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BREAKOUT

September 25, 2016

History, alas,
Ignored her story too long,
But, at last, no more.

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I consider history my primary preoccupation other than dreaming. Although it was my college major, I was never trained or accomplished enough to explore musty original sources and the other obsessions of the academic. It, nevertheless, has been my escape. During grammar school, I always sat by the bookcase containing the class history books. There, instead of participating in school activities, I would spend my time huddled with Julius Caesar, Squanto, Ivan the Terrible, Robbispeare, Lincoln, Hypatia, J. Pierpoint Morgan and whoever else turned up that day. After school, I usually spent at least an hour sitting by myself in the Principal’s office paying for my incorrigible behavior.

Over the years, my history infatuation eventually focused on a few areas and eras. They are:

I. Breakout

About 70,000 years ago give or take 10,000 years a group of hominid’s, estimated as between a few hundred to a few thousand, crossed out of Africa and into Eurasia somewhere at the southern extremities of what is now the Red Sea. From this tiny band, almost all humans living outside Africa descend.

This group of humans met with a host of other humans who had left Africa in waves over the previous two million years. The humans our intrepid band met, many years later were given various names by wise men who study and opine on these things. Based on slight differences in bones, and DNA the wise men named these groups of humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans, Erectus, Physically modern humans (picture us but supposedly dumber) and others. Our merry band bred with their predecessors accepting those genes beneficial to them. Those who managed a gene here and there that was not beneficial died out before they could do too much damage to the gene pool. Eventually, these new humans spread throughout the world in what appeared to be lightning quickness supplanting all the diverse humans who had freely roamed the world for millions of years before they arrived.

Why?

Some say they were smarter. Others say it was because they knew how to talk better. And some even believe, it is because they got religion. But, I do not think so.

So again, why did they prevail over all the other humans roaming around?

Fish. They ate fish. No, that is not a joke. Of all the humans in the world at that time, this group that left Africa 70,000 years ago and their cousins they left behind were, as far as we know, the only humans who ate fish. Whether it was something genetic like lactose tolerance that separated them from the others or a sudden urge to experience the delight of an oyster sliding down one’s throat, I do not know — but it happened and everything changed.

This Ichthycultural revolution was every bit as transformational as the Agricultural revolution that occurred 60 or 70 thousand years later. In fact, there is some evidence that these people lived in fishing villages in South-East Asia and Indonesia 45,000 years ago. 30,000 years before settled villages appeared in what is now southern Turkey.

For about two million years, the ocean shore was a desert for Hominids and other Great Apes. The salt water was undrinkable and except for shorebirds and their eggs and coconuts, there was precious little food. The estuaries were saline, undrinkable and dangerous. The larger rivers and fresh-water lakes, at least in Africa, were killing grounds, haunts of crocodiles, hippos, and apex predators. It is no wonder the hominids, like the great apes, restricted themselves to the uplands and for the humans the forest edges and the grassland where they could scavenge, kill now and then and with their more upright posture see danger and escape.

I suspect that for the most part those humans in South-east Africa that first discovered the wonders of the seashore travelled back and forth between the shore and the upland like the California coastal Native Americans did many thousands of years later— moving to the upland during migrations of the vast herds of ruminants or the flowering of favorite fruit trees. There they probably met other humans and bred with them.

Unlike the upland nomads, the fish eaters tended to spend far more time in relatively the same place. Greater food resources and stability allowed the development of many of the traits that allowed these people to survive and prevail. They tended to be healthier. The stable food sources encouraged them to remain in the same area longer and their tribal or family populations increased to units larger than the small bands of the upland nomads. Stability allowed more children to survive than those forced to travel more often and whose food sources were more uncertain. This, in turn, resulted in longer nursing and greater social interaction producing more complex language abilities. Even religion changed, I suspect. Early hominids unable to fully distinguish their consciousness from the word around them projected consciousness onto their environment assumed each thing, trees, animals, rocks and so on had its own consciousness (spirit). They also were fascinated with birth and death which they did not fully understand. Our fish eaters, due to their more stable residence, began to distinguish those spirits close by from those further away and perhaps to assign those nearer a less malevolent aspect.

Of course, perhaps the most significant difference between the fish eaters and the other hominids was their emerging sense of place and ownership. To the nomadic humans, who travelled in very small bands, conflict over a carcass may have caused demonstrations of dominance and aggression but rarely killing. We have little evidence these humans engaged in systematic violence and some evidence that they even shared habitations in the same caves.

For the fish eaters, however, mussel beds and tide pools were stationary and merely scaring off another band for the night was insufficient and more formal violent behaviors developed.

As the fish eaters developed their society along the South-Eastern African coast about 100,000 years ago, a seminal event was occurring far to the North — the ice age began. As the ocean water began to be trapped in the great glaciers, the oceans receded opening more mussel beds and tide-pools for the fish eaters to exploit and a coastal highway for them to migrate along when their local food sources played out or their tribes grew too large and had to split up and migrate. Eventually, they crossed out of Africa somewhere at the southern edge of the Red Sea which at that time was a series of large salt lakes and brackish streams.

After that, they moved with startling quickness along the edge of the Indian Ocean reaching Australia within 15000 years. Along the way, they travelled along the estuaries and streams and mated with the upland tribes that they met especially the so-called fully modern humans (upland Nomads that did not eat fish) sharing their genes for good or ill.

Meanwhile, the upland humans were not faring so well. Living in small bands, often too small to permit out breeding, they often suffered genetic maladies. Also, as the glaciers expanded diminishing their habitat, they were more and more forced up against the habitats of the far more numerous fish eaters and their progeny many of whom had intermarried and returned to their nomadic migratory ways until, as far as we know, the last remaining group of Neanderthals ended up living by the sea in a cave somewhere in Portugal, trying unsuccessfully to survive on seal meat.
(Next: The first centuries.)

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