I’ve always wondered, “When did humans realize they were mortal?”

Were we Australopithecus? Homo erectus? Or did we have to wait until we were fully Homo sapiens?


Imagine a small group of early humans. What did they think was happening when one of them was killed by a predator and became “something” that resembled the very same meat they had for dinner last night! What did they think? Did they consciously tell themselves “we are just mobile meat waiting to be killed by something bigger and stronger; everything is just meat, including us”?


What of the other death? The quiet, incomprehensible one? What do you think they thought when one of them suddenly entered a state that resembled sleep. The others surely waited and waited for him to wake up so they could move on to the next food source. They shook him but he wouldn’t wake up. He was pale and his skin cold. The others didn’t have a choice but to wait. Maybe they decided to carry him to their next campground? Well, whatever they did do, they eventually would have come to the conclusion that this was not normal sleep. It was something seriously different. Not only did he not wake up, but his body was starting to change. When they shook him again, they noticed that he had become rigid. Then, and it must have happened fairly quickly in the heat of the African jungle, he started to decompose. That’s when things really became ugly. The sleeper became bad meat full of worms. The sight and smell were so repulsive that they had to move away from him. Little by little he started reminding the group of that antelope that was killed by a lion and whose carcass they found recently.

Eventually humans realized that, even if they survived accidents and violent death, all the people in the group one day would fall asleep and never wake up and that they all were destined to become nasty meat. It didn’t take them too long to realize that this was going to happen to them personally, each and every individual in the group.

That is the beauty of becoming human. We are able to transpose onto ourselves what we see happening to others. We’re all going to end up like that! Bad meat full of worms. You! Me! All of us!

Can you imagine what must have gone on in the minds of those first humans? What did they make of this? How, at the dawn of mankind, could you live your life knowing that you’re going to become a piece of decomposed meat? We’re talking about a time long before any civilization or culture had appeared. We’re talking about humans who were barely humans just a few generations before. There was no culture, no philosophy, no 12 step program to help you, nothing! Just you, the lions and the worms. Nothing to get comfort from (except other meat!).


So what did we do not to go insane? Because now we had a brain that could go insane. When we were a different species, a lower primate, we were fine because never aware that one day we'd die. But along the way we graduated from being an animal, not knowing, to a human, painfully aware. When we gained those extra cubic centimeters of brainpower during our passage from clueless animal to human, it’s as if we had taken the red pill in the Matrix while we’d been on the blue one during all our previous animal life.

That big brain - what a double-edged sword! A poisoned present some would say. Sure, it allows you to invent tools, to hunt more efficiently but it also lets you be aware that one day you'll die! Thank you, God! How were we going to live knowing that we will become stinky flesh full of worms in the African savannah? How do you live with that grim future?

I turned this around and around in my mind, and I don’t see any other way for those early humans, but to believe that there was a part of them, the “soul”, that the worms can’t get to. That’s it. This is the key to sanity. You and your loved ones have a soul that leaves the body and escapes all the ugliness of putrefaction and goes on forever. You will be, with all the members of your tribe, moved to another world and you will live forever and ever in a utopian “heaven” where no lion can get you!

Once we introduce this handy little invention into the picture, life becomes bearable again for the big human brain. We can take the bad meat. An immortal soul that escapes putrefaction to live forever has been created. Without it, I don’t believe the adventure of mankind, the human experiment, would have started.

My problem is, I still see the crutch. And we are still limping. It’s not in wood anymore, it’s more high tech than the original one, but it’s still a crutch. Some people were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, I was born with the red pill of reason in my mouth and the first thing I did when the doctor slapped my butt after birth was to swallow it. Some people chose to take a blue pill to counteract it later in life, usually during childhood. I’ve tried. I’ve attempted to choke down many blue pills. The Catholic one, the Buddhist one. None of them worked. I guess the first pill, the red capsule of rational, intellectual thinking, the same one who allowed my ancestors to invent tools and who are allowing my contemporaries to write complicated software must have been too strong. Oh, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. I’ll deal with my own mortality.

Yesterday I was. Today I am. Some tomorrow I will cease to be. I will simply end. Lights out. Being dead is nothing. It's just like not being born. It's that simple. In my eyes, knowing that you and I will die and cease to exist certainly make my existence, and yours more precious.

Please, before I die love me!

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Tags: Belief, God, death, how, in, it, soul, started

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Comment by Philippe on February 12, 2010 at 7:18am
Tom, after paying more attention to your comment I can tell you that chimpanzees and other animals such as dolphins, elephants will react to death when they are facing it. Apparently they don't seem to plan for it or live with it. They don't seem to have constructed a routine in their daily lives to be able to deal with death,which means they probably don't make it a metaphysical concern.
Comment by Philippe on February 5, 2010 at 9:11am
John, I certainly do NOT talk about sex if it's what you have in mind.
Sex has absolutely nothing to do with love, very rarely.
Tom, you're right. I remember now that even elephants have been seen pondering in front of the remain of dead elephants.
Comment by Tom Thompson on February 5, 2010 at 8:54am
I’ve always wondered, “When did humans realize they were mortal?”

Let's not assume that Homo sapiens is the only species to be aware of its mortality. I have seen videos of chimpanzees reacting to a dying baby, and mourning its passing. They seemed all too aware of the living and dead state. I have seen videos of Bonobos demonstrating self awareness greater than that on a human toddler. The point at which humans realized their mortality may be quite far back indeed.

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