Wow, this is unbelievably cool. Amazing that this painting has survived in such incredible condition for over forty four millennia in such a hot and humid climate. Must be an extremely dry microclimate in that cave. Whoever it was that painted this late Paleolithic masterpiece 44,500 years ago during the Ice Ages, the climate near the equator was cooler and much drier than today because so much of Earth’s water was locked up in the enormous glacial ice sheets that covered so much of northern Eurasia and North America. So much water was frozen in the glaciers that the world’s sea level was hundreds of feet below what it is today. The shallow seas of today were land then. You’d never notice, if you were suddenly plopped back then by some space time mishap, except that the beaches would be much farther away. So what is now the oddly shaped island of Sulawesi would have been part of the India sized land mass that connected nearly all of what is now Southeast Asia, so that continental Asia continued eastward and stopping just sort of New Guinea by channels of deep water. The first Australians had passed that way twenty or so thousand years before making the boat crossing to New Guinea, itself connected to Australia by land that now lies underwater. The people who painted this extraordinary wild pig were local residents, part of a population that had been slowly expanding eastward. Were they the same as the people whose ancestors later populated the length and breadth of Australia? Probably not. The Australians had apparently been descendants of people who’d left Africa at least 20,000 years earlier (and from the looks of this painting on Sulawesi, the Australians had a different style of painting—entirely different traditions of painting, perhaps) and would have passed through Sulawesi long before. But the people who did paint this painting are not the same as those who inhabit Sulawesi now, who arrived only a few thousand years ago. Populations shift profoundly over immense periods of time, and peoples who seem to have been the original resident, they’re just the latest residents, even if they’ve been there for thousands of years. There’s history and there’s deep time. We’re talking human deep time here, measured in blocs of tens of thousands of years. History means nothing over scales like that. Yet here we are with a window into a moment where two humans—probably of our species, Homo sapiens, though perhaps they were Denisovans, who were as close and as distant to us as Neanderthals—left this extraordinary portrait of a warty pig upon a cave wall. It will take a bone fragment (with viable DNA) as old as the painting to discern what species of humans they were. But no matter, who ever this human was, 44,500 years ago he watched a warty pig with an artist’s eye and turned to a limestone wall and painted this. He didn’t sign it, but he left a handprint in paint for us to wonder about, and his friend left one too.
OK, gotta shave the beard today. The Sioux’s complaining. They don’t like beards, those Native Americans, don’t like body hair much at all. It must have been a particularly hairless bunch that wandered across the Bering Strait land bridge and began the long chain of fucks that eventually populated the western hemisphere. If it had been a bunch of the Ainu, who were the aboriginal peoples of Japan and whose forebears could just have easily kept wandering east into Alaska the population of the Americans would have been the hairiest on earth. It’s genetic mutations and the randomness of demographic history like that decides body hair fashion globally. Think about it. Well, don’t bother, it was a ridiculous digression. But it was my lack of hirsuteness that were among the reasons she decided I was worthy of her, I was tall, had a car, had a job, and was not encased in hair like a wooly rhinoceros. That’s all it took (or so we’d tell the kids, anyway, if we had any.) So me and the razor got a date today.
Admittedly this isn’t one of my better posts.
A gorgeous item, Paleolithic art in the form of a hand axe created sometime from 300,000 to 500,000 years ago, discovered in Toft, England. Though not a culture like we think of a culture, this is part of what is known as the Acheulean culture, or Acheulean tradition, of tool making you can find all over Europe, Africa, and Asia. It went on for a million and a half years or so, slowly, infinitesimally changing, for about five times as long as the 300,000 years we Homo sapiens have existed. This beautiful thing was created by someone in the last third of that span, towards the northwestern extremity of that range, when the island of Great Britain was on the eastern edge of a vast plain that extended from the Pyrenees and Alps and Carpathians north across verdant grasslands where the English Channel and much of the North Sea are now. The maker of this thing, or their parents, or perhaps their parents hundreds of generations earlier had walked across that plain to the place where this was flaked—striking stone against stone with just the right touch at just the right angle using techniques that went back well over a million years—in what is now Toft, England, about an hour or so northwest of London.
We’re stepping out of history into Deep Time trying to imagine such a span of time, perhaps not Geologic Deep Time, with its sweep of hundreds of millions years, but certainly hominid Deep Time, with endless integers of a million years. Acheulean culture existed in this Deep Time, a million and a half million years ago, and the visionary creature (or visionary to us, anyway) who made this back then was not one of us, not at all. We are a different and later species of hominid, of human. This gorgeous handaxe would have been shaped by a Homo erectus or a Homo heidelbergensus, and we really have no idea what they saw in it, or thought about it, or what significance the fossil shell uncovered by their flaking had to them. We only know what we what we know of if, with our huge Homo sapien brains whirring, that it’s a fossil, something that lived and died millions and millions of years before, deep in paleontological time. Of course there is absolutely no way whatsoever the Homo erectus who discovered it could have even had a glimmer of any of that. It requires a frontal lobe of the sort that he or she did not have. It never really occurs to us that before Homo sapiens had even evolved by genetic mutation from a single mating pair of Homo erectus, that for millions of years such entirely different human creatures wandered from Africa across half the globe, thinking thoughts that we can never possibly know. But we can look at what they made, and must have marveled at, and showed the others, communicating with gestures and expressions and sounds without uttering or even thinking a single word.
Not to be a bummer, but nearly all of the cultures that have ever existed are gone. Nearly all of the languages that have have ever been spoken are gone. Nearly all of the civilizations that ever existed are gone. Nearly every single religion that has ever been believed in is gone. We’re the last remaining human species. Except in very rare circumstances there will be no proof that you ever existed in a thousand years, or more likely in a couple centuries, or even more likely once your grandchildren are dead. Your genes will survive a a dozen generations from now as scraps of junk DNA having no effect on your descendants or the course of evolution. Over a hundred billion people have lived these past fifty thousand years and you can probably name a few dozen who died before 1900, nearly all of them from whatever culture you were educated in. We’re here for a bit, the memory fades, and then it’s like we were never here at all, our existence as ephemeral the electrons I’m writing these words with.
1968, it says on the back in my mother’s flawless longhand, Age 11. I was probably 5’6” by then. I was 5’5” earlier in 5th grade, which I remember since the kids said I was fifty foot five. I peaked out at 6’5” when I was sixteen, so I was gaining height about two inches a year. Must have spent a lot of time waiting for a flood. Adolescence had trouble keeping up and I was coming in on six feet before my voice finally cracked in 9th grade. I had the voice I have now by the time I was a sophomore. I remember all the songs I could sing just a few months before were hopelessly above my range. No more Simon and Garfunkel for me, Emily would have to find herself. Not that it bothered me any, because suddenly my voice had power, and no one ever fucked with me. It was like being a grown up in 10th grade surrounded by all these silly kids. That’s a very easy way to begin adulthood, everybody thinking you’re somebody because you’re so goddamn tall, everyone seeking your approval, dudes apologizing who hadn’t done a damn thing to apologize for but just wanted to be safe. But then that’s a behavior that’s been hardwired into us apes—gorillas, chimps and all the various human species—since we evolved from monkeys 25 million years ago. I’m just carrying on the tradition.
Huge hands with huge fingers are not an evolutionary advantage on a smart phone. I see my kind becoming extinct, like some sort of vastly fingered megafauna. I go to the La Brea tar pits and look at the skeletons of megatheriums with their huge clumsy claws and envision me thudding at a tiny digital keyboard with ridiculous fingers, tormented by GIFs.
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.