To me, one of the great joys of life is the present availability of information. The
refinement of objective information through scientific collaboration and competition has converged with the internet to provide unprecedented access. In a variety of fields such as astronomy, physics, archeology and anthropology we can see fundamental understanding come together almost in real time.
The August 2010 Scientific American magazine (America’s oldest continuously-published journal), contains an article of seminal
understanding. The cover story, “When the Sea Saved Humanity”, describes how consistent scientific evidence confirms that sometime between 195,000 and 125,000 years ago the number of homo sapiens, the ancestors of every human on earth, plummeted from “. . . more than 10,000
breeding individuals to just hundreds.” As a species we nearly became extinct!
How do scientists know this? It is from a compilation of evidence, principally the small DNA variation within the species plus climatological evidence showing conditions that “left much of our ancestors’ African homeland uninhabitable. DNA within a species varies consistently with time, so its variability becomes a very good predictor of a species’ age! The article says it clearly, “Everyone alive today is descended from a group of people from a single region who survived this catastrophe.”
Adding to the certainty of these findings are archeological discoveries in caves near the southern African coast, a limited area that would
have had the necessary flora and seafood to sustain life. The caves reveal evidence of human habitation periodically with known variations in sea levels as the amount of ice varied. It is all like a giant jigsaw puzzle with the pieces fitting as they are found. It is real. There are now plans, the author says, to begin exploration of part of the coastline that is now underwater.
After reading the article I discovered that the Smithsonian has a fabulous web site for human origins that is up to date regarding the information from the Scientific American article, and much, much more. It is beautifully done, making the information not only available, but beautifully presented. The site is HERE.
I am frankly confounded by the contradictions in the easy availability of such
information. In a nation where the high-school graduation rate is somewhere around 50%, there is easy access to science news that would have stunned Isaac Newton or Leonardo Da Vinci, or Charles Darwin for that matter. What a world we live in!
Then there is the matter of “belief”. I have long pondered whether belief is something that happens to you, or whether it is something you decide to do. I conclude at this late date in life that it works either way, but while the word remains the same, I suggest that the context of a sentence gives “belief” one of two meanings. With science, belief happens to you when the preponderance of the evidence is so overwhelming that the truth becomes undeniable. With spiritual matters, we often choose belief as an anodyne for uncertainty and anxiety.
I became interested in genealogy as a project I set for myself after I retired from my second career in 1999. That lasted 2 or 3 years, at
which time I hit a wall, so I printed out mine and my wife’s records and that was that. Many people during the nation’s founding left little record of themselves and our ancestors were no exception. Anyway, once you get back 6 generations you are dealing with 64 direct ancestors and all manner of uncles, aunts and cousins, and it all begins to lose meaning. At least for me. I would say that the principal value of most of the older information is in the historical perspective, such as the things bequeathed in wills – evidence of lives now dust.
But history, not the dry stuff in school that has been purged of all controversy, but real
history, that is indeed fascinating to me. Somehow my ancestors, and yours, survived through the eons and the wars and the diseases and, perhaps most importantly, the weather, to finally become US. And, they started out in the caves on the southern coast of Africa. How amazing is it to KNOW that? Awesome.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the weather were to become the end of our species after all?