What Makes Us Special?

I was inspired by our class discussion last week about a species hierarchy. Most groups, including my own, placed humans above all other species. But this sparked the question; at what point in our evolution did we become a species deserving of this ranking? Is this top spot reserved solely for Homo Sapiens? Or the more general genus of Homo? Was Homo Erectus or Neanderthals advanced enough to occupy this top spot? What about the pre-humans that built the 476,000 year old wooden structure recently discovered? No other animals seem to be capable of such a feat. So, what is the line between human and animal, and when did our evolution surpass that line?

Phylogenetic tree of human evolution

The earliest fossils from the genus Homo were discovered in east Africa and dated back 2.3 million years. We know that members of the genus homo used simple stone tools to butcher animal carcasses around 1.8 mya, which elevated their mainly plant diet (Pontzer, 2012). This seems like a definingly Homo trait, yet many animals use stones as tools, including chimpanzees, monkeys, otters, birds, and some fish (Bressan, 2019). However, it seems as if the genus Homo is the only one to have the capacity to modify these stones before use. Maybe the capacity to manufacture tools is what separated the genus Homo from every other. 

Homo Erectus evolved 1.9 million years ago, and persisted until only about 100 thousand years ago. By this time, they occupied Africa and Eurasia, meaning the species had adapted to living in a wide range of environments. The species’ brain size had drastically increased, containing the cognitive capacity to adapt and thrive in any climate (Pontzer, 2012). Perhaps this was the cognitive advancement that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We also know Homo Erectus and other hominins of the time used wooden tools, though not many survive. The oldest discovered wood artifact is a polished wood plank found in Israel, dating over 780 thousand years old. 

Then, about 700,000 years ago, Homo Erectus had evolved into Homo Heidelbergensis, who had much in common with modern humans, including bodily proportions, dental adaptations, and cognitive abilities. Homo Heidelbergenis used Levallois style tools and had mastered control of fire. Archaeologists have also found 400,000 year old wood tools used for foraging and hunting. It was likely this species that constructed the 480,000 year old wooden structure, likely a platform used for fishing (Sulivan, 2023). Neanderthals evolved from Homo Heidelbergensis by 250 thousand years ago, and about 50,000 years following, our own species, Homo Sapien, evolved from Homo Heidelbergensis in Africa. Eventually, Homo Sapiens had spread throughout Eurasia, the Americas, and Australia (Pontzer, 2o12).

What Homo Heidelbergnensis may have looked like
480,000 year old wooden structure, built by pre-humans, discovered in Zambia

The point at which the genus Homo claimed its lead in the species hierarchy depends on what Homo-specific advancement you consider to define that jump. Homo Erectus’ ability to thrive in any environment seems the most convincing to me, as this demonstrates a mastery of nature not seen in any other species. 

Further Reading:


Works Cited:

Bressan, D. (2019, March 18). Archaeological evidence shows how animals are mastering the use of Stone Tools. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2019/03/16/the-animals-that-have-entered-the-stone-age/?sh=1337f9c5b4cd 

Pontzer, Herman. (2012) Overview of Hominin Evolution. Nature Education Knowledge https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/overview-of-hominin-evolution-89010983/

Sulivan, William. (2023, September 22). Archaeologists uncover notched logs that may be the oldest known wooden structure. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archaeologists-uncover-notched-logs-that-may-be-the-oldest-known-wooden-structure-180982942/#:~:text=Archaeologists%20have%20uncovered%20evidence%20of,date%20to%20476%2C000%20years%20ago. 

Derinkuyu: A Human Ant Farm

Illustrated cross section of the network of tunnels and rooms of the ancient underground city, Derinkuyu.

The ancient underground city of Derinkuyu, located in present day Turkey, was discovered in 1963 by a man renovating his basement. This massive network of tunnels and rooms extends 280 feet into the earth and contains up to 18 stories. Archaeologists estimate that the city could house 20,000 people. But why was such a large city constructed beneath the earth’s surface? And who could have dug it? And when? And why was it abandoned? Questions like these still plague archaeologists and some of their answers remain undetermined. 

Who could have built such an extensive underground matrix, and when? Archaeologists still aren’t sure. Some christian iconography suggests that they were built by early christians in the first couple centuries CE. Many archaeologists claim that the tunnels were dug before that, by the Phrygians around 700 BCE. However, some believe Derinkuyu could date back to 2000 BCE, built by the Hittites, who dominated the area at the time. If it was the Hittites who built the city, it is certain that they were not the last to reside there. Derinkuyu was likely shared by several different cultures since its original construction. For instance, there is strong evidence to suggest that Christians from the 6th to the 10th century CE made additions to the tunnel network. Determining exactly what cultures inhabited the tunnels is nearly impossible, unfortunately, as any artifacts or iconography to indicate their identity have been replaced with each new community to move in. 

Inside a room of Derinkuyu, containing a circular stone used as a “door” separating one level from the next.

Derinkuyu is located in the historical Cappadocia region, covered in a rocky landscape full of “fairy chimneys”. These stunning natural rock formations are the result of erosion of a type of stone called tuff, which is ironically very soft and ideal for digging. Whoever it was that constructed the underground city had highly advanced rock mining skills, as the soft rock is at high risk of caving in, yet there is no evidence that any rooms ever did. When closed off from the Earth’s surface, the tunnels were ventilated by over 15,000 chimneys. Each was only about 4-5 inches wide, but supplied adequate ventilation to all levels of the city. The upper levels served mainly as the living quarters, as they were the best ventilated. Lower levels were used more for storage as well as a dungeon. All the levels in between contained churches, a convent, a room for wine press, and even housed domestic animals. Some shafts extended even further below the lowest levels, and doubled as wells, which were still being used by modern locals of the area before Derinkuyu’s rediscovery. The name darin kuyu actually translates from Turkish to “deep well”.

For an informational tour of the tunnels, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_7uDG-VJZE

“Fairy chimneys” of the Cappadocia region in Turkey, made of tuff stone.

Why was such a large settlement built entirely underground? Most archaeologists share the opinion that Derinkuyu was built as a refuge, whether from enemy armies or the extreme seasons. Enormous rolling stones used to cover the ground level entrances to the city serve as evidence for these claims. Underground, temperatures remained constant and could be regulated, and crops could be stored and protected from the weather. Regardless of the original reason for its construction, Derinkuyu was undoubtedly used as refuge for the local population while the Byzantines and Arabs were at war between the 8th and 12th centuries CE, as well as throughout the Mongol raids of the 14th century. There is even some linguistic evidence in the tunnels that a local Greek population sought shelter there occasionally. After the Greco-Turkish war ended in 1922, the Cappadocian Greeks left the area, taking with them the knowledge that the city, which they had named Malakopia, meaning “soft” in Greek, ever existed beneath the ground. 

Giant rolling stone, used to block entrance to the underground city.

Derinkuyu is not alone beneath the Turkish landscape. Hundreds of subterranean dwellings have been discovered and explored around the area. Until recently, none came close to the grandeur of Derinkuyu. But in 2014, another underground city was discovered nearby in Nevsehir, which may rival Derinkuyu’s impressive size. Though it has yet to be fully explored, seismic surveys indicate that this city may extend as deep as 370 feet, almost 100 feet deeper than Derinkuyu, and contain almost five million square feet. It was similarly built, containing living spaces, kitchens, churches, linseed presses to produce oil for lighting. Artifacts such as grindstones, ceramics, and crosses suggest that this city was used in the Byzantine era and through the Ottoman conquest. However, though we know the Byzantines inhabited the site, we cannot know for sure that they were the people to originally construct it. Questions of who really constructed these massive underground dwellings and when remain unanswered and up to interpretation. 

For information on more subterranean cities in Turkey, check out this website:

The mystery of Derinkuyu’s original construction illuminates a very important aspect of archaeology. While artifacts found at a site may provide reason to believe that their owners did reside there, they do not always prove that their owners were the ones to construct the site as a whole. Throughout human history, property has been passed on from culture to culture. Countless cities have been abandoned by one culture and adopted by another. Countless cities have been captured and reclaimed. Sometimes, we find evidence of the entire lineage of cultures to inhabit these places. However, often, traces of a culture’s presence can be wiped away by time and those who followed. This only emphasizes the fact that nothing in archaeology is certain and there are some questions which have been lost to time and can never be answered.


“Derinkuyu: Mysterious Underground City in Turkey Found in Man’s Basement.” Big Think, June 30, 2022. https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/derinkuyu-underground-city/. 

Pinkowski, Jennifer. “Massive Underground City Found in Cappadocia Region of Turkey.” Adventure, May 4, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/article/150325-underground-city-cappadocia-turkey-archaeology.