Modern humans have always adored water and most people take great pleasure from bathing and swimming. We are entranced by the sea. Worldwide, wherever they are economically caught or speared, fish and shellfish are especially desired by humans in their daily diet. It is suggested that modern people of the Far East, who have been the most persistent eaters of seafoods, are on average more intelligent than European or African races as shown by studies on children in the U.S. A. and elsewhere.
Sir Alister Hardy stated as long ago as 1960:
Many animals can swim at the surface if they are forced to, but few terrestrial animals can swim below the surface as man can, or can gracefully turn this way and that to pick up what he is looking for.
And Elaine Morgan wrote in 1982:
It has been discovered that human babies are able to swim not merely before they are able to walk, but before they are able to crawl. The mistake made in the past has been not in introducing them to the water too soon, but in delaying it too long.
The only large modern mammal which approximates humans in relative brain capacity to body weight is the dolphin. Dolphins eat only seafoods and they have an extended verbal communication system, not fully explored. There are many stories of friendly, intelligent encounters between wild dolphins and people. Many have suggested that there is greater psychic rapport between dolphins and people than between chimps and people.
In December 1991, a book appeared which debated the Aquatic Ape Theory. The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction? contains twenty-two papers following a conference held in 1987 at Valkenburg in the Netherlands. After Elaine Morgan launched herself into the controversy in 1972, I waited for the lively debate that should surely follow. As years passed, I accepted the inertia but was sad and occasionally cynical. It is extraordinary how long it takes innovative and unorthodox argument to become respectable. The problem of accepting ‘Darwinism’ is typical.
There seemed to be a slight tremor in the bedrock of academic convention and, if the momentum of the aquatic hypothesis could be maintained, the inertia of the predominant savannah-origin theory could be broken. And yet, Richard Leakey’s latest book, Origins Reconsidered (1992), does not consider an aquatic ape. Stringer and McKie’s otherwise excellent summary and discussion of current scientific progress in hominid evolution studies, African Exodus (1996), does not attempt to touch the subject. Since fossils may never be found in ancient ocean reefs, not in our lifetimes anyway, it seems inevitable that we have to look elsewhere other than to palaeontologists for scientific exploration and intellectual stimulation.
Graham Richards, writing in Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction (1991):
Between 1972, when Elaine Morgan’s reformulation of Sir Alister Hardy’s Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT) first appeared in her best-selling book The Descent of Woman, and the convening of the Valkenburg meeting in 1987, the hypothesis received no serious academic attention. The references to it in the academic literature were at best patronising .... and at worst contemptuous ....
The editors wrote in their Preface, with understatement:
In accordance with the rule that the human mind is inclined to select from new facts only those which fit into the pattern of concepts already shaped, and with our resistance to new, strongly deviating facts, the idea that hominid speciation was initiated during a (semi-) aquatic period has been ignored or played down. This occurred despite the fact that this new idea gave rise to various quite reasonable explanations, some more acceptable than those that have arisen from the Savannah Theory.
Having read this collection of papers, I fear that these remarks still apply in some degree to some of the contributors. In my opinion, there was a prevalence of an Eurocentric view of a tropical African problem. There was much logical argument based on facts applicable to certain aquatic species in certain specific habitats or circumstances from which general conclusions were drawn. It is tempting to undertake a detailed critique of all the statements and conclusions I believe to be erroneous or irrelevant, but I will tackle only one about which I feel strongly, which is nakedness.
I believe that the seafood nutritional ‘driving force’ provided the mutational imperative for the jump to a bigger-brained ape, australopithecus, and the diversified homo line on the eastern African littoral. But vertical stance, tool using, heavy eccrine sweating and loss of hair or fur were probably the most significant of many closely interrelated adaptations resulting from coincident and continuous natural selection. The consequences of hairlessness which suits the tropical aquatic lifestyle perfectly have, in my opinion, been a great burden during the subsequent African savannah period and the successful colonisation of the whole planet. The burden had to be overcome and this requires some further discussion.
A central argument concerning nakedness storms around the usefulness or otherwise of body hair in an aquatic or semi-aquatic environment. Most of the discussion in The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction? seems to be about an ape which spent most of its time carrying out one specific aquatic activity whilst living on the land. Discussion often proceeds at length about either wading and swimming in shallow water or swimming and diving in deep water. Comparisons are made with other hairy or furry aquatic mammals like seals. These comparisons are often irrelevant because these aquatic mammals inhabit the temperate or frigid zones where specialised fur has been retained to support fatty insulation when spending time out of the water in cold and windy conditions.
Aquatic apes on the tropical eastern African littoral would have been engaged in frequently varying activities depending on changing circumstances of food needs, season, locality and tide. Rarely would they engage in one activity for more than an hour or two before resting, warming in the sun, feeding, socialising and changing to another activity. Any modern beachcomber on the tropical littoral wades, clambers and gathers on sharp coral and rock at different states of the tide; sturdily swims channels, very occasionally thrashes briefly away from predators, glides through shallow pools, rides ocean waves, dives deep submerged reef cliffs, ploughs through muddy mangroves, walks, squats and lies about on sandy beaches. I have watched all of these activities thoughtfully. Aquatic apes would do any number of other busy activities including sleeping, socialising, grooming, sexual mating, minding children and watching for land-based predators, in and out of the water.
On land they had to be active in shellfish preparation, dividing big fish, gathering roots and fruits and hunting in the littoral forest or scrub bush, establishing roosts or nest-making. If one can imagine shifting the area of a chimpanzee troop’s home territorial range from the forest until it straddles a slice of the tropical littoral, or the whole of a small island and its surrounding reef, then one has a picture of the lifestyle of an East African aquatic ape and oceanic australopithecine. Later, their homo descendants made tools and ranged to collect materials for them and hunted for skins and meat.
It is no hardship for modern Africans to spend long periods in the tropical sea, alternating with warming in the blazing sun. What would be a constant nuisance would be to have a thick mat of body hair constantly getting wet and drying off, being suffused with sand and seaweed, during those rapidly varying activities of aquatic hunter-gathering. Seals which have been slaughtered to make fur-coats, have had to compromise in the colder climates they inhabit. Their land-bases, ‘colonies’, are uncomfortable rocky areas and islands where they are able to avoid excessive contact with sand. Where fur-seal colonies have been long-established, rocks are worn smooth by the constant movement of their bodies. It is significant that they prefer uncomfortable rocky places to sandy beaches. Contrarily, sea elephants and walruses, which lack hair to the same extent as humans (with a compensating blubber layer like whales), do not mind sandy beaches.
I believe that early hominid ancestors probably had thick furry hair somewhat like modern Negroes have on their heads. All over, it would have required much daily grooming to manage matting with seagrass and weed, crumbled shells and sand in order to keep healthy and, especially, to attract mates. This and selection over a few thousand generations of natural selection, might quite simply have resulted in nakedness and provides a clear explanation without having to resort to a matrix of complex and convoluted argument. Elaine Morgan referred to the hindrance and nuisance of matted hair (1972) from constant wetting and drying on the seashore. Loss of this thick hair coincidentally aided diving and swimming by making the body more streamlined, providing a coincidental and powerful stimulus for natural selection. It has been universally noted that modern humans’ residual hair is aligned as if it developed in conditions of aquatic movement.
There has never been any doubt in my mind that the absence of hair on the African hominid living on the savannahs was a great sacrifice for one particular reason above two others that have been postulated: the problems of exposure to the sun and cold air. The other reason is that losing hair without growing a thick skin is a dangerous and unpleasant thing to do, because either hair or a thick skin is essential to combat parasitical flying insects. The other widespread naked tropical African savannah mammals - elephant, rhino, warthog and hippo - are all water oriented. They suffer when they cannot adequately bathe or wallow during droughts in country with many flies. If they cannot wallow, they take frequent sand baths which are a secondary substitute. Sometimes, fly populations expand in sudden explosions and become life-threatening.
White rhinos of the Umfolozi Game Reserve of KwaZulu-Natal are known to be particularly affected by flies and even furred or hairy mammals suffer. In recent years, the lion population of the Ngorongoro National Park in Tanzania was nearly wiped out by flies. No savannah animal would shed hair without building other physical or behavioural characteristics to combat insects in a process of natural selection unless there was an overriding imperative or ‘driving force’. European people of the white race are hairier than African or Melanesian Negroes and the ‘yellow’ people of tropical south east Asia. An easy assumption is that this is because of the colder climate. This may be a factor, but probably the more important one is that biting and stinging flies are more prevalent and active in the brief northern European summer then in the tropics, as camping parties in Scotland or Scandinavia are well aware.
The physical evolution of naked African savannah elephants, rhinos and warthogs also needs more attention and may provide obvious and important insights. Why did they become naked, need to wallow, and now inhabit hot dry environments? Unlike people, they do not sweat so it is presumed that their aquaticism has fresh water rather than salt water origins (no surplus salt to cleanse from their systems).
African people have always suffered from flies, ticks and other parasites, like their widespread mammal cousins, and there is a virulent spectrum of tropical insect-born diseases. There is no doubt that population stability was obtained to some degree through the fly. Malaria in modern times is an increasing scourge as modern people become crammed together in shantytowns. Nevertheless, Africans did survive successfully and are the absolute core-people of our planet.
I see that some of the mechanisms of evolution must have come from genetic change and others have become learned traits. Selecting sites for camps, homesteads and villages is an obvious procedure. The contrast between ‘native’ and ‘settler’ homesteads in colonial tropical Africa was stark. One sat in a neat area completely bare of vegetation which was scrupulously swept clean, the other was surrounded by a luxuriant cultivated garden and the house was furnished with fly-screens and mosquito-nets.
Modern Africans living in ‘primitive’ conditions spend much time around smoky fires. Fires are often traditionally lit inside huts. When people in a homestead suffered from disease or there were too many insects about, it was burned and the group moved. African people rubbed fat on their bodies whenever they had a surplus, usually mixed with mineral or vegetable powders, and others daubed themselves periodically with clays or other washes, especially as part of rituals.
Europeans and Africans always used to complain about each other’s different body odours before the universal promotion of laundry detergents and toilet soap. Africans sweat differently to Europeans and their smell, with regional variations, is compounded by woodsmoke and diet. When I am living in the African bush wilderness I never use soap for washing, apart from my hands, and I am not troubled by insects. Many Europeans do not have natural antihistamines like Africans and suffer severely from itching bites which when scratched become dangerous ulcers.
On the eastern African littoral beaches where homo may have evolved, with constant monsoon breezes, insects are less of a problem unless you choose to live in a sheltered house near rubbish tips or stagnant water. Modern shantytowns are excellent examples of where not to live.
Early European colonial observers were often more perceptive than modern non-African ‘experts’. One of many examples, Augusta Uitenhage de Mist, a travelling gentlewoman, wrote of the indigenous Late Stone Age Khoisan people in her Diary of a Journey to the Cape of Good Hope and the Interior of Africa in 1802 and 1803:
Their sole covering is a layer of sheep-fat mixed with earth, with which they besmear themselves from head to toe. This unattractive garb has, however, the advantage firstly of protecting them against the stings of insects, and in addition, it gives them the colour of the mountains they inhabit.....
Our nakedness has been much discussed relative to massive sweating, cooling and shading from the sun on the hot savannah, (and insufficiently relative to cold conditions at altitude around the Great Rift Valley or the South African highveld), whether it is an aid or hindrance in the sea and whether it is sexy or decorative. But nobody seems to have gone into the critical point of an insect barrier and the widespread use of fat-based smears and mineral washes, especially red-ochre, by Africans of every part of the continent.
Some years ago, I asked Prof. Phillip Tobias his opinion of the aquatic hypothesis and he told me that he had not studied it sufficiently to make a serious comment, but he clearly remembered Raymond Dart being quite receptive and wishing he could have gone into it properly.
I cannot forget that we are still semi-aquatic apes in many obvious ways today. Water-therapy has long been prescribed for a number of human ailments, including arthritis and mental disease where it has been standard procedure for years. Recent research at the Thrombosis Research Institute in London, reported in The Daily Telegraph (22 April 1993), showed that regular cold baths boost the production of sex hormones, help sufferers from severe stress and chronic depression, improve poor circulation and raise the number of white blood cells which fight virus infections. Predictably, there was a rejection of these ideas from the medical establishment.
It is strange that universal evidence of our special, genetically-imprinted relationship with water and the seaside seems to be universally rejected by conventional scientists. Is it all too obvious?
PART TWO : THE STONE AGES
CHAPTER FOUR: THE FIRST COLONIALS
Lake Turkana is the scene of definitive discoveries of early human fossils. From an airliner at 35,000 feet, almost the whole of the area can be seen. The sun reflects with blinking brilliance from the centre of the long slim lake, running 175 miles from north to south. From that height the opal glare seems to strike from a burnished surface of finely ground milky crystal. On either side, the land is at first glance a uniform chocolate, streaked daintily with faint markings. On the eastern horizon, there are the distant teeth of mountains at the far side of the Chabli Desert.
At certain sites in that burning wilderness, Richard and Maeve Leakey and others have found the fossil remains of varieties of australopithecus, homo habilis and homo erectus. Further along into the haze within Ethiopia, Donald Johanson and his colleagues unearthed early examples of australopithecus including ‘Lucy’, the first complete skeleton of one of the oldest known hominid types which they named australopithecus afarensis. Dates of these fossils go back 3-4,000,000 years or more. Maeve Leakey has been able to set a date of about 4.3 million years on the more recent of her group’s findings. So, it was not only the awesome vista that thrills, it is its time dimension of four million years of human history that give it absolute uniqueness. There is nowhere else on this planet that can compete with the vast extent of the four dimensional view from the tiny window of a speeding aeroplane.
The fact that fossil hominids of every kind have been found in that fearsome desert and modern people are there, fishing and gathering and herding, proves two things: it had not always been such a terrible desert region; and people are hardier, tougher and more resourceful than all other mammal species.
The australopithecines are proven to have lived in the Great Rift Valley from Ethiopia to Tanzania, the Sahara in Chad and on the South African highveld. Unquestionably, they inhabited the whole land in between from time to time as climate varied, and along ocean shores. The Lake Turkana sites and others along the Rift have revealed the progress of the ‘main’ human line, the homos. Homo habilis, a habitual tool-user but not a tool-maker, lived from about 2.5 million years ago to maybe 1.5 million years ago. At about that time, homo erectus (Paleolithic or Early Stone Age people) had become well-established. Home erectus made tools and was nomadic. He tamed fire and colonised Eurasia.
Our planet Earth, with its totally integrated dynamic systems which James Lovelock called Gaia, seems to present a slow-changing picture of the past when the only way we contemplate it is through the medium of physical geology. The solidity and rigidity of stone lulls us into a concept of excruciatingly slow change.
Computers and new mathematics have helped break down the concepts of slow-moving, slow-changing linear evolution of both geological Earth and living Gaia. James Gleick in the prologue to his book, Chaos, Making a New Science (1987), which described that mathematical concept, wrote:
Where Chaos begins, classical science stops. For as long as the world has had physicists inquiring into the laws of nature, it has suffered a special ignorance about disorder in the atmosphere, in the turbulent sea, in the fluctuations of wildlife populations, in the oscillations of the heart and the brain. The irregular side of nature, the discontinuous and erratic side - these have been puzzles to science, or worse, monstrosities.
It is possible to fall into a trap that the further back we go in time, the slower things happened. Robert Ardrey, for example, in African Genesis (1961) was caught in this mental set and could write:
And at last we enter the terrifying Pliocene drought, unremitting, changeless, twelve million years long. .... trapping the human stock for twelve million years in a mid-African evolutionary prison.
Ardrey was aware of the giant swings of the later Pleistocene Ice-ages and showed how they had stimulated the evolution of mankind, but he also followed a fashionable vision of enormous inertia in previous epochs.
Prof. Roland Oliver, could still suggest in his excellent book, The African Experience (1991), that early hominid populations were minute and grew achingly slowly:
....the total hominid population of eastern and southern Africa at any period up to the emergence of Homo erectus is likely to have been of the order of some tens of thousands.
We must accept that change occurs readily at any time. Even if there were absolutely no extra-planetary effects, landmasses were sliding about on the fluid surface of the planet and there was significant movement causing inter-continental environmental changes. It is not at all reasonable that during two million years of the late Miocene/early Pleistocene in tropical Africa, with known succeeding climatic stimulations and challenges, australopithecus was limited to a tiny population of some tens of thousands along 5,000 kilometres of coastline, about the Great Rift Valley lakes, around a hugely enlarged Lake Chad and all the rivers from South Africa to the Red Sea. When there were ‘bad’ times, there may be no doubt that populations shrunk to levels close to extinction, and possibly this happened several times. But, I reckon there were hundreds of thousands of australopithecus-type hominids at different ‘good’ times. It is an old and tried truism that nature abhors a vacuum.
There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of baboons and other monkeys living in Africa today despite enormous pressures from humanity. Even after relentless slaughter by modern humans over 3,000 years, and the decline in vegetation cover in the Sahara and southern semi-deserts during the same period, there were still about 1.25 million African elephants surviving in 1980 in small artificially-constricted zones. An elephant requires rather more land to survive than an australopithecine or stone-age human.
I am satisfied that all creatures move rapidly to fill the whole of the available suitable environment. Niches are quickly filled when factors are favourable and a nutritional ‘driving force’ is at work. Genetic evolution proceeds in jumps to plateaux imposed by natural selection and ‘survival of the fittest’ until a new opportunity appears within the chaos of the general system to promote another jump. Climatic fluctuations continually generate change in the environment which affect different living species in different ways. Extinctions occur when favourable conditions disappear over such a wide area and for long enough that species cannot keep up, leaving room for other species.
In the same way, populations expand to fill congenial environments in very rapid jumps, stabilise when natural selection prohibits further increase and contract when conditions are adverse. Genetic evolution and population growth have the same mechanisms, the same kind of laws apply. It is one of the harmonies of the Universal Law.
The Olorgasailie palaeolithic site is in the Great Rift Valley about sixty kilometres southwest of Nairobi. At the height of the dry season the Great Rift Valley there is burnt by the tropical sun until the leafless acacia scrub and the land itself merges into shades of dusty grey. It can be hot and very dry. During the rainy seasons there is a fine view from the Ngong Hills. At the escarpment rim in the crystal air you see the vast depths of the Rift. Between rain showers on clear days, instead of looking through dust haze at a parched land coloured in pale pastels, you stare over rich green, extending maybe fifty miles to the blue volcanoes on the southwestern horizon. Beyond Olorgasailie volcano there is the faint shadow of 7500 feet Meto on the Tanzanian border and Gelai looms beyond, towering over Lake Natron. Out of sight, the Ngorongoro massif cradles the famous crater game reserve. To the west, above the Rift, the Serengeti Plain sails away to Lake Victoria and to the southeast clouds often hide the lurking giant of Kilimanjaro.
Considering Olorgasailie during the dry and wet seasons, the contrast between them in all of eastern-southern Africa emerges. Northern Europeans living in their green lands most conscious of warmth and cold, or any modern urban dwellers cocooned in their cities, may not understand the truly vital importance of ‘the rains’ in much of Africa. The transformation of savannah thornveld from bare trees, dry rivers and baking dust to green vegetation, foaming torrents and mud is not just an interesting geographical phenomenon, inconveniencing tourists. It is the annual renewal of life itself. When rains are delayed or fail, as they often are, animals and humans suffer a misery that people in the First World cannot begin to feel no matter how many TV documentaries they view or books they read.
Living through the capricious march of the seasons in rural Africa makes one aware of how fragile life was for ancient mankind and their large mammal companions. The evidence of many extinct savannah species including australopithecus is there. It also shows how important it was to be able to move, to be a nomad, and colonise wherever there was a suitable niche. And if there was pressure from behind, then the nomads moved on, generation by generation.
500,000 years is a time-span that our minds are absolutely incapable of comprehending, yet that was the approximate age of the fossils found at Olorgasailie. Early Stone Age people had a fixed settlement at that place on the shores of a wide lake. It would have been something like Lake Naivasha is to-day with the ancient hunter-gatherers and stone toolmakers living a good life in small clan groups.
The Great Rift Valley is a massive fault system running from the River Jordan in Palestine to the Zambezi in Mozambique. Africa is breaking apart along the Rift, splitting infinitely slowly over millions of years to create a slim mini-continent 2500 miles long. It is the only major disturbance to the geography of Africa. At the two extremes of the African mirror either side of the equator there are ancient folded mountains at the Cape of Good Hope and the Atlas range in Morocco and Algeria. There is active volcanism along the central Rift Valley system and in Cameroon. But there are no high jagged ranges like the Andes, the Himalayas or the Alps where the shifting plates of the Earth’s surface jam up against each other.
Below the foot of the Olorgasailie volcano is the location of the archaeological site where an Early Stone Age complex had been excavated in great detail by Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1940s. Perhaps more than 500,000 years ago when homo erectus had worked a stone tool industry there, they had established a series of settlements, or camps, on the shores of the vanished lake. The ancient settlements had been set in preserving silt over millennia as the lake rose and fell and layers of dust and ash from nearby volcanic eruptions defined the time strata.
Most of the stone tools found at Olorgasailie were hand-axes, the standard paleolithic manufacture from South Africa to central Europe and Asia. They were a universal tool, shaped to fit comfortably in a hand’s grip and probably used mostly for butchering and skinning carcases, scavenged or killed, and preparing skin clothing. There was no stone on that ancient lake shore, but plenty of blocks of rock and water-rounded pebbles were carried there for craftsmen to work on. Ancient men or women carried stones in leather bags over their shoulders from the nearest rocky gorge a few miles away to the pleasant camp by the lake. The earliest principles of trade and craft specialists had been established and this is an important portal in human development that had been leapt through by that time.
It was flat country half a million years ago when homo erectus lived there in rough camps making stone tools, gathering vegetable food in the lush lacustrine surrounds, catching fish in the lake and butchering kill from the hunt; living the good life. It seems that trade had begun even then and other clans came there for recreation by the water and to exchange particular foods and skins for the hand-axes produced in the workshops of Olorgasailie.
A gentle slope was formed by a tilting in the land in some series of upheavals when the lake drained away and new river courses formed. In the time before this happened, I can visualise the silver sparkle on blue waters stretching away to the eastward and the grassy parkland under giant yellow-boled fever trees. Strange, extinct antelopes and short-necked giraffes would be grazing and browsing at a distance and giant hippos snorting in the water. A distant trumpeting might have stirred the community of homo erectus people sitting about a smoking fire. Huge extinct elephants (elephas recki), much taller than to-day’s giants, would be moving down to drink a hundred gallons or so of water and bathe together with happy snorting and squealing.
A fossil elephant leg bone from the excavations is placed alongside a similar modern one in the museum. They were identical but for the fact that the extinct one was twice as big. Maybe it is the animal fossil bones that have been exposed and dug up at Olorgasailie that are most important. Apart from extinct elephants, the area has yielded bones of extinct races of hippos, zebras, various antelopes and of particular interest, a large savannah baboon (theropithecus oswaldi). According to archaeologist Glyn Isaac’s description:
More than eighty adult and juvenile baboons were eaten at this camp, and the bones were mostly smashed to extract the marrow.
The existence of giant baboons that were killed by homo erectus as an easy source of food is significant. A lush climatic period in eastern Africa then is confirmed if the environment promoted these outsize primate cousins which disappeared in a mini mass-extinction during a subsequent climatic upheaval or because the Early Stone Age people and other predators killed them off.
Glyn Isaac described an interesting parallel in modern times, citing the Hadza people of Tanzania, descended from pre-Bantu-speaking hunter-gatherers related to the southern San-Bushmen:
...[they] occasionally band together and go out at night to surround a clump of trees or a rocky knoll where a baboon troop is sleeping. They dislodge the animals by shooting arrows and then club as many as possible to death as they break out of the circle.
Baboons, especially a clumsy larger species, were obviously easier prey than swift antelope. Many British TV viewers may have been astonished in late 1990 by David Attenborough presenting film of a clan of chimpanzees cooperatively hunting monkeys in the rainforest of West Africa with the efficiency of long practice, and communally eating one, precisely like hominids. Food-gathering behaviour and diet of homo erectus 500,000 years ago, modern hunter-gatherers and forest chimpanzees are more similar than many of us might realise.
Homo erectus living along the Great Rift valley and the surrounding savannahs were tall and slim according to a remarkable fossil skeleton which Kamoya Kimeu discovered and excavated with Richard Leakey and others near Lake Turkana in 1984. It was the remains of a boy who lived on the shore 1.6 million years ago. Richard Leakey and Alan Walker wrote:
.... because it is a youth’s skeleton and so complete, it offers us a unique glimpse of growth and development in early humans. At five feet four inches tall, the boy from Turkana was surprisingly large compared with modern boys his age: he could have grown to six feet. Suitably clothed and with a cap to obscure his low forehead and beetle brows, he would probably go unnoticed in a crowd today.
This example of very early mankind is particularly fascinating; the skeleton showing how close people are 1.6 million years apart, and how important nutrition and diet is. The boy who lived on the ancient lake shore probably had a rich diet of plentiful fish, different roots and tubers, grass seeds, fruits, honey and occasional feasts of meat. He was as tall and robust as a modern African living in similar surroundings. He was also much taller than 20th century San-Bushmen confined to the harsh environment of the Kalahari Desert or Pygmies living today with a protein-deprived diet in the Congo rainforest. It is notable that the bonobo chimpanzees who share the same environment with the Pygmies are also stunted in size compared to ‘common’ chimpanzees.
A principal difference between australopithecus and the homo line, apart from smaller height and a smaller brain, was in the thigh bones and the structure of the junction with the pelvis. There is no doubt that australopithecus walked upright and swam well, but the homos were better at both and the difference was more significant than any variation of a different race. The cross section of the femur near the joint with the pelvis in homo erectus was rounder and stronger, and the position of the pelvic joint was differently angled permitting an easier swing of the leg in a backwards and forwards motion. Australopithecus could beat his legs up and down in the water and walk quite well, but the homos could do it for prolonged periods without tiring or damaging this vulnerable place in the skeleton.
The homos could run faster and with better adapted lungs and thorax, probably developed by diving in the sea, had greater stamina for prolonged travel. Homo erectus could sustain long-distant migration, carrying the loads of their babies, clothes, tools, food and water. They could outwalk the shifting environment during the changes of the Pleistocene Ice-ages and survive by nomadism while australopithecus faded to extinction.
Homo erectus moved out of the savannahs of eastern, western and southern Africa. They became the first human ‘colonials’, ranging across the Earth wherever the environment was suitable for them. Roland Oliver in The African Experience (1991) wrote:
Men equipped mostly with Acheulian tools [hand-axes like those found prolifically at Olorgasailie] penetrated to every part of Africa saving only the fully forested regions of the Congo basin and the Guinea coastlands. In climatic terms, they learned to inhabit on the one hand areas much hotter then the highlands of eastern and southern Africa, and on the other hand areas that were somewhat moister and covered with denser vegetation.
It is noteworthy that Acheulian hand-axes are the only well-prepared and aesthetically created stone tools that have been discovered from this period all over the ‘Old World’ where these very early people penetrated. That is additional evidence of this Diaspora. Before hand-axes were made, round ‘pounders’ or hammers were used universally in Africa by other primates as well as hominids, and were still being used for a variety of domestic uses in the 20th century by Late Iron-age people. Bone tools and other artifacts, which may have also been carried with them on their colonial wanderings have not survived or have not been identified.
Before they learned to inhabit places which were lethally cold in winter such as the highveld of the Transvaal and the Atlas mountains of Morocco they must have tamed fire and were adept at making clothes.
I do not believe they needed to learn about different habitats during further travels because examples already existed all over Africa where, if you travel just a few hundred miles here and there, you can find canopy rainforest, mopani deciduous trees, dry thornbush, grassland, high plateaux, scrub and desert. Homo erectus met all these habitats and understood them, learning which to avoid and which were good. Their levels of technology and bushcraft were sufficient to cope. Their strength was their general competence; their limitations were their need to be close to water and their inability to cope with the coldest weather. Provided they did not try to go too far north in Eurasia, they were safe. Later people, homo sapiens, more evolved with more technology, were the ones who travelled further and colonised to the limits of the landmasses and over the oceans.
But, having filled all preferred niches in Africa, expansion could continue during warm interglacials. At the same time as homo erectus lived in the camp beside the ancient lake at Olorgasailie, the same species in differing races were living around the Mediterranean, in Central Europe, India, China and Indonesia. Of the many which have been explored, there are homo erectus archaeological sites at Ternifine in Morocco, Soleilhac in France, Boxgrove in England, Torralba and Atapuerca in Spain, Narmada in India, Luc Yen in Vietnam, Sangiran and Perning in Indonesia (Java Man) and several in China at Yuanmou, Yungxian, Nanzhou and the famous one near Beijing (Peking Man).
In 1992, an assemblage of bones was found in a deep cave at Atapuerca in Spain. It was reported that they made up 30 youthful individuals who died about 300,000 years ago. It seems clear from their skulls that they were within the range of homo erectus and may have been directly ancestral to the Neanderthal people of Europe. In 1994, there was the exciting revelation that part of a homo erectus skeleton excavated at Boxgrove in Sussex had revealed a date about 500,000 years ago and that this man had stood taller than the Neanderthals of 30,000 years ago.
Present evidence from fossils show that homo erectus had penetrated Eurasia by at least 900,000 years BP (and possibly much earlier) and survived relatively unchanged as late as 35,000 years ago in Indonesia (Solo Man in Java).
During the severe cold periods of an ice-age around 200,000 years ago, populations of all Early Stone Age people declined and arguably they disappeared from much of the Eurasian continent, leaving pockets along the tropical and sub-tropical belt.
Nevertheless, during the warm interglacials the only parts of Earth homo erectus did not penetrate, taking their advancing technology with them, were the higher latitudes of northern Eurasia, Antarctica, the Americas and oceanic islands. Colonisation of those parts had to wait for another evolutionary jump to specialised technology, further growth in reasoning ability and another surge of population growth in Africa stimulated by the abundance of the warm interglacial period about 125,000 years ago.
CHAPTER FIVE : CHAOS IN THE ICE-AGES
There are several areas of proven archaeological importance to the Stone Ages along the Cape of Good Hope coast of South Africa. This coast is prolific in cave sites in the magnificent mountainous landscape that sweeps to the sea. Klasies River Mouth on the Indian Ocean is one of the most significant sites anywhere for the study of human transition to modern homo sapiens and their survival from the last interglacial period (+ 125,000 years ago), through the last Ice-age, to the recent past in the present warm period. At Klasies River Mouth, Middle Stone Age artifacts were found in a layer with modern homo sapiens fossils dated to about 120,000 years BP. At the furthest south in Africa, mankind had evolved to an advanced genetic and cultural level not achieved in Europe. There are also sites on the Atlantic Ocean side at Elandsbaai and near Saldanha Bay where there are no mountains and the shoreline flanks plains with its own remote and haunting wilderness: home to pelicans, Cape gannets, jackass penguins and frolicking seals.
The southern Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts of South Africa are stunning in their natural beauty and variety of geography. How lucky those Middle Stone Age beachcombers were 125,000 years ago, but they needed to have mastered enough technique to survive winter weather, for the Cape has the same climate as the Mediterranean and it can be cold in winter with fierce gales and snow on the mountains.
Early Stone Age people also lived in that land while several Ice-ages came and went and one wonders if they survived winters that must have been far more severe than those of today, or of 125,000 years ago during the last warm interglacial period. If they survived that far south, they must have been experts in making warm clothing and have enjoyed a rich diet. Probably most left for the tropics, either in regular seasonal migrations or permanently until the climate changed a few thousand years later. I visualise a complex of migrations by different bands of people at the whim of great weather cycles, surviving as long as they could in places they were used to and enjoyed and then, after numbers dropped drastically from famine and disease, moving back to the warm heart of Africa. When the global climate warmed again and populations grew, adventurous bands tentatively moved southward again into the vast continental tongue which is today’s South Africa. No doubt, these factors helped to hone development of homo erectus into modern homo sapiens.
Two or three million years ago when australopithecus lived on the South African highveld the continent was skewed somewhat further south because of continental drift and that habitat would have been in higher latitudes. They lived long before homo erectus invented clothes or learned to control fire, so I do not believe that hairless australopithecus lived in South Africa unless the climate was in a particularly warm cycle.
With a good idea of the geography, it is comparatively easy to visualise the movement of people back and forth from the tropics of central Africa to as far south as the Cape of Good Hope. It provides a real model of the nomadic habits that mankind had to develop to survive over the very long term. It also helps to understand what must also have occurred in the northern hemisphere, which has enormously more complicated geography, spreading from Africa into greater Eurasia.
Traps of generalisation are easy and one is that when the global climate is cooler Earth tends to be drier and when warmer there is greater rainfall. Anyone who has observed the difference between the gentle rain of an English shower and the deluge which falls out of a tropical squall knows this. A month of winter precipitation in England can fall in one day of the Indian Ocean monsoon.
The popular thesis for many years was that the emergence of mankind was due to endlessly stable cool, and therefore dry, conditions for millions of years on the eastern African savannahs and plateaux which forced the decline of trees suitable for forest-margin apes and the conversion to grassy savannah promoting a hunting and gathering ape-man.
Dr C.K.Brain, Director of the Transvaal Museum and long-time excavator of the South African highveld sites at Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, added to conventional theses by concluding that the evolution of early hominids was forced by radical and rapid environmental changes during what he referred to as the Terminal Miocene Event (about five million years ago) when there was massive cooling suggested from deep sea cores. This supports a catastrophic event presaging the jump from ape to hominid, but does not explain why naked ape-men sought out South African highveld habitats and survived so far south in a cool period. Obviously they could not. Presumably, during the period about three million years to about 1½ million years ago when australopithecus lived in South Africa there were above average warm periods, similar to or even warmer than the period we are experiencing at present.
I have mentioned a particular warm event at about four million years ago which may have promoted the migration of semi-aquatic australopithecus from the ocean littoral inland to the Great Rift Valley. They may also have migrated up the Zambezi and Limpopo river valleys several times, sojourned for maybe some thousands of years, and expired when the climate reverted to the cold of an Ice-age.
The South African australopithecine fossils which have been discovered so far are not likely to have been the only colonisation that occurred in those enormous time-spans. Because fossil hominids and associated mammal life have been found in the same places over a range of two million years certainly does not mean that they lived in that environment continuously. They came and went as the climate suited and there must have been huge gaps of hundreds of thousands of years. It was not until homo erectus made efficient clothes, built shelters and used fire that climate could be mastered.
Since the 1970s there has been continuing discovery and exploration of Stone Age sites along the coast of South Africa. Knowledge of the times and the people is being constantly extended. I attended a conference in 1978 when a paper was presented by John Partington on the closing stages of the last Ice-age at Elandsbaai, an important archaeological site in a cave shelter on the shores of a bay facing the Atlantic. Today, red cliffs overhang the clear blue waters and waves pound on their feet. When ocean levels were lower during the last Ice-age, those cliffs would have stood high over a shallow plain with the seashore lying miles away. The cold ocean currents bear rich nutrients from the southern ocean to this coast and sea life has always been prolific.
I was fascinated by his description of the varying diets of people who lived there over time. Between roughly 20,000 years to 13,000 years ago, the sea level was lower and the shoreline was further away. People who lived in the shelter must have eaten a variety of gathered vegetation and insects but those remains are lost: it is bones that fossilise. At first, the diet of the inhabitants was dominated by eland and other antelopes, occasional zebras, rock hyraxes, tortoises and some small fish, probably fresh-water. For the next three thousand years there was an increase in the bones of smaller antelopes but remains of seals, seabirds and limpets appeared together with fishes. After about 10,000 years ago, when the sea was at about present levels, the remains of fish, shellfish and marine mammals dominated. Seashore foods were preferred when they were close to the sea.
A lesson one can learn from this is that the particular attraction of that place was more important to the Late Stone Age people who lived there from time to time than the immediate environment. I had not, of course, heard of Crawford and Marshes’ nutritional ‘Driving Force’ and here was evidence of diet changing with time during geographical changes at the end of the last Ice-age. I thought then how significant it was that humans could subordinate and adapt different food-gathering techniques and diets in the face of the needs of shelter, and maybe aesthetic pleasure, in that particular habitat.
I can see Elandsbaai as providing some supporting evidence to show how ancestral hominids, and later advanced australopithecines, who found their ocean-side habitat congenial, ate large quantities of seafood since that was the most easily obtained, no matter what their previous forest or savannah diet had been.
Another archaeological site which has gained international recognition is Border Cave on the frontier between South Africa and Swaziland. It is a large cave in the Lebombo Mountains about a hundred feet deep on a near-vertical cliff about 1,500 feet above the plains below. People lived in this cave, off-and-on, for at least 125,000 years, and maybe much longer. Its importance lies in two outstanding pieces of knowledge. Homo erectus had already evolved into modern homo sapiens in South Africa by at least 125,000 years BP and it has proved the continuity of the Middle Stone Age leading into the Late Stone Age at that site throughout the duration of the last Ice-age.
Bones excavated there show that small mountain-top animals were culled from the nearby heights but that periodically hunters had hauled butchered antelope and zebra from the lowland grasslands. Standing at the mouth of the cave looking down the precipitous rock heights at the sugar farms and villages so far below, one wonders at the choice of the cave as a home for so many millennia.
Great effort had to be exerted for the menfolk to climb down, go hunting and then climb up carrying the meat and skins. The appeal of the cave as a home because of its security from weather and predators is obvious. That must have been paramount rather than easy proximity to large prey. I like to believe that people also lived there for so long because they enjoyed the commanding outlook and the serenity of its lofty eminence. This reinforces my view that hunting antelopes was never a continuous food-gathering activity in warmer parts of the world. Meat and skins were a luxury requiring special effort.
These South African caves where people lived during the course of an Ice-age show that Middle to Late Stone Age Africans had acquired a level of technology which enabled them to survive successfully at the southern end of the continent, despite the rigours of Ice-age climate.
In the tropics of central and eastern Africa the effects of the Ice-ages on temperature would have been less than on rainfall patterns. No doubt, the presence of the oceans surrounding southern Africa ameliorated its climate. It is on the vast northern hemisphere landmasses where the greatest climatic chaos and variation occurred when the Earth cooled and glaciers covered much of Eurasia and North America.
Climate is not simple. Whenever global change takes place there is great turbulence until the climate becomes more regular. Even when there seems to be stability, there can be sharp minor variations: there can also be wet-cool and dry-warm periods lasting long enough to produce severe challenge and minor expansions or extinctions of species.
When considering climate and its effect on the environment and evolution, whether examining five million years ago or the last thirty thousand, ideas of immense conformity provoking gradual evolution and growth should be discarded. Chaos has always reigned. There are endless fluctuations and short-lived erratic behaviours caused by the varying conditions of nearby space and the activity of our sun. When some astronomical event causes change, such as differences in the power output of the sun, the close approach of a comet, a nearby supernova, our passage through a meteor swarm, gas cloud or gravitic-magnetic anomaly, or our equilibrium is minutely disturbed causing some kind of ‘wobble’, enormous chaotic forces are set in train. The Pleistocene of the past 2-3 million years is notable for cycles of Ice-ages and warm interglacials.
Because of momentum, every effect is not concluded at once, some lag for thousands of years. Fluctuations and pulses have different time cycles and different effects on different parts of the world. And every disturbance is followed by decay in activity as conflicting inertias and frictions work for stability until the next coincidence of apparently minor disturbances, cyclic or random, cause major upset.
Simple natural laws apply to all systems and functions within the Universe. As a small boy I was fascinated by throwing stones into ponds. I have often visualised the surface of a pond after a shower of small pebbles has been thrown across it. There is no simple set of concentric ripples oscillating out and back. A miniature ocean of chaotic waves immediately results which eventually settles into calm again. Throw out various sized handfuls of small pebbles at odd intervals, interspersed with showers of grit and every now and then cast a big stone and observe the endlessly changing turmoil on the surface. To me, that is the essence of Chaos theory, and is the simplest picture of the natural state of the Universe.
To extend this analogy, visualise many three dimensional ponds, each with its myriad of splashes and tumult of waves, intersecting at different points in the fourth dimension of time. Because they are intersecting, they all interact with each other so that any splash and wave in one pond eventually affects all ponds. The effect of each individual splash diminishes with distance from the origin through natural decay and frequent collisions with other waves but the sum of them all creates a truly marvellous interconnected web of vibrant activity in space and time.
Extend the number of agitated ponds to the millions or trillions and a vast picture mistily emerges. It is a staggering thought, but it is a model of reality. Every now and then, in some overlying varying rhythm, strange coincidences cause mysterious patterns, surges and higher ripples on the surface of the primary vibrations, which themselves then form another order of patterns and vibrations in a different order of time, and so on, and on.
The sea is the largest pond we can observe. It has tiny surface ripples, rolling waves and slower patterns of great oceanic swells. It is especially interesting off the southern end of Africa where massive swells may progress from one distant direction overlaid by waves caused by local wind from another with ripples fanning out as surface gusts change direction. From time to time some agglomeration of patterns creates a series of exceptional heavings or spray-blown rollers. All sailors and surf-riders know about cycles of bigger and smaller waves. Off South Africa many great ships have mysteriously been broken by immense coincidental waves, forming another pattern above all the other patterns. The British Admiralty Africa Pilot v.III (1980) warns:
Under certain weather conditions abnormal waves of exceptional height occasionally occur off the SE coast of South Africa, causing severe damage to ships unfortunate enough to encounter them... These abnormal waves, which may attain a height of 20m or more, instead of having the normal sinusoidal wave-form have a very steep-fronted leading edge preceded by a very deep trough....
The infinitely varying surface of the ocean is a more natural model of a chaotic and uncertain universe. Following the analogy of the ponds, imagine a vast number of oceans meeting and interacting in the fourth dimension of time. When the number of oceans approaches infinity, the model is most accurate. But the watery substance of the ocean is simple and uniform so the infinite number of oceans with an infinite number of waves and ripples on it is no more than a model, however complex, but is still easier to visualise than the working of the whole Universe.
Scientists wrestling with the problem of ‘black holes’ in space find themselves grappling with the concept of universes interconnected at intersecting points in what may be a fifth dimension. Perhaps the conditions of the ‘big bang’ when and where our personal Universe is believed to have theoretically begun its current phase is evidence of a theoretical intersecting point of groups of super-universes in another dimension. Is there a limit to the number of ‘dimensions’?
Mathematicians have explored models of the several mechanisms that work toward creating order in opposition to the forces that create chaos. We can observe and measure the effects of electro-magnetic attractions and repulsions, collisions, frictions and inertias. Laws have been formulated which predict them. But in an infinite sense they must all conform to a universal law which requires order. In contrast to the Chaos theory, mathematical models are being investigated which may be called Anti-Chaos theory. The two, once again in a universal sense, balance each other, which is proper logic.
These strange universal laws extend beyond the behaviour of liquids in ponds. When particles or solid bodies of differing sizes are mixed together, after sufficient time and mixing, stable patterns always emerge. The patterns change if other bodies are added or the method of mixing changes and then stability is achieved again. The sands of a beach or the structure of dunes in a desert are affected in this way. The formation of crystals within saturating solutions fall into this category of event. The infinite variation of the intimate construction of beautiful ice-crystals is a simple example. These are variants affected by Chaos and Anti-Chaos, too complex to be artificially replicated except in simple models. But the models are being constantly improved leading continually to new insights.
Extraordinary work with computer models continues into the 1990s. Richard Dawkins explored random genetic evolution in The Blind Watchmaker (1986). James Gleick explained Chaos theory in his book in 1987. Roger Lewin described brilliant insights into the Universal Law being explored through computer modelling in the United States in his book, Complexity, Life at the Edge of Chaos (1993). Lewin claims that ‘Complexity’ is the unifying theory governing all biological and physical phenomena. I dislike the term because it smacks of confusion, but the jumps that are being made in theory and metaphysics about Life and the Universe are truly amazing, even though the concept of a simple Universal Law is as old as the first philosophers.
Roger Lewin in his book describes a conversation he had with James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia theory. During that conversation, Lovelock referred to a passage in a book, The Elements of Physical Biology, by Alfred Lotka, published in 1925:
It is customary to discuss the ‘evolution of a species of organisms’. .... It may appear at first sight as if this should prove a more complicated problem than the consideration of a part only of the system. But it will become apparent, as we proceed, that the physical laws governing evolution in all probability take on a simpler form when referred to the system as a whole than to any part thereof.
If there was Chaos alone, the universe would disintegrate; Anti-Chaos by itself would result in sterility and stagnation. The two forces, working contrarily, result in change that is contained. But, change is continuous within the containing forces, surging forward in sudden leaps or gently seething, so there is a ‘driving force’ within the Universe as a whole ensuring endless evolution. Again, this concept of a universal driving force, measured in mathematical theory, can be imagined as applying not only to our own universe, which may be of itself finite in time, but to interconnected universes in other dimensions, and so on ad infinitum. ‘Complexity Theory’ concepts and modelling are exploring these ideas and I hope will eventually achieve ‘Simplicity Theory’.
When physics merges with metaphysics, the infinite has always been some kind of meeting point even if it is an impractical number in mathematics. After all, mathematics is just a language and not a formula for understanding the Universe. Maybe the sum of infinite dimensions is God? What and why are these greater laws which drive the Universe which is the sum of infinite interconnected universes? Are these better definitions of God?
It is all mind-numbing, and it is difficult to look at everyday life with these concepts in the forefront of our minds. But we have to try to see the overview in these terms when we are looking at a portion of the surface of a few metaphorical ponds over a relatively short period of time. The applied science of statistics was designed as an aid to the practical management of the uncertain world that we live in. In the very short term of days or weeks, and if the sample is reasonable enough, statistical analysis is astonishingly accurate. But as any politician, economist, meteorologist or educationalist knows, accuracy diminishes exponentially in the fourth dimension of time.
It is fact that when the climate is consistently cooler the air cannot hold as much moisture as when it is warm. Thus more of the world’s water is locked up in the oceans and the huge ice sheets on Antarctica and across northern America and Eurasia. Logically, therefore, there is less precipitation all over Earth and grasslands and deserts spread as forests decline. With so much water locked into polar ice, sea levels are lower and land bridges appear. A slow and gradual pulsing of these effects of an Ice-age, however caused, is easy to visualise. What is not so easy but which is closer to reality is that within the simple model of cyclical Ice-age pulsing, there are frequent sharp shocks and changes of relatively short duration affecting different parts of the Earth.
For example, sudden atmospheric cooling causes precipitation in increased rainfall until the polar ice and glaciers build and trap enormous quantities of water which then results in a drier atmosphere. Cooling or warming which results in differing water carrying capacity and pressures of the atmosphere also cause ocean currents and wind systems to alter strength and direction, air pressure zones over large landmasses change and weather systems are in temporary chaos. An increase in global rainfall may not happen where one might expect it: instead of rainfall doubling on the Congo Basin, the Kalahari desert becomes a great lake. Terrible droughts happen and deserts grow even as global rainfalls increase, and vice-versa. Melting of the polar ice might be thought to immediately raise the level of all the oceans, but as the atmosphere warms, more water is held within it and if rainfall occurs on previously dry areas huge quantities are absorbed by the land like a sponge, enhancing groundwater stores.
Closer in time, our knowledge of what happened within the Pleistocene Ice-age cycles has increased. We know that there were changes in rainfall in Africa in the last quarter of the last Ice-age which affected Late Stone Age mankind and the jump towards domestication of plants and animals, and thence to civilisation. If there were great variations and chaos in weather systems from about 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, whilst an Ice-age was declining, that could well have happened during any short term period in the 2-3,000,000 years of the Pleistocene.
‘Global warming’ might not immediately drown our modern civilisation: it would depend on how weather systems changed as the ice melted. It might take a few thousand years. Nothing is simple. In any case, short periods of ‘global warming’, as opposed to prolonged and disastrous climatic change, result from variation in the sun’s radiation which itself directly stirs or calms convection in our gaseous envelope. What causes variations in the sun’s radiation takes us into a higher level of study of Chaos in the immediate locality of our galaxy. The simple analogy of the ponds or oceans asserts itself.
Evidence of short-term variations has come from various disciplines, whether it is the study of dust layers from deep ice in Greenland, analysis of cores from the bottoms of oceans, dated fossil seeds and pollens, insects and mammal bones or the rings of long-living conifer trees.
Recent short-term variations can be linked to history. Considering Europe alone, there was a warm period while the Roman Empire flourished, which helped a Mediterranean people conquer and colonise northern Europe. From about 400 AD there followed 600 cool years of decline in civilisation, and the migration of hordes of hardened nomadic people from the steppes of Asia, until a warming when Vikings voyaged the North Atlantic, the Normans conquered England and the Crusaders confronted the Moslem Jihad on the periphery of Europe. It was cooler again when the ‘little ice-age’ afflicted medieval Europe from about 1300 AD when there was a marked decline in the quality of life. Famines and epidemics were commonplace in medieval times. The extraordinary explosion of Western technical civilisation in the past century might have been at a slower pace without warming of the Earth in the last hundred years.
Without the Chaos of the Ice-ages, would there have been the geographical range and amazing diversity of our single human species? Even if we had evolved to homo sapiens confined to the African seashore and savannahs, would we have achieved the present technical and electronic civilisation? Or any kind of civilisation?
There is the other even more powerfully disturbing question that repeatedly nags at me. Whether one accepts that the Anthropic Cosmological Principle which I briefly explored in Chapter One must lead to the evolution of mankind or not, I believe it is reasonable to submit that the evolution of life on a planet such as Earth is inevitable. The biochemistry within the temperature range experienced by Earth for a long enough time seems to provide an absolute imperative and is an inimitable driving force.
Therefore, in the fashion of cosmologists and serious science-fiction writers, it is possible to speculate on the billions of planets which resemble Earth in the trillions and trillions of star systems in our universe. Therefore, there must be billions of planets with carbon-based life in the universe, millions of which must be within our own galaxy. This argument has been propounded often enough and from it there follows the speculation about communication with technical civilisations similar to, or more advanced, than ours.
The evolution of life on a planet such as Earth has been modelled by scientists which show how it can have happened up to the stage of advanced vertebrates both in the water and on land. Necessarily, models are based on the steady change on the Earth’s geography based on evolution and decay of the whole of our solar system. It is after the emergence of world-wide populations of vertebrates, that Chaos effects begin to be obvious. What if there were no great cycles of extinctions, caused by both forces external to the Earth (Chaos or ‘Complexity’ in the solar system and beyond ad infinitum) and the effects of Chaos or ‘Complexity’ itself on Earth, permitting the proliferation of mammals? What if there were no major climatic changes in the last 4-8,000,000 years which promoted primates and stimulated the evolution of an aquatic ape? What if there were no shorter-term Ice-ages in the last 2,000,000 years which resulted in modern mankind?
What if Chaos is part of the system of Universal Law designed for the promotion of an Anthropic Cosmological Principle? Is Chaos the driving force? And what part does the concept of ‘Complexity’ play in modifying Chaos; is it a mathematical version of ‘Survival of the Fittest’?
I am certain that there is a Universal Law and mathematics with computer modelling might be on the brink of a definition of it. Perhaps the twenty-first century will see these conundrums resolved within the limits of comprehension and understanding by our species. It will then be necessary for us to evolve further if we are to make harmonious use of them and not continue to fall into a Chaotic behavioural black-hole.
CHAPTER SIX: AFRICAN EVE
Early Stone Age people of the presently-defined species Homo erectus, colonised most of Africa by probably two million years ago and began crossing into Eurasia.
Depending on the climate during serial Ice-ages in the million years of these migrations, which would boost and retard, homo erectus filled Africa wherever the habitat was congenial and their numbers increased to the limits of their technology. Fossil evidence shows that they expanded over the ancient habitat of eastern and southern Africa. They travelled north along the Nile valley and across the central Sahara whenever climate variation made this practical and it may be assumed that they inhabited the varying savannah zone north of the forests to the far west of the continent. There is no absolute date for the first movements into the Middle East via the Suez bridge, but we have been certain for many years that they colonised parts of Europe by 900,000 years ago and reached China and Indonesia before a half million years ago.
Evidence from excavations on Java in the 1990s suggests that homo erectus could have reached Indonesia between one and two million years ago. On the island of Flores, which is one of the string of lesser volcanic islands lying to the east of Java, stone tools have been found which have been estimated by Dr Mike Morwood to about one million years ago from their situation in volcanic strata.
As climate swung, bursts of migrants moved fast or drifted in trickles; and expired or retreated when adverse conditions were experienced. These migrants met parallel or earlier migrant groups and undoubtedly mixed to some degree and this maintained the continuity of human evolution and the mixing of genes and culture. Our remarkable impulse to migrate and to innovate, promoted the general progress of the human family all over the planet.
Whatever earlier movements occurred in sublime times along easy geographic routes, Early Stone Age people had surged across all the warmer parts of Eurasia by at least a half million years ago. I believe that this activity happened in a series of rapid jumps when climatic pulses suited and not in some immensely slow linear migration. Unfortunately, the Ice-ages not only created the stimulations and brakes on mankind and other large mammals, they also destroyed palaeontological evidence. Homo erectus has not yet been located north of 52̊N latitude (at Boxgrove in Sussex, England).
Homo erectus learned to tame fire and this must have been central to their ability to move about in temperate southern Africa and Eurasia and survive winters. Mankind today, during the present warm period, cannot survive more than a few days of a northern European winter without fire, clothes and shelter. Fire extended their geographical and environmental range, extended the variety of foods in their diets, diversified their social structure and enabled them to respond to greater challenges.
Homo erectus was still at a relatively simple technical level inhibited by brain capacity. Population growth ceased at the survivable limits of the Eurasian environment whose northern frontier moved back and forth to the pulsing of the Ice-ages. Further interrelated technical and social evolution was necessary for innovation in shelter and specialist tool-making and -using. Fishing and hunting methods had to be improved when facing a greater variety of terrain and prey than on the savannahs of Africa. These activities had to be expanded to get more food and make protective clothing in the colder periods. Without innovation, they could not survive the long-term cooling of an Ice-age after a warm interglacial. Perhaps more significant, they could not survive the more severe shocks of temporary climatic aberrations bringing on short-lived cold and warm periods of only several millennia and often lasting maybe as little as a few hundred years. In our own modern historical era there have been several of these which have caused population decimation and trauma.
No doubt, the earliest migrants of homo erectus into northern Eurasia during warm interglacials did not survive the next Ice-age because of lack of these technologies. But after each warm period of stimulation followed by a long Ice-age, they had learned something new. Technical and social advance followed each Ice-age cycle in a series of small jumps. The magic of mankind’s progress is that the sojourn on the Indian Ocean shores which wrought the remarkable physical changes resulting in a naked vertical hominid had provided sufficient of an edge in brainpower to use the shocks of alternating cycles to progress.
An accumulation of anatomical and technical development through several interglacial warmings eventually had to result in major evolutionary advances. One of the most important transitions occurred during the two warm interglacials centring on about 300,000 and 125,000 years ago and the Ice-age in between. As had probably occurred several times in the past million or more years, variations in climate and migrations introduced a greater variety of foods for the nutritional ‘driving force’ to promote anatomical changes and racial divisions. Increasingly prolonged residence in a variety of climates and habitats pushed them towards specialisation. Subsequent mixing during retreats before the onslaught of an Ice-age spread these advances and inhibited genetic speciation.
Despite the lack of any fossil evidence to support the idea, I intuitively believe that a major factor in the transition from homo erectus with Early Stone Age culture and technology to archaic homo sapiens and then to modern homo sapiens of the Middle Stone Age was the stimulation by migrations back to the tropics of Africa. This could have provided a dynamic mix of hardened survivors from the climatically rigorous northern hemisphere and southern Africa with the continuum of tropical genes and culture. Apart from genetic mixing, new techniques and social practices could have been pooled and refined ready to be spread outwards again during the next warm-time population growth and migrations.
Whether my proposition of a retro-migration of some people back into tropical Africa is correct or not, tropical Africa remained the heartland where the core-people lived. However few and scattered they were, bands of survivors from southern European, Middle Eastern and southern African excursions could return with hard-won experience and useful mutated genes to be mixed with the core and the result was subjected to the rigours of natural selection.
Although populations in Eurasia and Africa were often separated during the ‘pulsing’ of the Ice-ages, it is notable that the Ice-age centred about 200,000 years ago caused a particular breach between those archaic homo sapiens who remained behind in southern Europe and the core-people of tropical Africa. It may be assumed that this separation was probably caused by the severe desertification of the Saharan and Arabian Deserts; those people had not yet mastered the ability to traverse such severe waterless conditions. In Europe and western Asia there was genetic dispersion to the Neanderthal people, certainly a different race and possibly a different species. Some scientists are reasonably sure that they eventually became sufficiently genetically separate to be named homo neanderthalensis.
There is growing evidence from Indonesia and Australia that homo erectus survived in that region continuously during these Ice-ages. Indeed it would be most surprising had this not happened. It may be assumed that a similar process to the European and western Eurasian experience also occurred, and in pockets of tropical eastern Asia homo erectus and its developing speciation, similar to their western brothers the Neanderthals, survived. There is opinion that many of these pockets disappeared, but recent discoveries in Java and Australia show that not all did so. Solo Man, who is considered to be an archaic human form, survived until + 35,000 BP and Dr Alan Thorn, who has excavated at Lake Mungo in Australia, believes that there is fossil continuity between Java and Lake Mungo spanning a million years until maybe 30,000 BP when the lake dried.
Perhaps returning migrants from the South African highveld and the mountains of the Cape of Good Hope played the most immediate and therefore more powerful role in Africa. If australopithecus migrated to South Africa, expired or maybe filtered back as long ago as 2.5 million years ago (and this kind of activity occurred relatively frequently), it is reasonable to suppose that this had become ‘normal’ by 200,000 years ago.
It is interesting that larger than average fossil skulls were found in southern Africa (Hopefield in the Western Cape, Florisbad in the Free State province of South Africa and Broken Hill in Zambia) from about that time, which suggests that an anatomical jump towards homo sapiens was occurring earliest in that part of the world. Fossil evidence from Morocco (Jebel Irhoud), as pointed out by Stringer, suggests that this anatomical evolution towards modern mankind was happening in the more temperate zones at both ends of Africa during that Ice-age. I have frequently noted, with reference to many aspects of all life, that Africa has an amazing mirror-like quality, reflecting similar activities equidistant from the equator. It is this quality that originally inspired in me a ‘feeling’ for a pulsing in and out from the Equator in response to grand climatic cycles and random variable shocks. Because of the unique geography of Africa, the driving force of pulsing migrations had the greatest effect in cultural evolution.
Improving technology leading to population growth must have led wandering bands involved in this mixing into confrontation. Maybe one of the culture jumps that took place in the transition to the Middle Stone Age of homo sapiens was that which led to the first constructions of tribal or clan societies of agglomerations of family bands. Groups of bands came together, however temporarily, during cyclical ‘bad’ periods causing population pressures. Hunter-gatherer family structures coalesced into clans led by dominant and innovative leaders. When conditions improved and the habitat became extended, survivors of these pressures probably separated again. But another lesson in survival by social experiment was being learned, to be used again and honed during the next ‘bad’ time.
In constricted environments, such as south-east Asia and Indonesia these pressures would have been exaggerated leading to introverted group behaviours and, maybe, to bursts of specialised progress. There is fairly sure evidence that some groups of Early Stone Age people, homo erectus, navigated the open seas around Indonesia at times during the last million years. The existence of Early Stone Age artifacts on Flores from maybe a million years ago confirms this.
Most recent literature or comment about the later phases of evolution of mankind features specific genetic studies made at Berkeley, California. In a large sample of women with diverse ethnic origins, researchers traced a particular DNA marker which is carried by the human female because the male counterpart is lost in the process of union between the sperm and the ovum. This research has become famous because the result suggested that there was a common worldwide ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ in an African population group sometime between 285,000 and 142,500 years ago. This concept has become popularly known as that of the ‘African Eve’.
Chris Stringer and Robin McKie in their book, African Exodus (1996), wrote:
The study [the original Mitochondrial Eve research of 1987 by Wilson, Cann and Stoneking at Berkeley] produced three conclusions. First, it revealed that very few mutational differences exist between the mitochondrial DNA of human beings, be they Vietnamese, New Guineans, Scandinavians or Tongans. Second, when the researchers put their data in a computer and asked it to produce the most likely set of linkages between the different people, graded according to the similarity of their mitochondrial DNA, it created a tree with two main branches. One consisted solely of Africans. The other contained the remaining people of African origin, and everyone else in the world. The limb that connected these two main branches must therefore have been rooted in Africa, the researchers concluded. Lastly, the study showed that African people had slightly more mitochondrial DNA mutations compared to non-Africans, implying their roots are a little older.
The date this experiment suggested for a common ancestor was somewhere between 142,500 and 285,000 years ago. That rough dating was reasonable to me because an Ice-age climate was in command of Earth around 200,000 years ago, drastically reducing the northern hemisphere habitat. I had already assumed some form of an ‘African Eve’ from my musings about Ice-age ‘pulses’ causing jumps in evolution.
Whether there was any significant retreat of Eurasians back into tropical Africa or not, there were evolutionary advances in Africa and an expansion outwards again during the warm time centred about 125,000 years ago. Genes from these migrants are traceable in all modern people, suggesting that they replaced or infused with surviving populations all over the Eurasian continent and thereafter migrated into the Americas, by sea to Australia and across the oceans. They were arguably the first modern homo sapiens, defined by the African ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ DNA marker.
Since the first genetic experiments at Berkeley in 1987, suggesting an ‘African Eve’, a storm of controversy raged. It lay between those who believed in a steady and worldwide evolution through the whole of the homo erectus and homo sapiens period towards the present racial divisions seen in mankind, and those supporting an ‘African Eve’ with these divisions occurring during the Neolithic period, within the last 35,000 years.
The Neanderthals were a hub of controversy in this argument for if the advancing evolution was worldwide, then the Neanderthals should have been on the regular pathway of European or ‘white’ racial evolution. If Neanderthals were a separate species, or at least a divergent race well on the way to speciation, then their demise and replacement by immigrants from Africa, or at least the Middle East, was an immediate flaw in the worldwide, gradualist theory. While the argument that Neanderthals were at the end of an evolutionary line was proceeding based on fossil and other evidence, the ‘African Eve’ hypothesis suggesting a ‘jump’ in human history with the extinction, or absorption, of all Eurasian people by 30,000 years ago burst on the scientific scene. Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London describes his own involvement in this wide controversy in African Exodus (1996).
More experiments and research during the past ten years have increasingly supported the original genetic evidence. Other techniques using other protein markers have been used. They exploited new advances in biochemistry and the ever-increasing knowledge and volume of research into DNA and protein markers. The genes of our cousins, the chimps and gorillas, have been brought into the studies and, coincidentally, clarity in our relationship with them and our divergence from them to the hominid line and australopithecus has been enhanced. More sophisticated computer modelling has confirmed how the modern races of mankind diverged only in the last 30,000 years.
Statistically, all people on Earth are related. Simple mathematics show that everybody has 2n ancestors, where n is the number of generations. Assuming that none of our ancestors were common, that is that no ancestor had children by another with the same ancestors, then in just five thousand years we must have had 1,500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 ancestors. Of course, this is merely an arithmetic game. Even if there had been absolute stability of climate and resultant geography, it is absurdly impossible for that number of hominids to have lived on our planet. In the real world, I have a simple computer programme which is designed to document and print out family trees: an aid to genealogical study. Over the years I have put in data of my family in all directions and keep it up-to-date. When a member of the tree, especially at the latest level of grandchild or great niece wants to know their relationships, I can go to the earliest person in their ancestry and print out all the descendants. Despite many omissions in my personal data bank going back a mere two hundred or so years, it is remarkable how soon the union of two people can result in a hundred or more descendants.
The chances of all people alive coming from the same group of core-people is not only suggested by the various genetic studies but is statistically possible. If one assumes, as I do, that the core-people were tropical Africans, then one can be certain that we are all descended from that specific homo sapiens stock.
Stringer and McKie cite one particular later work as being most important, among several others. It is the compilation of enormous research over two decades by Professor Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford University published in his The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994), co-authored by Menozzi and Piazza. Stringer and McKie:
More than 70,000 frequencies of various gene types in nearly 7,000 human population types are included, combined with anatomical, linguistic and anthropological studies. It is an august body of work that comes down fairly and squarely on the side of the Out of Africa theory. ‘We conclude a definite preference for the rapid replacement model [of Eurasian peoples by Africans],’ states Cavalli-Sforza.
Comparing genetic distances between modern people and the archaeological and fossil evidence of their separations, Joanna Mountain and Cavalli-Sforza prove a good correlation which is quoted by Springer and McKie. It shows that Africans separated from non-Africans at about 100,000 years BP, southeast Asians from Australian and New Guineans at about 55,000 years BP, Caucasoids from northeast Asians about 42,000 years BP and northeast Asians from Amerindians about 25,000 BP.
The geography of tropical Asia, fragmented and usually covered by rainforests, was different to that of Africa, but pockets of homo erectus lived there during that same Ice-age centred on 200,000 years ago and survived. It had been suggested by the worldwide gradualist hypothesis that they were the ancestors of the Aborigines of those regions thus explaining their physical, social and psychological differences from the mainstream. This was supported by the fact that the presumed ancestral Aborigines of eastern Asia, and hence Australia, also evolved to be modern homo sapiens. I believe there were east Asiatic homo erectus people surviving in the tropical and sub-tropical zones during the last Ice-age, but there is no evidence that they became extinct. Unlike the Neanderthals, I believe they merged with modern migrants, or were displaced without being annihilated to be gradually absorbed over longer time.
The Neanderthals became extinct at about 30,000 BP, and this is shown by the lack of the ‘African Eve’ marker in DNA extracted from a sample of Neanderthal fossil bones. But it does not follow that homo sapiens migrants from Africa displaced or extinguished existing populations in southeast Asia. Indeed, DNA studies by Dr Harding at Oxford showed that a betaglobyn gene marker in southeast Asian populations appears to have been mutated at about 200,000 years ago there, earlier than in other contemporary races around the globe. This suggests that modern far-eastern Asiatic people had roots different from Europeans at that distance of time, and that they are a mix of ‘African Eve’ people and the descendants of earlier migrants into those regions.
These Early Stone Age people of southeast Asia and Australia may have been in the verge of speciation away from the main stream, similar to the Neanderthals, whilst proceeding on their own path of cultural evolution in response to their particular environments. But this did not happen, as it did with the Neanderthals, as proven by the genetic evidence that today they possess the ‘African Eve’ mitochondrial DNA inheritance of +200,000 BP. New evidence that the rest of humanity has a betaglobyn marker which appeared first in them, also at + 200,000 BP, suggests that not only did the African exodus reach to the furthest extent of habitable Asia by about 100,000 years ago, but that genes from those regions filtered back to Europe and Africa. Nomadism is once again shown to be a universal trait of humanity.
Apart from the universally recognised Australian Aborigines, similar people have been described in southeast Asia, notably Malaysia and Vietnam, and southern India. But there are also the modern Melanesians who inhabit Indonesian and Pacific Ocean islands who physically resemble the Negro race and are culturally distinct from their Polynesian and Indonesian neighbours. Whereas the Polynesians are aware of their recent trans-oceanic origins, the Melanesians have no origin-legend other than that they came from out of the Earth, suggesting very ancient roots. Many Africans who do not have a history of recent migrations have the same kind of origin-legend. (Travel-writer Paul Theroux comments largely on this peculiarity during an extensive recent journey through much of the Pacific.)
Melanesians have special physical similarities with Africans, particularly their hair. I have always been fascinated by the possibility that they are evidence of a migration directly from Africa into Asia. At some time during the last Ice-age, they could have been pushed south-east into a pocket of islands where they became isolated and retained their racial integrity. If Australian Aborigines survived as a distinct racial group from early in the last Ice-age, and despite having the ‘African Eve’ DNA marker which proves mixing, then it does not surprise me if Melanesians, directly from Africa, also discretely survived. Perhaps some of the migrants who carried the ‘African Eve’ marker to the far corners of Asia were the ancestors of the Melanesians who are the fascinating evidence of this, isolated on their densely rainforested islands and keeping later migrants at bay. They have a reputation for fierceness and insularity and did not integrate happily into 20th century Western culture.
What defines the species jumps from erectus to sapiens, during the last million years? These definitions are, after all, arbitrary conveniences however carefully given from scientific evaluation. There are the obvious differences of skull shape and an increase in brain size. Height and relative robustness of the rest of the skeleton is irrelevant since it is abundantly clear that these are influenced by nutrition and the environment. Otherwise, the differences are principally cultural and technical. Stone tools became specialised with a variety of small blades, scrapers and points in addition to the ubiquitous ‘hand-axes’. Until we can analyse the DNA in a range of early fossils in a time sequence and come to a more accurate assessment, these are the broad bands of evidence available.
What is important is that it seems that once mankind mastered fire and became intercontinentally nomadic, the Ice-age pulses caused sufficient mixing for all people to be able to advance culturally, diverge racially and yet still interbreed. I believe it was this particular mixing of genes, the variety of nutritional ‘driving forces’, movement of peoples and the chaotic challenge of a prolonged Ice-age from about 200,000 years ago that provoked the jump to archaic homo sapiens and the disappearance of erectus.
Populations that diverged sufficiently for interbreeding to become inefficient disappeared, maybe within a few generations: survival-of-the-fittest. As greater numbers of fossils have provoked an increasing number of sub-species definitions for australopithecus, a similar process is in train for the homo range. Over such a long period as a million and more years, through a series of Ice-age pulses, it is reasonable that a number of ‘Neanderthal-type’ processes occurred throughout the Eurasian mass, but I propose that the evolutionary progress from homo erectus to modern mankind in Africa over at least 1.5 million years was relatively linear, no matter what shocks and ‘good’ times reduced their numbers or caused population explosions. It is the concept of a core-people, mixing in the particular geography of Africa, reasserting itself.
Richard Leakey in his book, Origins Reconsidered (1992), prefers an earlier time for evolution from homo erectus to sapiens in Africa, probably about 300,000 years ago. This proposes that the jump occurred during the next previous interglacial period. Maybe he is influenced by those large southern African skulls. As scientific fashion changes, perhaps the criteria for separation into two species at this point along the homo line will change and, as Leakey remarked, there are not enough skulls from across the range of human occupation that absolute conclusions may be reached. No doubt, more skulls and closer interpretation will produce confirmation of a range of sub-species. To a layman like myself this can be confusing, but it is a feature of scientific practice to be precise about apparently small differences.
Palaeontologists argue about the division of hominids into different species and races because their specialisation is most concerned with fossil relics. The size and shape of ancient skulls show most variation over the ages as brain capacity increased. Once the enormous jump to vertical stance, then the detailed refinements of hip and thigh bone together with increased thoracic capacity necessary for prolonged swimming and diving, walking and running have taken place, marking the change from ape to australopithecus then to homo erectus, brain capacity and skull shape is paramount in considering species and races from fossils.
Although there was a blurring of fossil boundaries between later homo erectus and archaic homo sapiens, skulls do seem to be definitive. There are differences between skulls in Palestine and Europe at about 100,000 years ago and those of modern mankind. These archaic ‘Neanderthal’ skulls had lower foreheads, prominent projecting brows, rounded chins and a less than spherical shape to the back. Modern people have higher foreheads with the eye sockets more-or-less centred in the face, only slightly projecting brows, a more rounded skull and distinct chins.
There were people with both kinds of skulls living coincidentally in several places from about 125,000 to 30,000 years ago, during the course of the last Ice-age. It is in this period of climatic chaos, with mixing and movement of peoples, that we can see the refinement of our own modern kind of homo sapiens, and their subsequent domination of all Earth today. At the end of that period Neanderthal-type skulls disappeared.
Sinai is the funnel through which overland migrations between Africa and the rest of the world had to move back and forth. In Israel there are several important cave sites close to each other (Qafzeh, Tabun, Ubeidiya, Skhul, Kebara) where both Neanderthal and ‘modern’ fossils have been found with reasonably contemporary dates. About 100,000 years ago, Neanderthal people were living in the area. Also at about the same time, and later, their successors from Africa were living there. Richard Leakey has pointed out that they probably did not literally co-exist, which may have led to territorial conflict, but that during local changes of environment over several thousand years each race came and went, leaving their bones.
In southeast Asia, recent discoveries suggest that people who were homo erectus and homo sapiens lived contemporaneously during the last 100,000 years. Again, this does not mean that they co-existed, merely that both types of people were in the same region over long periods of time.
I become increasingly worried about this division of the homo line into species. It seems that palaeontologists are increasingly suspicious too and that from the break away from australopithecus more than two million years ago, what we can observe is continual evolution, in various fits and starts, with no clear breaks along the line of progress. It may not be long before new definitions of the progression of the homo line may be adopted.
The use of ‘Stone Age’ as a description of different people may also confuse and is loosely applied in some writing. The term does not refer to the anatomical or genetic state of human evolution but to culture, although there are obvious links. Homo erectus people belonged to the Early Stone Age which principally implies the use of large stone hand-axes, although at the transition to the next stage of both genetic and cultural evolution their industry could produce finely crafted tools made by specialists living for some length of time in settlements like Olorgasailie. Local raw materials had a dominating influence on all stone artifacts everywhere and artifacts were also made from bones, horns, fibres, skins, gourds and any number of other available materials.
Assuming a series of physical and genetic evolution from erectus to sapiens, then the parade through the Stone Ages was a similar series of cultural evolutionary events. Anatomical differences accompanying these fascinating changes in different parts of the world remained within the bounds of racial divergence. Potential genetic separation of the core-people of Africa into distinct species during this period of mankind’s development were contained by mixing through nomadism. Nomadism, I believe, had become genetically imprinted in them.
It is clear to me that social and intellectual stimuli parallel the anatomical changes caused by nutritional and environmental driving forces, they constitute a social equivalent to physical and behavioural evolution, modified by natural selection. When all these driving forces are at work coincidentally and interdependently, that is when greatest impact on a species must be felt and populations may explode fast.
The transition through the Stone Ages is marked by an increasing range of specialist tools. Smaller and finer stone tools with specific purpose replaced the ubiquitous and limited hand-axe. In southern and eastern African cave sites, evidence shows that this Middle Stone Age phase had begun at least by the interglacial of 125,000 years ago and progressed to the Late Stone Age no later than 30,000 years ago. Scrapers, spear heads, knives and arrow heads joined the tool kit. These microlithic stone tools were fitted to wooden handles or shafts and fastened by lashings of fibre twines or gum resin glues.
It must be assumed that there was an expansion of the range of bone, ivory and wooden tools such as digging-sticks, harpoons, spears and clubs and sewing needles. When sewing needles were invented together with spun or twisted fibre strings and yarns a range of fishing nets, animal snares, better skin and leather clothes, hut-shelters, carry-bags and karosses could be made. Bows and arrows with fine barbed arrowheads appeared. Both large and small stone tools were ground and polished to sharpen after chipping or flaking and to improve their appearance. Grinding stones were used for breaking down grains and kernels, and stone spindles for making twine and yarns leading eventually to weaving.
Recent discoveries show that fishing was probably of greater importance than hunting mammals amongst many Late Stone Age communities in Africa where skin clothing was not an imperative as it is in temperate zones. The elimination of vast herds of herbivores happened in the colder latitudes of the northern hemisphere in Eurasia and America, not in Africa; the modern slaughter of African herbivores for ‘sport’ is an activity of the descendants of northern hemisphere people, not of native Africans. The desperate need for skins and hides for clothing and shelter in cold northern climates seems to be a factor insufficiently explored by anthropologists.
The technology of boat building to aid fishing and following genetic aquatic traits probably led to tropical sea voyaging earlier than is presently being generally acknowledged. I believe people were commonly paddling and sailing on rivers and lakes, along coastlines and island-hopping in the calm season of monsoon systems in the tropics by maybe 150,000 years ago. If evolution in behaviour proceeds in jumps followed by plateaux of refinement, following the same principles as physical evolution, there can be no reason why people were not using the whole range of tools and techniques soon after the conclusion of the big step in behavioural evolution to the Middle Stone Age. Rafts tied or sewn together and dug-out canoes have been in use throughout recorded history all over the tropical world. They are as ubiquitous as arrows, axes, scrapers, clothes or carry bags. The technology is not complicated and I cannot forget mankind’s powerful aquatic bent.
The arrival of Middle Stone Age modern homo sapiens people in Australia before 30,000 years ago is proven by archaeological exploration in South Australia at Lake Mungo. Whatever the sea level during the last Ice-age, there is deep water between Indonesia and Australia and these people had to have travelled in sea-going craft of some sort to northern Australia and then migrated to the south. Based on results from Lake Mungo, Dr Alan Thorn proposed that the arrival of people on the northern shores of Australia occurred as early as 100,000 BP, and they would have to have had seagoing vessels to accomplish that. Experiments with simple raft-type boats show that in the favourable monsoon, it would take a mere ten days to cross to Australia.
The evidence of artificial stone tools on Flores, to the east of Java, dated to a million years ago shows that the people who made them must have been able to navigate in courses of up to 20 kilometres across open sea. Even if this was an exceptional aberration, it is evidence that Early Stone Age people were capable of greater skills than previously considered possible. Archaeologist Mike Morwood proposes that this is generally true. Dr Chris Stringer has agreed with this.
When I try to imagine what was happening during the previous warm interglacial period, when African Middle Stone Age people were inventing new culture from the Cape to the Mediterranean, I wrestle with the division between inherited and learned behaviour.
Genetic diversification of mankind into races was formed by different climatic environments with different foods, but technology seemed to be remarkably uniform. Which cultural traits are controlled by our genes and which can be quickly learned and easily discarded? Study of all life forms proves that behaviour which does not have to be learned is genetically imprinted and examples of both kinds are almost infinite. If an animal is removed from its parents at birth and reared in isolation, behaviour that it does not develop automatically has to be taught. But I see this as a blurred distinction. Maybe modern young humans have to be told about the sexual act, but their desire for it does not have to be explained. There are activities which are ‘automatic’, clearly imperative from genetic imprinting, others are psychological traits which are also genetically imprinted, whereas others depend quite simply on the capacity and efficiency of memory enhanced by repetitive practice.
There are so many things which we ‘feel’ we must do, which we seem mysteriously compelled to do and we ‘feel’ are intuitively right. There are others which we learn and can change in an extended range of facility from tuition, private reasoning, hard-won experience or discussion with others. And humans are not superior in this way: many experiments have shown diverse species easily learning new tricks and, with greater effort, learning behaviours contrary to their apparently genetically imprinted nature.
Recently it has been suggested that much of our memory is manipulated and stored mostly in the right-hand side of the human brain which controls the receptive senses and not the left-hand side which controls reasoning, language and speech. Maybe that is why it is easier to learn by watching real events, television or pictures, or even listening to a lecture, than by reading; and why we are so often at a loss for words but have a picture, sensation or ‘idea’ in our mind which we are anxious to communicate. The data banks are separated from the language centre and communication between the two sections can be affected by fatigue, sensational distractions, ageing decay or neural damage. The phenomenon of amnesia when quantities of memory are erased temporarily whilst speech and vocabulary are unimpaired is fascinating.
Reading is a powerful tool of communication and learning and without this ability a mass of data and ideas cannot be easily studied, transmitted and assimilated by people remote from each other. The power of modern technology and the breadth of philosophical understanding and discussion, let alone pleasure, depends upon the extraordinary complexity of the languages which we have devised and the means to record and manipulate this information in written material. In non-literate societies, long evenings of story telling and extended group discussion fulfill the same function but require meetings and prodigious memory. Nevertheless, the immediate impact of pictures, sounds, odours and tactile sensation, especially pain, has greater sharpness than words. Educationalists and psychologists continue to investigate the proper role and emphasis of both groups of learning methods and their influence on society. The effects of television, as opposed to books, on modern youth continues to command great debate.
We think in both parts of our brain: in the vast codes of language in one part and in visions and sensations in the other part. Having the additional facility of language is why we are masters of reason and have the amazing talent for technology. It explains the huge brains we have developed in parallel with our behavioural and social evolution. It does not mean that gorillas or elephants cannot think; they think in visions and feelings as we do, but not in the particular and precise codes of languages we have developed. As our knowledge of ‘language’ used by whales and dolphins, other primates or elephants grows, we may have to acknowledge that other species also think with simple language, using it to manipulate visions or sensations like punctuation points or as triggers. Domestic dogs whine or bark quietly when dreaming.
I have often been fascinated by the extraordinary speed with which technology and fashions spread. This can be explained by the theory of ‘convergence’ by which it may be shown that population groups separated by geography will proceed in physical or cultural evolution towards the same goal under similar challenge or stress. This is perfectly logical, but it does require a clearly defined platform from which to proceed or the theory loses validity. For example, why do not the cat and dog families behave in the same way since they are all carnivorous predators?
When searching into the detailed life of Stone Age people, there is the strange coincidental emergence of new technology affecting culture and society in far apart places. I believe that once Stone Age people learned toolmaking and this aid to a more complex and adaptable lifestyle had been in use for long enough it became instinctive and genetically imprinted.
I see that mankind has a compulsion to devise and use tools. I see this as the absolute, genetically-imprinted cultural mark of mankind, part of a mental system that includes complex language and coded thinking. It is not a genetic imperative to make a particular artifact or tool kit, but I believe it is instinctive to create and make. The fact that similar tools or products were invented simultaneously by separate Stone Age people is because when facing similar challenges of climate or environment, the best artifacts were designed for the problem through trial and error. Broad evolutionary laws also apply to invention. The Universal Law is universal. There is a jump to fill a niche in the Chaotic world and then refinement by survival-of-the-fittest. Every major culture invented wooden spoons or bows-and-arrows, there is no better way of ladling liquids or shooting a light spear accurately.
Once invented, technique could not only be handed down easily from generation to generation but also from group to group, tribe to tribe. The more interesting and exciting it was, the faster knowledge moved. Once toolmaking was an imprinted instinct, it then became easy to learn new techniques rapidly. I see little difference between young people learning how to assemble chips in a new computer in the 1990s on a training course and their counterparts learning how to make a better bow-and-arrow from a passing nomad hunter 20,000 years ago. The rapid transfer of technology, which we might think can only take place in today’s world of hi-tech communications, has always occurred through the ability of mankind to learn fast, provided there is that instinctive and cultural base.
Once early homo sapiens people had begun moving out of Africa about 125,000 years ago with their genetically imprinted traits of tool-making and nomadism, finding advantageous niches to fill and new environmental challenges to meet, the worldwide technical expansion through the Middle Stone Age to modern mankind seems inevitable. A dynamic circle of ‘driving force’ and feedback was at work.
But if Middle Stone Age people were spreading about the world from Africa and surviving during the rigours of the last Ice-age, then why was there a cultural jump to the Late Stone Age and eventually to modern Civilisation and its exponentially exploding technology and numbers of people? There seems to be no obvious reason, and many would say that it has been a catastrophic event which will surely lead to our extinction and irreparable damage to our wonderful planet. Perhaps Gaia will not be able repair the ravages of our destruction of the natural environment resulting from four billion years of evolution. Not for millions of years anyway.
In November 1997, the Daily Telegraph published an article by Steve Connor. In it he describes how latest genetic research by Dr. Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona shows that when following the male Y chromosome it is possible to demonstrate that the San-Bushmen of southern Africa are the most direct descendants of a mythical African ‘Adam’ of 150,000 years ago. This does not surprise me in any way, and confirms an intuitive belief which I have held for many years. It is also confirmation of the extensive studies into the descent of mitochondrial Eve. As I state in a later chapter, the exciting truth that San-Bushmen and their culture are the truest line of homo sapiens’ evolution could still be studied with accuracy during this century, but sadly this is now almost impossible because their culture has been diluted or destroyed by our contemporary ‘caring’ society.
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE GREAT CULTURE JUMP AND THE “CYGNUS EVENT”
There are many places where examples of prehistoric rock-art can be seen by casual tourists in Africa, mostly in mountainous regions: paintings in the Matopos of Zimbabwe, the Drakensberg of Natal, the Erongo of Namibia, the Cedarberg of the Cape, in Malawi and Tanzania, the Hoggar and Tassili massifs of Algeria; massed engravings at Twyfelfontein in Namibia and examples of both paintings and engravings in many museums from Nairobi to Cape Town. Similar rock-art from recent historical time can also be seen where the artists survived without cultural degradation. Notably, it is people who have Late Stone Age culture, whether millennia ago or in the recent past, who create rock-art. Iron-age people in Africa preferred to create art in the form of carvings, sculptures, decorated skins or cloth, pottery, beadwork and metal castings or wrought wares.
I have been struck by an affinity of subject and style between the rock-art of northern and southern Africa. Particular paintings in the Hoggar of Algeria compare with engravings at Twyfelfontein in Namibia. Twyfelfontein lies about 20½º S latitude, the Hoggar is almost on the Tropic of Cancer, 23º N latitude; an African mirror seems to assert itself constantly. In the Tassili, about three hundred miles east of the Hoggar, there are elaborate paintings, depicting a complex society and that style is also mirrored in Namibia, particularly in the ‘White Lady’ series of the Brandberg mountain.
This extraordinary coincidence of style, forty three degrees of latitude apart, equidistant from the great geographical barrier of the Congo rain forests has puzzled and intrigued experts for decades. My own view, reduced to simplicity, is that there was a common African neolithic culture linking north and south via the core population of East Africa. As each Ice-age pulsed, man retreated back to and advanced outwards from the harmonious tropics of Africa. The most recent outsurge occurred in both directions, hence the similar rock art at both lines of the Tropics in southern Africa and the Sahara.
There is a variety of Stone Age rock-art all over the world, but according to the certain dates available to us at present, it seems to have emerged in Africa before 30,000 years ago (Apollo XI in Namibia) and coincidentally been widely practised in southern Europe (Grotte Chauvet, Dordogne and Altamira). It appeared in north-east Brazil and Australia before 10,000 years ago.
In 1996, Australian scientists claimed that they have proof of rock-art in the form of concave circular shapes chipped or ground out of rock faces in north-west Australia at Jinmium, older than elsewhere. Speculation about these cupules, as they are called, undoubtedly can proceed. Are they ‘art’? In any case the dating technique used is suspect. I see no reason why Middle Stone Age people should not have hammered and ground out cupules on rocks in Australia, or anywhere else. There is evidence that Neanderthal people in Europe and Asia indulged in artistic creativity, but there is no suggestion yet that they were of the Late Stone Age. Indeed, since engravings are impossible to date unless they are absolutely associated with other dateable material, who is to say whether similar markings in Africa are 10,000 or 100,000 years old?
In Namibia, the Spitzkoppe is a rock massif several miles around its base and rises to a pointed summit, reaching 1759m [5771 feet] above sea level. It is not unlike Ayers Rock in Australia where Aborigines practised their rock-art. The smooth rock has to be climbed with the aid of a chain and where the chain stops, probably five hundred feet above the plain, there is a more gently sloping platform with some huge rounded boulders. Beyond is a natural bowl, an amphitheatre in the side of the mountain, protected on two-thirds of its circumference by weather-sculpted cliffs, smoothed and beautifully curved by ages of wind and water erosion. In the bottom of the bowl, powdered rock has turned to coarse soil and trees and tussocks of grass grow. There is a variety of trees, a few sturdy succulents and tough bushes. Running through the centre of the bowl there is the course of a stream which proceeds from one pool to another. Even in the middle of the winter dry season there is still a little water.
On two sides, there are overhangs in the internal cliff walls where there are paintings. There are several antelopes and figures of teams of dancers and hunters, but they are faded and smudged because so many visitors have splashed them with water and soda drinks to make them stand out for photographs. Political graffiti have been sprayed on the walls.
Within the Erongo Mountains, not far away, there are numerous examples of rock-art. A particular cave, open to visitors, lies beyond a rocky ridge and a wide, flat sandy valley scattered with acacia trees. The footpath leads across and up a series of smooth rocky terraces. Near the top, there is a long slash in the living rock forming an overhanging shelter which is known as Phillip’s Cave. Being on private property, some distance from the main roads, and visitors having to pay entrance fees and record their details in a register, the paintings are not damaged. The two more important paintings are a fine white elephant and a group of people in a hunting party. The cave provides excellent shelter and there is a panoramic view of the valley below. Beyond, the pink and red masses of Hohenstein peak and the main range of the Erongo dominates the sky, reaching 2300m [7550 feet].
The mass of rock art in Africa defied dating for a long time because it was found in open shelters and caves which had been used off-and-on by various people over tens of thousands of years. Who was to say which paintings on the walls were related to which stone tools or ostrich shell jewellery buried in the dust and ash of many layers on the floors beneath. There was much speculation about who painted the rocks of Africa, and when. For instance, the ‘White Lady’ group in the Brandberg of Namibia was interpreted quite seriously for a while as portraits of some ancient colonists from the Mediterranean.
In the early 1970s, Dr. C.E. Wendt, working with the University of Cologne, had one of those remarkably lucky breaks that strangely happen to archaeologists from time to time. Wendt was exploring in the Hunsberge north of the Orange River and east of the dusty mining town of Rosh Pinah. Wendt and his assistants worked in a cave which he called Apollo XI because that space mission was proceeding when their work began there. They discovered slabs of rock with paintings that had broken off the roof of the shelter and fallen face down on the detritus of an inhabited period. On top of the slabs, other detritus had fallen over a long time with successive periods of occupation and abandonment. In the layers above and below, there were dateable items of organic material and several separate tests were carried out in Pretoria and Cologne. Wendt wrote in the South African Archaeological Bulletin (31: 5-11):
The conclusion is reached that this ‘art mobilier’ was created between 30,000 and 25,000 years B.P. [before present] and that with a probability close to certainty even an age between 27,500 and 25,500 years B.P. can be assumed, thus making it by far the oldest dated art known on the African continent [in 1975].
Kathryn Cruz-Uribe and Richard Klein in the SWA Scientific Society Journal (1983) wrote:
Apollo XI not only contains one of the longest archaeological sequences in southern Africa, it also has provided some of the oldest art in the world. This consists of schematic animal figures painted on rock slabs sealed in the deposits. Radiocarbon dates on associated charcoal indicate the slabs are at least 19,000 and perhaps as much as 27,500 years old.
B.H.Sandelowsky, writing in the American Scientist (1983):
Although Wendt’s material remains to be corroborated by further work, it can be assumed that rock art in southern Africa dates to the very beginning of the LSA [Late Stone Age], 30,000 B.P. Such an early date calls for some new thinking about human cultural development. The implications of highly developed art found in societies with extremely simple technology and at sites far removed from centres of ancient civilisation are considerable. These finds raise questions about conventional notions of the achievement of civilisation.
At Apollo XI, together with various antelope fossils there were bones of the giant Cape horse (dated at 14,000 B.P. and earlier) which became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Traded glass and copper beads from recent centuries add to the story of this remarkable cave site.
Suddenly, there was a yardstick for African Stone Age paintings. There might be older paintings, but here was a solid anchor in time. At the other end of the time spectrum, paintings of sailing ships, men on horseback, battles with Europeans firing guns or Bantu-speaking tribesmen with spears and shields are scattered from the south-west Cape of Good Hope to the Drakensberg. Stone Age men decorated rocks in southern Africa for 30,000 years until the 20th century. In the Drakensberg alone there are well over 20,000 identified individual figures.
Apart from paintings which fade and are washed away, engravings litter the veld of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Researchers G.J. and D. Fock, for example, recorded some 4,500 engravings on just one farm, Klipfontein, and 2,400 at another, Kinderdam A, in South Africa. Dr D. Fock has recorded vast numbers of engravings, many with elaborate geometric patterns, across a swath in South Africa following the course of the Orange River. Nobody knows how many sites there might be (or have been), let alone how many pictures there are. Undoubtedly the numbers reach millions from the Cape to the Sahara.
I corresponded with Dr. Wendt and I met him in 1989. I found him to be a charming man with a wry sense of humour who lived in a small apartment in the centre of Windhoek, filled with piles of books and papers and maps papering the walls. He told me that engravings predominate in the Twyfelfontein and Fish River Canyon areas and in a broad track across the country where the geology is suitable. Paintings are more common in the Erongos, the Brandberg and in the south of Namibia. Engravings are found in exposed places and in horizontal sites, whereas paintings are found in shelters where they have been protected. Sometimes paintings are found in extraordinary ‘secret’ places, difficult to find and difficult to paint in. (Like those in the Dordogne tunnels in France, described later).
He believed that engravings may have had a purpose for the community as a whole, whereas many paintings seemed to be ‘private’. Geometric designs were generally confined to engravings.
When I met Dr. Leon Jacobson, who had worked for years in Namibia, at the MacGregor Museum in Kimberley, South Africa, we spoke at length about rock-art.
“Paintings have had all the publicity,” he said, “because they are more dramatic in their way. I suppose they are also more interesting to the layman, especially those which are multicoloured. Everybody has heard of the ‘White Lady’ of the Brandberg and the ‘White Elephant’ at the Phillip’s Cave and so on.”
He continued. “There are many thousands of paintings in Namibia let alone the rest of southern Africa: the Cape, Drakensberg, Orange Free State, across Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and elsewhere. But there are probably many more engravings than there are paintings. Hundreds of thousands? Who knows? Much of southern Africa is vast flat plains and the only places where you can see paintings are where they are protected by good shelter from the sun and the rain. That’s obvious. But engravings last for as long as the rock does not break up and crumble.
“As Dr. Wendt told you, there are geological zones across the land where you can see engravings where there are suitable rock faces which the artists liked and which have not weathered away. One stretches from Namibia through the northern Karoo into the Free State, south of the Kalahari sands. There is an amazing wealth of engravings still to be surveyed and recorded. Who knows how much more we still have to learn about the life of those people through their engravings?”
“Are there any noticeable differences between engravings and paintings?” I asked, thinking of what Wendt told me.
“Yes, sure there are,” Jacobson replied. “Painting requires more skill, technology if you like. Anybody with a couple of hard stones can scrape or hammer out engravings on softer rock faces. Children may have done many of the engravings. There is a greater variety of engravings than paintings in terms of aesthetic and technical quality. And more of them, as I’ve said. As to subject, they painted or engraved anything and everything: every animal they knew, depending on where they lived and the environment of the time. They portrayed their own activities in detail. That’s why they are so important... And lots of geometric designs: circles, spirals, grids.”
Dr. John Kinehan of the State Museum in Windhoek welcomed me in his downtown office. He and his wife had done meticulous research in the Namib and he told me of his recent work at the Falls Rock Shelter near the Brandberg massif. There were three significant phases at Falls Rock. The earliest, dated from around 4-3,000 years before present, yielded microlithic stone implements. The second, 1800-2100 years B.P., had fine tools together with pottery and animal bones which might have been domestic; and the final phase at about 600 B.P. included some metal artifacts, probably bartered from people further in the interior. It seemed to be a lucky site providing snapshots of the changing economy of similar Late Stone Age people over several thousand years.
In the Tassili and Hoggar mountains of Algeria no very early dates for rock art have been determined but that is probably because Late Stone Age people were not living there in the dry period between 20-12,000 years ago. The general style seems to me to be remarkably similar to the art of southern and eastern Africa, but there are also some that are reminiscent of the Dordogne and Altamira in Europe: more ‘impressionistic’. Strangely, the expert Henri Lhote, does not mention southern African rock art in his article in National Geographic (August 1987) and states:
....this remote massif in Algeria [the Tassili] is enlivened by some 4,000 paintings and many more engravings. I consider it the world’s greatest collection of prehistoric art.
Studying photographs of the early Tassili paintings, before cultural transfers from the Middle East, convinced me that there was quite remarkable similarity between pictures of people of the Sahara and southern Africa at about 10,000 years ago. There is that matter of ‘style’, but it is more than that: the illustrations show similar people. Their body decorations seem similar, particularly of their legs with strings of seed rattles or grass or fur fringes, their dance postures, the weapons they carried, the way movement was depicted.
In Europe, the magnificent paintings of Lascaux and the other sites in the Vézère valley of the Dordogne, together with those in the Altamira caves near Santander in Spain, represent what many believe was a particular peak in European Stone Age art. Because some of the European art was in caves occupied by people of clearly defined culture for limited periods some time precision is possible, and dates of 20-10,000 years ago are variously applied to paintings in the Dordogne. In 1994, another cave was found near Avignon with pictures of lions, bears, rhinos, horses and deer. It was named the Grotte Chauvet and has been dated between 34-30,000 BP. Improved techniques frequently push time backwards and maybe all of the older sites in Africa and Europe can be assumed to have been somewhat earlier than the established dates.
In the valleys of the River Beune before it flows into the Vézère, are the deep cave sites of Font de Gaume and Combarelles. At both, a cave opening lies up a limestone cliff surrounded by holm-oaks and patches of willow scrub. Within, there are twisted and uneven passages leading into the heart of the hillside. Late Stone Age men must have crawled through with sputtering tallow lamps to light their way. On the walls there are marvellous portraits of extinct bulls, mammoths, sheep, reindeer, horses, goats and rhinoceros. At Combarelles there is a particularly fine engraving of a horse’s head with ears perked forward brightly and intelligence shining from its eyes. There are some strange faces or ‘masks’ of people, somewhat grotesque, like caricatures. An immediate response could be that they are some kind of effigies of mystical beings because of their contrast with the animal portraits which are real and executed with considerable sympathy and skill. (Were they portraits of Neanderthal people by artists of a different race, the Cro-Magnons?).
At the Cap Blanc site the art takes the form of a great frieze of wild horses carved deeply into the rock. They are wall-sculptures, not engravings, and show that over the several thousand years during which people were decorating the caves and shelters of the region every artform had been produced with the available media and technology.
At Lascaux the cave system has been closed to the general public since 1963, but an exact replica of the most important section was created with care and opened in 1983. The real cave’s walls were covered with more than fifteen hundred paintings and engravings dated to about 17,000 years ago, at the beginning of the so-called Magdalenian culture. It has been determined that the cave was then open to the outside but a rock fall and deluge of mud sealed it until boys, searching for their pet dog in 1940, broke in. Being sealed up for all those thousands of years, the paintings were in pristine condition and astonishingly clear and beautiful.
What has exercised investigators of Lascaux, and the lesser cave sites such as Combarelles, is the sophistication of the art. There is, of course the technical competence that has to be admired; the use of several methods of painting, sketching, engraving and sculpting and the discovery, selection and refining of different naturally-occurring chemical pigments. Beyond that, however, there is the style that impresses with its ‘modernity’. Perspective is widely used to vitalise the pictures. Jean-Philippe Rigaud, writing in National Geographic (October 1988), comments:
Study of the works themselves shows that Magdalenian artists had great experience. Engravings were made with incomparable sureness; drawings executed without erasures, without ‘repentance’.
Some animals were drawn on irregular surfaces so that it was impossible to see the head while drawing the tail. This implies a complete vision of the animal by the artist. ....The use of undulations in the wall is frequent, and they give a surprising volume to the paintings...
.... to give a third dimension, the artists have detached - by means of a blank or uncolored area - the legs that are the most distant from the spectator from the rest of the animal.
The large pictures, life-size, are outlined with thick, bold rough strokes. Some animals are dotted with black spots. Horses, extinct cattle and bisons constitute 80% of the figures and it is shown from associated fossil deposits that they were the most sort-after prey. But there were also bears, cats, hares, boars and goats. There are no people except for crude stick-figures, like a modern kindergarten picture. There are more of the mysterious dots, lines, squares and grids scattered about.
I suppose the most notable difference between the paintings in the Dordogne and those I am familiar with in Africa is the absence of human figures. In Africa, people proliferate, in the Dordogne they are rare, but it is interesting that in both Europe and Africa animals are painted with greater care and fidelity whereas people are depicted in stylised form. In general, African rock-art tends to be subtly different in style to the ‘impressionistic’ art of Europe. A.R. Wilcox writes in The Drakensberg Bushmen and Their Art (1984):
The Bushman artist ... painted animals as he saw them, subordinating detail to the whole. His painting is a visual image recreated, though he might slightly stress characteristics such as the length of an eland or the bulk of an elephant. These remarks apply to the paintings of animals only ....not to the Bushmen’s paintings of human figures which are stylised.... Observe the heads [of people] - almost always featureless, often mere blobs.....
.... the human figures seldom appear singly; they occur in groups, almost always in some kind of individual action or group activity .... whereas animals, though often shown in groups, are commonly shown singly and may be in quite static attitudes.
Lyall Watson, in Lightning Bird (1982), states it clearly:
The cave art of Europe is composed almost entirely of animals and abstract signs. Human figures are rare and descriptive scenes almost nonexistent. Prehistoric African rock art, on the other hand, teems with people and narrative scenes. It is alive with animals, humans, and mythological mixtures of the two. All are involved with, or superimposed on, each other in meaningful ways.
Watson quotes Credo Mutwa, a renowned South African ‘diviner’ or holy man and oral historian:
“Cave paintings are our [African] archives. Every one is either a record of a particular historical event, usually in symbolic form, or it displays certain aspects of legend, custom, and ritual. These are the illustrations to our oral history.”
In Africa, from the Tassili, through eastern Africa down to the Cape of Good Hope, people are everywhere on rock walls: often dancing but also hunting, marching somewhere, sitting together. This, to me, especially differentiates the earliest African from European art. The African art seems to me to be influenced by the ‘whole’ of communal activity whereas European art seems to have concentrated on the hunting activities of the region. This is a theme which will be explored in the next chapter.
But there is a common denominator amongst all Late Stone Age art and that is the variety of geometric designs and symbols. Everywhere in the world, from the Amazon to Australia, Late Stone Age people used zigzags, spirals, circles, patterns of dots, grids and cross-hatching to decorate walls, tools, totem poles, ivory implements, jewellery and, particularly in the later neolithic periods, pottery. In early African rock-art strings of dots, zigzags or lines connect different figures in a frieze, or surround groups or particular animals or people.
Much thought and speculation has been given to motives behind the appearance or ‘invention’ of rock-art and parallels of decorating tools, jewellery and small artifacts. Most often, the explanation has been that it has been a religious activity symbolically binding the prey to the hunter, a visual prayer. But the variety of paintings preclude any one reason and, in the fashion of categorising that we often tend to, there has been opposing argument between those who think that the motive was a spiritual imperative and those who think it was creative impulse or drive; ‘art for art’s sake’. Indeed, the two are not mutually exclusive and it must be that rock-art was executed for a number of practical reasons, whether religious or for recording, instruction and learning, as well as for the pure joy of creativity.
Professor David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson summarise these difficulties and the neglected importance of southern African rock-art in the Preface to their book, Images of Power (1989).
Today research is coming full circle. Armed with what we know about Bushman religious experience and the ways in which it is emblazoned on the rocks of southern Africa, we are returning to the dark caverns of western Europe. Contrary to the received archaeological wisdom of decades, we are finding that important clues to the great enigmas of Upper Paleolithic art have been awaiting discovery in an entirely unexpected place: southern Africa. ....we outline our new understanding of this art in the exciting knowledge that it points to the very origin of artistic activity and thence to some of humankind’s greatest triumphs. Bushman rock art stands at the centre of research into the origins of religion and aesthetics.
I believe Late Stone Age people painted and engraved for all the many reasons and impulses that people create today and the evidence is there. I have seen many images that must have been created by the finest artists of the community next to some which must have been done by young children or an untrained mind. There is a vast variation of subject. A few, clearly, were done deliberately by medicine-men or shamans in a spiritual tradition of visual prayers for the hunt, rain, recovery from illness or famine. But as modern people doodle on a telephone pad, decorate a dinner plate, paint great religious masterpieces or record events, for all the reasons that the human mind can conceive, so did people 20-30,000 years ago.
A number of Africans have written or stated that the symbolic images seen in rock-art have meanings. Whether they were painted by diviners still in the throes of a trance experience, executed by artists on the instructions of medicine-men or for specific purposes of their own, or by initiates or even children practising and ‘doodling’, there was a purpose. These symbols, it is said, were a simple means of communication. Each symbol had a common interpretation which was understood by people across cultural and language groups. A hand imprint on a cave wall could simply mean: “This is my place, please do not disturb!” A sunburst sign can be part of a rainmaking ritual, and so on.
This is written language in its simplest form and has clear examples in our modern world in international road signs, recognised from Chile to Mongolia. In any airport across the planet, a running figure tells where an emergency exit can be found or a symbolic man or woman shows where we may defecate. In Africa, and later in Europe, a system of icons seems to have been in use long before the elaborate scripts of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations. Modern computer programmes such as the one I am using as I write make great use of common symbols or icons. We may be returning to using a scheme of ‘written language’ invented by neolithic Africans thirty thousand years ago.
I have often pondered the appearance of music in Africa. Music and dancing is essential to the life of African people. The rhythm of African music has conquered the contemporary world in the guise of rock-and-roll. That conquest is not only of present time; all tropical tribal societies who chant and dance as an integral part of their culture developed similar style to Africans. I vividly remember watching a documentary film in the 1950s which showed Fijians demonstrating a war dance and being amazed at how similarly they performed to the great African warriors, the Zulus. Whenever I watch TV documentaries these days which show genuine tribal music and dancing, from native Americans to Papuan Aborigines, I am impressed once again at the strange conformity with that of the Khoisan and other African music with ancient roots.
The particular cadence, pitch and tone of Pygmies of the Congo forests chanting and singing is precisely similar to that of San-Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and being lucky enough to have recordings of both, made before tourists intruded on their activities, I have listened to them sequentially and, to my untrained ear, they could be the same people. The singing and chanting of central African Bantu-speaking people, without modern western influence, has similar cadence, melody and tone, but the differences can be easily detected. The Pygmy and Bushman singing has, for me, a simpler ‘feel’ to it, more emotional perhaps; while the Bantu-speaking people sang songs with more variation and technical sophistication. West African singing and music-making, whilst having an ‘African’ style seems to have greater influence from the Middle East, which is obviously because of the infiltration of people and culture across and along the Sahara, especially during the last twelve hundred years. Those particular influences did not penetrate the interior of central and southern Africa to any significant extent even after the 19th century surge in Swahili-Arab trading activity from the Indian Ocean coast.
The fossil record cannot give much evidence of ancient musical instruments apart from possible stone ‘clappers’ and stone gongs. In Africa there are places where great rocks show evidence of being used as gongs. Lyall Watson in Lightning Bird (1982) describes rocks in South Africa where there are places which must have been struck repeatedly by clappers and which produce clear resonating notes of pure tone. He describes how Adrian Boshier was shown such a rock gong and heard its melodious ringing by an old man in the Northern Province of South Africa in the 1950s. Stone gongs were used in savannah country to carry territorial and other messages in the same way as wooden drums were used in the forests.
Other than reference to stone gongs and drums probably of very ancient use as communications media, any discussion about ancient music has to be speculative. But most modern percussion instruments have their equivalents in traditional African music. Drums come from forested regions and are particularly related to people of central and western Africa and those Bantu-speaking migrants who had most direct descent from West Africa. Marimbas are perhaps the best known traditional African instruments, apart from drums, but there is the bow with attached gourd sound box whose string is lightly struck and probably had roots with the Khoisan as ancient as the bow itself. Bantu-speaking people took it over from the San-Bushmen and it voyaged to Brazil with slaves from Angola. In Brazil it is a central pillar of samba music culture and is known as the birimbão.
The Zulus regiments in their war dances created awesome rhythmic sound by beating their spears on their cowhide shields and stamping their feet. Handclapping is used throughout Africa and was the common group dance percussion sound accompanying singing of the Kalahari San-Bushmen and Congo forest Pygmies. Various combinations of seeds and nuts in gourds, pods and artificial containers were used for shaking and rattling.
All were used to assist long epic songs or repeated chanted mantras that accompanied dancing. There is a link between trance-dancing and geometric rock-art proposed by David Lewis-Williams which suggests the simultaneous flowering of music and visual art at the dawn of the Late Stone Age in Africa. Since chanting is linked to poetry and language, it may be that music preceded rock-art but I am sure the two flowered together, around that magical 30,000 years ago.
Professor Lewis-Williams was presented in a TV documentary by the BBC in April 1989, when he was able to expound his views widely. His book, Images of Power (1989), written together with Thomas Dowson, is an exposition of the breadth of San-Bushman rock-art and deeply researched views and conclusions.
Lewis-Williams and Dowson examine research by neurologists which establish that when people enter a trance state they see geometric patterns: spirals, circles, dots, zigzags, grids and so on. This is a function of the electro-chemical state within the brain and I do not suppose it matters how the trance is induced. Epilepsy causes a form of trance and my daughter who suffered from mild epilepsy as a teenager always knew when an attack was coming on: “Windmills are starting!” she would cry. Epileptics are universally revered in Africa, because of their being forced into trance states by their particular affliction and it is reasonable to assume that most ordinary African people were unable to distinguish between an epileptic seizure and an autonomous trance-state. Adrian Boshier, whose depth of experience in explorations of African lore is described by Lyall Watson, was an epileptic and this enabled him to gain particular confidences of learned tribal elders.
Repetitive music, typical of the African style, induces trance-dances which were part of the culture of all modern Late Stone Age peoples. The uses of music and dancing have been observed often enough amongst the San-Bushmen of the Kalahari when a medicine-man either wishes to communicate with the spirits of ancestors or when he is carrying out a particular healing task for one of his community. Holy trances and visions were frequently the reason for sanctifying people by the Roman Catholic Church and trances are used regularly in religious activity today in all societies. Monotonous chanting and fatigue-inducing postures and activities are other triggers to trance.
Lewis-Williams sees the geometric symbols in rock-art as being the depictions of those entoptic (within the eyes) patterns which appear when entering a trance state. The pictures could be executed by medicine-men after a trance-dance when they are still emotionally excited by their experience, still more-or-less in a trance state. Many paintings in southern Africa and in Algeria, show people linked to each other and to animals by ‘ropes’ of dots or enclosed by zigzags and other geometric figures. In the Drakensberg the animals are mainly eland antelopes, who are the noblest of African antelopes and the height of desire and respect by hunters. Although there are almost no people in the paintings of the Dordogne, there are the geometric symbols which have puzzled researchers.
San-Bushmen achieved the trance state by dancing and monotonous clapping and chanting for long periods. I observed !Kung and GiKwe groups dancing through the nights of the full moon on the banks of the Okavango River at Andara in 1975. Henry Francis Fynn, who often sojourned with the Zulus of Natal in the 1820s, described their endless dancing and singing all night long until people collapsed from total exhaustion. Anybody who has camped out in the remote African bush has heard many village celebrations that have not ceased until dawn. Sadly, with the almost universal proliferation of electronic reproduction, traditional music and dancing is disappearing fast.
All people are dancers, Africans especially so, and dancing and enjoyment of repetitive music are part of being human. Maybe it has become a genetically implanted behaviour, an instinct, together with the need to scribble and draw, and to talk, and to swim in warm seas. Criticism of modern disco-music and dancing displays ignorance of the ancient common heritage of mankind. Only some of us can compose orchestral symphonies and paint masterpieces on the roofs of chapels, but we can all respond to disco-music or military bands and doodle on scrap paper or in the dust at our feet.
Sensory deprivation also induces trance and if a lamp was doused in the depths of caves with narrow, crawling tunnels the sensory deprivation would have been severe. This is especially applicable to the limestone caves of the Dordogne and I am reminded of Dr. Wendt’s remarks about particular ‘private’ paintings in places with difficult access in Namibia. Could shamans or diviners have deliberately sought out such places to practice their art with personal religious symbolism because they were able to experience trance states in them? The universality of geometric designs which appear to have undoubted relationships to trance or ecstatic experience all over the world in the Late Stone Age indicates not only the universal experiences but a universal seeking for them.
Rock-art pictures of people which abound in Africa illustrate the development of clothing. Decorative clothing and adornment, beyond what is needed for simple covering, appeared together with painting. A continuity of style over thousands of years was also illustrated. People of different tribal groups or cultures, separated by thousands of miles and years, decorated themselves similarly whilst using variations of detail and style to define their own group. Even military and other uniforms can be said to have originated at the jump to the Late Stone Age. There seems to be no part of modern culture which cannot be related backwards to the culture-jump which occurred, seemingly spontaneously, everywhere but which is most noticeable in Africa. The possibility of a genetic influence becomes increasingly valid.
Because Late Stone Age people lived a simple lifestyle compared to ours, we tend to assume that they were simple people. All writers who have spent any length of time with Kalahari San-Bushmen groups have described how complicated their intimate relationships were. As much time as was necessary was used to resolve conflict between individuals, no stress was left unresolved. The ultimate solution, where no internal solution was possible, was for individuals to move away. After exhausting efforts by the community, those in conflict either conformed or left, but efforts were always made.
Unresolved conflict or stress was intolerable. The need to maintain the integrity of the group created social stability and great patience with the eccentric or aberrant personality. Indeed, eccentrics were tolerated for their special talents and contributions and often revered. Interestingly, the typical San-Bushman band in the desert numbered twenty-five, which is the sort of number that many gregarious mammals such as hunting dogs have found to be the ideal in sparse environments. It is the number which many school-teachers say is the optimum for a class.
Ancestors of the Khoisan reached a level of intellectual integration with the environment about 30,000 years ago which I do not believe has been improved since. Perhaps they also achieved a level of social happiness that will never be seen again, until we evolve through another great jump into a new sub-species.
There is a magic that continually emerges around the date of about 30,000 years ago. There had to be a particularly significant global event at about that time, lasting several thousand years perhaps. The flowering of creative aesthetics touching all of mankind’s activities, exemplified in the rock-art, jewellery and decorated tools they have left us, began then. It is the usual order of time that is used to define the beginning of the Late Stone Age in which this artistic creativity was developed. That is when the Neanderthals of Europe and the Middle East disappeared from the fossil record as a distinct race. If the tough wintery life in Europe was the challenge that triggered the jump into the Late Stone Age in Europe, it was a jump over the abyss for the Neanderthals. They disappeared to be succeeded by the Cro-Magnons.