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The Human Story
We Fill the Earth
Our tale begins when humans much like us evolved and filled the earth.
Before that happened other humans had already come and gone. The most important of our forebears was Homo erectus, or Upright Men, so named because they stood on their two feet. They evolved in Africa about two million years ago and wandered into Asia. They sometimes lived in caves and sometimes in the open, and they chipped their simple tools from stone and learned the use of fire. Erectus had heavy brows and flatter skulls than we do, and if one were to enter a bus today the other riders probably would stealthily slip out.
Before erectus vanished perhaps 300,000 years ago, they begat the species we belong to. We of course are Homo sapiens, or Wise Men. Immodestly we gave ourselves that name because we have larger brains, encased in higher skulls, than erectus. In spite of having larger brains, the early sapiens humans may not have had the gift of language.
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They change their minds every time they find an ancient skull, but anthropologists are fairly sure that our own subspecies evolved from sapiens about 160,000 years ago. We probably evolved in Africa, below the Sahara Desert. To indicate that we are a subspecies of sapiens, we call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, or Wise Wise Men. We are now the only variety of humans on earth.
We evolved in different ways. Some of those in Africa developed tall, thin bodies that exposed a lot of skin and that air could therefore cool moreeasily. Dark pigment in their skin protected them from the tropical sun's ultraviolet rays, and their tight-curled hair protected their heads from the heat. But humans who lived in Europe and Asia, coping with the long, dark winters, had other needs. To keep their bones from weakening, they needed sunlight to stimulate vitamin D production. Dark skin would have blocked out too much sun, so they developed pink or sallow skin with little pigment.
Prehistorians have learned a lot about the life of our sapiens sapiens ancestors, especially those who lived in southwest Europe about thirty thousand years ago. For example, individuals took as much pleasure in looking different from each other as modern humans do. In a cave in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, an artist scratched on the walls more than a hundred sketches of what appear to be real people. Some of them wore their hair long, and others short; some had it in braids, others in buns. Some men had beards and mustaches, while others were clean-shaven.
At some point, but the time is much debated, humans learned to speak to one another. They may have done this because they were developing a richer culture that depended on communication. They must have often hunted and collected food in groups, and they probably worked together when they fashioned fishing boats and sheltered entrances to caves.
They had clever hands. They could light a fire by striking sparks from lumps of iron ore, and they carved their sewing needles out of bones, each one with a tiny hole through which a thread could pass. With these they sewed their clothes, using skins of animals. They made tiny cutting tools, half as long as a paper match, from flint, and glued them with resin into holes in handles made from wood or antlers.
They invented the spear thrower, which is a short shaft with a hook at one end that fits into the back end of a spear. It enables a hunter to throw a spear very hard. Some ancient artist carved the end of a spear thrower that was found in the Pyrenees Mountains in the shape of a fawn. Its head is facing backward, and it is looking at a little bird that is perched atop a lump of feces emerging from the fawn.
When someone died the early humans often left his necklaces of teeth and shells on his body, and food and tools beside it. They made a powder from the soft red stone called ocher, and sprinkled it on his body. So they clearly thought of death as meaningful and solemn. Perhaps they thought the one who died would have an afterlife where he or she would once again need tools and food, in a place where beauty mattered.
Nothing that we know about the early humans is as awesome as what they painted in the depths of caves. Prehistorians first learned about these paintings in 1875, when an amateur archaeologist was hunting bones and tools in a cave at Altamira near the northern coast of Spain. His little daughter, whom he'd brought along for company, wandered into a nearby chamber. Holding up her candle, she saw paintings on the ceiling of two dozen nearly life-size bison, drawn in yellow, red, brown, and black. The paintings are so masterful that experts quickly -- wrongly -- called them modern fakes.
The greatest find of prehistoric paintings took place at Lascaux in southwest France soon after the start of World War II. Four teenaged boys were rambling on a hillside. In a place where a storm had uprooted a tree, the boys discovered that where the roots had been there was now a deep hole in the ground. A few days later they returned with a kerosene lamp, and one of them climbed down inside the hole. In the scanty light he clambered down a rocky slope and found that he was in a cavern.
The boy was stunned by what he saw. On the cavern walls were mural paintings of short and shaggy horses, bison, oxen, deer with spreading antlers, and that mythic beast the unicorn. Some of the animals were merely staring; others running for their lives. In a sloping gallery near the main one, other searchers later came on sketches of a stag swimming across a river ...The Human Story. Copyright © by James Davis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.