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They lived in Africa and, two million years ago, they were few. They were almost human beings, though they tended to be smaller than their descendants who now inhabit the world. They walked upright; they were also skilled climbers.
They ate mainly fruits, nuts, seeds and other food-plants but were beginning to eat meat. Their implements were primitive. If they tried to shape stone they did not carry the shaping very far. Probably they were capable of using a stick for defense or attack or even for digging—if a small rodent was hiding in a burrow. Whether they made simple shelters out of shrubs and sticks to ward off the cold winds in winter is not known. No doubt some lived in caves—if caves could be found—but such a permanent residence would have gravely restricted the mobility needed to find enough food, for their food must have varied according to the seasons. To live off the land called for long walks to the places where certain seeds or fruits could be found. Their diet was the result of a chain of discoveries, made over hundreds of thousands of years. A crucial discovery was whether a seemingly safe food-plant was poisonous. Scavenging for new foods in a time of drought and famine, some must have died or become seriously ill through poisoning.
Two million years ago these human beings—known as hominids—lived mainly in the lands now called Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. If Africa is divided into three horizontal zones, the human race occupied the middle or tropical zone. Probably much of it was grassland. Indeed, a change ofclimate one or two million years earlier, with grassland largely replacing forest in certain regions, might have encouraged these humans gradually to part company from their relatives—the apes—and spend more time on the ground.
They already had a long history, though they had no memory or record of it. We talk today of the vast span of time since the building of the pyramids in Egypt, but that span was merely a wink compared to the long history which the human race had already experienced. One early record has been uncovered in Tanzania. Two adults and a child were walking on top of volcanic ash softened by recent rain. Their footprints then were baked by the sun and slowly covered by layers of earth. The footprints, definitely human, are at least 3,600,000 years old. Even that is young in the history of the living world. The last of the dinosaurs were extinguished about 64,000,000 years ago.
In East Africa the early humans liked to camp on the shores of lakes and in sandy riverbeds or on the grassy plains: some of their remains have been found in such places. They were also able to adapt to cooler climates and in Ethiopia they preferred an open plateau at a height of 1,600 or 2,000 meters above sea level. In the evergreen forests of the uplands they were also at home. Their adaptability was impressive.
In the cutthroat contest to stay alive and to multiply, humans were usually successful. In their part of Africa they were far outnumbered by various species of large animals, some of them aggressive, but the humans flourished. Their population became too large for the resources of their area or perhaps a long drought drove them north. The evidence is strong that sometime around two million years ago they began to migrate farther north. The longest desert in the world—stretching from northwest Africa and past Arabia—may have temporarily blocked their way. The narrow land bridge between Africa and Asia Minor was easily crossed.
TREK INTO ASIA
They moved in small bands: they were explorers as well as settlers. In each unfamiliar region they had to adapt to new foods, and they had to watch for wild animals, venomous snakes and poisonous insects. The people leading the way had one advantage. Those other stern opponents of territorial intruders, human beings, were not standing in their way.
It was more like a relay race than a trek. Possibly one group of maybe six or 12 moved a short distance and then serried down. Others came, leapfrogged them or drove them forward. The move across Asia might have taken 10,000 or 200,000 years. Mountain slopes had to be climbed, swamps traversed. Wide, fast, cold rivers had to be crossed. Did they cross them at fords in very dry seasons or cross them in the high country, before the streams became wide? Could the explorers swim? The answers are not known. At night in strange terrain, a shelter or a place of some security had to be selected. Without the aid of guard dogs, a watch had to be kept for wild animals hunting at night.
In the course of the slow and long migration—the first of many long migrations in the history of the human race—these people originating in the tropics moved into territory far colder than any which their ancestors had experienced. Presumably they stayed entirely in the milder parts of the temperate zone, whose climate and many of whose food-plants were familiar. During many phases, moreover, the climate became colder, and the ice sheets moved some distance to the south. Even southern Europe was long out of bounds to them.
Whether they could warm themselves by fires on cold nights is not certain. When a strike of lightning set fire to adjacent countryside they presumably collected the fire by lighting a stick and carrying the fire away. When the stick was almost burned and the fire faded, they could light another stick. Fire was so valuable that, once it was captured, it would be carefully tended. But fire could be extinguished through carelessness, or doused by heavy rain or lost through an absence of dry wood and kindling. While they possessed fire, they must have carried it on their travels as a precious possession, just as the early Australians travelled with fire. If it went out, they had to wait until another strike of lightning set fire to bush or they came across other humans who had kept their fire alight.
The ability to create fire, rather than borrow it already alight, came late in human history. Eventually humans could produce a flame through the friction and heat caused by rubbing dry wood against dry wood. Or they could strike a piece of pyrite or other suitable rock and thus make a spark. In both processes, some very dry kindling was required, as well as the art of gently blowing on the smoking kindling. Even the native Tasmanians, as observed early in the 19th century, carried fire sticks wherever they went and were despondent when the flames went out. It is far from certain that they could normally accomplish the laborious task of producing a spark that could light a fresh fire.
The skilled employing of fire—the result of many brainwaves and experiments during thousands of years—is one of the achievements of the human race. How ingeniously it was used can be seen in the way of life which survived in a few remote regions of Australia until the 20th century. On the flat cloudless plains of the outback the Aborigines lit small fires to send a smoke signal—it was a clever form of telegraph. Many explorers knew that they were being watched by Aborigines who, remaining out of sight, sent these smoke signals to one another. Aborigines used fire for cooking and warmth, and for smoking out game. Fire was the sole illuminant at night—except when a full moon gave them light for their ceremonial dances. Fire was used in manufacture—in hardening the digging sticks and shaping wood for spears. Fire was used to cremate the dead. It was used to burn a ceremonial pattern on the human skin. It was employed to drive snakes from long grass at a chosen camping site. It was an insect repellent. It was used by hunters to set fire to grass and so to drive animals in a certain direction, and fire was also used to burn the grass in a systematic mosaic at certain times of the year and so encourage new growth, when rains fell. So numerous were the eventual uses of fire that it was the most useful tool possessed by the human race until recent times.
Today humans possess weapons that make the claw and jaw of a wild animal seem pitiful. For a long period, however, it was the human race that was pitiful. Physically it was smaller and lighter than many of the animals living in the vicinity. It was also hopelessly outnumbered by individual herds of large animals. The entire human population of each region was small compared to that of other fighting species. In North America, still uninhabited, the bison ran in their millions. In Asia the big curvedhorn mammoth, a species of elephant, must have far outnumbered the humans whom they occasionally saw nearby, while grazing.
The danger of attack from wild animals was high. Even in India in the 19th century, when villagers possessed organizing ability and metal weapons and other means of protecting themselves far superior to those possessed by the early humans, tigers were still a formidable threat. For that century, one estimate is that tigers are some 300,000 Indians as well as several million animals on farms. Indian children were also vulnerable to attack by wolves. Even in 1996 in one Indian state, 33 children were fatally attacked by wolves. In the homeland of Africa the leopards and lions must have been feared by the humans. Obviously, the slow increase in human organizing capacity was a vital aid to self-defense, especially at night. Without that ability to cooperate against an enemy, the early humans venturing into new tropical areas might easily have been wiped out by beasts of prey. In a few places the advance guard, numbering less than a dozen, was perhaps wiped out.
About 1,800,000 years ago, the advance guard of this movement reached China and South-East Asia. They made their way, travelling on dry land, to Java where the bones of one of the early inhabitants have been found and minutely investigated. This was a period when the levels of the sea rose and fell many times, but Java and Sumatra usually formed a land extension of the Asian mainland.
So, by a long and slow roundabout route, these early humans had moved from the tropics of central and East Africa to the temperate zone of central Asia and then farther on to the tropics of South-East Asia. On a map their migration route formed a long unfinished loop.
Little is known about this long series of journeys by the human race, though much more will be uncovered by prehistorians and archaeologists in the next century. How much of Asia was occupied during the first million years is far from clear. Essentially people of the inland, these humans were probably late in setting along the coast and very late in mastering even shallow seas. Even on the African coast a mere 100,000 years ago, they did not fish. But on scattered beaches they were occasionally confronting the hazardous sea and embarking on it.
A recent excavation on an outer island in the Indonesian archipelago disclosed remains of human habitation dating back more than 800,000 years. The remains, discovered in the ancient bed of a lake at Mata Menge in the mountainous island of Flores, proved beyond any doubt that humans had learned to build water craft and to paddle them far out to sea: the sail itself lay far in the future. To reach the island of Flores, a brave easterly sea crossing was made from the nearest island. Even if the sea levels had been at their lowest, the distance crossed in a small boat or raft from the nearest island would have been at least 19 kilometers. Perhaps this was the longest sea voyage up to that time. It resembled the first journey to the moon in the 20th century, in the sense that it exceeded all previous voyages. Curiously it happened at about the time that Europe was first settled by humans.
Here and there can still be found glimmers of the daily life of these explorers and pioneer settlers. Near Beijing (Peking), at a camp site of humans, layers of ashes and charcoal were recently exposed by careful digging. Those camp fires had been dead for perhaps 400,000 years but they held the remains of a meal: the burned bone of a deer, and the shells taken from hackberry nuts.
The faces of those who sat in the light of the fire were distinctive. A long low ridge, commencing high in the forehead, ran along the top of the skull. Such was the shape of the jaws that the mouth protruded almost as far as the tip of the flattened nose. The ridge of the eyebrow was almost continuous rather than forming two distinct brows. The brow ridge in what was once called "Peking man" was so pronounced that it was almost like a tiny verandah or parapet above the eyes.
In the space of several million years, humans had become more adaptable, more resourceful. The typical human brain was growing larger. Whereas it occupied about 500 cubic centimeters in the early humans, it occupied about 900 in the human species called Homo erectus which carried out this long migration. Somewhere between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago, the brain was again enlarged to a pronounced extent. This growth of the brain was one of the remarkable events in the history of biological change.
The brain's structure was also changing, and a "motor speech area" took shape. The larger brain seemed to be associated with increasing skill in using the hands and arms, and the slow rise of a spoken language. Such a substantial growth in the size of the brain in any species is a remarkable event. How it happened is largely a mystery. One possible cause is the eating of more and more meat. It is unlikely that the human race at this stage possessed either the weapons or the organizing ability to kill wild animals of any size and feast on their meat. Possibly the meals of meat came from increasing bravery in scavenging the carcasses of recently dead animals, while the main pack or herd was grazing not far away, or from a growing skill in hunting the smaller animals which posed no danger but were not easily caught. It is feasible that in the course of time the fatty acids in the meat improved the brain and its functioning. In turn, that advantage enabled humans to devise better ways of hunting animals and so to increase their intake of meat. All this is speculation.
The spoken language was acquiring more words and more precision. The fine arts were emerging. The fine arts and the act of communicating by speech both rely on the use of symbols, whether those detected by the ear or the eye. The ability to invent symbols and to recognize them was one result of the slow improvements in the brain. Perhaps a development in the human voice box was also an aid to expressing these symbols in sound. Some scholars argue that human speech began as a social activity, a way of bringing up the young, after which it was slowly extended to such other activities as the gathering of food or the organizing of a defense against a human or animal enemy.
Despite the advances in studying the mind in the last half-century, the brain and human speech are still far from explored. One medical specialist has suggested that in an intricate activity such as speech, "the interaction of the parts of the brain will not resemble those of an orderly machine but will more resemble a crazy quilt." Whatever its origins, language is the greatest of all inventions.
Some 60,000 years ago came signs of a human awakening. Prehistorians and archaeologists, looking back, have pieced together the evidence for a slow-moving succession of changes which in the next 30,000 years merited such descriptions as a "Great Leap Forward" or a "Cultural Explosion." There is dispute about who did the leaping and exploding. Possibly the changes were the work of a new human group that emerged in Africa and then emigrated to Asia and Europe, where they coexisted with the Neanderthals, a species that later vanished. What is clear is the existence of human creativity on many fronts.
The speech of the hundreds of generations of people who were alive during the Awakening is silent and lost, but some of their arts and crafts survive, either in fragments or intact. The arts blossomed in Europe during that long glacial phase which began about 75,000 years ago. Persistent evidence suggests that many humans expected to renew their existence in an afterlife. The journey to that new life required artistic offerings, accessories or indications of one's status, and the chosen items were arranged in the grave, either on the body or alongside it. The new reverence was visible in the burial of a child in Uzbekistan in central Asia some 70,000 years ago. In the shallow grave was placed an offering of curved goat-horns. In Sunghir in Russia about 28,000 years ago a man of some 60 years of age was buried, his body adorned with more than 2,000 pieces of ivory and other ornaments. To reach the age of 60 was to be almost venerable, for most adults died younger. On the "old" man's forearms and biceps were arranged polished bracelets made of mammoth ivory.
Excerpted from A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD by Geoffrey Blainey. Copyright © 2002 by Geoffrey Blainey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.