These Peo­ple Are Your Rel­a­tives

Science Illustrated - - EDITORIAL - An­thony Ford­ham aford­ham@next­

They cared enough to sew thou­sands of tiny beads into their clothes. The peo­ple who sur­vived the last glacial max­i­mum, I mean. Why do I find that so poignant? That these peo­ple who lived in a time be­fore writ­ing, be­fore agri­cul­ture, and of course well be­fore con­cepts like ”towns” or ”cities”, nev­er­the­less had our same love of beautiful small de­tails? Maybe it’s be­cause those beads are phys­i­cal, quan­tifi­able ev­i­dence that mil­len­nia ago, a woman who prob­a­bly looked quite a lot like this wax recre­ation, took pride in her work. That she had the kind of fo­cus and ded­i­ca­tion to a com­plex, longterm cre­ative pro­ject just like many of us still do to­day. Her de­ci­sion to spend prob­a­bly weeks adding 3000 beads to her skirt is just... re­ally hu­man.

The peo­ple in our ice-age fea­ture (p.38) aren’t Ne­an­derthal. By 20,000 BCE, the Ne­an­derthal were all gone. These peo­ple liv­ing in the shadow of the great ice-sheets are ”anatom­i­cally mod­ern” hu­mans.

If you jumped in a time ma­chine, went back, stole a baby, then re­turned here and raised her as your own child... she would look hardly any di er­ent. Maybe a lit­tle shorter. Maybe with slightly thicker body hair. And no lac­tose tol­er­ance, of course.

But the thing is, we’re not like these lon­gago peo­ple. We are these peo­ple. Ev­ery liv­ing hu­man is a di­rect de­scen­dant of a per­son who bat­tled the ice tens of thou­sands of years ago. Ob­vi­ous? Sure. But it’s so rarely ac­knowl­edged: Your fam­ily sur­vived the big freeze - oth­er­wise you would not be here to­day. Some of the newer - or per­haps we should say, less an­cient - re­mains still hold read­able DNA. As our science im­proves, it may one day be pos­si­ble to find the ac­tual liv­ing de­scen­dants of spe­cific in­di­vid­u­als. Sure, some re­mains must be from lin­eages that did not sur­vive. Oth­ers will have mil­lions, even bil­lions, of liv­ing cousins. That’s be­cause the ice re­ally put a pinch on us as a species. The hu­man pop­u­la­tion may have fallen as low as just 10,000 ”breed­ing pairs” in those days of frost.

Even so, like you, I’m the di­rect de­scen­dent of a fam­ily that lived 20,000 years ago. Of course I am. I’ve al­ways un­der­stood that, in­tel­lec­tu­ally.

But those beads re­ally brought it home to me this is­sue. As did the thought of my long-ago aunt or even mi­to­chon­drial-grand­mother, sit­ting in a tiny bub­ble of light and warmth, sur­rounded by a vast pri­mor­dial wilder­ness. Just sit­ting, qui­etly and painstak­ingly stitch­ing tiny beads into a skirt. Why? For no other rea­son than to ex­er­cise an idea: that the beads will look nice.

Her work wasn’t about sur­vival. Her fam­ily - my fam­ily - al­ready had warm fur coats. They had thick moc­casins made from the fur of a bear they had per­haps risked their lives to kill. They had un­der­shirts made of flax. All these things were nec­es­sary. But not the beads. The beads were some­thing di er­ent. In a world of bare ne­ces­si­ties, beads are a lux­ury, a level of fine de­tail that says so much about what it means to be hu­man. Un­like other an­i­mals, we do not merely live to die, pass­ing on noth­ing but our genes. We can leave the idea of our­selves, and those ideas can last for ge­o­log­i­cal time.

Late on that cold long ago night, my an­ces­tor would have put aside her work, and set­tled to sleep wrapped in her furs. I imag­ine she felt a sense of sat­is­fac­tion - and maybe even an­tic­i­pa­tion. Be­cause she could look for­ward to the next evening, and her time by the fire once more, to con­tinue her work.

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