Tag Archives: Humans

Walking with the Ancestors Part 3-C

. The boy returned back to the fire once more, and was dismayed when he saw an old man sitting there.

“Come boy, and sit by the fire.” The old man said. The boy did as he was told, and sat down and warmed himself. It was a welcome contrast to the cold of the night.

“Would you tell me the story?” The boy asked. The old man smiled and nodded.

“I will tell you a story, though it is a long one. It begins long before the ancestors of our ancestors ever walked the land or swam in the water. That is because the story of this place starts at the beginning of time. There was a time when there was no light or land, before there was a single tree or the sky had come into being. In that time, there was nothing but blackness and an endless bitter cold.” The old man said.

“I have already heard this story.” The boy said.

“But you have not heard it from me. It was dark because there was not yet any light in the sky. No stars shone in the blackness, not at first anyways. Then it was that fire spread across the sky, a thousand thousand fires in the night sky. They are the campfires of the old people, and that is where they lived.” The old man said, gesturing to all the stars in the sky.

The boy noticed that two other lights had appeared outside the fire. With a chill of fear, he also realized that these were not lights, but the shining eyes of a wolf. The old man must have seen the wolf as well, because he gestured to it.

“Come old friend, and sit by the fire.” The old man said.

“That is a wolf!” The boy said, in terror.

“That she is, but of no concern to you. She has come to listen to the story.” The old man said with a smile.

“Though I have heard it many times in my long years.” The she-wolf said as she strode up to the fire. The boy saw that she was mostly grey and black, though with white around her muzzle and under her belly. She had the same aged, weary look of the old man.

“Yes, we have told many stories together, though now our time grows short.” The old man said.

The wolf curled up near to the fire, and the old man continued with the story.

“The fire people spread across the sky, and so it was that the fire people came into the empty space, and thought it a fine place to build a home for their children. So it was that the fire people set to work, and the burning heart of this world was forged by their hands. They found it to be a good home, and they multiplied.

Yet, the sky was still mostly dark, and in the places the stars did not light, it was still very cold. That is where the people of shadow and ice dwelled, in the cold places beyond the stars. The ice people saw what the fire people were doing, and found it a very curious thing. So they came by for a closer look.

It happened that the sons of fire found the daughters of ice to be beautiful beyond compare, and they sought them out eagerly. It came to pass that sons of fire courted and wooed the daughters of ice, and settled down to start families with them.

They had many children, diverse in form and kinds. There were many peoples born to ice and fire, and I will not name them all. However, among their children is the land, which came into being when the fire cooled because of the ice. The sky too came into being, from all the steam and smoke that came from the union. Great rivers of water, lakes and seas, these too were the children of Ice as it melted and warmed.” The old man said.

“That is how the land, lakes and sky came into being.” The she-wolf said.

“What about the plants and animals?” The boy asked.

“I will tell you of these things. As I have said, ice and fire had a great many children, and those children went on to have more children of their own, and fire, ice, land, lake and sky we count among the oldest of our ancestors. As such great many peoples spread across the world, and they were very diverse indeed. Life itself spread across the world, with many branches. Plants were among the oldest. Small plants, such as grass and flowers, and great trees as well spread across the world.

Animals came in time too, some that fed upon the plants, and some that fed upon one another. Animals of all kinds were counted among the children of the world, and the people of plants and animals multiplied.” The old man said.

The young boy turned to the wolf.

“Is that how you got here?” The boy asked. The wolf looked at the boy and nodded, and then she spoke.

“The story of my people starts just as the old man has said. Those of my kin are counted among the descendants of the land, and of the trees and forests. The first of our kind were born to the forests, and we multiplied and spread across the world. My kindred are counted among many different tribes, Grey ones such as myself, Red far to South, White far to the North, and many others besides.

From the beginning the first of our kind has kept watch on all their descendants. Our ancestors are still with us, and they teach us the old ways. The ways of the forest, the hunt, and the ways of the four legged. Those are the ways we lived by long before your people came into being, and that is when things started to change.” The she-wolf said.

“When my people came to be?” The boy asked.

“Yes, and that is a story worth recounting as well.” The old man cleared his throat and continued.

“The story of our people young man starts like that of all others on this world. From the oldest of people, we trace our descent. We are a young people in this world, far older are the ancestors of the Wolf, and older still the trees and the land.

The land is the ancestors of our ancestors, and the peoples of the land have long been tied to us. We were hunters, and we knew the ways of the land and the water. We hunted for our food in the vast forests, fished in the lakes and seas, and foraged for plants of all kinds.” The old man said.

“It was in those days that we knew you as brother and sister, and we looked upon one another as equals. We were hunters, kin bound by blood and bone.” The she-wolf said. The old man nodded.

“There is an old story that tells of the bond between man and wolf. A Hunter was out on the trail, and got separated from his companions. He got lost in the woods, and traveled for days trying to find his way. He wandered into a strange area, and soon found himself growing hungry and tired. He finally sat down to have a rest, and fell into a deep sleep.

When he awoke, a large wolf was standing over him. He panicked and reached for his knife, but he had left it far away from where he slept. Besides, the wolf was already upon him, and he would have no chance of fighting off such a large wolf with his bare hands. He fully expected to die.

But the wolf did not strike, just starred. The hunter and the wolf met the gaze of one another, and saw deep into one another spirits. There, the two of them recognized kindred, and saw one another has being more alike then different. Both were hunters, both loved their families.

So it was that a ancient oath was made, and the wolf taught the hunter his ways, and the hunter taught the wolf in return. The two of them became like brothers, and went together wherever they went. The dogs with us today are the descendants of that old promise, though they are far removed from the ancestors of their ancestors.” The old man said. The she-wolf picked up the story.

“But that is not where it ended…” The she wolf-said.

Commentary;

This is in fact an older story I once wrote for a wolf anthology, but alas it was rejected. But it no small way, it has found a new home here. For that reason it does differ in form a little bit from the previous stories in this series. As I have explained before, some of this in inevitable, because the focus and perspective of each story is a little different. This one is told by an old man, and so his telling is different. There is also the she-wolf, and her perspective is also different, and so are her stories.

However, one of the reasons I am including this story in this series is because of the Altai mountains. In Razboinichya Cave, there was found a dog-like canid dated to about 33,000 years ago. It was determined through genetic testing that this canid was closer to modern day dogs than the ancestral wolves from which dogs descended from. The time range we are talking about in this chapter is from about 50 kya to about 30 kya, so I felt this was a fitting addition to this series.

Thanks for reading!

 

Sources, references;

Wikipedia (Altai Mountains)


Walking with the Ancestors Part 3-B

The two hunters slowly made their way across the steep mountain pass. The mountains rose up to their right, and over the precipice to their left, lay the forested valleys far below them. The winds blew across the exposed mountains, and the hunters wrapped themselves tighter in their furs.

The old ones of their village had told them stories about their ancestors, how one generation after another they had moved north in search of new more verdant lands. In the ancient days, the old ones had said, they had lived far to the south in lands warm and lush. But some had said that those lands had become too crowded, and there had not been enough food. Others had said that it was the sky that called to them, and they walked out of that land in order to find where the land touched the sky.

The first hunter turned to the second and smiled.

“Do you think we will be able to touch they sky soon brother?” He said. His younger brother smiled.

“This place is certainly as near to the sky as I have ever been.” The younger of the two replied.

“Yet, the sun does not seem any closer. It is almost as if we are farther from it now.” The older brother said.

“I would think so. The days are colder than I remember.” The younger brother confirmed.

Around the edge of the mountain, the older brother found new signs of their prey, tracks in the soil that covered the mountain. The older brother looked out to the mountains beyond. High above them shone the white capped peaks in the distance. He had always loved just looking at the mountains, as the green cloaks slowly gave way to white as they great peaks reached for the sky. The hunters were still firmly in that green cloak, and grass and trees spread out all around them.

The younger brother squatted over the tracks, and traced his fingers around them. The older brother smiled. His younger sibling had become quite the tracker since becoming an adult just the winter past. He would never admit it, but he figured his brother was already a better track than himself.

“The horned one (1) passed this way not too long ago, it should be close.” The younger brother said.

“Then now is the time for quiet.” The older brother said, and he set out moving slowly towards the trees around the side of the mountain. The horned ones loved the higher parts of the mountains, and they were fast and sure footed even on the steepest of slopes. If the brothers hoped to get one with their spears, they would have to catch it unaware. Otherwise, it would sprint across the mountains and they would loose it.

The younger brother took the lead as they tracked the horned one, but luck was not in their favor. As they emerged from some cover, the horned was was there waiting for them. The younger brother’s eyes went wide as he saw the animal, and he realized a little late that the two of them were blocking it’s only way of escape. The horned one charged, and the younger brother jumped out of the way. He tumbled to the side, and pan iced as his feet hit loose gravel instead of grassy soil. He lost his footing and the ground slid out from under him, and in another heartbeat you would have slid right off the edge of the cliff.

The older brother had had a little more warning than his sibling, and had an easier time dodging out of the way of the horned one as it quickly ran off beyond their reach. The older brother had seen his sibling fall, and he ran to catch him before he went over the edge of the cliff. When his own feet hit the gravel, he had to struggle to keep his own footing, and realized with horror that he could not have reach his brother in time.

He shouted as the younger man went over the edge of the mountain.

The young man lost sight of his brother as he passed over the ledge and tumbled down the long slope that followed. For that much he had to be thankful, as a sheer drop would have killed him instantly. He slid down the slope as the gravel tore at his skin and only made him slide faster. He had little time to look around before the slope came to a stop among much larger rocks. Pain racked his body, and he heard a loud snap as he collided with the rocks and tumbled some more before coming to a stop against the side of a cliff.

Pain shot through his left leg, and blood ran down his forearms. He took one deep breath, and then another. He cried in pain and longing for his brother.

“I am going to die here.” He sobbed to himself. He struggled to keep his eyes open, but the blackness slowly took him.

When he next opened his eyes, he realized instantly that he was not in the same place he fallen. He could hear voices around him (2), but he did not understand them. He glanced around, and came to the conclusion that he was in a cave, and that there was a fire somewhere near by. Light and shadows danced across the cave around him.

There were faces as well, and these frightened him. The faces he could see were broad, with large ridges above the eyes. One of these faces however over him, staring right back into his eyes. He had heard the other hunters tell stories about these people. The other hunters had said they were strong and could rip a person in half. Some said that they were stupid, and could not even speak. All they did was crush things, and some of the hunters even said they would catch people and eat them.

Tears ran down his eyes.

“Please don’t eat me.” The young man said. The face above him seemed startled for a moment, and then smiled. That is when the young man realized that the face over him was probably a woman.

She touched him low on his body, and more pain streaked through his body. She had touched his left leg, and he know knew it was surely broken. The woman started to touch other parts of his body, and he was pleased when only a few areas were really painful. The woman muttered something that he did not understand.

He titled his head to the right, and saw that a good portion of his chest had been wrapped in leather, and some kind of crushed plant. He was happy when he saw his right arm rise, and he gestured at the wraps.

“Did you do this?” He said, tapping his chest. The broad face started at him for a long moment. Then she tapped a finger on his chest. He flinched a little bit. He took the gesture as a ‘yes’.

The world faded in an out over the next few days. With each turn of the sun, those days turned into weeks, and then into months. The young man met many others as they came and went from the cave, and one day at a time he started to pick up little bits of their language. He learned their ways, and over time started to love them.

He also came to love her, the first face he had awoken to. He wanted to stay with them, with her, and so he stayed.

And in time a child was born…

Notes;

(1) From Wikipedia (Altai Mountains), it is stated that the climate in the Altai mountains has been relatively stable since the last ice age. As a result, it has also retained a lot of ice age fauna (minus mammoths and other extinct creatures). I figured the Siberian Ibex would make a good choice of prey.

(2) There is still some debate about whether or not Neanderthals could actually speak in the same way we do. I took a creative liberty in this case.

Commentary;

I could have fleshed this one out a lot more had I chosen too. You might think it has a bit of an abrupt ending, and this is deliberate in this case. I had to bring it to an end, otherwise it would have quickly exceeded an easily readable size. I do try to limit the length of my individual posts on this blog. Also, if you really like this kind of story, may I recommend Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. While I am not a huge fan of the later books in the series, I highly recommend Clan of the Cave Bear for a good all around neanderthal/human story.

You also might have noticed that this one departed from the general format I have used for the previous stories. I really considering making it another story of a boy sitting around a fire with an old woman. But it some ways, I felt that that format would be a little too much “once upon a time” in feeling. I choose this one because this is not a story of some far off time before humans or any kind of people to witness it. I actually share part of my genetic code with some of the fossils that were found in that cave. My ancestors were actually there, actually experienced what it was like in those days. And so I choose to make this a much more “in the moment” kind of story.

Who knows, maybe I am just conjuring up buried ancestral memories from some young hunter buried deep in my genetic code?

Maybe not.

All the same, I hoped you enjoyed this one, and hope you join me in the next chapter of this series as we explore another site and another of my distant ancestors.

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources and references;

Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel.

I also referenced many of the sources from part A of this chapter for inspiration.


Walking with the Ancestors Part 3-A

In the last part of this series, we started to talk about Homo erectus, one of our earlier hominid ancestors, and the first one to go global. H. erectus emerged in Africa about 2 million years ago, and from there spread out across the globe. Skeletons have been found in Africa as early as 300,000 years ago. Homo erectus skeletons are found in Asia from 1.8 mya ago to about 300 Kya. In Europe we find skeletons dating from about 800,000 – 300,000 years ago.

The reason these skeletons are so important is because H. erectus is ancestral to two populations that are very important to this series; ourselves, Homo sapiens, and a cousin population in Homo neanderthalensis. The Neanderthals,

There is a lot I am skipping over here, and plenty of details that have to be omitted for brevity reasons. Suffice to say, that somewhere around 350Kya, Homo sapiens emerged out of Africa and began their long trek across the globe. At the same time in Europe and into East Asia, arose the Neanderthals.

Which brings us down to about 50,000 years ago, in a world covered in ice (at least in the north), and with two kinds of hominids living side by side in Europe. It is here we get to the real marrow of this series, where I actually start talking about my own ancestors, as revealed through genetic testing. At this point it is important to make a distinction about what kind of genetics we are talking about, because there are three “kinds” that are often discussed in these conversations; Y-chromosomal DNA, Mitochondrial DNA, and autosomal DNA.

Y-Chromosomal DNA is pretty self explanatory, as it comes from the Y Chromosome found in males, and is used to trace a straight line through ones paternal ancestry, father – grandfather – great grandfather and so on.

Mitochondrial DNA is also pretty straight forward, it is extracted from the DNA of mitochondria, the “power plants” of our cells. This type of DNA is inherited through the maternal line only, mother – grandmother – great grandmother. You get the idea.

I have had testing done on both of the former two types, but I am not going to talk about these just yet. Because, I will be talking about Autosomal DNA, which comes from the autosomes, the first 22 bases pairs of chromosomes in our genetic material. It excludes chromosome 23, because this is is often to referred to as the “sex chromosome”. In males, it is a Y, in females an X. This chromosome is not included in autosomal testing.

The reason I will be talking about autosomal first is because in many ways it is the most comprehensive. While the Y testing can tell me about my paternal line, and the mitochondrial can tell me about my maternal line, autosomal DNA can tell me about my ancestors across ALL lines in my ancestral lineage. This is done by comparing my own DNA with other known samples, either from living people or from DNA extracted from ancient skeletons. I’ll let you guess which we will be talking about.

Which brings us to my first 2 matches, from 50 kya and 30 kya ago. And as you may have already guessed, these matches are from a Neanderthal and a Denisovan skeleton. The location is in the place now known as the Denisova Cave, in Altai Mountains, Siberia.

Altai

(Location Approximated)

Really, in so many ways the Denisova Cave is a tale of three different hominins. (2) Modern humans on one hand, and also the Denisovans and Neanderthals. Seriously folks, I have included plenty of links at the bottom for those that are curious. Wikipedia is good for a general overview of course, but it’s real value lies in the bibliographies on these pages. Those can lead to other websites as well as academic literature on these subjects.

I digress a little bit. In this cave were found numerous fossils from all three hominins, and a few of these fossils still contained viable DNA, which was tested and eventually released publicly. Most of the DNA for the Denisovan came from a small bit of bone, a part of the pinkie. It had once belonged to a little girl. The Neanderthal DNA came from a toe bone, and it belonged to a female.

Once the data was made available to the public, it was possible to compare to that of living people. People like myself. That is how my own DNA, and my own ancestry came into the picture; behold!

50 kya Altai Neanderthal match; 2.47 % (1)

30 kya Altai Denisovan; 1.93%

And that is where I am going to leave this part of the series. Seriously folks, there is a ton of information out there if you are curious about these things. Of course, I am always open for questions and will answer them to the best of my ability.

Thanks for reading!

Notes;

  1. Using “total shared DNA” calibration in the Ancient Calculator tool.

  2. A note on language use. You will see me vary between using the term “hominid” and “hominin”. Both are in fact accurate in this sense, but “hominid” refers to the family Homindae, which includes the great apes. It is a “wide use” term, whereas “hominin” is more restrictive, and refers mostly to the members of genus Homo, that is humans and our closest relations.

Sources and references;

Essentials of Physical Anthropology: Discovering our Origins. By Clark Spencer Larsen

Wikipedia (Human Evolution)

Wikipedia (Neanderthals)

Wikipedia (Denisovan)

Wikipedia (Upper Paleolithic)

Wikipedia (Altai Mountains)

National Geographic 

BBC

The Guardian


Walking with the Ancestors Part 2-A

You know what, I am feeling generous, so you folks get a two-fer today! (Plus I am well into the future parts of this series, and really want to move things along!)

The Ape-Descendants (1)

It would be too much for me to detail the long history of life on Earth, over the billions of years from the first organisms to now. Such a topic is way too complex for a simple blog series such as this one. Suffice to say, that over much of the history of this planet, organisms have grown and thrived. Many of these were simple organisms, single cellular, but over time new and diverse forms of life came to inhabit Earth. Plants, animals, trilobites, dinosaurs, and eventually mammals and primates. It was from the latter that our own ancestral lines started to evolve and diverge, and about 8 million or so years ago, the earliest members of our ancestors start to appear in the fossil record.

Our story starts with those that are called the Pre-Australopithecines. In the book by Larsen, he highlights the finds of two fossils, one from Sahelanthropus tchadensis which was found in modern day Chad, and which dates from 7 – 6 million years ago. The brain was small, and much more like that of apes. That being said, it did have a couple of traits that have more in common with more modern hominids. First, it is likely that it was bidpedal, walking upright just like ourselves. Second, it had non-honing teeth. Whereas apes have teeth that have a habit of sharpening themselves, this first fossil did not, which is a characteristics of our own teeth. Several of the remains found with this fossil indicated it lived in a forest by a lake.

The other fossil found in Kenya, Orrogin tugensis, has been dated to about 6 million years ago. The remains of several different skeletons were found, most of which have indications of early traits of our own species, but also some that are reminiscent of apes. Several partial femurs indicate bipedalism, and the canines were once again non-honing. However, a hand phalanx had traits like those of apes, a curvature typical of those apes that live in trees. The indication too, that this creature evolved in a forest setting.

There were also fossils found in Ethiopia, Ardipithicus kadabba and Ardipithicus ramadis, both of which were found in an area were many other important fossils have been found, and have contributed to our knowledge of early hominid ancestry. These two fossils date from about 6 million years ago to about 4.5 million years ago. Just like the two earlier fossils, these two also showed mixed characteristics of both hominids and apes. Their fossils indicated bipedalism, and non-honing chewing, but also plenty of ape like traits that indicate a life in a forest setting.

As we move through time from about 4 million years ago, to about 1 million years ago we come across the Australopithecines, represented by hundreds of fossils spread across at least seven different species, all of which belong to the genus Australopithecus. I will not take the space to detail all these fossils, as there is plenty other of material out there for those that are interested.

However, in general as we move through time from 8 millions years ago, to about 1 million years ago, there is evidence of several changes moving through the fossil records. Brains increase in size slightly as we get closer to Homo. In addition, bone move away from more ape-like traits, towards those we see in our modern species. In addition, the teeth of our ancestors lose the honing trait that is present in apes.

Many of the same trends continue as we move from the Australopithecines to the earliest members of genus Homo. Our brains continue to increase in size, and overall the size of our faces and teeth shrink. By the time we come to about 2.5 million years ago, the first of our own genus has appeared side by side the Australopithecines, and which shares many of the same traits as those early fossils. The name of this being was Homo habilis and it was the first species in our ancestral lineage.

Homo habilis is the first hominid species associated with the use of stone tools, the so called Oldowan Complex stone tool culture, though it is possible that the contemporary species, Australopithecus ghari may have also used the stone tools. As such A. ghari is often seen as the ancestor to Homo habilis and the bridge between the early Australopithecines and the genus Homo.

Homo habilis in turn gave rise to Homo erectus, and this is where our ancestry gets really interesting. For in Homo erectus we see the first globalization of our species, as it is the first of Homo to leave its cradle in Africa, and spread across the planet. As we move closer to our own modern species, we see a continued decrease in the size of our teeth, face and jaws. Our brains continued to increase in size, as did the browridge on our skulls. There is also a generalized overall increase in our body size, the lengthening of our legs and height. Between 2.5 and 1 million years ago, stone use continued to grow and develop, and we also see the first controlled use of fire. The development of fire only aided early humans in the expansion across the globe. And it was from Homo erectus that our own modern species would evolve.

But I want to stop here. I know that this post might be a little more dull. There have been entire books written about the development and evolution of our species, and I have only recounted the smallest selection of that here. I don’t want to go on and on with endless listings of fossils and species, because that is not the point of this post. There are some resources below, and I can always provide more if you want to read more about all these topics.

The point is, in these earliest fossils we can see very distant branches of my own family tree. It is amazing to think that in the hills and valleys of Africa, are the fossils of beings to which I am related. In the shape of my skull, the size of my brain, and the hands with which I am typing, all of those things connect me back to those earliest times. I wonder if I would still be able to type this if my hands were still curved, likes those of apes? I mean, I have seen apes type just fine, but it is something that is amazing to think about.

Plus, through all the literature and artist renderings, I can kind of understand what life might have been like for the earliest of hominid ancestors. In some way, I can almost reach out and touch them. That is what all the research is about, that is what this series is about. It is about reaching out to my ancestors, and remembering them. It is about telling their stories and bridging the gap between our world and theirs. It is about learning from them, and that even after millions of years, we still carry them with us.

In our thoughts, in our blood, in our bones, and in our hearts.

So far, I have really just been “setting the stage”, so to speak. In the next chapter, we really get into the meat of this series. I will be talking more about Homo erectus, and of course, neanderthals and modern humans. That will be where my own story starts to unfold.

Thanks for reading!

Notes;

1) This is more of a pun, inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In reality, apes and men are more like “cousins”, as we share a common ancestry.

Sources, references;

Essentials of Physical Anthropology: Discovering our Origins. By Clark Spencer Larsen

Wikipedia (Human Evolution)