A Fateful Ape
A dramatic shift in Earth’s climate brought forth a fateful ape. A later climate drama ushered that ape’s demise. The beginning owed to geology, the end to technology. Recorded human history spanned a mere 6,000 years.
A consistent system of dating helps chronicle the human experience. Earthers were extinct by what the natives would have reckoned to be the year 2100 CE (common era) in the dominant Gregorian calendar: gone by the dawn of the 22nd century CE.
The exact year of the fall is uncertain. Small communities and a few hardy souls may have survived for a few decades after the fall. Recorded history faltered 3 decades before the fall, as global industrial civilization crumbled.
For consistency, dates are given in years “before the fall” (BF); TBF for thousands of years BF, and MBF for millions of years BF.
This looking-back is an inverse accounting from traditional date-keeping, which progresses forward into an indefinite future. For instance, Earthers denoted the 1st (their last) century as the 21st century. The traditional year 2000 translates to 100 BF.
A reverse chronology creates a countdown. Sometime “early” in an era, century, or decade has a higher number than sometime “late,” which happens at a lower date.
The calendrical use of before-the-fall aptly shows how close to extinction events occurred, and so sharpens the perspective on the vectors of consequence wrought by Earth’s clothed apes.
A drier world meant forests gave way to woodlands and savanna in many places. For arboreal animals, it was an invitation to be on the ground.
The solicitation was met by speciation among the apes in Africa. Some of those creatures that came down from the trees became hominids: more humanoid than anthropoid.
Naturally nomadic and randy, dispersal and interbreeding were common among hominids. There were dozens of hominid lineages. Many died out. The clade that carried on were hominins: the evolutionary branch of apes that begat humans (Earthers).
The basic body plan of hominids was established 18 million years before the fall. The multitude of species that arose were variations on that theme.
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A sharp drop in global temperature 115 thousand years before the fall was the start of sporadic ice ages. The last glacial spell Earthers experienced ended only 12.5 TBF.
Earth is on the cool side of the habitable zone provided by the Sun. Icehouse has been more frequent than hothouse.
It was not temperature but its dramatic flux that spurred evolution and altered life’s prospects on Earth, especially for land animals. Mass extinctions result when climatic shifts rapidly ratchet beyond what can be adaptively tolerated. Such an event spelt the end of the apes who technologically self-destructed.
Human self-annihilation was not the first time that organisms created a mass extinction event. 2.45 billion years before the fall, marine cyanobacteria infused the sea surface and atmosphere with oxygen, slaughtering anaerobes who could not tolerate O2. In part, human self-extinction also involved polluting the atmosphere.
Animals arose 890 million years before the fall. The first animals to drive their own demise were sea worms, 542 MBF. These persistent wigglers ravaged marine microbial populations and then succumbed to their exuberance. Despite the doom, the upshot had an upside. Life’s recovery saw a profound proliferation of new species.
Dinosaurs emerged when the world was warm. This was roughly 242 MBF. The balmy climate owed partly to the configuration of continents. Much of Earth’s landmass was concentrated into the supercontinent Pangea.
Pangea’s partitioning resulted in isolated populations. Distinct biomes emerged, engendering speciation among all sorts of life. While some lineages of dinosaurs supersized to be fearsome beasts, one diminished to become the exquisite creatures called birds.
The apes that called themselves human began their identifiable journey 8 MBF, as grasslands expanded and the Himalayas began their ascent.
A critical factor driving plant evolution was the availability of water. This was apparent in root system development, and in the ascension of flowering plants (angiosperms). Compared to their predecessors, angiosperms concocted numerous innovations to better manage both water and herbivory.
The angiosperm most astonishingly adapted to aridity was grass. The grains that would become integral to the human diet were the seeds of grasses.
Aridity also shaped hominids. In 2 notable instances, cycling from a wetter climate to a drier one spurred revision in the hominid family tree, as well as a decided dip in numbers.
The 1st instance occurred ~2.7 MBF. For over 3 million years, the dominant hominids had been in the genus Australopithecus. They gave way to Homo when the climate dried.
Australopiths were short, stocky, and hairy. In appearance, their direct descendant was Paranthropus, who was a quite robust ape. Despite its tough build, paranthrops died out, unable to handle wrenching climate changes.
That left Homo, the genus from which humanity sprang. With its taller, slimmer build, Homo was more wiry than other apes. More surface-area-to-volume improved heat dissipation. The effect was better body water conservation.
Other adaptations accompanied greater gracility. From 7 MBF, hominids had become more mobile by walking upright. Walking got even easier as this creature evolved. The stride of Homo refined from its ancestors.
Coupled with stamina, hominid bipedalism broadened foraging range. This out of necessity. The high-quality plant foods once abundant in dense forests were more dispersed over woodlands and fields.
As forests gave way to grasslands, hominids lost body hair and gained sweat glands attuned to cooling. These adaptations improved shedding heat and keeping a safe body temperature while on the move.
The enhanced ability to sweat had a downside: it elevated the risk of dehydration. That vulnerability made hominids more reliant on freshwater than their primate cousins, and far more so than desert-adapted animals such as sheep, goats, and camels. A goat may shed over 1/3rd of its body water before expiring from the loss. A hominid was at risk of death by dehydration with more than a 10% water loss.
Hominid dietary flexibility was a defense against dehydration. In dry biomes, these creatures sought foods laden with water, such as succulent fruits.
While Earthers evolved to use less water despite more profuse sweating, they still needed to drink water. That need drove hominid migrations and set where these creatures settled.
The 2nd instance where a spike in aridity prompted hominid revision happened 1.75 MBF. Homo erectus arose, along with several similar subspecies. Its taller, lither skeleton was nearly indistinguishable from modern humans.
Homo erectus was the first hominid to leave Africa. This ape’s confidence showed through its technology. The first double-sided hand axes were made by H. erectus.
Global climatic patterns are influenced by Earth’s solar situation, which occurs in extended cycles. Earth’s orbit has a 95,000-year cycle. Earth’s tilt cycles over 42,000 years, and its distance from the Sun every 21,000 years.
Though aridity spurred speciation, wetter climate abetted dispersal, as freshwater was more readily available. The hominid diaspora went intercontinental as this wanderer trekked throughout Asia, Europe, and beyond: taking to rafts and boats to traverse the seas.
Though they mostly ate plant foodstuffs, hominids were omnivores. Meat was harder to come by, and raw meat carried the risk of disease from microbes. Yet hominid yen for meat was strong, despite it being less digestible. Meat became more of a staple than with other apes.
All sorts of animals, from insects on up, were feasted upon when they could be caught or killed. Then there was another meaty delicacy close at hand.
Cannibalism was widespread. “Cannibalism was, at one time, practically universal; it has been found in nearly all primitive peoples,” wrote 2nd-century-BF historian Will Durant.
Hominid taste for meat had an unintended consequence: zoonotic diseases. Pathogens used to other animals developed their own taste for these furless apes.
Earthers eating other animals provoked period plagues. Epidemics repeatedly decimated human populations.
Hunting was a hard-earned skill, demanding both tactics and technology. Men took to hunting as a sporting challenge.
Meanwhile, women were key to survival. Women were the repository of dietary knowledge: which plants, and which parts of them, were nutritious. The acumen essential to the eventuation of agriculture owed to women.
Given their nurturing nature, women were the ones who first mastered medicine: learning the magic of herbs and turning that sagacity into lore that was passed through the generations. Until their demise, Earther’s primary medicines were from plants.
During Earther’s salad days, women wise in the ways of Nature were especially esteemed. Among them arose enlightened shamans and the cultivation of the earliest spiritual practices.
Though agriculture was to irrevocably alter hominin sociality, conjure economics, and have grievous planetary consequence, cultivation was nothing novel. Amoeba bred bacteria to eat. Ants tended aphids. Termites farmed fungus.
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Hominids diverged from other apes owing to neoteny: retention of traits in adults previously seen only in the young. Chordates – the phylum of vertebrates – arose over a half-million years BF via neoteny. This adaptive technique also produced flightless insects, salamanders, and birds.
Neoteny shifted hominid descent onto a distinct track in numerous ways. It produced a larger ratio of brain to body size, lighter bones, a flattened and broader face, larger eyes, smaller nose, smaller teeth and jaw, and glabrousness (hairlessness).
Human limbs and body posture were indicative of neoteny. Limbs were proportionately short compared to torso length, longer leg than arm length, a juvenile foot structure, and upright stance.
Many styles of bipedal locomotion are possible. With their pelvis and leg structure, many birds are as apt to hop as walk – though not all. The fastest animal on 2 legs when Earthers were extant was the range-dwelling ostrich, the biggest flightless bird.
Other apes took longer strides by rotating their hips. Hominids evolved to longer legs and minimal hip swivel when they walked.
Though other apes might walk on 2 legs, an assist with the arms – knuckle walking – was used to gallop on the ground. Hominids ran on their feet alone. Though taking shorter strides, swinging arms optimized efficiency.
For Earthers, walking was excellent exercise, both physically and mentally. Walking elicited a holistic harmony of balance that attuned attention, thus naturally facilitating heightened awareness.
Humans evolved to need considerable physical activity – especially walking – to stay fit. By contrast, other apes may spend their days lounging about and retain their health.
Neoteny typically results in larger individuals with longer lifespans. It did so with humans.
Neoteny also begat birds. They were a notable exception in size and longevity. To gain flight, an essential facet of avian evolution was downsizing. Small size has its price. Most birds live only 3 decades or less.
One of the hallmarks of mammals is their fur. A thick coat of hair provides protection as well as abetting tactility. For mammals, glabrousness – lack of hair – was often associated with neoteny. To facilitate heat dissipation via sweating, hominids went furless.
To accommodate their subterranean lifestyle, the sand puppy of east Africa also lost its fur, albeit retaining scattered tactile hairs over its body.
Becoming glabrous was one of several neoteny traits for the sand puppy. Another was eusociality, which is the epitome of cooperative sociality. The fate of Earthers would have been different had they the inborn comity of sand puppies.
Neoteny in hominid genitals was seen by lack of a penis bone (baculum) in males, and, in females, a forward-facing vagina and the presence of a hymen. These physical changes altered the emotional context of sex for these creatures: arousing an intimacy in the act.
Neoteny affected perception of bodily beauty, especially in males. Female faces that were more juvenilized were most appealing to men. Less neoteny was unattractive, regardless of age. As women chose a mate largely on concerns other than physicality, neoteny was not nearly as looming an issue in male allure.
Aesthetics were important to hominins. While beauty was always a subjective appreciation, behind it was biology.
What the senses let in is a limited range. What the mind casts as appealing depends upon its proclivity in patterning. Both are biological processes.
The female was the epitome of human aesthetics. Beauty there had 2 facets: the face and overall body shape.
The face of a strikingly beautiful woman had some combination of larger-than-average eyes, higher-than-average forehead, fuller-than-average lips, shorter-than-average jaw, and smaller-than-average chin and nose. Unblemished skin, high cheekbones, and lustrous hair completed the picture of beauty. All of these are features of physical health and are indicative of fertile mating potential.
Symmetrical faces were more attractive than unsymmetrical ones. Men with high symmetry typically had more sexual partners and induced more copulatory orgasms.
Bodily symmetry was an honest signal of health. All animals consider symmetry appealing, rightly taking it as a cue to the ability to produce robust offspring.
The admired hourglass figure of a woman was an evolutionary refinement. “The sex appeal of rounded female buttocks and plump breasts is both universal and unique to the human primate,” observed 1st-century-BF primatologist Carole Jahme.
In its origins, clothing was a form of ornament, not a cloak against the cold. Regardless of epoch, women asked of clothing not to cover their nakedness, but to suggest or enhance their physical allure.
The teats of other female apes swelled only to store milk. The abiding plump bosom of women was an anomaly among primates. Only human females developed a pronounced bust before menarche and retained it post-menopause. As such, breasts did not indicate fertility.
Nor was a woman’s bosom indicative of lactation. Bigger breasts did not necessarily make more milk.
The symmetry of bosoms suggested fitness. Fluctuating breast asymmetry was higher in women with larger teats, and in women without children.
Unlike men, women first stored fat in their buttocks, not around the abdomen. Hence, the waist of a healthy woman was slimmer than her hips. Other female primates did not deposit fat on the rump. Female gorillas were exemplary in keeping a skinny bum while putting on abdominal girth, as hominid males did.
Female breasts had a straightforward appeal to males. For the derriere, there was an angle to the appreciation. The admiration of an hourglass figure on the back side owed to a geometric inclination.
A 45.5° incline from rump to spine was most attractive to men. Not coincidentally, it also provided the ideal angle to let pregnant women balance their weight over their hips. Further, this angle was beneficial in giving birth, which was naturally done standing up. Standing facilitated dilation, blood flow, push, and the descent and rotation of a birthing baby.
Oddly, late-century birthing was done with the woman lying down. Such was exemplary of the cognitive decline of Earthers in the centuries preceding their demise.
Late-century humans abandoned many sensible health practices. For example, through lack of exercise and chronic overeating, most 1st-century-BF moderns were fat, many to grotesquerie. Their lives were debilitated and shortened as a result.
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Animal species exhibit distinct precocial and altricial strategies which define development. The ability of parents to provide care corresponds with the selected strategy.
The mothers of precocial birds lay protein-rich eggs, thereby letting their young hatch in the fledgling stage. Such chicks can protect themselves from birth. These birds have relatively little post-natal involvement with their offspring.
Altricial bird eggs contribute fewer nutrients in the pre-natal stage. Eggs are smaller. Hatchlings need attention and protection.
Altricial avian young typically grow faster than the precocial sort. This quick development shortens the nestling stage, when predation risk is highest.
In the instance of mammals, large adult body size favors production of big, precocious young which develop via a longer gestation period. Large young are associated with small litter size, an extended reproductive period, and migratory behavior. This strategy was apparent in many ungulates (hoofed creatures), which lived on the move. It also applied to hominids, who similarly foraged over large ranges.
During their descent, hominids became increasingly altricial, albeit with a unique combination of precocial and altricial development. In terms of potential lifespan, physical development was relatively quick. More prominently altricial mammals, including many rodents, remain largely immobile and undeveloped until grown to near the stature of their parents.
In contrast to their precocial physicality, humans were very altricial in their mental faculties. Youth were slow to gain acumen. This coincided with their gregarious nature. Prolonged childhood allowed more time for bonding among peers, as well as education in the practical arts and folkways.
Sociality was not a cultural acquisition. It was instead sewn into the hominin psyche. Being an altricial animal meant that sociability was innate.
The need to belong was strong. Family formed the social nexus. Its bonds were the core from which clans formed, and through which cultures grew.
As with other apes, males suffered a pronounced dissonance in their sociality. Men had an inclination for independent action that ran counter to the harmonious productivity that came from cooperative endeavor.
The continuing psychosocial contention of individualism versus communalism was a key aspect of how human groups evolved. This schism sharpened in the last age, when environmentally destructive technology heightened the importance of cooperation. (The ‘last’ age is what people in post-industrial societies called “modern” times.)
Like other apes, hominids were typically exogamous (outbreeding) and patrilocal (a woman joining a man’s extended family). A few prehistoric groups were matrilocal, with women as the social nexus. Such clans were extant in central China, southern India, Oceania, and in the Amazon basin.
Besides fostering genetic diversity, exogamy encouraged intergroup exchange. Exogamy also mitigated conflict by establishing bonds between groups.
Historically, disputes over resources or territory were smoothed over through the exchange of nubile females. At the top rungs of the sociopolitical ladder, the practice of affinity via strategic marriage often secured peace among conflicting tribes. Such alliances through marriage bonds were common among the European upper social stratum from Roman times, 2 millennia BF, into the last age.
Among primates, hominids were unique in females having menopause: living well beyond their reproductive years. Only females had menopause.
A few other mammals had menopause. All were social and altricial. Orca and beluga whales had menopause.
The evolutionary intent of menopause was extra assistance in rearing offspring. Menopause facilitated women being grandmothers, and so help raise children, especially sons.
Male children were less hardy than females, and naturally foolhardier. With their independent spirits, boys were in greater need of social education than girls.
Exogamy and menopause intertwined in humans. Owing to exogamy, women gained greater social status the longer they were in a clan.
Without menopause, older women might potentially compete with younger ones for mating partners. Menopause eliminated that potential social friction.
Elephants were a contrast to Earthers. Elephant societies were segregated by sex. Elephants had male exogamy.
For elephants, menopause could not confer greater social status, nor did friction among females for mating exist. Hence, elephants did not undergo menopause.
As with other organisms, viruses propelled hominid evolution. ~30% of adaptive alterations in human proteins came as viral contributions. The human inclination toward addiction for enhanced pleasure stimulation was a viral implant.
Hominids lost physical strength in their descent. Flexibility in muscle mass afforded surviving on spotty food supplies. Many rodents also have this adaptation.
Stamina took precedence over strength and speed. This adaptation was both physical and mental.
Humans were capable of unnatural will. As with other beneficial traits, mental fortitude lessened in late-century Earthers, when mental illness became the norm.
Mental adaptation corresponded with bodily changes. The hominid mind refined in the eon of evolution that culminated in humanity.
A more vivid imagination compensated somewhat for physical diminishment. This was apparent in the progress of hominid technology.
Another association with neoteny was altered sociality. Animal domestication repeatedly resulted in neoteny, as dogs illustrated. Hominid neoteny also sponsored sociability.
Greater gullibility in hominids fostered group cohesion and somewhat lessened their aggression. People were generally bad at detecting deception. Most were readily led by comforting beliefs. This was apparent by how religions of fantasy became so ubiquitous among Earthers.
Human gullibility had a decided drawback, which was shown by contrasting people to dogs in their treatment of lying.
In a revelatory experiment, dogs were taught to follow the advice of an unknown person in choosing which of 2 bowls contained a hidden treat. These dogs then watched another unknown human move the treat from one bowl to the other while a 2nd unknown person watched. In other instances, the 2nd person was not present for the switch.
After this, the dogs ignored human advice if the person had not been present when the bowls were switched. They knew the person did not know which bowl had the treat.
More significantly, dogs knew when they were being lied to and acted accordingly. They ignored those who deceived.
People were much more likely than dogs to follow the advice of a known liar: children especially so, but even adults. Voting trends in democracies amply document this bizarre inclination.
Gullibility proved a severe weakness. People readily succumbed to deception and were susceptible to manipulation. Natural optimism and deferring to authorities who misled them retarded collective response to the dynamics which ushered self-extinction.
A key capability enhancing hominid survival was improved dexterity, courtesy of a hand precisely proportioned with an opposable thumb. This innovation arose more than 3 MBF, which – by no coincidence – is when the Stone Age began. Manual dexterity improved with later hominids, affording technological advance as far as their minds were able to creatively find solutions.
Human optimism emanated from their belief in the power of imagination, which people treasured. Albert Einstein, the most renowned modern physicist, once strangely said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The combination of cherished imagination and greasy gullibility proved to be a damning detriment to humanity.
Early hominids lost the sharp canine teeth of their ape ancestors, taking the bite out of biting an opponent as an armament. There was compensation at hand.
Around 2 MBF, numerous traits evolved which endowed greater facility for fighting. Among them were stronger wrists and a hand that could form a fist. This turned a delicate musculoskeletal system into a club.
Contemporaneously, the faces of males diverged from those of females. The facial bones that differed most were those in men that strengthened protection in the face from injury during fist fights.
The function of the fist as a weapon was reinforced by bipedality. Unlike other primates, apes and hominids walk on their heels. This body posture lends extra punching power. It also suggests that physical conflict was instrumental in hominin descent.
The evolutionary development for physical fighting shows that hominid gregariousness was leavened with viciousness. This seeming maladaptation signified the social struggle that haunted men throughout their existence: overcoming selfishness.
Upper body strength declined in later hominins, taking the punch out of fisticuffs as a decisive advantage. Rhetoric was the ready substitute, though that was often not as persuasive as it should have been. Many men still found brawling and war preferable to argument and negotiation: a trait which was never bred out, as the legacy of countless conflicts throughout man’s history amply testified.
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Many animals use tools. But hominids seemed especially fond of them. Comparatively, other primates used tools sparingly. A host of adaptations – improved dexterity, loss of muscle mass, enlivened imagination, inclination to craftwork – enhanced hominid ability to survive via tools and weapons.
Hominids made wood tools for many millions of years. ~3.4 MBF they took to shaping stone: flint knapping. Thus marked the onset of the Stone Age.
Working stone was not easy. The shaping of rock tools by hand required considerable skill. Over time, the work progressed from scraping suitable stones to crafting well-hewn spearpoints. Several hominid species practiced this craft. Cultural interchange was likely.
Hominids mastered fire by 1.9 MBF. This crucial step came after extended observation and experimentation. Other animals also used fire, as did some plants. Certain seeds sensed fire as a way to figure that ground cover may be minimal, and so be the best time to sprout.
Controlled heating enhanced survivability against the elements (and large predators), and heightened health by unlocking the nutrients trapped within plant cells: a feat which chewing alone could not. Fire also extinguished the risk of microbial infection from eating meat, though not the health hazard of its overconsumption.
Much later, fire afforded the forging of metals into otherwise unattainable shapes. This was a late innovation. Metalworking only emerged 11 TBF. It independently developed around the world.
It is no coincidence that metalworking arose shortly after agriculture became the global modus operandi of survival. Hard soil left wood tools wanting.
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Earther technology often showed cleverness in its creation but environmental disregard in its application. In the end, humanity committed mass suicide in thrall to terrible technologies they knew to be destructive.
Being smart is a skill in creating outcomes which foster survival. The earliest technologies did just that. Implements made digging up roots easier and mashing them possible, rendering foods more nutritious. The ability to cook food took nutrition to a new level, enabling health to a degree unimaginable before.
Mastery of fire exemplified the nature of technology: the ability to envision possibilities for manipulating the environment to achieve a productive facility. The genesis of technology is the mind, not the hand. Dexterity is only as good as the mental acuity behind it.
The artifacts hominids created were statements of mental condition. Weaponry most dramatically exemplified this. An increasing ability to commit mass murder did nothing to give men pause as to what they were doing to the comity essential to sustain societies beyond relying upon brute force.
Genuine social progress would have culminated in the banning of technologies rather than their continued deployment. Few Earthers made this point, and very few technologies were banned. The Collective were wooed by technologies which were obviously bound to have deleterious effects along with their convenience.
To grasp significance, technology must be examined in its social and environmental contexts. The impacts of technology expanded with their advance: a compounding of consequence in every sense.
Earthers’ self-destructive ways owed to cultural values which reflected their belief systems. We turn next to examine the human mind and the cultures which their minds imbued.