Writing The Past Into Our Future

“For three million years we were hunter-gatherers, and it was through the evolutionary pressures of that way of life that a brain so adaptable and so creative eventually emerged. Today we stand with the brains of hunter-gatherers in our heads, looking out on a modern world made comfortable for some by the fruits of human inventiveness, and made miserable for others by the scandal of deprivation in the midst of plenty.”

This quote, by the world’s most renowned palaeoanthropologist Richard Leakey, is as instructive and holistic to who we are than any religion or world-view could ever claim to be. Namely because it is based on evidence, and the evidence is us. And, as a writer, this leads me to ponder the circuitous nature of literature and human nature, and the way one influences the other.

The science of palaeontology has made great strides in the last 50 years; it has helped sharpen the outline of human evolution enough to give us a paradigm of at least what we are. The species we belong to, Homo sapiens sapiens, is an African ape. We split off from our most common ape cousins, the chimpanzees, some six million years ago when we left our arboreal cradle and took to living in a mosaic of environments on the African plains. What initially set us on our way to humanity was our adaptation to bipedalism: we are an upright ape, unlike any of our cousins.

But walking upright did not instantly make us what we would recognize today as ‘human’. A well-preserved species of an Australopithecus ancestor of ours, the eponymous ‘Lucy’, was still, even as far back as 3 million years ago, still essentially a bipedal chimpanzee. It was the emergence of the Homo genus over a million years ago, and with hominids like Homo erectus and Homo habilis that we see a notable, crucial development taking place in our ancestors: the move towards larger brains. Over a 100, 000 ago the fossil record begins to exhibit signs of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. Yes, we were born somewhere in East Africa over a 100, 000 years ago and, you, dear reader, and I, share a common ancestor from that small group of ‘unusual apes’ with unprecedented brains.

We may have a lot of gaps left in our knowledge still to be filled. Questions such as what made us bipedal, what drove the evolution of our big brains, when and why did consciousness arise, and why did language evolve – remain largely unanswered and, potentially, unanswerable. But that is no excuse to shun the proud we must feel in our collective heritage. This is a question philosophers, artists and spiritualists have been grappling with for centuries: what is human nature and our place in the world? And for so long, they have been grappling in the dark.

We live in an era of unprecedented knowledge about ourselves. We might know more in the future but we have never known this much before. So what are writers doing with this knowledge? Here follows a simplistic argument. If we know, now, without a shadow of a doubt, that our species was born in Africa, around 100, 000 to 200, 000 years ago, in such a climate, in such an era; are we not to suppose that the essence of human nature was forged in that period, in that niche? I realize that this is over-simplifying the matter. The issue of language acquisition, the evolution of consciousness – two quintessentially human traits – are still hazy. But these scientific gaps in the knowledge ought to provide open opportunities for writers to jump in to illuminate our theorizing in a way only storytelling could.

Which begs the question: why are writers not jumping at this endemic opportunity?

There are only a handful of novels out there that directly deal with the times and climes that have made us. Most prominent amongst these handful are Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, and William Golding’s (author of The Lord of the Flies) The Inheritors. All of these works, as it happens (all seven of them – Earth’s Children had a total of six bulky novels in the series) are set in Upper Palaeolithic Europe, during the time when European Homo sapiens were painting the mythical cave paintings in Ice Age caves. In this era – some 30, 000 years ago – humans in Europe were living side by side with our very near relatives, the Neanderthals. Hominids who had adapted themselves to Europe’s harsh conditions and thrived majestically until bigger-brained humans came along and displaced them (although, you ought to know, if you are European, an average 2% of your genetic make-up comes directly from Neanderthals).

And, it has to be admitted perhaps subjectively, that these two sets of work are masterpieces in their own right. And terribly successful, the Earth’s Children series alone has sold over 60 million copies worldwide. And yet, examples of such novels, that directly tackle the rawness of human nature, are very few and far between (The Inheritors was published in 1955 and The Clan of the Cave Bear in 1981). The awe of our birth doesn’t seem to be appealing enough for writers. Why?

Why is this not a mainstream genre. Why are our shelves not filled with tales from our distant past, full of grand speculations, virginal landscapes, raw humanity – why are they, instead, filled with tales of vampires, bondage and terrorism? When Jurassic Park was published and made into a blockbuster film, investment in dinosaur palaeontology hit an all-time high, leading to greater knowledge and worldwide interest in the long-dead reptiles. Imagine what a prehistoric equivalent of Jurassic Park would to the study of our origins.

Inspiration and knowledge are locked in wonderful lock-step. Writers and scientists are as closely related as humans were to Neanderthals – but, as in any marriage, the commitment has to come from both parties. So writers: keep up!

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