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A lot can change in 900,000 years. Back then, the English Channel did not exist. England was a walk-in from the European mainland, and many creatures walked in. Migrants included mammals huge and hairy, and — surprisingly, nearly a million years ago — they included people. We know this because of the footprints. In 2013, the prints were discovered by scientists working with the Pathways to Ancient Britain project.
The footprints were left in an area that’s now on the seashore. In ancient times, though, it was silty soil alongside a riverbed where the Thames once flowed. The scientists found prints apparently made by five different individuals: some large and deep, probably from an adult male; the rest smaller, probably from a woman and children. The members of this family (if that’s what they were) appeared to be headed in a general direction while also wandering to and fro, as if to gather shells or pick plants.
Dating of the prints was done from tiny fossils found in the same stratum. Although the weather in England ran chilly to cold around 900,000 years ago, these people walked barefoot. Various prints showed a bare heel and arch; some showed toes. And the individuals who made the prints were unmistakably human. They were narrow-footed like us and walked upright, driving their weight squarely down through two limbs, not four.
No actual parts of these humans have turned up in the area as yet, although a primitive ax was found: a pear-shaped stone chipped to a point at the end. Scientists believe the footprint-makers belonged to a species called Homo antecessor, early precursors of both Neanderthals and our current breed. More is known about Homo antecessor from archeological digs in the north of Spain. There, the Gran Dolina (“Great Sinkhole”) cavern has yielded piecemeal remains of many individuals along with stone tools and animal bones.
Among the deductions from the findings in Spain: facially, Homo antecessor looked quite similar to persons you might see today on the street. Or in your home. The antecessor people did not use fire to cook or stay warm. Rather, it seems they fortified themselves against the chill by eating prodigious amounts of meat. They ate now-extinct deer, horses, foxes and wolves. They ate animals ranging in size from rhinos to rabbits. And they ate each other.
Human bone fragments at Gran Dolina display signs of being hacked, scraped, or torn apart, clear evidence of cannibalism. What’s not clear is how the eating came about. It is possible that the local antecessors killed and ate people they saw as enemies or undesirables. But it’s also possible they ate friends and family, once the home folks were dead or on the way there. Why waste protein?
These days we don’t do that. At least not literally. Time-travel with me to Harry Reid International Airport, formerly McCarran International Airport. The facility was named in 1941 after Pat McCarran, then a popular U.S. Senator from Nevada, whose reputation has not aged well. Serving until his death in 1954, Pat McCarran was a vigorous anti-communist, helping to enable the excesses of the postwar Red Scare. He was an advocate of Francisco Franco, Spain’s right-wing dictator, whose regime murdered an estimated 160,000 to 200,000 internal enemies and undesirables. McCarran also voiced anti-Semitic and racist views, and eventually Nevadans grew ouchy about having their largest airport commemorate him. It was renamed after Harry Reid, the prominent later Senator, in 2021.
One might question the sense in which Reid is thereby honored. This is the Las Vegas airport. It’s an airport where you can gamble away your savings before you pick up your rental car. The passenger terminals are studded with slot machines waiting to eat you alive. My wife and I, lugging our luggage, threaded past the blingety-bling with barely a look. We were not in town to play games tilted in the house’s favor. We had come to visit relatives nearby, and to see the Valley of Fire, where the petroglyphs are.
In his book Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, published in 1979 and reissued recently, the ecologist Paul Colinvaux explained the forces that drive apex predators to be relatively few in number. (Thus the old Chinese proverb: “One hill cannot hold two tigers.”) Colinvaux further noted that during the present Holocene epoch, a certain big fierce animal has escaped these constraints, going from rare to ubiquitous. That would be Homo sapiens. Gradually, our abilities to create and dominate have outrun the tendency of our species to self-regulate its numbers by mutual slaughter and suppression. Colinvaux, using ecological reckoning, did not think the trend could end well.
But the future is open to speculation. Let’s talk about the past, full of deeds already done. History is fascinating for many reasons. For some people it’s a source of identity and pride. Learning about your genealogical ancestors — or the history of your ethnic group, your nation — gives you a means to say “That’s what I’m made of. That’s what I am part of.”
To others, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country. There’s the fascination of visiting places in time where people lived differently from us, in different conditions. Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages, a social history of Europe in the 1400s, evokes “the passionate intensity of life” then. Sickness was more deadly, journeys were more daring, and pleasures more precious than for most of us moderns. People wept and exulted shamelessly. They reveled in public pageants and executions; they felt the details of daily life throbbing with symbolic significance.
What draws me to history is sort of a combination of the above. It’s a chance to marvel at how different the old-timers were — while also looking for common threads that might show up in me and my fellow residents of the 21st century.
The Valley of Fire, northeast of Vegas, is a maze of canyons and towering rock formations in hues from yellow to red. Some rock faces, over the ages, have acquired a dark patina called desert varnish. And on some of those, Indigenous people 2,000 to 4,000 years ago scraped figures and shapes into the varnish.
Along with my wife, I wandered the area in a mesmerized state. The sheer natural beauty of the place induced a trance, deepened whenever we came across a patch of artwork scrawled by strangers long gone. Many motifs were repeated here and there. The figures of four-legged animals with futuristic-looking adornments on their heads had to be bighorn sheep, said to be numerous in the region in olden days. As for the symbolic forms and squiggles: were they sacred insignia, emblems of connection with the Great Spirit? They could’ve just been the signatures of teenage taggers. Were the petroglyphs done by kids who fancied themselves artists and defaced rock walls when the grownups weren’t looking?
Then, a surprise. I had fixated on a petroglyph without noticing the visitor behind me. A real bighorn, afoot in the material world and puttering amid the shrubbery. Never saw one before. Not even in a zoo. This bighorn let me come close enough to snap a portrait:
As someone who loves to roam outdoors, I’ve had encounters with creatures from rattlesnakes to sea otters, feral pigs, and more. It’s always a thrill to be suddenly in the company of a type of being you don’t normally hang with. But the bighorn, more than any, boggled me at the moment and has haunted me ever since.
The boggling factor was the extent and heft of the horns. They loop around and stick out far beyond what an animal of that size would seem to need, and they are dense. Reportedly, a pair of these horns can weigh more than my luggage did. They looked obscenely overgrown — over-evolved to the point of being an encumbrance. How does it feel, I wondered, to go through life carrying a load like that?
Then it struck me that I should know. Those horns: that’s how my mind is. Over-evolved. It sprouts ‘way beyond the mental capacity required for my first-world standard of living. Its grotesque outcrops are crammed with foolish, counterproductive thoughts I don’t need to be thinking. Including stuff that I perversely choose to think about instead of attending to what ought to be thought about. Going through the day with that loopy mind sticking out from the sides of my head, it’s no wonder I keep getting snagged on things and whacking into people.
And now I am truly haunted. I had hoped to come away from the Valley of Fire inspired and enriched, but no. I look in a mirror and see the face of a bighorn gazing back.
More chilling yet is the likelihood that everyone’s mind operates as mine does. Joseph Addison, writing in the early 1700s, posted this in a blog called The Tatler: “I have often thought if the minds of men were laid open, we should see but little difference between that of the wise man and that of the fool. There are infinite reveries, numberless extravagances, and a perpetual train of vanities which pass through both.”
The population of the world in Addison’s time was about 600 million. Today we’re talking eight billion bighorns on the planet: every woman and man working the vast assembly lines in Zhengzhou, China, where my iPhone was built. Every supermodel, soybean farmer, and high school student everywhere. Every hedge fund manager in Connecticut and every politician in Peru. It’s amazing that we get as much done as we do. And for how long, one may ask, have our minds been getting mugged in bizarre alleys of their own making? How many times did Homo antecessor eat the wrong guy?
Copyright 2023 Mike Vargo
Mike Vargo is a runner, bicyclist and freelance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.
I’m stunned by the art work which reminds me of ancient cave art I’ve seen in European caves.
Mike, what a terrific piece. Irresistibly engaging, thoughtful, informative, funny, with that zinger “Then it struck me I should know,” which opens a whole other door, makes things up close and personal. What a pleasure to read!
Thanks for your attentive reading, David!
Still laughing. And admiring a wonderful, intelligent, entertaining, educational article.
“And they ate each other.
These days we don’t do that.”
Hahahaha > 3,
Wow, thank you, Rose Mary. I would say more but it’s time for supper here.
I love this essay, the way it moves, the Bighorn as analogy, the serious but not humorless tone of it. A pleasure to read and think about this morning. Thanks, Mike Vargo.
Quite a complement coming from a master of the essay form. Thanks, Richard!
Thank you, Richard. I’m glad to hear your experience of it. And by the way, your essay ‘A Kind of Sorcery’ touched me in many places.