Our African Unconscious.
Cave drawings and figurines and other artifacts from innumerable cultures demonstrate that we were reflecting on nature, recognized other species, their value and meanings, and generally were emerging from our complete submergence in nature. Self-consciousness on this African template was beginning to stabilize.
Out of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, human culture as we think of it today flourished. We traveled in family groups gathering food whenever we could. By 180,00 BCE we had learned, after millennia of observation of the tides and cycles of nature, to begin to consciously grow our own food and plan for the next cycle or year’s crop. Our populations exploded. Our small family units grew and grouped themselves into larger clusters. Soon villages and settlements arose along with structures in society. We were no longer totally immersed in nature but had acquired the capacity to reflect on it and in turn reflect deeper on ourselves. Our conscious observation of nature that we harnessed began to suggest more complex ideas about ourselves and the deeper cycles of nature itself. We progressed from the burial of the dead practiced by earlier homo sapiens to speculation on the patterns of life and consciousness, seen and unseen. Our consciousness was doing this collectively as it emerged from the deeper stream that is still a mystery today. We began to ask who we are, who am “I” and where do we come from. We asked these questions as cities appeared, civilizations among us rose and fell, empires came and went and great seers appeared from time to time to bring a deeper light into our minds and consciousness. Across the earth this republic of common blood and genes sprawled with various representations from our African template. Today we still ask these same questions amid the rich complexity of science, religion and culture. All the while the deep origins of our roots as a species have been honing and deepening our spirits.
But this should come as no surprise. We have been fascinated by this from times immemorial, with speculations of our origins ranging from the stars to the deepest seas.
Our forebears in civilizations long buried in the sands attributed our origins to all manner of things, some of them pretty wild! Some of us even today believe that woman came from the rib of a man, Adam. These diverse speculations and observations on human origins however still did share the deeper intuition that we all, despite our surface difference and values, arise from a common source or origin. To be human was to embrace this common mythos.
By the time of the great civilizations these origin stories were codified into myth and legend. The Greeks believed their origins were with the gods of Olympus and their civilization was a colony of ancient Egypt. For their part the ancient Kemetic Egyptians believed they arose from the highlands and interior of Africa at the origins of the Nile, a belief that is now generally confirmed by modern archeology and anthropology! In both of these there is an implicit grasp or intuition that their very existence and deeper consciousness itself is an outpouring, a flowering from an African template. Despite the surface differences and the innumerable conflicting valances there exists this fundamental intuition of a mysterious origin that has something to do with Africa.
By the time of modern science and Charles Darwin this became the testimony of the greatest religion and mythology ever created by humankind, what we call science! Today, after thousands upon thousands of collected and collated bone and teeth fragments, decades of DNA studies, serological or blood work studies, and morphological comparisons, along with the anthropological data, it is incontestable that we have arisen from an African template. We know today from mitochondrial DNA studies that all human genes crossed in the bloodline of a single African female, the Mitochondrial DNA mother of humanity ‘Eve,’ on the savannahs or highlands some 150,000 to 200,000 years ago and that they crossed in a single African male perhaps some 188,000 years ago.
These are the external markers. The internal markers, the psychic and psychological markers come by way of depth psychology and extrapolation from evolutionary neurobiology. The template of our bodies arose in Africa, working out their essential contours such that by the time we branched into Asia, Europe and the Americas, we needed only surface phenological adaptations to survive and flourish in diverse environments. Racial diversification as we think of it today into European, Asian, and their admixtures only began some 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. Prior to that, on all the continents, our species Homo Sapiens Sapiens, which had been around at least 150,000 years or so, all looked phenotypically African in one of its varieties. As little as 10,000 years ago the Europeans of remote England had African features as they were adapting to the environment, i.e., thicker build and longer hair and nose to retain heat in the cold, blue and lighter eyes to see better in the fog and mists, but still had discernable African features (i.e., “Cheddar Man”). Such is the creative adaptive ingenuity of our family line. Yet wherever she went she carried in her genes her African template, the great tree, psychically and physically, of which all the diverse branches are beautiful expressions.
This is our African unconscious, the deep reservoir of our religious and spiritual intuitions, home of our tacit categories of scientific intuition and the fountainhead of our artistic creativity in all the numerable ways we express it in our ethnicities, cultural expressions and eras of human life.
Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is a clinical psychologist and the director of behavioral medicine at the University of Massachusetts Health Services in Amherst.