Seeing as the novel I’m currently serialising (Glade and Ivory) has a prehistoric setting, I’d thought I’d comment on the news today about the Homo erectus skulls found in South Georgia (Central Asia) which has apparently got even the tabloids excited.
The story is that some remarkably well-preserved fossils of prehistoric humans of the Homo erectus species have been found in a cave where they’d be dragged away for leisurely mastication by the lions, sabre-toothed cats and other predators who at the time didn’t consider humans to be the number one predator on the plains. These fossils cover a period of a couple of hundred years some 1.8 million years ago, which is approximately 1.7 million years before the first Homo sapiens (our species) had evolved and a long way before the thirty to forty thousand years ago when my novel is set. In fact, it was before the Ice Age of which we’re enjoying a brief interval had hardly got going.
In true newspaper style, something isn’t worth printing unless there’s a story, and the story here isn’t what these fossils reveal about the life and times of our rather stupid but very human-looking ancestors, but rather whether this re-draws the current taxonomy of the human species at the time.
In a sense, every fossil found does that, but as every palaeontologist wants to discover a new species so that they can name it after their wife or daughter or best friend, it’s not surprising that each new find has been slotted into a new classification. However, all these fossils do is highlight the huge difficulty there is in determining what is or is not a species.
In broad terms, a species is distinguishable in that no species can interbreed with another species and have fertile offspring. This general rule kind of ring-fences the definition in that a species won’t suddenly morph into another new species simply because of its sexual appetite.
This definition is great except of course that there are plenty of species who are so similar to other species that it takes a huge effort to tell them apart, whereas the variety is so great in some other species (like domestic dogs and prehistoric humans) that it’s difficult to believe that they really are members of the same species.
Genetic variation is fluid and driven not by man-made rules but by natural processes where to a certain extent the product, such as a human being, is a kind of by-product rather than its main purpose. When humans began to spread and diversify across the planet, there were some who were pretty stupid (even stupider than the most stupid Tea Party or UKIP member), and others were tall, some grossly fat and others of darker or paler complexions. After time, some of these characteristics stuck (like being mostly hairless and having prominent bosoms) whereas others remained fairly flexible (like skin-colour, straight or curly hair, and flat feet).
The point is that there is a huge amount about our ancestors we don’t know about and these discoveries highlight that. We know enough to get the broad picture, which is that for an astonishingly long time of between one and two million years, humanity was represented by species that were a lot like Homo erectus (and possibly Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and others). The evolution of our own species is fairly recent: perhaps only 100,000 years or so. And the early member of our species wouldn’t have looked that much different from other human species at the time. But ours was the species that made the technical and cultural advances that eventually wiped clean the slate and left just our lot to fight it out not with other human species (or sub-species, depending on the classification) but with members of our own species whose apparent diversity of appearance belies an astonishingly lack of genetic variation.
I don’t think I could write a novel based around the lives of the South Georgian humans. It’d be very difficult to understand the lives of people who are so different from living humans and really not that much brighter than chimpanzees or bonobos. I chose a much more recent time for my novel, but one very much alien to us when the continents might have been in the same place, but would have been pretty much unrecognisable given the vast ice-sheets and the much lower sea-levels. It would take a man of the talent of William Golding to bring Homo erectus to life,