06 September 2009

Footprints in the sand

Footprints in the sand

Earlier this year, anthropologists announced the find of ancient fossilised footprints in Kenya dating back about 1.5 million years.  That's 1.7 million years after our major prehistorical ancestor, Lucy or Australopithecus afarensis, whose skelton has been dated at 3.2 million years ago.

The footprints were found near Ileret in Northern Kenya in a layer of fine sand sandwiched between layers of volcanic ash.  The fossils show the wandering footprints of Homo ergaster which is an early version of Homo erectus and the first with the same body proportions as modern human beings like us.

One layer of rock contained three footprint trails: two trails of two prints each, a trail of seven prints and several isolated prints.  The other sediment layer, showed a trail of two prints and a smaller isolated print that the authors said probably was that of a child.  The anthropologists have analysed the footprints to show that these ancient ancestors of ours walked in the same way as we do.

Very interesting, but what were these ancient ancestors of ours doing?  Was it a father hominid having a walk with his son while explaining to him the secrets of how to hunt?

In 1991, Otzi was found by 2 German walkers in the Ötz valley in the Alps between Austria and Italy.  Investigations found the body to be that of a 30-45 year old male from 5,300 years ago.  He had been killed since he had a arrowhead buried in his body and there was evidence of a knock to the head with a blunt instrument.  It seems that he had died in a skirmish as it appears that his companions had attempted to remove the arrowhead, but that he had died probably from the head injury.

But who were his companions and what were they doing in the Alps outside of their own territory?  Were they on an expedition to look for new territory and to move over the Alps into Southern Germany, or were they hunting for Alpine red deer.

On Hadrian's Wall at Corstopitum, the Roman military town of Corbridge in Northumberland, there is on display a set of Roman armour that was hidden in a pot below a floor.  This lorica segmentata is almost perfect and allows archaeologists and Roman enthusiasts to recreate early laminated body armour of Roman legions in Britain in the first century AD.  It appears to have been hidden by the armourer for safe keeping when Corstopitum was attacked by marauders from the North.

Who was the armourer and what was he hiding from?  Why didn't he retrieve this very expensive body armour?

We find these very thin traces of human history appearing every so often.  Small traces of what life was like, allowing us to glimpse at an older more ancient time.  The past is a mystery to us just as much as the future.

History as we know it tells us about great kings and a few successful politicians, as well as those artists and writers who have stood the test of time.  Nearly everyone's lives fade into the mist of the past quickly.  We do not know the names of the slaves who built Hadrian's Wall or who Otzi's companions were nor whether the genetic code of the our prehistoric ancestors at Ilaret has been passed down to modern times.

Most people's lives and deeds are forgotten.  Our loves and our mistakes are erased by time.  But I have a sense of wonder at these tiny glimpses of our prehistory that we can sometimes see.

All of our lives - whether Royal or senior politician or footballer or film star or checkout lady or tramp - are footsteps in the sandy desert that a gentle breeze will clear away.

This is not something to be melancholic about.  It is something to enjoy as our time in the world is a brief spark of joy.  But we should try and make it good and worthwhile and not measure it only in money or what TV show was watched, but in good things done and projects achieved.  We should enjoy the natural and man-made beauty around us, celebrating it and creating it (where we have the ability).

This is what is important: love and beauty, nature and the arts.  So don't get too focused only on the daily grind of survival, of money, of material things.  These things just doesn't matter in the end as we are all but ashes and dust.  Enjoy yourself, be good and smile.

"Men in their generations are like the leaves of trees.  The wind blows and one year's leaves are scattered on the ground; but the trees burst into bud and put on fresh ones when spring comes round."

[Homer, The Iliad VI 146]