Finally after ten years, I am close to publishing the heart-rending and fast-paced biography of Lucy. Written in the spirit of Jean Auel, this is the paleo-historic saga of our earliest ancestors as lived through the eyes of a female Homo habilis. Since Donald Johanson uncovered the tiny three-and-a-half foot clawless, flat-toothed Australopithecine, we have asked, Who is she? And how could she survive in a world of mammoth predators and unrelenting natural disasters she had no understanding about? This book answers those questions as well as more fundamental ones like Where did God come from? Why did man create his first tool? How did culture start? Here’s a summary:
Lucy: A Biography follows three species of early man (Australopithecus, Homo habilis and Homo erectus), as they fight over the limited resources of Plio-Pleistocene Africa. Lucy, of the species habilis, blames herself when her family is trampled by an enraged herd of mammoth and agrees to mate with a stranger (Raza). As they journey to Raza’s homebase, two deadly predators track them: Xha, of the smarter and more powerful species Homo erectus, and the violent and unforgiving Nature, a sentient spirit who meddles with fate and Lucy’s future as though a chemistry experiment. The geography, biosphere and climate are carefully researched to represent what Lucy would have faced in a world 1.8 million years ago, when man was not King and nature ruled with a violence and dispassion unimaginable today.
Every week, I’ll post part of this story. Here’s Part 1 of the Preface:
“Fossil evidence of human evolutionary history is
fragmentary and open to various interpretations.”
Henry Gee, Nature 2001
Like a favonian breeze, life arrived on Planet Earth about 3.5 billion years ago. Our story begins much later, a brief two million years before present, during the waning days of the Pliocene Epoch, itself part of the 65-million-year-long Cenozoic Era. The primordial continent of Gondwana has splintered into chunks and warm-blooded, furry mammals have replaced the dinosaurs. The climate is cooling and the growing glaciers have locked billions of gallons of Earth’s water into icy prisons. South America has moved to its present position contiguous to North America and the land bridge connecting Asia with Alaska still exists.
If you telescope in, you’ll see we are in Africa.
Before becoming the seed bed for man’s future, Africa separated from South America—almost 200 million years ago—and then from India and Australia seventy million years later. The capacious tropical jungles created during hotter Miocene times have given way to dry savannas reaching like stretch lines around the Great Rift Valley. If you peer closer, you see a child. Half-ape, half-human, she peopled the landscape long before modern man arrived. She hunts, plays, eats and sleeps, oblivious to her destiny as the Father of Man. We’ll call her Lyta. That’s not her name, rather the sound she hears when her band requires her attention.
For some reason scientists will probably never agree on, Lyta prospered in this cobbled confluence of climate and geography. All we can do is study the cairns she left and ask why, out of all animal species, did she and her successors survive Nature’s challenges and spread worldwide? The physically-overpowering Great Apes are endemic to one habitat. Crocodylus, unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, lives confined to the world’s wetlands. Insects, who have outnumbered man for four hundred million years, remain subjugated to nature’s whims.
So, it’s an intriguing question: Why did bipedal primates with paper-thin skin, nails instead of claws and hair instead of fur, metastize throughout the world? What crude traits made Lyta a survivor? The answer is in the stony coffin of rocks and calcified soil Earth wrapped around her fossilized remains, broken by the weight of history and gnawed by predators and rodents and in the end, bacteria.
To write her biography, these scattered clues must be matched like puzzle pieces until their morphology gives up the story of her life and death. The swell of the cheeks, the shape of the jaw and teeth, and the spread of the nasal cavity define the sensory tools. The length of the femur and its connection to the pelvis calculate height, and thickness dictates body strength. Framework established, the forensic anthropologist attaches muscles and tendons to the bones, overlays skin—thick or thin, light or dark—depending upon age and culture. Last, he adds eyes, nose, mouth, and hair, the final pieces of the phenotypic exterior. The result breathes life into the foggy detachment of technicalities.
We might be shocked by Lyta’s resemblance to us. She walks upright. Her face is well on the way to Thinking Man’s forward-facing eyes, receding forehead, and understated nose. Her skin is lightly furred and
dimpled with millions of sweat glands. Her gluteus maximus has enlarged to facilitate running and her thorax has raised so she can draw the deep breaths required to fuel her cells for extended jogging. The encephalization of her brain represents a milestone in primates: She is the first species to on average surpass the cerebral rubicon set by the British anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith requiring 750 cubic centimeters to delineate the genus Homo from all other species.
But physical appearance tells only part of her story. To relate Lyta’s biography requires we extrapolate the intangible parts lost in the vastness of time from the archaeological remains studied by experts such as the Leakeys, Donald Johanson, Birute Galdikas, Jane Goodall, Ian Tattersall, Christopher Wills, John McDougall. How did Lyta conduct her every-day life? How did she handle illness? How did she hunt for food while stalked by predators bigger and meaner than she? How did Nature mold her life? How did she solve her problems?
For these answers, we look to a multidisciplinary assortment of scientists. Paleobotanists study plant seeds buried with her bones. Paleoanthropologists examine the condition of her teeth and calcification of her skeleton. Paleontologists study the tools she created to infer their probable use. Paleogeologists dig through the horizons in the land, the geologic content of rocks and soil, the detritus surrounding the ossified skeleton. Paleoclimatologists recreate the composition of ancient atmospheres. By melding their collective research, Lyta’s life comes into focus, as though a mist has lifted, revealing tiny hominids striding across the savannas of Plio-Pleistocene Africa.
Yet, even this fails to convey the compelling provenance of her existence. Where are the inevitable life and death struggles accompanying days and nights ruled by Nature? Where is the stress that travels hand in hand with her ability to make decisions? Where is the drama integral to existence as a thinking man? As Terry Pratchett says, “…there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber…” For with Lyta’s ability to reason came the need to take responsibility for her deeds.
Part 2–next week…
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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and author of two technology training books for middle school. She wrote Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a tech columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for ISTE’s Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s seeking representation for a techno-thriller Any suggestions? Contact Jacqui at her writing office, WordDreams, or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.