38. A quick transition: Long Evolution to fast Evolution

Chapter 4.       Fast Evolution



…things no longer move slow and take long. They move fast and change fast, and change yet again before you’re even caught up…

(transition from chapter 3)


We are playing a global endgame. Humanity’s grasp on the planet is not strong; it is growing weaker. Freshwater is growing short; the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on the land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish and fungi. For many species, these changes are already fatal. Because the problems created by humanity are global and progressive, because the prospect of a point of no return is fast approaching, the problems can’t be solved piecemeal. There is just so much water left for fracking, so much rainforest cover available for soybeans and oil palms, so much room left in the atmosphere to store excess carbon. The impact on the rest of the biosphere is everywhere negative, the environment becoming unstable and less pleasant, our long-term future less certain.

            Edward O. Wilson, A Biologist’s Manifesto for Preserving Life on Earth


Perspective on the pace of evolutionary change

We face a challenge of perspective here. We have just emerged from two rather lengthy chapters which required us to consider the long, long emerging of universe and life over nearly fourteen billion years (as the time slices called years are measured on the planet called Earth, but nowhere else). During the passage of each segment of the immensely long time during those fourteen billion years, relatively few things happened – even though today our telescopes plainly tell us the sum of it all is essentially infinite. Our minds cannot meaningfully grasp the immensity of such long time, since time began.


We now necessarily must move our minds to the very tip-tail end of those fourteen billion years, when the rate at which things happened began to speed up. Not by coincidence, the speeding up coincides with the appearance of modern humans on the earth about 200,000 years ago. For your information, as a percentage of Long Evolution’s 13.8 billion years, 200,000 years is 0.0014% (fourteen ten-thousandths of one percent of time since the big bang).


For the first three fourths of this time – 200,000 BCE to 50,000 BCE – we know almost nothing about ourselves. Archeologists have dug up some beads, jewelry, pottery, and of course crude metal weaponry. Compared to earlier stone tools and decoratives, these artifacts constitute de facto evidence of a colossal upward step of human sophistication in passing accumulated knowledge from each generation to the next. Primitive they may have been, but these early humans were bright learners – not all that much unlike the people we see walking, working (and voting) around us today. Think about that.


Finds such as these beads, jewelry, pottery, and weaponry 1) prove that during these 150,000 years our ancestors knew how to make such objects, and 2) taken all together, they reveal that humans had learned to trade objects mutually deemed “desirable” in multiple traverses over fairly long distances. Further, the practical necessities of trading, in combination with the simple symbolism inherent in decorative jewelry, invite us to infer that by the end of this period humans had created and commonly used that particularly human symbolic capacity called spoken language to such degree of complexity as the trading required. If you think about it, how could they not?


Then around 50,000 years ago things begin to get more interesting. A new thing began to emerge as the thinly scattered humans gradually increased in number, became less thin, and their scattered villages began to grow larger, more stable. The new thing was what we now call “culture.”


Human culture: a new agent of rapid change

If one goes looking for major patterns and highlights in the new slow-growing human culture during these past 50,000 years, three periods stand out. These are (approximately, of course): 1) the initial 39,000 years (i.e., 50,000 to 11,000 years ago), then 2) the next 6,000 years (11,000 to 5,000 years ago), and finally 3) the remaining, most recent, 5,000 years. The first two of these segments, totaling 45,000 years, are all “prehistory” because humans had not yet invented writing whereby “history” could be recorded. That didn’t happen until about 5,000 years ago, the transition time from prehistory to history.  One could of course justify other ways of slicing fifty thousand years, but let us now consider the case for these particular three in context of Fast Evolution. Each has something important to contribute to our understanding – if our mindsets are open.


“Something changed”:  50,000 to about 12,000 years ago

You will recall that human migration out of Africa resumed with new energy around 60,000 to 40,000 years ago – up the great rift valley, through the Levant, then branching west into Europe and east into Asia. Generally regarded as a “great leap forward,” this was a time when human culture began changing more rapidly than ever before.


Something changed around the early part of this period – we don’t know why, we have yet to reason and discover why. That “something” was actually a cluster of changes. This is the time when we humans began wearing clothes we made from animal hides. It is the time when we thought up better ways to capture hide animals – intellect-requiring creative techniques such as pit traps, deadfalls, and complex cooperative group hunting methods. Archeology reveals that we began ritually burying our dead. Colonization of Australia early in this period reveals that we mastered the building of boats and navigating by the stars.


That’s quite an accomplishment by any standard – would you trust your modern self to set out across an ocean that looks endless, in a boat you built yourself and with nothing but stars to guide you, in hope of finding land you have no way of knowing actually exists out there somewhere? We must wonder why:  what was it that changed to instill such intellectual advance, such confidence? Let us keep firmly in mind that the mental capacities of these ancestors were little if any different than our own; their brains were quite as large as ours, and they surely were motivated by many of the same drives and emotions that motivate their descendants today.


Human symbolic expression displayed new heights around 33,000 years ago when some of our ancestors painted the spectacular murals deep inside caves at Chauvet and Lascaux in the region which would someday be called France. As other modern human ancestors were fruitful and multiplied all over Asia, our old-uncle ancestor species Homo erectus declined and faded until one forgotten day, after one lonely death, this human line became extinct. In like manner, a mere 18,000 years ago, the aforementioned Homo Floresiensis – the “Hobbit humans” – died out on Flores Island in the Indonesian archipelago. Standing just over three feet tall with brain size similar to chimpanzee brains, these retrograde humans, evolved in the wrong direction, still used stone tools.


It has long been thought only about 12,000 years ago since modern humans reached the Americas from northeast Asia. Though this is still widely taught in schools, almost all scientific viewpoints on the topic are in great dispute. For example, dating of the Monte Verde site in southern Chile indicates that modern humans, from somewhere, were there as early as 18,500 years ago – perhaps just a little before the last hobbit expired on Flores. People probably got to Chile by crossing the Bering land bridge and then migrating all the way down the west coasts of the Americas – though this too is disputed because they also might have come on bamboo rafts or boats across the mighty Pacific.


In stark contrast and just inviting argument, stone tools found in the U.S northeast suggest Europeans crossed the north Atlantic between 19,000 and 26,000 years ago. Remarkably similar to tools made in Europe around the same period, these implements include a stone knife made of distinctive French flint. Such Atlantic crossing is by no means out of the question. This was the height of the Ice Age and some three million square miles of north Atlantic waters were frozen over, forming a solid bridge over which stone-age nomads easily could have traversed the narrowest point between the two continents. Their 1,500-mile walk quite feasibly could have been sustained by plentiful numbers of seals, penguins and seabirds including the pre-extinct great auk.


I invite anyone to compare and contrast old photographs of original Americans native to New England and eastern Canada (e.g., Algonquin; Wyandotte, Huron) with photos of those native to the American west (Apache; Sioux), and discover for yourself how much the taller, slender-faced northeastern tribes resembled Europeans in their build and facial features compared to the distinctly more oriental features of the western tribes. Facial bone structures and features contrast especially in native peoples such as Geronimo and Cochise (Chiricahua Apache) and the northeastern people seen at https://indianspictures.blogspot.com/2016/12/historic-photographs-of-huron-wyandot.html). Moreover, contrasts of North American tribal features with those of native peoples in the Amazon basin are just as dramatic.


The date(s) of human arrival(s) in the Americas keep getting pushed back by new evidentiary findings, but it is unlikely anyone will ever know the truth for sure. Some mysteries simply must remain mysteries.


The mystery gap around 12-10,000 years ago

In the interest of authorial honest disclosure I should share something a tad personal here. All my life I have harbored a natural deep interest in pre-history. As far back as I can remember, I was always intrigued by my own wondering about what came before the earliest human history we know of. Nor was this mere idle wondering – from my earliest experiences as a schoolchild encountering history for the first time, I felt what I can only describe as compelling desire to know what happened in the misty darkness before humanity’s oldest memories. And always, consistently, the curiosity was accompanied by a mild urgency, a sort of low-key anxiety. I’ve never understood it, there is no apparent reason for it – it seems to just come built into the mind that more or less gets me by.


In my early teens I first encountered the date “11,000 years ago.” I don’t recall its ringing any bell at the time, but when within just a few more years I fortuitously encountered the same date again, and again, I noticed. I now see those occasions as first glimmerings of significance recognized. During decades of reading and research that precede this writing I have encountered many scientific researchers and authors who, similarly intrigued by prehistory, share their prehistorical gleanings in books for you and me to read. Their individual interests are of course all over the place, from thousands to billions of years ago, but with uncanny frequency out pops the date 11,000 years ago. And not just in science;  the date shows up in multiple genres such as psychic phenomena and even near-death experiences. At this point in life, 11,000 years ago has been recurringly on my mind for nearly seven decades, and I know beyond doubt that it is indeed one of the most significant dates in all human history and prehistory combined. Let me tell you why.


The Black Sea, virtually landlocked northeast of the Mediterranean’s eastern end, is often said to have been “created” some 7,600 years ago when Mediterranean waters breached a land sill at the Bosporus and flowed in with a catastrophic swoosh which quickly filled the low-lying Black Sea basin. Much in scientific debate, as you would expect, is the 5,600 BCE date on which this happened. Some geologists claim it has happened before, that water has flowed both into and back out of the Black Sea basin.


Not easily verifiable, any hypothesized date on which this factually incontestable event actually happened could easily be wrong by several thousand years – but only in the direction of longer ago, because by 5,600 BCE human history was already being recorded. Since all best guesses on the Black Sea’s unknowable creation date are unavoidably iffy to begin with, my mysterious milepost of 11,000 years ago, though 3,400 years older than the hypothesized 7,600 years ago, is a feasible and entirely possible alternative date on which the event could have happened. So let me just mention here that other, undisputed, scientific evidence shows sedimentation on the Bosporus land sill began more than 10,000 years ago;  and it stands to reason that no such sedimentation could have been possible unless the Bosporus was already underwater. Still, experts nearly always differ on almost everything.


A large part of the academic geological community also continues to reject the idea that there could have been enough sustained long-term pressure by water from the Aegean to dig through a supposed isthmus at the present Bosphorus or enough of a difference in water levels (if at all) between the two water basins.

Black Sea deluge hypothesis


Indeed, we too doubt there could have been enough “sustained long-term pressure” by water from the Aegean to cut through the old Bosporus land dam. Anyway, who says it had to be limited to waters from the Aegean? Beyond question, regardless of when it happened, reason tells is that something had to cause a mighty surge of the Mediterranean’s waters – a surging tidal wave huge and powerful enough to pile up like a tsunami flooding across the Aegean and breaking through the Bosporus land dam. And how can we question it – it did in fact happen:  there it is, the Black Sea, and it’s full of saltwater. And the Bosporus channel leading into it nowadays averages 213 feet in depth (118- to 407-foot range), connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean as one. Something caused this great ditch to be dug.


And so we must look about in late prehistory:  can we find indications of anything that might have caused a mighty surge of the Mediterranean’s waters, piling them up so very destructively at its eastern end? Do human myths and legends from late prehistory offer any possibilities?

*          ©          *


…to be continued in one week…


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