1.5 Million Years Ago: Fire
Crooked lightning flashes this fast fiend to life. We track its black smoke toward a ravenous face, not too close. With branches, we might grab the writhing monster. A nest of wood can keep its bright offspring. But fires have to eat throughout the night, and unexpected rain reduces flame to so much char.
Who was it? Agni, Maui, Prometheus, Coyote, Lo Hsuan, Grandmother Spider, Azazel? Who first possessed the hot shining air all living things fear? Perhaps a modest toolmaker, some Erectus squatting in a copse, clacking rock against rock, sparked a dry tuft of grass raising tendrils of smoke.
From here on, fire will work for us, to chew the bulk of what we eat. It defangs our food. Before, the night threw frightful shadows that could kill us. Now, we get to sleep wherever. Or stay awake, acquainting with each other and the dark. Over winters, fire’s warmth adapts us anyplace. Many generations, we will whisper in the heated light, inventing myths and rhythms.
Once we control fire, humanity leaps from scavenger to predator. Lions, wolves, eagles – other top hunters – have evolved courageous, fearless, self-secure. But fire too quickly grants ungainly majesty. By fire, we earn alchemy, chemistry, weaponry, internal combustion, even freedom from Earth. And still, our existence feels anxious and stressed. Like each new success is feasting upon us.
100,000 Years Ago: Language
Many creatures force rude noises from their throats, cries at birth, calls against the predators, purrs of trust, grunts of disgust. We place tongues against teeth and breathe across the mouth-shapes we might make. But no expression’s ever been a word.
Then a newborn Sapiens cries from the back of a cave, heralding evolution.
The child ages, generating meaningful syllables. Members of the clan can’t sing along with this one. Perhaps they should kill it, unusual youth whose gibberish chills them, whose voice sirens sleep-visions awake.
I’m the first person with a name. Primal Poet. Safe Mutant. I’m the first to name another. Loving-Mother-of-the-New-Order. Friend-Who-Stayed-When-I-Was-Weird. I whisper the first prayer. Please listen.
Other people dance, feel, kill, and dream. But this one’s brain is built for grammar, prepared to transmit.
40,000 Years Ago: Art
We drag sticks in the sand, carving grains into lines. Arrange curious stones – not to use, just to see. Some kick at them.
The elders guard a cliff where red-tinted rock drips. Its mud dyes our skin. We express ourselves with reddish marks the dried mud makes.
Dangerous nights, fire-shadows lace the cavern walls. We’re spellbound by blazes. Mornings, ashen fingers sketch a fire’s gestures.
Last night’s hot light showed us something no one’s eyes have seen before and words can’t yet explain – shadows shaped like animals! It was unfamiliar medicine. Today we traced a pinch of ash and reddish clay to stripe the walls with marks that look like more than marks. We drew some bison flattened out so they could live like herds of shadow bison on the walls.
We showed the elders. All they saw were marks of reddish clay.
Then the medicine caught up to them. Our marks came half-alive like captured bison in their eyes.
30,000 Years Ago: Stories
We harvest river ferns, peel their skins, dry out fibers in the sun, and gossip as we grind the fibers into powders. We whip the powders into paste, shape the pasty bits to loaves, then place loaves inside fires. Later we may come together and break bread.
We drink the juice of rotted figs as fatherly Sun goes over, motherly moonlight follows, and stars express the quiet endless dramas of the sky. Our holy seers chant and dance until they lay their bodies down to let their spirits fly.
At dawn, our seers wake with images and words to ward or welcome what their spirits left to find. Last night they walked among the clouds, above the falling rain. Then they breathed among the whales beneath the ocean. Today they speak to us with otherworldly voices, and we paint each other’s faces, and we lace our throats with ornamental beads to prove we listen.
Humans seem related to another world, but only holy seers travel back from there to here. That other world is where we go to die, and where our holy seers make diseases disappear. While we’re alive, our seers deal with threat before it threatens. They can understand the wind’s opinions. Our seers help us speak in nature’s speech. They tie us to another world, and tell us tales that show us who we are and why we’re here.
10,000 Years Ago: Civilization
For millennia we wandered, briefly sheltered, carried our belongings, and followed the food. Year round, we lived equally under the Sun and Moon, helped each other hunt and gather, and kept potential bullies in line.
Now instead we’ve settled beside the resources, an excess of resources, ploughing then sowing in soils near wide rivers. At home in warm places, we’ve structured walls of clay with roofs of sticks and woven reeds. Mice, cats, rats, sparrows, pigeons, insects self-domesticate to eat and breed among the-people-among-the-people. Together, we store the plants and herds, and protect the surplus of their varied products. We’ve named our places: Ain Mallaha, Gobekli Tepe, Mohenjo-Daro. We’ve enjoyed our feasts of roasted sheep and goat, braised fowl, fried fish, warm bread, soft and hard cheeses, fluffy rice, butter cakes, shaved coconut, sweet puddings, fresh herbs, dried spices, boiled maize, pomegranates, yams, almonds, onions, olives, peaches, leeks, hot peppers, bananas, honey, figs. And from today, our lives reset around the Sun and seasons.
We’ve begun forgetting ancient ceremonies of the Moon. Men become the gatherers, as well as hunters, and women lose their equal standing, reduced to child bearing. Bullies rise, thieve, rent, pillage, tax, tithe, demand tributes, and soon we’ll call them lords. It’s the first of the priest-kings, first of the holy men who wield holiness as power. Our opinions clash to form new cultures. Magic seems real. From here, the world looks flat. The gods exist and must be feared. Population density brings collective identity. What would other people think? What will everyone say? Most will go along to get along. Trade routes, travel hubs, bargain for barter, fair exchange. No one knows all the skills anymore. It’s the birth of the specialist, birth of charisma. Birth of the doomed-in-the-wild-but-now-viable, of the child who disobeys but lives, of the juvenile delinquent. Generational disconnect. Manufactured conflict. Declaration of war between rich and poor.