3 stories from The Prehistoric and Ancient Times

Some 90,000 years ago in what is now south central Russia an isolated group of hominids evolved to become Denisovans, closely related genetically to us modern humans but still distinctly different. Scientists have found hints in past DNA searches that Denisovans and Neandertals interbred and now they have found a first generation hybrid, a female whose mother was Neandertal and father was a Denisovan:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/science/neanderthals-denisovans-hybrid.html. The mother’s people would seem to have originated thousands of miles east in central Europe and traveled widely, eventually coming to Denisova, as the area is termed.  Evidently enough commonality in genes, culture, and psychology permitted mating to go forward.  The landscape back then was sparsely inhabited by prehistoric humans and given a virtually universal prohibition operating even back then against incestuous mating, a tribe or clan meeting a group of friendly strangers would be open to inter-marriage (whatever marriage at that time might have been).  Of course today our racist feelings might create a Romeo and Juliet kind of situation.  I also have to say that genetic science yield results that are both interesting and challenging to our every day notion of race.

Skip forward 80,000 years and south to Africa. Archeologists have discovered a burial site where hundreds of people were ritually buried (with artifacts useful and ornamental) over several hundred years in one large grave beside Lake Turkana in Kenya:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/science/lake-turkana-burials-pillars.html.   And then they stopped.  Who knows why?  The climate was changing drastically or perhaps they were driven away by another aggressive group.  They covered the grave over with stones and moved large heavy basalt columns from a kilometer away to mark or decorate the site.  I wonder if their village was next to or close by this ‘cemetery’ and how the bodies were prepared for burial, e.g., flesh left to rot or feed the vultures.

Finally skip forward a few more thousand years and return to merry olde England during roughly the Stonehenge period (say around 5000 years ago):  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/opinion/britain-drought-cropmarks-summer.html.   Severe drought has caused much of the farm land to dry up and shrink to reveal ancient sites built of wood and earth construction. These are easily seen by air and ground studies have shown that these constructions, e.g., houses, villages, barrows, henges, etc., were done repeatedly over time, i.e., an area would be built up, then presumably fall into ruin, and be built over again with different structures.  Man builds, time erases, and man builds again.  Might be a theme emerging here, eh?  Might ask Ozymandias about that.  Travel on.

heads up

Please pardon this disjointed post–I have had several posts in my head the past few days and only time for one.  This Thursday, June 25 (or some places on 6/24), PBS premieres a new series, First Peoples, about our prehistoric ancestry.  I am looking forward to it.  For  various reasons I have been thinking about a powerful force in our humanity, the separation of others into in-group/out-group.    In prehistory this plays out in the amalgamation between Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens.  We know they interbred because of genetic studies and we know that Neandertals were in Europe thousands of years before modern humans arrived. How did these two groups approach each other?  Were two from each the original Romeo and Juliet?  Also, researchers are looking for evidence as to how agriculture spread.  Did hunter-gatherers wander upon farmers and see the virtues of agriculture?  Did farmers usurp land from the hunter-gatherer tribes?  Did they interbreed? (yes, to some extent).  Two periods of groups meeting other groups.  We know simians have similar in-group/out-group dynamics and they are not always nor even usually friendly.  How has this played out in our evolution?

I generally blog about the roots of humanity in a relatively affect-neutral manner, but now I must talk about our inhumanity, and it stems in part from this in-group/out-group dynamic.  A white youth went into an African-American church in Charleston and sat through an hour of their Wednesday prayer meeting before yelling racial epithets and murdering and wounding many.  He had some deluded notion that he was a member of the in-group and they, being of a different race (but really any excuse would do), were of an out-group that he felt were taking over.  Back when I was a clinical psychologist I worked with some youth like this young man, isolated, few strengths, perverted thinking, emotional control through addiction, and reliant upon aggression to solve problems. It was always ugly and I am always amazed that our culture and society has so many niches for these people to occupy until they violate the law and then they land in prison.  How is it that we, and I speak as an American here, permit our young to grow and act this way?

For an articulate howl of anguish over this, watch Jon Stewart’s monologue on the Daily Show before he interviews Malala Yousafzi about her championship of education and human rights.  For a different slant, watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unkown this past Sunday on Beirut and listen to a Syrian teacher in exile cry that the universe has no place for his people.

I want that teacher to know that the universe does have a place for his people, for all people, locally here on Earth, on our precious Gaia.  I hope that our heritage of in-group/out-group disappears under the enlightenment that we are all in this (on this) together and must treasure the places where all are welcome.  Such places do exist already–for proof look at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston which opened its doors again this past Sunday to everyone.  Let us carry that work forward and make it so.