Do you ever wonder why ancient humans spread over most of the planet?
It was a very unusual thing to do. The only other large land mammal that has come close is the wolf, and they never managed to get to South America or Africa.
Yet by at least 13,000 years ago, humans were on every inhabitable continent. Did we do that just to find food? When the number of ancient humans were sometimes as low as 16,000 individuals (as is sometimes claimed), does it make sense that we needed more land?
Recently I saw this comment by biologist Michelle Larue at the University of Minnesota (Sept 2012 Scientific American). Asked to explain the recent return of cougars to the American mid-west, where they’ve been absent for almost a century, she said their expansion “has been driven by the cougars’ solitary, territorial nature.”
The cougar is a shy solitary animal. Adults have an instinctual need to be alone, except during mating, when a male and female will spend two weeks or so together.
They ensure their solitude by having territories of 12-20 square kilometres each. If a population is increasing, newer members migrate to find territory of their own. For a while of course, this didn’t work because hunting and trapping, along with loss of habitat, suppressed cougars severely. But now, protected by law in many jurisdictions and with newly restored habitat emerging, they have begun these lone journeys again.
Since the desire to be alone is at the core of autism, solitary animals might be called autistic. Anyone who has read any of my books knows that one of my central ideas is that homo sapiens was probably much less social, existing in small nuclear families until the development of tribalism about 50,000 years ago.
I’m not alone with this. Animal behavior scientist Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed autistic and has written extensively on autism, has proposed that the autistic mind may have been the original mind of mammals, that the social mind is something that evolved more recently.
Apes are generally solitary – Orangutans and gibbons – or they live in small families – gorillas. Only chimpanzees get beyond that, and even then it’s only in bands of 20-30. I’ve never read of a 100 strong band of chimps. They might fight with rival bands, but they don’t do it in the numbers that we do.
When hominids parted company with other apes about 7 million years ago, it’s reasonable to assume that we were still in small families. During the millions of years that followed, we appear to have lived in nothing larger than hunter-gatherer family groups.
So if we lived in a less social mode then, it seems likely that we possessed less social minds.
We probably spent a lot of time alone. From spring to fall, wolf packs tend to break up, and younger adults wander alone a lot. Banned from sexual activity within the pack (which is usually just family) by the Alpha leaders, that’s when they sometimes meet new mates and start families of their own. That appetite for wandering alone is likely the reason that wolves have spread throughout the Northern hemisphere.
Some people like to say there could never have been lone humans because, with our weaker bodies, we would have been too vulnerable to large predators.
What do they think of the practice of many indigenous hunter-gathering peoples of going on long solo journeys? Many North American indigenous peoples made it a requirement of a young man that he make a personal odyssey alone. Some women did it too, for native peoples didn’t try to stop anyone from going their own way.
The aborigines in Australia did the same thing with their ‘walkabout’.
Anyway, there it is – my theory that for a very long time humans were solitary by nature, so today we still retain some solitary behavior. Some of us still need time alone because we still retain DNA from the distant past. Whether you call it autism or you call it something else, it’s there and I think it’s been part of humanity for a long time.
PS – If you find this idea interesting, I’ve explored it in much more detail in all three of my books – the 2006 novel The Birdcatcher, again in The Shyness Guide where I offer advice on how to integrate it with this troublesome modern world, and in my SF novel Skol where you can travel with 17-year-old Simon in the 23rd century on his lone odyssey across the galaxy, where the same problems still exist, if not the same solutions.