Earth prehistory: Homo Sapiens Saldanhi

Moderator: Somes J

Post Reply
User avatar
Somes J
Posts: 377
Joined: Tue Feb 17, 2009 4:04 am
Location: Berkeley, California

Earth prehistory: Homo Sapiens Saldanhi

Post by Somes J » Tue Mar 03, 2009 6:53 am

PHYSICAL REMAINS

Homo Sapiens Saldanhi is a hominid subspecies known only from a single cache of fossils discovered near Saldanha, South Africa, in 2040. The skeletons are approximately 60,000 years old.

The cache included 11 individuals, both males and females, varying in age between early childhood and middle age. The fossils appeared to be of modern humans, but they exhibited some unusual traits, especially in the skulls. The specimens exhibited remarkably little sexual dismorphism, with males and females being the same size and distinguishable only by the shape of the hip bones. The faces exhibited extremely neotenous features, with proportions closer to those of modern children than adults. The skulls were quite bulbous, with an extremely large braincase, beyond normal human range. The bones exhibited a high degree of gracility. Tooth wear analyses suggested a somewhat different development pattern with puberty closely associated with full anatomical maturity and an extended prepubescent period - a female specimen believed to be around 13-14 years old based on tooth wear appeared to be prepubescent. In short, in many ways the skeletons displayed characteristics consist with anatomical modernity, but to a greater degree than was found in modern humans. These creatures would look right on home on classic grade-school "Ascent of Man" posters - but they would belong in front of the figure representing us.

The presence of these "hyper-modern" features, especially the large braincase, suggested to some the possibility that the fossils represented a hominid that might have been cognitively superior to modern humans. Others were dismissive, pointing out the tool sets associated with the skeletons, which were similar to those of contemporary modern humans and Neanderthals. They also pointed out the case of Boskops Man, which had inspired similar speculation and had turned out to be simply a typical Homo Sapiens specimen. Shortly after the discovery, an attempt was made to recover DNA from the fossils and attempt a genetic reconstruction of the living organism. This was, at the time, a considerably less precise science than it is now, and the DNA that could be recovered was quite fragmentary and nowhere near a full genome, but nonetheless the results were interesting.

The specimens were genetically close enough to modern humans that the two populations could have interbred, making them a subspecies of Homo Sapiens. They shared ancestry with the mitochondrial Eve (but not the Y chromosomal Adam) suggesting a relatively recent divergence from the modern human line. Genetic analyses indicated the probability of other neotenous traits that did not readily fossilize, such as the retaining of a child-like pattern of body hair into adulthood. Most interesting were the brain development genes, which suggested a hypertrophication of the areas of the brain associated with memory, pattern recognition, and sensory processing. Also noticed were several genes believed to be associated with savantism in modern humans. This suggested that Saldanhi might have possessed abilities similar to those found in human savant syndrome cases.


BRINGING THEM BACK

Given all the unanswered questions associated with the Saldanha fossils, considerable interest was generated in the possibility of attempting a living reconstruction. The technique had already been perfected on several extinct or nearly extinct organisms, though as yet there had been no attempt on hominids. There had been some speculation about using the technique on Neanderthals, but most governments had declined to make the attempt out of ethical issues, and private genetics companies saw little potential profit. However, with Saldanhi the situation was different. If they actually were smarter than modern humans, then there might be considerable benefit in bringing them back and exploiting their mental abilities.

Some years after the release of the Saldanhi genetic data, the major American genetic engineering institute GenenCo decided to try to resurrect the lost subspecies. The method used was, in principle, simple. The DNA extracted from the Saldanha fossils was combined to form a single composite genotype, with modern human DNA used to fill the gaps. The DNA was then extracted from the nucleus of a human ovum cell, and replaced with this Saldanhi composite DNA. The "fertilized" egg was then transplanted into a human volunteer surrogate. The reconstruction would not be perfect. The skin color, for instance (based on that of modern Africans), was strictly conjectural. Nevertheless, the resulting child would be something not unlike our long lost cousins. The genetic engineers decided to name the child Jane; a literary reference to Olaf Stapleton's Odd John ("John" had of course been ruled out by the decision to make the child female).


OBSERVED BEHAVIOR (OMNISAVANTISM AND EIDETIC MEMORY)

At birth, Jane appeared to be a normal human baby. The first major observable difference occurred within the first year of life, when Jane developed extremely abnormal eye movements. She would maintain a level gaze only when her interest was completely focused on a particular object. At other times, her eyes would make constant extremely rapid circular movements, several per second. At first, GenenCo personnel suspected a genetic defect, but scans of her brain revealed extremely high levels of activity in a visual center that was already becoming extremely hypertrophied. Acting on a hunch, they place Jane through a series of tests designed to measure peripheral vision. The results were remarkable.

The vision of a modern human is largely centered on a very narrow space at the center of focus. Everything outside it is a blur, and is largely ignored. As a result, humans are often remarkably oblivious to things happening outside their center of focus. Not so with Jane. Her brain was capable of processing detailed visual imagery over her entire field of view. Unfortunately for her, the evolution of her eyes apparently lagged behind those of her brain; they were still like those of a modern human, and could only focus on a narrow field of view. Her rapid repetitive eye movements were her way of compensating for this engineering deficiency. During each movement her eyes made a complete sweep of her entire potential visual field, and her brain would then put these impressions together into a single coherent, detailed picture. As a result, she had vastly better situational awareness than any modern human.

As she began to acquire language and other basic skills, other differences became apparent. Jane's learning curve seemed much steeper than that of a normal human child, and it quickly became apparent that she had an eidetic ("perfect") memory. She could, for instance, be shown extensive slide shows of faces or objects and be able to reliably identify them months later. She could similarly be given recordings of conversations and be able to remember them in detail months later. This translated to a greatly increased ability to learn, as it required very little or no repetition to impress knowledge permanently into her mind. Jane's extremely enhanced sensory perceptions proved to extend to hearing as well. Given a recording of a conversation in a crowded room she easily distinguished individual conversations where most modern humans could hear only a generalized babble. Finally, Jane exhibited extremely heightened pattern-recognition and pattern-analyzing abilities, comparable to those exhibited by some human autistic savants. For instance, if asked to calculate the day of the week your birth day would fall on for the next thousand years, she could easily do so.

In short, by comparison to the Saldanhi, humans seem pitifully limited creatures. We struggle with problems that are easy for them. Our memories slip through our fingers like water, leaving us with only dim and sketchy recollections of the past. We blunder through the world in a hazy stupor, barely even aware of our own surroundings.

Today Jane has attained the age of 6, and already contributed greatly to our knowledge of our extinct cousins. GenenCo has determined that the Saldanhi's mental abilities make them potentially very useful for humankind, and is planning on creating more. One more Saldanhi, a male "brother" to Jane christened John, has already been born. Given the fragmentary DNA sample we have of the Saldanhi, insuring minimum genetic diversity for a healthy population will be a challenge. Thankfully, we now have a relatively good understanding of the critical Saldanhi genes, and should be able to graft them directly onto the genomes of modern humans to produce genetically diverse Saldanhi, rather than creating simple composites of fossil-derived genes like Jane and John. John and Jane remain under the legal guardianship of GenenCo, which will expire when they reach the age of legal maturity. GenenCo is rumored to be drawing up lifetime contracts for them.


SALDANHI IN HUMAN EVOLUTION

The Saldanhi fit quite well the general evolutionary trends in hominids over time - they are simply further along the path of anatomical modernity than we are. Put another way, Homo Sapiens Sapiens can be viewed as an intermediate form between Homo Sapiens Saldanhi and more archaic forms such as Homo Erectus and Homo Heidelberginis.

The adaptations exhibited by Homo Sapiens Saldanhi make sense in an evolutionary model wherein the development of Saldanhi's greater intelligence was driven by the demands of the harsh conditions of the Ice Ages (which, in Africa, would have corresponded to periods of dessication in many areas). Saldanhi's greater situational awareness would have been very advantageous in spotting predators or potential food sources, and their eidetic memory would have allowed them an awareness of the terrain that no human foragers could have matched. Their enhanced learning would similarly have allowed the rapid acquisition of survival skills. Their small frames would have also required less food, though this was somewhat negated by their larger and more calorie-hungry brains. Some evolutionary biologists, examining Saldanhi's traits, believe they may have originated in a drying desert margin during the beginning of a glacial period, most likely the margins of the Sahara or the Kalahari and Namibian deserts. The close genetic relationship to Homo Sapiens Sapiens strongly suggests a direct divergence from humans, rather than from some earlier hominid.

The great mystery of the Saldanhi is why we humans, a comparitively primitive archaic type, were the ones to survive while the more intelligent Saldanhi died out. Surely, one would logically expect the more intelligent Saldanhi to have outcompeted the comparitively dim-witted humans, not the other way around. There have been various attempts to explain it. The lower physical strength of the Saldanhi might have put them at a disadvantage. Saldanhi and human females were about equal in strength and stature, but recall that Saldanhi males and females were roughly the same size, making Saldanhi males also roughly equal to human females and therefore weaker than human males. However, this seems somewhat unsatisfactory given that physically inferior Homo Sapiens apparently managed to outcompete Neanderthals, who had 2-3 times our strength. Other explanations have focused on breeding rate. Puberty occurred later in Saldanhi than humans, on average at 14-15 years of age as opposed to 11-13 in humans. This would have given humans a head start in producing offspring, potentially allowing them to gradually outbreed the Saldanhi. When the Saldanhi skeletons were first discovered it was pointed out that human females already have problems with the large head size of human infants, and Saldanhi mothers giving birth to even larger-brained infants might have frequently died in childbirth. It is now known that this is not the case, as the Saldanhi solved this problem by having more brain development occur outside the womb (human and Saldanhi are morphologically indistinguishable at infancy). Still other explanations suggest that the Saldanhi may have fallen victim an evolutionary fluke. Perhaps, for instance, they were decimated by a disease that never successfully jumped to humans.

If so, if the fate of Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, and Homo Florensis are any guide, we perhaps should be very grateful to that ancient virus or bacteria, as without it we would probably have joined them in the Saldanhi's museums. On the other hand, it's tempting to imagine what the Saldanhi might have achieved, if they had not been snuffed out.

A more benign suggestion is that the Saldanhi may have simply assimilated into early human populations through interbreeding. In this respect the fact that they had genes known to contribute to human savant syndrome is interesting, as it suggests those genes may have originally been introduced into humanity by interbreeding with the Saldanhi. Also interestingly, most of the critical Saldanhi brain development genes are recessive. Combined with their lower fertility rate, this might help explain why they did not seem to significantly change the phenotype of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens subspecies by assimilating into it. Some actually suggest that this belief is in fact erroneous, suggesting that fully anatomically modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens in fact represents a hybrid population of more archaic Homo Sapiens (Homo Sapiens Idaltu) and Homo Sapiens Saldanhi. If so, it suggests a relatively early origin for Homo Sapiens Saldanhi, well before 125,000 years ago.

------------

NOTES

This is that extinct hominid species that was smarter than us that I talked about in the upcoming changes thread. The idea is inspired by Boskops Man (which is now believed to have been an ordinary Homo Sapiens Sapiens - how boring), and is one I found fascinating long before I conceived of Children of Man. The way the Saldanhi fit into the timeline is that they existed between maybe 200-50,000 years ago, and went extinct shortly before the time of the Masters.

I have to admit a certain amount of inspiration from Peter Watts's Blindsight, specifically his take on vampires, in regards to Saldanhi hyperawareness and omnisavantism. By the way, I strongly recommend checking out Blindsight as it has the most wonderful hard SF take on vampires I've ever seen - he even came up with a scientifically plausible explanation for the weakness to crucifixes! You can find the story here, and a neat explanatory video on Blindsight vampires here.

Eidetic memory is actually a trait that can be found in a few humans. Observe this case. Savantism is, of course, a quite well documented phenomenon typically associated with autism spectrum disorders (in less PC days, such people were called "idiot savants"). In-universe, these sorts of conditions may very well be Saldanhi traits cropping up here and there in the human population. The negative effects usually associated with savant syndrome may be due to the Saldanhi traits simply not meshing very well with the human ones - sort of like randomly welding a component from one type of engine into a quite different type.

Retrieving DNA from fossils is something that has already been done with Neanderthals, though getting enough for a decent reconstruction of the genome out of only 11 fossils may be a bit far-fetched (perhaps I should increase the number of skeletons?). Being able to reconstruct the organism's traits from the DNA is something that should become possible with better computer technology and increasing knowledge of gene function. It probably helps that Saldanhi would have been something like 99.9% genetically identicle to a very well-studied species (ourselves).

Saldanha is a town near the Cape of Good Hope. I didn't have any particular reason for picking it, I just took a look at the world map and picked a town with a good-sounding name. I wanted it to be in South Africa though, for the parallel to Boskops.

Wikipedia article on the novel Odd John by Olaf Stapledon. Since the Saldanhi owe more than a little inspiration to early twentieth century SF concepts of superhumans, it seemed an appropriate homage.
Participate in my hard SF worldbuilding project: The Known Galaxy. Come to our message board and experience my unique brand of terribleness!

"One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience."
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness.

"Open your mind and hear what your heart wants to deny."
Samuel Anders, nBSG, Daybreak, Part 2.

User avatar
speaker-to-trolls
Posts: 764
Joined: Thu May 22, 2008 12:34 am
Location: The World of Men

Re: Earth prehistory: Homo Sapiens Saldanhi

Post by speaker-to-trolls » Tue Mar 03, 2009 7:33 pm

Cool. OK, a thought here, could the Saldhanis longer development time have left them more vulnerable? You know a quick change in climate could make that long development and inferior physical strength just enough of a problem for them to die out, especially if there was only a small population.
"Little monuments may be completed by their first architects, but great ones; true ones leave their copestones to posterity. God keep me from completing anything."

User avatar
Somes J
Posts: 377
Joined: Tue Feb 17, 2009 4:04 am
Location: Berkeley, California

Re: Earth prehistory: Homo Sapiens Saldanhi

Post by Somes J » Wed Mar 04, 2009 6:05 am

speaker-to-trolls wrote:Cool. OK, a thought here, could the Saldhanis longer development time have left them more vulnerable? You know a quick change in climate could make that long development and inferior physical strength just enough of a problem for them to die out, especially if there was only a small population.
That's one possibility, yes.

We probably won't ever know the actual answer (in-universe), and personally I prefer a certain amount of ambiguity, as explaining everything from something as fragmentary as fossil records is just not very realistic - we don't know what happened to the Neanderthals, why should we know what happened to a race that left behind even less physical evidence? Thematically, I don't really the specifics as all that important. The point is that evolution is a random process that won't always favor what we'd consider the "best" or "most advanced" forms. That and the blow to our egos it would probably be to find out that we weren't the smartest creature to ever live on this planet.
Participate in my hard SF worldbuilding project: The Known Galaxy. Come to our message board and experience my unique brand of terribleness!

"One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience."
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness.

"Open your mind and hear what your heart wants to deny."
Samuel Anders, nBSG, Daybreak, Part 2.

Post Reply