Paleolithic handaxe

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….

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.

Everybody thinking you’re somebody

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

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.

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.