A Short Paleo Fantasy
Setting: Along a creek somewhere in, say, what we now call Tuscany
Situation: The Middle Paleolithic Era, about 45K years ago
Starring: Neanda & Sapia, two middle-aged (slightly different) hominin* women
[Scene opens as Neanda & Sapia are filling water skins to carry back to their respective caves.]
S: OMG Neanda, it was a stressful evening in the cave last night. The boys were squabbling about who’s stronger & smarter – our fire-mates or yours. The only reason they didn’t end up with broken bones is that your daughter’s-daughters started making fun of them going on about such silliness.
N: Yeah, I know what you mean. Hey – looks like that grass over there is nearing its seeding time, maybe by the Egg Moon? Y’know, last night when the fire was low, Sapio whispered to me that he’s worried about the coming dry season – the days are still short but the creek below our cave is drying up already. That means longer water-carrying walks for us, & y’know Sapia, this water sure feels heavier than it used to!
S: Oh come on girl – you’re as strong as you ever were! So what if we’ve got a few creases on these worn faces & our tired-out milk-jugs are a little droopy – we can still dig roots & gather snails & sticks more quickly than those sleepy daughters of ours. Poor things, day & night, day & night – all they can do is feed the babies & throw sticks on the fire & try to keep the older babies from wandering too…Aack – watch out! A snake!
N: Nah, don’t worry, it’s only a small grey one – not even worth trying to catch for a snack. Those big fat green ones though, roasted in the coals? When I’m hungry, those can even taste better than the meat our hunters sometimes bring home, doncha think? Of course, sometimes I wonder what they’re really doing out there while we get all the water & dig all the roots & smash the seeds & comfort our daughters in their pains & feed our milk to the older babies….
S: Ha! I’d rather gnaw on dried roots & berries though than eat a snake…personal preference & all that. But [sigh], I really do love it when we have enough mammoth meat for us all to share, especially those tender belly slices – although of course our daughters need that more than we do. I have to say though – I don’t miss the hunt…even with our complaining I’m happier carrying water!
N: Hey, look at the birch saplings over there – maybe at the Hunter’s Moon they’ll be ready to offer us some sweet young bark to help repair our spears during the cold season.
[The two women walk in silence for a while.]
N: But y’know, another thing that’s worrying Sapio & me is that our son’s mate has no children.
S: Yeah, you know that ours doesn’t either, at least not yet. Even Neando’s noticed that it makes our son & his mate very sad, although they’re still some of our tribe’s best hunters, & like I said, you can’t have enough roasted meat! We’re lucky though that our daughters’ve had some healthy babies, even though too many of all our children are buried in the dark passages far from the fire…[sigh, long pause]. Hey look! A bird’s nest with eggs!
N: Uh oh, mama bird, wherever you are – so sorry but we’re going to have to steal your lovely blue eggs. The older babies will love cooked egg-meat! Y’know Sapia, it makes my heart lighter to walk & talk together like this – my stooped old grandma, who lived through many cold seasons, told stories of the Old People & the New People & how at first they were scared of each other & couldn’t understand what each other was saying…some people just ran away from the fire & never returned.
S: Hmm, we have some stories like that too, but it’s odd, our stories call us the Smart Ones & you others the Dumb Ones. Which was the reason for that silly fight last night & so ridiculous too, because I don’t know how we’d ever have yummy mammoth meat or warm clothes or strong hearths for our fires without the tricks we learned from you & your fire-mates. & I just love these shell necklaces that you & I traded with each other!
N: The one you gave me is my most favorite possession, thank you, Sapia. It seems we’re all in this together now, & that’s a good thing when times are hard – which seems to be most of the time! Whew – we’re nearly home…I’ll be sooo relieved to put down this sack of water. See you in the morning – Sleep Safe & Warm.
S: You too, Neanda. Sleep Safe & Warm.
* The hominins in this story (if you hadn’t guessed) are homo neanderthalensis & homo sapiens. Recent source material can be found here & here; see also this earlier blogpost, Neandertals Are Us. They are. New research is showing that collectively among human populations outside of Africa, 20% of the Neandertal genome shows up in our own genes, at various genome locations in various people, for an average range of 1.5-4% Neandertal genes overall in any non-100%-African-heritage human being.
Although there can be numerous explanations for this (still to be revealed by scientific inquiry – I can hardly wait!), imho, it doesn’t seem possible that these high percentages are the result of just an occasional illicit liaison during the exciting times of the Middle Paleolithic (about 200K – 40K years ago). Ergo, this little fantasy.
I loved your story, Linda! Your characters are so believable and delightful.
My first DNA test (from 23andme.com) gave me 2.8% Neanderthal DNA. I was so jazzed. Then I had the National Geographic’s (genographic.nationalgeographic.com) test done and I came back at 3.1% Neanderthal and 1.5% Denisovan. Now I am really stoked!
thanks jean! the genesis of this post was wanting to talk about neandertals talking…after struggling through a few iterations of ‘how does one make that topic interesting?’ (especially since the direct evidence for them or ‘even’ us talking back then, &/or earlier in our evolution, can so far only be inferred by our dna & braincase fossils), at some point a mental lightbulb went off: why not just have a conversation with one?? anyhow, it was fun to try, & appreciate the feedback.
My Neanderthal percentage is 3.7%, which made me very happy. It’s even more than my Ashkenazi (1%). But my Greco-Italian is over 80%. No surprise there…