THE FAMILY HUMAN – Part 2
The “Handy Man,” Homo habilis, was discovered in the Olduvai Gorge of East Africa. Upright and capable of making primitive “pebble stone” choppers from 2.5 million years ago. “Oldowan” tools, we call them. That was a long time ago. Handy Man never left Africa. But he contributed even more than tools to our history. A bigger brain. Thirty percent bigger than his predecessor, “Lucy,” the first upright Australopithecine hominid.
What developed next in that gorge had an even larger brain, pushing 30% bigger than that of the Handy Man. And for very good reason. The tools of this new arrival were even more magnificent. Hand Axes!
“Acheulean,” is what we call those tools, and they were not just rocks with broken edges. Acheulean hand axes were sophisticated, hiding their shape within the surface of that round pebble stone. They had to first be imagined before they could be chipped away and formed. Just like Michelangelo, who saw David hiding in that chunk of marble, Homo erectus saw pointed, sharp-edged hand axes in those rocks. Yes, saw them. “Imagination.” We had arrived!
First known as Java Man or Peking Man, Homo erectus was the first to spread out of Africa into Europe and the distant Asian lands and islands. That started, after 2 million years ago, a great human diaspora. And Homo erectus maintained its reign
in those regions for more than 1 million years before they left our stage 100,000 years ago. Forced off the stage by newer, more advanced models. Exterminated, probably. And probably by those that begat you.
Fire and Cooking
But before he left, Homo erectus that is, he did something very important for you. You should remember that every night that you cook.
Homo erectus captured fire and enslaved its power so as to pass its control on to you. Not from a lightning strike on grass. More probably from a smoldering, burnt tree stump. Cradle its embers, feed it twigs and dried leaves, and learn to carry its smoking potential wrapped up in a skin. And every night within your cave opening, urge out a small bit of cinder onto a prepared bed of brush, your altar to the Fire God. And, magically, up leaps fire in warmth and protection, roaring away at any predator that might tempt close. And then, safe and warm, you sit cross- legged before the flames, roasting tough snake meat, or the tawny tendonous fibers scavenged from the bones of an antelope left after the tiger tore off its flesh. Meat made soft, easily eaten, and more easily digested by cooking. More fatty calories for that big, growing brain of yours.
And now, you no longer need such long intestines. Less fiber needed to break down to absorb those trapped plant nutrients. And your teeth have changed. Less vicious in need to tear raw meat, and less massive for crushing raw nuts. The Fire God gives you all of these. Even poisonous foods are rendered nontoxic after cooking. And finally, humans can survive without teeth into old age! I like that though
The people called Hobbits by the press. Only three and a half feet tall, they inhabited the isolated Indonesian island of Flores. There were even Pygmy elephants there. That sister species disappeared about 50,000 years ago. What happened then? Probably the same story as elsewhere. The rise of our species, Homo sapiens.
Were the Hobbits hiding there? Hiding from us? There were other species of our genus, too. What happened to them?
And there are more. There are others. Exposed to us in the caves of France, the hills of the Levant, overhangs in the Chinese hills and on Southeastern Asian Islands.
What about Java Man, Homo erectus? That species seemed to pass from the fossil record 100,000 years ago. And Neanderthal Man, Homo neanderthalensis? They survived to about 30,000 years ago. The circle was closing.
Homo sapiens showed up around 200,000 years ago, spreading out of Africa soon thereafter. We spread everywhere. Conquered all in our path. Maybe there is a reason, beyond biology and religion, that we are the last species standing.
Next week: Denisovans, Neanderthals, and you!