Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Evolutionary Road

National Geographic has an article up this month called "Middle Awash: The Evolutionary Road." It's a dramatic article that discusses paleontologists looking for bones of hominids (the "missing link" species between apes and humans) in the Afar desert.
The article mentioned Ardi, a relatively recent find that is a million years older than the well-know Lucy fossil, who was found by one of the people featured in this article, Tim White. But what I liked about this article was its creative nonfiction tone. The author, Jamie Shreeve, went exploring for fossils, and discussed his or her impression along the way.
I'm interested in African culture, so the details about how the Afar, an people in the region the article explored, were the most interesting to me. The Afar are into pastoralism, they don't make their own tools, and the only modern thing they have access to are guns. They greet each other with something called a dagu, which is hand kisses and the exchange of news.
There are details even about these ancient people that I find really interesting. For example, Herto, a fossil, came from a people that clearly like to eat hippo, because the hippo bone in the area had clearly been nicked at with tools. A lot of discoveries also reveal how human and creative our ancestors were, with things like beads, bows, arrows, and metalwork. There are even specific names for the creations of some of these things, like Acheulean, which is the name of the stone-tool culture of Homo erectus. Tools were important, not just because they reveal creative minds behind them, but because they allowed hominids to compete with the other nearby predators, including lions and hyenas. They've also discovered a child's skill that reveals the flesh was carefully removed when still fresh and that it had been handled, possibly for generations, indicating that maybe it was being worshiped.
These discoveries are important because they often jive with theories based on things like genetics. For a long time, scientists believed that Homo sapiens, our species, came from one population living in Africa. The discovery of Herto and volcanic ash around him proved this to be correct.

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