These People Are Your Relatives
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.