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Wednesday, November 18, 2009
History ... Science ...

I was watching NOVA on PBS the other night, and it was about human evolution (the final episode of a 3-part series). So I now know that there was once many different types of humans, “hominids” as the biologists call them, just as there are a variety of different apes and monkeys. These included the Neanderthals, “homo erectus”, and the dwarf “Hobbits” in Indonesia. Our specific species, “homo sapiens”, was a late starter. By the time we evolved in Africa, the other hominids had already expanded beyond Africa, into Europe and Asia. But for a long, long time, we all lived together in Africa.

And then, around 200,000 years ago, the weather started changing; things got colder and drier. Some of the various human-like species disappeared, and our group didn’t do so well either. After 60,000 years of things getting cooler and dryer, a lot of Africa became barren. There weren’t many places left that could sustain homo sapiens; scientists analyzing the diversity of our DNA estimate that because of this, our gene pool traces back to only about 600 people! So it probably got down to only a thousand or so homo sapiens on the face of the Earth, at some point. The other millions of homo sapiens who had descended over many thousands of years from earier versions of hominoids had all died!

Hmmmm. If that’s true, then the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible wasn’t that far off the mark with its Noah’s Ark story. OK, so the real extinction crisis was from too little water, as opposed to too much; and it didn’t quite get down to only two surviving people (Noah and his wife). BUT STILL, only 600 humans able to reproduce – that’s not much more than a trading village. And actually, there’s still a water angle to the real “Noah” story. Research shows that at the peak of this drought, when the homo sapiens species was at its low point, our ancestors survived by moving to caves at a spot in Africa along the Atlantic Ocean. Humans needed meat, along with supplemental roots and berries, in order to meet their daily caloric needs (which are relatively high because our brains are so energy-intense). However, there were no longer any herds of roaming animals left to hunt in Africa.

So these enterprising humans, bent on survival, went down to the shoreline and learned how to eat clams and mussels. And even that wasn’t easy – shellfish is famous for becoming harmful or deadly if it sits too long in a warm environment. Obviously there was no refrigeration back then! So our ancestors had to learn how to watch the tides (they were helped in that by observing the moon), as to get the stuff when it was fresh. (I’m not sure that they knew what a “month without an R” was back then).

Hmmm, so it was to much dry land that got us into trouble, and the ocean (a place with too much water) that saved us. This is basically the inverse of the Noah story. Quite interesting!

After another 50 thousand years or so, things got better and homo sapiens got their mojo back. Then they started out to conquer the world; and conquer it they did! Once again, it’s not unlike what the Hebrew Bible tells of, with the tribes of Israel defeating the worshipers of strange gods (e.g., Baal) and eventually conquering the “Promised Land”. Mortal combat may have been involved in the real wanderings of homo sapiens, just as with the ancient Jews in the Torah. The Neanderthals were doing quite well up in Europe, until we pesky homo sapiens came along. Modern DNA analysis confirms that our ancestors did not inter-breed with them. Instead, we kept to our own tribes and competed with them for food and water, developing better hunting technology (e.g., lighter and more accurate spears).

NOVA, being politically correct as required by PBS, did not suggest that the homo sapiens turned their technology on their fellow hominids. But other writers have had that thought, and there is some evidence for it. If so, then war and genocide is not a modern invention! And the Bible, however unintentionally, thus does tell us something about how humans, as we know them, turned the planet into their own “Promised Land”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:08 pm      

  1. Jim,
    The program you mention would indicate that the human race is much more resilient than a lot of people would think it is. It seems to have survived in one way or the other (different species of humans) for longer than a lot of people tend to think–and have adapted to a great many different kinds of conditions.

    As to the Bible stories: I recently heard (on a different PBS program) that the Noah's Ark story goes back to a Sumerian myth about their gods. So here is one story that evidently preceded the Old Testament story.

    Another story (if one can call it a story as this one is the most basic concept of the OT) that goes back to before Old Testament times is that of God himself. As far back as the second century Clement of Alexandria spent considerable time in his writings refuting the "story" that Moses had gotten the story of the One God from the Greeks. Tells you that as far back as two thousand years ago some people were thinking that the story of the "one god" was plagiarized.

    Another comment I would make on the contradictions in the Noah's Ark story you point out (drought where water should be and vice versa): In parts of the Middle East (particularly in Syria) religous ideas were never taken to be "the truth"; rather, religious ideas were considered to be allegorical so that all kinds of contradictory concepts could be contained in a story and still "make sense."

    One other point I'd like to make: I've had occasion to read through a great deal of the OT and was, frankly, taken aback by its violence. Some of the stories in the OT are equal to anything that one can see on TV today. (I found myself saying "Good Grief!") So when one thinks of it, it should not be surprising that so much of religious teaching, (dare I say thought) supports violence.

    But somehow one would think that religion (whichever one in the world) would have a different "take" on violence; one would think that it would be religion that would promote peace. Talk about contradictions!

    Comment by MCS — November 20, 2009 @ 10:10 am

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