Quirks of fate

It seems that 70,000 years ago the global population of homo sapiens was reduced to less than 26,000. Apparently they teased out that bit of info through some genetic analysis. As humans were by then in Africa and across much of Eurasia, that means we were very sparse on the ground. All seven billion of us spring from remarkably small numbers of people. Indeed, it’s been suggested that as few as seventy individuals came across the Bering Strait land bridge to eventually people the entire western hemisphere. We’ve had more than seventy people in our pad at parties. I never thought of them as a genome before. Well, I did once and got my face slapped. But I digress.

A million or so years ago our antecessor species Homo erectus seems in the genetic analyses (if I knew how they do this I’d tell you) to have been reduced to less than a thousand individuals….and remained like that on the razor’s edge of extinction for maybe a hundred thousand years. Everything we are was dependent on a population the size of a very small town or a medium sized high school or the fans of failing rock band in a big, mostly empty concert hall. Somewhere in that tiny population was some of us, genetically. Whatever genetic factors helped members of that population survive a particularly brutal hundred thousand years of Darwinian natural selection (as other related human species went extinct) lies deep in our own genome. And when 70,000 years ago something happened globally that reduced Homo sapiens to less than 25,000 individuals, we survived while the last of Homo erectus died out, unable to survive what it had once survived for a hundred thousand years. No one ever said natural selection was fair. It’s anything but. The fossil record is full of species of humans and proto-humans no longer here. Fleshed out by talented artists, they gaze at us with all the pathos of a Rembrandt. You can sense their intelligence and emotions. Then you look at the skulls again, bare and ancient and hopelessly extinct. There but for quirks of fate, is us.

Hominin hominin hominin

Many years ago I was reading Donald Johanson’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind and watching The Honeymooners at the same time. Bad idea. This one note bit popped into my head and I have not been able to shake it since. Three decades later I asked myself what would Richard Dawkins do? So I meme the thing.

Why so excited Ralphie boy, what did you find there, the jaw of a baboon?
N-N-N-Norton, I found a homina homina homina.
Calm down, Ralph, it looks like the jaw of a Pliocene baboon to me.
Homina homina homina.
But let me take a closer look.
Homina homina homina.
You’re right, Ralph, it’s not a baboon, not with these incisors.
Homina homina homina.
Good lord, Ralph, you’ve found a homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Hi Ed, Hi Ralph, Alice home? Just what are you two so excited about?
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Let me see that jaw. Why it’s, it’s a homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Hi Ralph, Hi Ed, Hi Trixie, what are you three babbling about?
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Let me see then. Why it’s a hominin!
Hominin hominin hominin.
Hominin hominin hominin.
Hominin hominin hominin.
I’ll call it Lucy.
I’ll call it Alice then.

Humans being are scared because being scared is human.

Terrorism in Western Europe Used to Be Much Worse read the headline in Mother Jones. Someone asked if terrorism is so much lower than it was forty years ago–see the chart below, the difference in scale is dramatic–then why is fear up so much?

Probably because there is nothing else to be afraid of. Human beings, having evolved under constant predatory pressures, are by nature very fearful. Back in the 70’s Americans were scared shitless of terrorism, but we were also worried about World War 3 and an incredibly high crime rate and some truly scary serial killers. Fear was a continuous presence, and there was much to be genuinely afraid of. Now there is a lot less to be afraid of, very little even. So we focus on terrorism. People will always be terrified of something.

Our very intelligence, the incredibly high level of human cognition, developed in response to our terror of predators. It probably even was one of the factors in the development of language. (Think of vervet monkeys, with their distinctive cries of danger for leopard, snake, eagle.) We can’t live without fear. People who are naturally without fear literally have something wrong with them…. and those eastern techniques people use to attain inner peace–that is, freedom from fear–require extraordinarily intense concentration and practice to overcome our intrinsic fear.

Homo sapiens are the only surviving human species out of dozens, and it is assumed that nearly all the other species were driven to extinction by predatory pressures. Life in the plains was extremely dangerous. We remain the sole survivor because our ancestors were the only one who developed technology to help us fight back, and did so an incredibly long time ago. Homo habilis had developed tools way over two million years ago, which means they must have already been using stones as missiles, much like baboons do. Our survival strategy was probably much the same as baboons–groups that defended aggressively against predators, except that baboons can live in very large groups because they are primarily plant eaters, and we were forced to live in smaller groups because we ate mostly meat. That made us much more vulnerable to predators–especially leopards (in fact, leopards still kill scores of people annually). Therefore we had to have a much more acute wariness about leopards (which are ambush hunters), which helped us survive where every one of our competitors failed. Being scared all the time was not only a survival strategy, it made us human.

Incidentally, of the four surviving genuses of hominids, three–orangs, gorillas and chimps/bonobos–all live in dense forest, which protects them from predators. We are the only genus that survived in open country, from H. habilis through H. erectus to H. sapien. And we did that by be incredibly wary. Even now, living in completely artificial homes surrounded by all this technology and never eating anything we killed or harvested ourselves, we will always find something to be freaked out by. Fearing sudden attack by terrorists is not that different from fearing an ambush by a leopard.

Leopards, in fact, may have evolved as hominid eaters, as both they and we evolved as species at the same time. As prey we may have actually been a prime driver in their evolution. You look at a leopard and you might be seeing a cat designed to kill you, specifically. There is no other predator designed to eat us. Leopards certainly are much more adept at hunting us than are lions or cheetahs. Leopards even have human-specific methods of killing us, preferring to catch people indoors while they sleep. They haunt Mumbai by night, taking a dozen or so of us in a bad year within the city limits. They are epicures of humans as food, oenophiles, sometimes killing one of us with quick bites to the neck, then tearing open the throat just to lap up the blood that pools on the floor. They drink their fill and slip out the way they came in, unseen, leaving the meat uneaten.

After writing that, I walked over to make sure the door was locked. There are killers and terrorists everywhere.


Ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo

Using genetic analyses, it’s currently believed that the first wave of modern humans who migrated out of Africa did so around 90-130K years ago. Those first wanderers reached Australia perhaps 50-70K years ago, and today’s Australian aborigines are probably descendants of those people, and if not the very first (we have 65K year old artifacts galore but as yet no DNA) then certainly of peoples who came in soon afterward. There were other waves–perhaps pulses is a better term–of people out of Africa afterward. Each “wave” was probably a remarkably small number of people, maybe a few hundred, maybe even less, a few dozen, who then eventually branched out across the world. Some of those additional waves may have also reached Australia, or perhaps not. They’re still arguing that one. Genetics, though, does show that aboriginal Australians descend in large part if not entirely from that first wave. We know this because at the end of the last ice age the land bridge between Asia and Australia was submerged, creating first the Indonesian archipelago and then, as the oceans rose further, separating New Guinea from Australia about 8,000 years ago. Australians, among the first people to leave Africa, became isolated at the end of the earth in Australia, and had very little to do with the rest of humanity for thousands of years until Captain Cook came nosing around. Their culture evolved in splendid isolation. Dreamtime.

I’m bringing this up because when you look at Australian languages, they seem about as far afield from the Indo-European languages–which includes English–as you can imagine. The last time someone spoke something that was the root of both an Australian aboriginal language and English was probably somewhere in East Africa, perhaps 150,000 years ago or more, almost to the point where modern humans–Homo sapiens–emerged and began speaking language. There’s no way to figure this out, of course, I’m just extrapolating from the timelines genetics and the sparse archeological record have given us. And I’m thinking in terms of the small family bands or perhaps tribal groups radiating across Africa for maybe fifty thousand years before some eventually crossed the Red Sea into Arabia and kept walking. At some point in there the people that became Australians would have lost contact with the people who became, say, Europeans. It may have been a family splitting up. A hunting band. Maybe a scattered group of related bands. Whatever. We last had contact with each other somewhere in Africa well over a hundred thousand years ago. Which gives you an idea of just how separate English is from any of the languages spoken by indigenous Australians. The last time we could understand each other was maybe six thousand, or maybe ten thousand, generations ago. You can almost picture that, ten thousand generations. Think back to your own grandparents, and their grandparents, and then their grandparents and on and on and back and back, time measured in people’s lifespans. You could talk to your grandparents, and–if you spoke the same language–perhaps their grandparents. You make yourself understood to their grandparents. It might get a little iffy after that. I’d have a helluva time making myself understood to an English speaker twenty generations ago, when everyone really did talk like Shakespeare. Go back another twenty generations before that and it would get even harder. Another twenty generations beyond that (i.e., sixty generations ago) we’d just stare at each other, confused. And that is only 1500 years. Multiply that by a hundred to get back to where a proto-European and a proto-Australian could understand what each other was saying.

But to really get an idea, here’s a page full of transcriptions of sayings in various Australian languages. They all pretty much sound as they look, the double r’s are rolled or trilled, sort of halfway between Spanish and German, and the g is hard, so ng sounds like the ng in ungood and not like the ng in orange. Never mind the grammar–it varies wildly across the continent, which still has 150 spoken native languages (down from perhaps as many as 750 before the Europeans came), though many, like Bardi, have less than twenty remaining speakers.  And like all small languages, the grammar is more complex than a language spoken by millions of people (the more speakers, the simpler the rules become). But just looking at these phrases, and sounding them out, and seeing how utterly alien they appear to us, you really get a feel for the span of time it’s been since our shared ancestors went their separate ways. My ancestors and the ancestors of aboriginal Australians have been speaking mutually unintelligible tongues almost since Homo sapiens appeared on the planet. A hundred thousand years maybe? A hundred and fifty thousand? Two hundred thousand? Who knows. But if I’d seen two people adding sticks to a small fire, I’d say they were kindling a fire. A Bardi speaking Australian who saw the same thing would say ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo. That’s what a couple hundred thousand years will do to mutual communication.

Ancient tools

Scientists in Kenya Believe They’ve Just Found the Oldest Tools Ever Discovered, headline said.

A team of scientists working in Kenya says it has unearthed the oldest tools ever discovered, dating back 3.3 million years ago. The stone flake tools are 700,000 years older than the earliest known stone tools, predating modern humans by 500,000 years and “suggesting that our ancestors were crafting tools several hundred thousand years before our genus Homo arrived on the scene,” according to Science magazine.

The thing is, though, that there might not be a link from these incredibly ancient tools to me typing on a computer, since these are 700K years older than the earliest tool use we see in our predecessors:

The gap between these tools and the previous oldest known is so long — 700,000 years — suggests that whomever made these newly discovered tools could have died with the knowledge, and stone tools were “reinvented” again hundreds of thousands of years later.

These tools apparently belong to another species of hominids that went extinct (there were dozens of hominid variations that didn’t make it), and one of our own predecessors had to rediscover tool use half a million years later and passed it on, eventually, to us. These tools–rocks flaked into clearly shaped cutters and scrapers, and the rocks used to flake them into those shapes–are physical evidence of a culture. It was a primitive culture, to be sure, but one more sophisticated than even the most clever band of chimpanzees today, a culture that could turn carefully selected rocks into specifically shaped tools, and then could pass that knowledge onto the next generation. This was learned behavior, not instinctive. The site was essentially a work shop, a factory, a place where over three million years ago hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of stone tools were created. The small area was littered with them, and so far they’ve collected more than 130 of these artifacts. We don’t know if everyone would pitch in and make their own implements, or if there was one or two individuals who specialized in tool manufacture. We don’t know how long this went on for, or just how widespread this technology was. We don’t know anything, except the age of these tools–they can be dated at 3.3 million years, using paleo magnetic techniques–and how they were created, by flaking (or “knapping”), smashing a stone against another to create specific shapes, the ultimate in early paleolithic technology. But we have no way of knowing who it was that made them. Without a pre-human skull, an Australopithecine, maybe, someone like “Lucy”, we can only guess. Hopefully some day the right bones will be found in the right place.

Until then, though, these worked stone implements will just haunt us, a mystery, a race of apes that could have been us, but didn’t make it. Eventually at some point around three million years ago there was just one survivor, scraping at bones with one of these tools, and then he died–by disease or age or a leopard–and a future civilization died with him. It’s sad to think about, as the finality of extinction always is. All that evolution coming to an end. Of course had they not died out, I would not be typing this, and you would not be reading this. We would not be here. We are descended from that next tool making culture half a million years later. That is where we trace our genetic and cultural roots from. The failure of those three million year old tool makers was an opening for the line of australopithecines that eventually became homo habilis and then homo ergaster and then homo erectus and finally us, the billions and billions of homo sapiens, in all our tool making glory. But we will probably share their fate, eventually, with one last homo sapien taking the very last human genome with him, and this glorious little human experiment will be done.