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A longer dawn

Thomas C. Leonard, emeritus journalism professor and University Librarian emeritus | December 13, 2009

This has not been a kind year for the living, but the vanished human race has been appreciated as never before.  The early hominid Ardi  (Ardipithecus ramidus), discovered and explained by Berkeley researchers, was front page news.  “Becoming Human” (PBS), the three-part Nova series last month, put Ardi (4.4 million years old) in the continuum of early man that ends with the last great Ice Age, 12 thousand years ago.  DNA analysis, refined carbon dating, genetic shift and other new metrics are producing a new library on our ancestors.  Nicholas Wade surveyed multiple migrations out of Africa in Before the Dawn (2006).  This is a good place to go for the latest thinking about the demise of the Neanderthals and the rise of homo sapiens.  It appears that we inherited none of the DNA of the vanished race, but that they may have followed some of our rituals.

An arc of human culture, from around 36,000 to 12,000 years ago, appears more glorious as we learn more about it.  The cave painters of France and Spain left more than 20,000 images, exciting the art world during the past century as the charging horses, bison, and lions became common knowledge.  The Cave Painters (2006) by Gregory Curtis and The Cave and the Cathedral (2009) by Amir Aczel sum up the latest discoveries and the long wars within the academy to make sense of the images.  There is room to enlist if you wish to rely on ethnographic models from contemporary hunter-gatherers, or the wiring of the human nervous system, or New Age beliefs.

Cave painters and other ancient artists fashioned objects that remained powerful through cycles of civilizations.  The caves were renewed with new images after gaps of thousands of years and the cultural tradition remained intact for twenty thousand years, as if nothing had happened.  No library has kept a cultural tradition safe for even a thousand years, and the move of information from ink to bits makes it less likely that we will ever do as well in preservation as the first modern humans.  The only certainty is that we will be reading more about them.

Comments to “A longer dawn

  1. I love this passage from The Cave Painters: “I did not know at the time that in aeons past this appealing landscape had also attracted groups of the earliest humans. Their ancient campsites, usually found under the rock overhangs in the limestone cliffs that line the rivers, have kept archaeologists happily busy since they were first discovered more than 150 years ago.”

  2. Did you know that Donald Johanson and colleagues, named Lucy after the Beatles song, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds? They played the song over and over in celebration of their find

  3. Interesting article, thanks
    Ardipithecus ramidus, which they say revolutionizes our understanding of the earliest phase of human evolution. Female skeleton, nicknamed Ardi, is 4.4 million years old, 1.2 million years older than the skeleton of Lucy, or Australopithecus afarensis, the most famous and, until now, the earliest hominid skeleton ever found. Hominids are all fossil species closer to modern humans than to chimps and bonobos, which are our closest living relatives.

  4. The journal Science has named the discovery of Ardi its Breakthrough of the Year 2009. “The monumental find predates ‘Lucy’ — previously the most ancient partial skeleton of a hominid on record — by more than 1 million years, and it inches researchers ever-closer to the last common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees,” said the editors.

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