I’m starting to wonder and worry if I’m having a bit of a mid-life crisis or something. No, I haven’t grown a ponytail, 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; no, this lifelong, space-nut, who has always looked forwards and not backwards, who has always lived for the futrure 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.
I don’t know what triggered this off, I really don’t. Maybe it was that excellent last episode of PRIMEVAL where the team went back to prevent the extermination of Mankind, by stopping a mad woman from poisoning the water supply used by a group of early humans… maybe it was always there, at the back of my mind… I don’t know, I really don’t. All I know is that suddenly I’m fascinated by mankind’s origins and evolution, and I’ve started to amass quite a collection of books about it. 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.
A thought struck me today while I was at work, that has left me rather troubled if I’m honest. Maybe I’ve started looking back because it’s too frustrating – maybe even futile – trying to look forwards when it comes to space exploration? After all, the dates when astronauts return to the Moon and land onMars 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. No progress is being made in SETI, apparrently, and the construction and launch of telescopes powerful enough to image Earth-like extrasolar planets is still far in the future. I don’t know, I just feel like the future I grew up believing in, the future I wanted to see, and be a citizen off, so very, very badly as I was growing up, is being stolen from me, and no matter how hard or fast I run I’ll never be able to catch it.
Hmmm. Is that why I have developed this sudden fascination with neandertals, cave paintings and the deep history of mankind? Is it because that’s a fantastic, incredible Age I can studywithout it changing? Is it because it suddenly seems more real than my long-beloved “golden future” of Mars bases, lunar colonies and radio conversations with extraterrestrial civilisations? Is it because, 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?
This is actually weighing quite heavily on my mind now. I’m not “losing faith” with space exploration, and the future it will, eventually, reward us with. But maybe I am feeling a slight shift, sensing a slight broadening of my own personal horizons.
I don’t know, I truly, honestly don’t. All I know is that when I saw this picture…
… 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 just £3 – showing a piece of antelope bone, found at the “Zinji” site in the Olduvai Gorge in Africa, I found myself very excited and thrilled to read that the tiny, horizontal lines visible on the bone 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. They were made – accidentally – by primitive tools, and survive to this day. I’ve just started to get into this stuff, it’s all new to me, but I find that picture just… incredible.
And funnily enough it set me thinking about how it links directly to a picture I made myself, last week.
That shows the big rock “Marquette Island” that the Mars rover OPPORTUNITY is currently studying on the Red Planet. Part of its investigation involved brushing clean a small area of the surface to reveal the “naked” rock underneath. That cleaned area is the dark circle on the image.
I was quite pleased with that colourisation, but now I can’t look at it without thinking of the image of the hacked antelope bone, too.
I suppose that’s because they’re both images of the marks mankind has left. 1.75 million years ago, early man left his mark on the bones of animals he killed. Aeons later ,mankind uis now leaving his mark on the rocks of an alien world, a world that those early humans must have seen shining in their sky as a bright red star, even if they had no idea what it was.
An invisible thread joins the two sets of marks. I can see that now.
And it just makes the whole thing – the adventure, the journey, whatever you want to call it – even more magical…
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