Tag Archives: Out of Africa

Mythopoeia

16 kya. Only in the last half century or so, with the discovery of the Big Bang, has it been possible to do something like Logarithmic History. But human beings have been speculating for far longer than that on the origins of the universe, and we’ll have plenty of occasions here to pay tribute to earlier prescientific cosmologies. (The early chapters of the book of Genesis are probably most familiar to modern readers, but there are lots of others.)

Strikingly, it may be possible to reconstruct a very early interconnected set of myths concerning the world’s origin, which date back to long before the invention of writing (or farming, for that matter). This is the argument of Michael Witzel and some of his associates, set forth at length in Witzel’s ambitious recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Witzel is an expert on the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts)* who has grown interested in wider comparisons. He argues that there are striking parallels in myths told in traditional societies across a wide expanse of the Earth. These parallels are not the product ancient archetypes welling out of the collective unconscious, but are survivals of a coherent narrative of the origins and destiny of the universe, the gods, and humans, which was told tens of thousands of years ago. This mythological narrative includes the following:

In the beginning: primordial waters / darkness / chaos / ‘nonbeing’

A primordial egg / giant

A primordial hill / island / floating earth

Father Sky and Mother Earth and their children, for four

generations, defining Four Ages of creation

The Sky is raised up and severed from the Earth

The Sky and his daughter commit incest, and the hidden sun’s light is revealed

The current generation of gods defeat or kill their predecessors.

A dragon is slain by a culture hero

The Sun becomes the father of humans (later on, of chieftains), and establishes their rituals

The first humans, whose evil deeds lead to the origin of death and the great Flood

A generation of heroes and the bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero

The spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins

In the future: final destruction of humans, the world, the gods

A new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss

Some elements of the myth seem to have an astronomical significance. The revelation of the sun seems to be especially associated with the winter solstice, and the slaying of a dragon, bringing rain, with the summer solstice. The Greek version of the Four Ages (and its Near Eastern antecedents) is clearly related to the movements of stars and planets.

Witzel labels the resulting mythic narrative “Laurasian mythology,” because its major elements are found mostly in Eurasia, the Pacific, and the New World. It contrasts with a Gondwanan mythology found Africa, New Guinea and Australia. (These two mythologies happen, by chance, to correspond roughly to the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana.) Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology overlap to some extent. Stories of a great Flood sent to punish unruly or sinful mankind, leaving only scattered mountaintop survivors to repopulate the world, are found in both.**

Witzel proposes that Laurasian mythology dates all the way back to an Out Of Africa expansion 40 thousand years ago. I have chosen fairly arbitrarily to introduce it instead at a later date. But it can’t date any later than the main settlement of the Americas by the ancestors of Amerindians.

* Witzel’s work on the Vedas has led to his being dogged by a lot of Hindu nationalists who are outraged that he thinks Indo-European languages came from outside India: an occupational hazard for the Indo-Europeanist scholar.

** When I did fieldwork several decades ago among the Ache Indians in Paraguay, they were curious about the way the story of Noah seemed to fit with their own flood story.

Australian Megafauna and the Sixth Great Extinction

The Earth has been through a number of mass extinctions. On Logarithmic History, we covered the five greatest mass extinctions during the month of March, and into early April.

For all these extinctions, the most likely cause is some kind physical catastrophe: either drastic changes in the chemistry of oceans and atmosphere, or extraterrestrial events, like asteroid strikes or, just possibly, gamma ray bursts.

Competition with other organisms is another major cause of extinctions. Usually this is just part of a steady background level of extinction. But occasionally competition – and extinction rates – increase dramatically, as during the Great American Interchange five million years ago, when South American animals were swamped by North American invaders with the establishment of the Isthmus of Panama.

Earth now seems to be going through another episode of mass extinction, a Sixth Extinction. This time the cause is very different: a single species, Homo sapiens, is playing an overwhelming role. Although the pace of extinction has accelerated over the last few centuries, you can make a case that the sixth extinction began a long time ago, with the expansion of modern humans out of Africa. Australia in particular sees the disappearance of a unique fauna that evolved over more than a hundred millions of years of isolation. This fauna included monster wombats, giant kangaroos, huge flightless birds, and a marsupial version of a lion.

australiamegafauna
All of these – all land mammals, reptiles, and birds with mass of more than 200 pounds – seem to have gone extinct about 46,000 years ago, when humans first crossed the sea to settle the island continent. (Sea levels were lower then, and Australia was connected with New Guinea, but still isolated from mainland Asia.) This is not settled science. Some researchers think climate change was to blame. But I think the evidence in the case of this and later mass extinctions is strongly in favor of humans as the major agent of extinction. This is one more reason to treat the advent of our species as one of the major evolutionary transitions, comparable to the evolution of complex cells, or multi-cellular life.

Two roads diverged (2)

50 kya. The broad outlines of the spread of Homo sapiens have been established for several decades now: origins in Africa, expansion out of Africa around 50-45 thousand years ago. But we’re still arguing about the details. For example, based on recent recalibrations of DNA mutation rates, it looks like the African/non-African split might have happened more like 100 thousand years ago than 50 thousand years ago. So the ancestors of non-African (or non-sub-Saharan-African) H. sapiens might have occupied a homeland somewhere north of the Sahara between 100 and 50 thousand years ago, before spreading through Eurasia. North Africa is one possibility. The Near East, maybe the Arabian peninsula, is another possibility. The (or “a”) homeland might be (gated, sorry) underwater, under the Persian Gulf (sea levels were lower then). Both possibilities have some archeological support. There might have been multiple homelands, and multiple expansions – south through Arabia and along the shores of the Indian Ocean, and north through the Levant and into Europe.

A recent (2015) redating of archeological finds suggests that the Levant-to-Europe corridor was part of the story. A modern stone tool technology, coming from Ksar Akil, just outside Beirut, Lebanon, dates to about 50,000 years ago, a little before much the same technology appears in Europe, in the form of the Upper Paleolithic.

And many other “details” remain to be resolved: What did interbreeding with non-sapiens mean for the evolution of H. sapiens? And just what advantage(s) did H. sapiens have that allowed him (us!) to replace other species? Stay tuned for more on Logarithmic History

African Exodus

Our genus, Homo, left Africa by 1.8 million years ago. But our species, Homo sapiens, left Africa much later, around today’s date, about 120,000 years ago. This skull dates back to then.
skhul5
Skhul 5 was found back in 1935, in Israel, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, buried together with a boar mandible. It looked for a long time like the skull came late in the day, and might represent a transition from Neanderthals to Homo sapiens. But now that date has been moved back, thanks to the development of new dating techniques (thermoluminescence, electron spin resonance) that finally broke the 40,000 year limit for Carbon 14. Skhul 5 now looks like a representative of an early movement of Homo sapiens out of Africa. But the skull also has some Neandethal-like features (check out the “Neanderthal bun” at the back of the skull) and could have hybrid ancestry.

Until recently it looked like this and other very early Homo sapiens outside Africa were a side branch that left no descendants – think Leif Erickson, not Columbus – with the real move coming later. But recently there has been a recalibration of DNA mutation rates that suggests that the split between African and non-African branches of H. sapiens happened closer to 100,000 years ago than 50,000 years ago. And there have been discoveries of stone tools with African affinities in the Arabian Peninsula, in the United Arab Emirates (Jebel Faya, 125 kya) and Oman (106 kya). It may be that when Homo sapiens left Africa 125,000 years ago (perhaps across the Red Sea to Arabia, rather than across the Sinai), they spent a long time isolated in a corner of Southwest Asia before much later expanding more widely.

Mythopoeia

16 kya. Only in the last half century or so, with the discovery of the Big Bang, has it been possible to do something like Logarithmic History. But human beings have been speculating for far longer than that on the origins of the universe, and we’ll have plenty of occasions here to pay tribute to earlier prescientific cosmologies. (The early chapters of the book of Genesis are probably most familiar to modern readers, but there are lots of others.)

Strikingly, it may be possible to reconstruct a very early interconnected set of myths concerning the world’s origin, which date back to long before the invention of writing (or farming, for that matter). This is the argument of Michael Witzel and some of his associates, set forth at length in Witzel’s ambitious recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Witzel is an expert on the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts)* who has grown interested in wider comparisons. He argues that there are striking parallels in myths told in traditional societies across a wide expanse of the Earth. These parallels are not the product ancient archetypes welling out of the collective unconscious, but are survivals of a coherent narrative of the origins and destiny of the universe, the gods, and humans, which was told tens of thousands of years ago. This mythological narrative includes the following:

In the beginning: primordial waters / darkness / chaos / ‘nonbeing’

A primordial egg / giant

A primordial hill / island / floating earth

Father Sky and Mother Earth and their children, for four

generations, defining Four Ages of creation

The Sky is raised up and severed from the Earth

The Sky and his daughter commit incest, and the hidden sun’s light is revealed

The current generation of gods defeat or kill their predecessors.

A dragon is slain by a culture hero

The Sun becomes the father of humans (later on, of chieftains), and establishes their rituals

The first humans, whose evil deeds lead to the origin of death and the great Flood

A generation of heroes and the bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero

The spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins

In the future: final destruction of humans, the world, the gods

A new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss

Some elements of the myth seem to have an astronomical significance. The revelation of the sun seems to be especially associated with the winter solstice, and the slaying of a dragon, bringing rain, with the summer solstice. The Greek version of the Four Ages (and its Near Eastern antecedents) is clearly related to the movements of stars and planets.

Witzel labels the resulting mythic narrative “Laurasian mythology,” because its major elements are found mostly in Eurasia, the Pacific, and the New World. It contrasts with a Gondwanan mythology found Africa, New Guinea and Australia. (These two mythologies happen, by chance, to correspond roughly to the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana.) Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology overlap to some extent. Stories of a great Flood sent to punish unruly or sinful mankind, leaving only scattered mountaintop survivors to repopulate the world, are found in both.**

Witzel proposes that Laurasian mythology dates all the way back to an Out Of Africa expansion 40 thousand years ago. I have chosen fairly arbitrarily to introduce it instead at a later date. But it can’t date any later than the main settlement of the Americas by the ancestors of Amerindians.

* Witzel’s work on the Vedas has led to his being dogged by a lot of Hindu nationalists who are outraged that he thinks Indo-European languages came from outside India: an occupational hazard for the Indo-Europeanist scholar.

** When I did fieldwork several decades ago among the Ache Indians in Paraguay, they were curious about the way the story of Noah seemed to fit with their own flood story.

Australian Megafauna and the Sixth Great Extinction

The Earth has been through a number of mass extinctions. On Logarithmic History, we covered the five greatest mass extinctions during the month of March, and into early April.

For all these extinctions, the most likely cause is some kind physical catastrophe: either drastic changes in the chemistry of oceans and atmosphere, or extraterrestrial events, like asteroid strikes or, just possibly, gamma ray bursts.

Competition with other organisms is another major cause of extinctions. Usually this is just part of a steady background level of extinction. But occasionally competition – and extinction rates – increase dramatically, as during the Great American Interchange five million years ago, when South American animals were swamped by North American invaders with the establishment of the Isthmus of Panama.

Earth now seems to be going through another episode of mass extinction, a Sixth Extinction. This time the cause is very different: a single species, Homo sapiens, is playing an overwhelming role. Although the pace of extinction has accelerated over the last few centuries, you can make a case that the sixth extinction began a long time ago, with the expansion of modern humans out of Africa. Australia in particular sees the disappearance of a unique fauna that evolved over more than a hundred millions of years of isolation. This fauna included monster wombats, giant kangaroos, huge flightless birds, and a marsupial version of a lion.

australiamegafauna
All of these – all land mammals, reptiles, and birds with mass of more than 200 pounds – seem to have gone extinct about 46,000 years ago, when humans first crossed the sea to settle the island continent. (Sea levels were lower then, and Australia was connected with New Guinea, but still isolated from mainland Asia.) This is not settled science. Some researchers think climate change was to blame. But I think the evidence in the case of this and later mass extinctions is strongly in favor of humans as the major agent of extinction. This is one more reason to treat the advent of our species as one of the major evolutionary transitions, comparable to the evolution of complex cells, or multi-cellular life.

Two roads diverged

50 kya. The broad outlines of the spread of Homo sapiens have been established for several decades now: origins in Africa, expansion out of Africa around 50-45 thousand years ago. But we’re still arguing about the details. For example, based on recent recalibrations of DNA mutation rates, it looks like the African/non-African split might have happened more like 100 thousand years ago than 50 thousand years ago. So the ancestors of non-African (or non-sub-Saharan-African) H. sapiens might have occupied a homeland somewhere north of the Sahara between 100 and 50 thousand years ago, before spreading through Eurasia. North Africa is one possibility. The Near East, maybe the Arabian peninsula, is another possibility. The (or “a”) homeland might be (gated, sorry) underwater, under the Persian Gulf (sea levels were lower then). Both possibilities have some archeological support. There might have been multiple homelands, and multiple expansions – south through Arabia and along the shores of the Indian Ocean, and north through the Levant and into Europe.

A very recent (2015) redating of archeological finds suggests that the Levant-to-Europe corridor was part of the story. A modern stone tool technology, coming from Ksar Akil, just outside Beirut, Lebanon, dates to about 50,000 years ago, a little before much the same technology appears in Europe, in the form of the Upper Paleolithic.

And many other “details” remain to be resolved: What did interbreeding with non-sapiens mean for the evolution of H. sapiens? And just what advantage(s) did H. sapiens have that allowed him (us!) to replace other species? Stay tuned for more on Logarithmic History