One of the tragedies of humanity is that we’re all mortal—every one of us, and everyone we know and love, will someday die. Our forebears, to whom we owe our existence, are all gone or going. Another aspect of this great tragedy is the transience of our knowledge: not only will we die but memory of us will steadily fade over time; as we look back on our history, it gets dimmer and dimmer and farther and farther back. We get only a brief moment in the spotlight before time moves on and darkness swallows us up.
Look back to our ancestors even a hundred years ago, and what do we have? Perhaps a few sepia-toned photographs, a keepsake, a few old stories, a tombstone. Go back five hundred years—you’re lucky to find a brief mention in a church registry. After a thousand years, perhaps there will be reference to a connection to a people or a region but probably little more. Farther still, we have at best a vague awareness of a milling humanity, their lives remote and their concerns foreign to us. The roots of our species are almost entirely lost to us—reduced to old bones and stone tools—and it’s often hard to find a personal connection to chipped pebbles or weathered femurs. Who were the people behind these bones and artifacts? What were their lives like, what troubled them, what made them happy?
But then, every once in a while, a spark lights up the ancient darkness. The spotlight doesn’t sweep back—it never goes back—but there’s just a glimmering that says nothing more than “We were here. We were human. We were like you.”
Two such discoveries have been reported very recently in Science. They’re small things, fragmentary debris from our past, but they illuminate human prehistory in ways that light up my imagination and make me want to tell our ancestors that we haven’t forgotten everything.
The first is a garbage heap in a cave in East Timor in the Malay Archipelago, recently excavated by Sue O’Connor and her colleagues. It’s a 42,000-year-old garbage heap left by the people who, 50,000 years ago, began a slow southern migration from Southeast Asia through the island chain and finally ended up colonizing Australia. It was one of humanity’s great adventures, striking out from a lubberly mainland to explore exotic tropical oceans. On this one island, in this one cave, in this garbage heap, these people left unprepossessing traces of their everyday life: fish bones. Piles and piles of fish bones.
You might be surprised at what you can learn digging through someone’s trash. In this case, scientists rummaged through the garbage in excruciating detail, counting and sorting every bone and working out precisely what species each one belonged to—all part of the meticulous rigor that’s part of a scientist’s standard operating procedure. And that’s how they found a small surprise: tuna.
About half the fish bones in this old midden were from deep-water fish such as tuna—fish that you aren’t going to catch by standing on the shore or wading into the shallows. These are fish that require real commitment and skill to catch: the tuna bones tell us that these people, over 40,000 years ago, were routinely going to the sea in craft of some sort (no trace of their remains), cruising out of sight of their homes, and catching large pelagic fish such as tuna and sharks and navigating home again. To do this, they had to have a sophisticated maritime technology: hooks and lines or nets, some kind of reliable seagoing vessel, knowledge of the sea and seafaring, and most important, a culture that preserved the traditions and social cohesion that allowed this occupation to flourish.
And they needed one more thing: courage. Deep-sea fishing is not the province of the casual dabbler; these fishermen had skills and fortitude and were engaged in a practice that is hazardous and remarkably unconventional for a primate. These were individuals in a complex culture, like our modern fisherfolk—except, of course, that they are now going out to the sea with engines, radar, steel hooks, or mass-produced nets. You have to admire our ancestors.
The second discovery is older still and in yet another cave. Christopher Henshilwood and his colleagues, excavating a 100,000-year-old cave in South Africa, uncovered something odd. It was a bowl-shaped abalone shell with a rounded stone nestled in it and various other small stones scattered around it. The shell contained traces of a red compound that when analyzed was found to be made of crushed bone that was once rich in fat and marrow, bits of charcoal, and ochre.
The abalone shell and stone were an ancient mortar and pestle; the contents were pigments and binders and the thin flat stones around it scoops and applicator sticks. This collection of fitted stones and shells was an artisan’s sophisticated tool kit for making paints. We have a trace of the artist but, unfortunately, no sign of the art: there are no surviving cave paintings on this site. In all likelihood what was painted was clothing and faces and bodies, all even more impermanent on the scale of millennia.
Here’s the wonderful thing about it: this tool kit wasn’t something essential for survival, for hunting or gathering, for work. This was a luxury. It was art to satisfy a creative urge or to fill a social role—it was something sublimely human. I just wish we knew more about what was being created.
I love the idea that these people were painting themselves. Modern people—and the people who left their paint kit in that cave were anatomically modern Homo sapiens—decorate themselves liberally, painting themselves for war and for romance, adding color to clothing and tools, elaborating bodies and personal objects, having fun and adding drama. It’s a product of self-awareness.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the mirror test, a common experiment to test animals for self-awareness. Put a mark on an animal’s face without its knowing, and then show it a mirror; does it recognize that the face in the mirror is its own and therefore that it has been marked? It’s easily done, and only a few animals can pass it: apes, dolphins, elephants, magpies, and humans. What people do goes beyond the mirror test. They actually mark their own faces intentionally to make themselves look different because they are aware of others’ perception of them—it is consciously provocative and a sign of deeply social behavior. Painting and decorating ourselves is not just a trivial vanity but a signifier of intense awareness of self and community. These people at the dawn of humanity were joyfully practicing it, putting considerable effort and skill into the technological production of paints. We had art from our very beginnings.
Our ancestors were creating art 100,000 years ago. It’s a beautiful thought.
It’s also a mind-expanding thought. Consider your typical Christian zealot who, even if he or she accepts that Earth and our species are very old, regards the most important event in all of our history to be a set of putative miracles that occurred just two thousand years ago, along with the claimed manifestation of the all-powerful creator of the universe in human form at that time. There’s a kind of childish provincialism to the idea that humankind’s purpose on Earth has only been clarified and revealed in relatively recent history; it belittles our deeper history up to that moment, with many millennia of gods and myths as well as common pragmatic day-to-day living, all carried out oblivious to the modern gods and myths so many people unquestioningly consider essential to our nature and our destiny.
Jesus and Muhammad, the Torah and the Bible, the silly little rituals that form the furniture of religion—all of those are ephemeral, trivial, superficial. They are the quaint particulars of people who’ve lost sight of the deeper human universals. We’ve lost much of our history to the attrition of time, but science does give us glimpses of our distant ancestors that fill me with far more pride than anything the twisted circumlocutions of an absurd theology can. I see hardworking fishers paddling boldly out to sea, confident in their strength and ingenuity, using tools honed by generations of craftsmanship to do battle with great fish in the alien empty world of the open ocean. I see whole peoples setting off on voyages into the unknown to explore and settle new lands. I see creative people carefully mixing earth and bone, charcoal and oils, using formulas handed down from generation to generation to make bright and stark colors. I see happy laughing men and women painting their world with deft hands, stamping their mark on themselves and illuminating all that they see with new beauty.
Those are our ancestors. They are us. That’s what matters.