6.24.2005

roots

You know I'm writing about the ancient world right now. These are the people who built the earth's first cities, who figured out how human societies could govern themselves, provide for each other, communicate, travel, and create on a large scale. On my timeline, humans have already made the shift from the hunter-gatherer to the agricultural society (the single greatest change in human history), and are now building complex, self-conscious societies.

Many modern people could imagine these ancients as their ancestors. It would be impossible to know, of course - no one can trace their family line back to 1500 BC. The chances of one family going back in a given region for 4,000 years is incredibly remote. Still, the series (which my book will be part of) will have international distribution, and it might be fun for a kid reading in, say, Japan, Peru or Greece to imagine his Yayoi, Moche or Minoan ancestors.

At the same time, by coincidence, I'm reading about the prehistoric world - early humans and what they can teach us about ourselves.

Leakey (or Lewin) is a marvel at illuminating the connection between these hominids who lived two million years ago and us, today. He always refers to the early humans as "our ancestors" and to humans as "our species". Maybe all paleoanthropologists do this, but I don't usually encounter it.

We are all one species. We are all human. No matter how our ancestry has diverged in the tiny period of time since records have been kept, we all share one common ancestry. The bits of DNA that give rise to different physical appearances are incredibly minute, some tiny fraction of a percent, compared to what all humans have in common.

This might sound corny, or incredibly obvious, I don't know. But Origins Considered is making this fact come alive to me.

The world I'm writing about seems so long ago. So much has happened on the earth since Pompeiians painted their frescoes, since Zapotecs played tlachtli. But in terms of Leakey's work, Pompeii was yesterday, or maybe 7:00 this morning.
Our planet is some 4.5 billion years old. Primitive life here began almost four billion years ago; the first life forms on land appeared some 350 million years ago; the first mammals, 200 million years ago; the first primates, a little more than sixty-five million years ago; the first apes, thirty million years ago; the first hominids, about 7.5 million years ago; Homo sapiens, perhaps 0.1 million years ago.
Way to feel insignificant - but in a good way.

3 comments:

Sass said...

I still fondly remember one of my elementary school science teachers taking us out into the school yard and having each of us bury our hands in the soil as he explained that the soil we held had seen millenia of change, parts of it organic matter, parts of it different rocks from when the glaciers moved through, etc. moving through the geological history of the land--it definitely made me feel insignificant but "in a good way"--something like going to church without the guilt.

zydeco fish said...

I feel insignificant when I read about astronomy as well. Talk about feeling like a tiny piece of dust!

L-girl said...

Yes! I guess the word for it is humbling.