Archeology is a tantalizing science, with anthropology close behind. It seems that every new find of human remains pushes the origins of relatively civilized human being farther back in time. Within the last few days, the remains of a seafood dinner and small stone tools in a cave on the coast of South Africa give evidence of a fairly complex society as long ago as 165,000 years, more than 40,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The same is true of the so-called Clovis culture of the prehistoric Americas. This culture appears to have been wiped out about 13,000 years ago, perhaps by a meteor strike. Some archeological finds suggest that the Clovis culture may have existed in the Americas as many as 50,000 years ago, twenty-odd thousands of years before previous estimates. In fact, the difference is great enough to call the long-held land bridge migration theory into question.
It fascinates me to think of my ancestors having the local version of a clambake in the mouth of a cave in South Africa more than 150,000 years ago. As that ancestor sat on the ground, prying the delicate seafood prize from the shell, what was he thinking as he (or she) looked out over the ocean? Were the thoughts all completely practical, related to simple survival? I would like to think that there was poetry in the hearts of these early members of society, and that they lacked only a written language to save it for us.
That may be overly romantic, but the cave paintings at Lascaux, in France, date back at least 15,000 years, while others of their genre go back at least 50,000 years. It is not too far a stretch to imaging, then, our ancient clambake participant thinking in terms of the beauty of the world, at least in moments where she was safe, dry, and fed. Even those 165,000-year-old party-goers has a supply of what appears to be pigment, used to adorn their bodies, or perhaps to paint their own pictures, which have not survived.
We have an amazing patchwork of evidence and conjecture, based upon the detailed examination of perhaps the few thousand square feet of ground where clues have survived in abundance. That is a few thousand square feet out of the 1,614,586,500,000 (approximately) square feet of land surface on our planet. We have learned so much from so few lucky finds.
The ground that you are walking on today, perhaps on your way to lunch, may hold even more secrets of ancient man just a few feet beneath where you are walking. This is particularly true if your are walking to lunch in Kenya, but the same may be true of vital information buried under downtown Chicago, Sydney, or Edinburgh. I want to know more about these ancient ancestors so that I can know more about myself and my fellow modern man.