As 2009 prepares to slip gloomily and morosely into 2010, with the world still hunched under the weight of recession, and truly godawful weather battering the UK, sitting here at my computer, listening to the rain skrish against the window, over and over and over, like handfuls of thrown shingle, I’m starting to wonder, and worry, if I’m having a bit of a mid-life crisis.
No, I haven’t grown a ridiculous ponytail, or bought myself a pair of cowboy boots and a Harley and taken to the road, or started hanging around bars trying to look 20 years younger than I really am in the hope of impressing long-legged blondes young enough to be my daughter; no, this lifelong, space-nut, who has always looked forwards and not backwards, who has always lived for the future and not looked back at the past, has started to get very, very interested in history. Specifically, deep, deep history – i.e. the origins of Mankind.
What the hell happened? What made me put aside my books on Mars, the Moon, and the space program and reach instead for books describing the evolution of Man and the development of Stone Age tools and art? I don’t know what triggered this off, I really don’t. Maybe it was always there, at the back of my mind. I’ve always been interested in archaeology and “old things”, to a degree; I love stalking the echoing corridors and halls of castles, running my hands across the rocky surfaces of the monoliths that make up ancient stone circles, and wandering through museums, peering into the display cases, but this feels different. Suddenly I’m absolutely fascinated by mankind’s origins and evolution, and I’ve started to amass quite a collection of books about it. Now, after a few weeks of succesful scavenging from the shelves of charity shops here in Kendal, I’m learning all about the Olduvai Gorge, the various “branches” of early humans, and the way they developed into – well, what we are today. And I’m really enjoying it.
Maybe I’ve started looking back like this because it feels just too frustrating – maybe even futile – thinking about the future of space exploration? I just can’t shake the sick-to-my-stomach feeling that there’s so little political will to fund space exploration, and so much public apathy and suspicion towards science and technology, that we’re trapped here on Earth, like a baby mammoth that’s blundered into a tar pit, and can’t get out. The dates when astronauts return to the Moon, and land on Mars for the first time, have been pushed back so often, and so far, I genuinely feel like they’re in danger of vanishing over my mortal horizon: I really have grave doubts that actually I’ll live long enough to see the first bootprints stamped into the dust of Mars, which makes me want to run out into the rain, sink to my knees and melodramatically howl “Noooooooooooooooo!!!” at the sky. I am seriously starting to feel robbed of the future I always imagined growing up in – a future where there was not just one but several space stations crossing my sky every night, a thriving base on the Moon, and at least one manned Outpost on Mars. It seems that future belongs to the scowling, feral children I now see hanging around street corners in their hooded tops, or maybe even to their children. It’s certainly not mine.
And it’s depressing me that, after all the searching, no progress is being made in SETI, apparently, and as fantastic as Kepler is, the construction and launch of telescopes powerful enough to actually image Earth-like extrasolar planets is still far in the future.
Maybe that’s why I have developed this sudden fascination with neandertals, cave paintings and the deep history of mankind. Maybe it’s suddenly hit me that, while it’s looking increasingly unlikely that we’ll find fossils on Mars, museums here – including many around me – are packed with fossils that actually show how we got to where we are now?
Maybe I’m starting to sense that it’s the journey that counts, and not where we’re going.
This is actually weighing quite heavily on my mind now. I’m not “losing faith” with space exploration, or losing interest in it. Far from it! I’m still as fascinated as ever, and every day I drool over the latest raw images from Mars and Saturn, and marvel at beautiful images taken by space shuttle and space station crews, and I still know, in my heart and soul, that the exploration of space is my core passion. But I am feeling a slight shift, sensing a slight broadening of my own personal horizons.
And as I look through my newly-acquired books on archaeology, and the deep history of Mankind, I’m finding incredible, fascinating links, between the past and the present – that connect us to the future – everywhere.
On page 87 of the faded, dusty copy of Richard E Leakey’s famous book “The Making of Mankind” – plucked from an Oxfam shelf and bought for an unbelievable £3 – is a picture showing a piece of antelope bone, found at the “Zinji” site in the Olduvai Gorge in Africa. It looks unremarkable at first glance, just a chunk of old bone that looks like it’s been given a thorough seeing to by a very determined dog. But look closer and you can see several tiny, horizontal cut marks in the bone. I was stunned to read that those marks were actually made by the hominid inhabitants of the Gorge as they hacked meat off the bone with flakes of flint or stone… 1.75 MILLION years ago…
Just think about that. Our own deep, distant ancestors made those marks, back at the very dawn of mankind. No monolith was involved. They were made – accidentally – by primitive tools, and survive to this day. Isn’t that incredible?
Of course, those cut marks are accidental, they weren’t made on purpose by someone wanting to leave their mark on history. They’re not art. But ancient Man did create art, and much, much earlier than I imagined.
In another book I learned about the “Apollo 11 cave”. No, that’s not the name of a cave found at the Sea of Tranquility by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and kept secret for years; it’s the name of a small rock shelter, up in the Huns Mountains of South West Namibia, that was being studied by an archaeologist called Wolfgang Wendt in 1969, as the first Moon landing was happening. As he worked inside the cave, Wolfgang was listening to the landing on his radio – hence the name. What Wolfgang found inside the cave was remarkable – 7 slabs of rock that were decorated with the faint but unmistakeable designs of animals. Carbon dating of the charcoal around the rock slabs showed that they were over 28,000 years old, making them the oldest specimens of rock art found in Africa at the time.
Reading about that left me stunned. 28,000 years ago, when life was unimaginably hard and dangerous, when conditions were appallingly cruel, people were taking time to create art. I suppose I should be ashamed, really, not to have known this stuff already. I mean, it’s not exactly been hidden. I just haven’t been aware of its existence. But now, now I feel like a kid that’s opened his wardrobe door and spotted, through the mass of coats, jackets and shirts inside, fir trees covered with snow, a lamp-post, and a startled-looking fawn staring back at me.
Digging (and of course, you know that by in 2009 ‘digging’ means ‘Googling’) even deeper I found that early Man was creating art long, long before those rock slabs from the Apollo 11 cave were decorated. I was stunned to learn that the oldest known “human art” is a series of Stone Age rock carvings discovered during the 1990s in two caves in India. Investigations of the Auditorium Cave have established that shallow, circular depressions – or “cupules” – deliberately carved and cut into the rock date from at least 290,000 BC, and they may be even older than that, perhaps as much as 700,000 years old…
But when I saw the pictures of the cupules, they brought me back to the present with a bone-jarring crash, because they looked strangely familiar…
Everyone reading this will need no reminding that there are a pair of robots trundling around Mars at the moment – well, one is trundling, the other is stuck in a dustbowl, but hopefully she’ll be trundling again soon! The twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are equipped with “RAT”s, small drilling tools that can brush clean and then dig into the dust-coated, weathered surfaces of ancient martian rocks in order to study the “virgin”, unaltered rock beneath, the value of which is slap-across-the-face obvious. This process leaves a small, circular hole in the rock – a “RAT” hole – which will, even with Mars’ sandblasting environment, endure for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Think about that… 700,000 years after we made holes in the walls of a cave in India, Mankind is still making holes, but in the rocks of another world, halfway across the solar system.
Uncovering that link, between the deep past and our own “space age” present, has made my head spin. And even though I can’t shake the feeling in my gut that my future has been stolen from me, even though I now fear that I won’t get to watch people standing on Mars before I die, looking at those images makes me feel slightly less depressed about where we are – or where we aren’t – today. An invisible thread joins the two holes, the two time periods, I can see that. Seen together, side by side, those two images sing, as one, in a chorus of celebration. the the adventure of Mankind’s evolution, the journey our species is taking, that will one day lead us to the stars, even more magical…
Stuart Atkinson 2009
To read more of Stuart’s precious writing visit his blog, Cumbrian Sky.