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Vado Tergum In Vicis
“Vado Tergum In Vicis” I hear him mumble as I cradled him and watched him close his eyes, inhale a deep breath one last time before dozing off in a deep unending slumber. Those were his last words. It has been weeks since my grandfather passed away but his words still echo in my head, as if those were only said yesterday. I was going through some of the things in his office when something of interest caught my attention. There, stashed between collections of replicas of fossil fragments, valuable artifacts and dusty pile of scratch papers and moldy books he gathered from years of field work, was a small, odd looking, leather book. Written on its very first page were the exact same words he held before he died. I knew instantly that the book was of something special. However, browsing through its worn out dusty pages, I was only left with disappointment for the book did not contain anything aside from descriptions and a few drawings of our supposed human ancestors.
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My grandfather was an anthropologist, and a brilliant one I should boast. He spent his years doing field work in different parts of the world until it was time for him to stop because of his old age. Bothered by my grandfather’s last words, I again went through his book, this time going through and reading every chapter, entry by entry, repeating his last words over and over in my head while reading every word in the book, hoping to make sense of the phrase. Suddenly, I felt a weird sensation crawling up my spine, and then everything started spinning right before my eyes until it all went black.
“Chirp! Chirp! Chirp! Chirp!” I heard little chirping sounds as I awoke from a strange and an unexpected deep sleep. “Chirp! Chirp! Chirp! Chirp!” I heard them once more. Not noticing that I woke up in a different place, I set off to find where the noise was coming from until I came upon a nest of hungry little eaglets. Marveling at the sight of the poor little creatures, it finally occurred to me where I really was, on top of a tree in a strange and unfamiliar place somewhere and not in my grandfather’s office where I remembered reading before blacking out. Thinking it was only a dream, I started stretching hoping to finally wake up in the comfort of my grandfather’s office. But to my disbelief, instead of slender human arms, big, strong wings came out and stretched in all its might. Still astonished and clueless of how I transformed into this magnificent creature in a single snap, I was left with no choice but to live in this new form and accept the responsibility of looking after my young eaglets.
While flying above the surface, I observed the surrounding area. It was not the typical lush green forest one may find in a typical forest or a mountain somewhere. The area is a dry savanna grassland with trees scattered widely apart (Forey & Blaxland, 2013). Then at a distance, not very far from where I was hovering, I noticed a group of species with very distinct features. They have a relatively hairless, tall, slender long legged body complemented by an upright stature and a flatter face with human-like projecting nose (Forey & Blaxland, 2013). Then it hit me, could it be that this species were the same as or the ones being described in my grandfather’s book? Is it possible that I have time traveled 1.9 to 1.5 million years in the past (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.) through his book to witness firsthand the existence of the Homo ergaster, which was the earliest known human ancestor to have possessed more human-like features (Forey & Blaxland, 2013.), in East and South Africa (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.)? If this was the case, then I can still travel back to the present time and be a human again.
The thought of being able to travel back to the present time and be a person again filled me with so much joy and excitement that I quickly perched on the nearest tree that enabled me a view where I could observe and watch them more closely. Remembering my grandfather’s notes and having personally observed the species, which I will now refer to as the Homo ergaster, it can be verified that their relative hairlessness and erect stature can account for the improvement of body cooling techniques (Forey & Blaxland, 2013) and for their life on the ground as their climbing adaptations got lost with the development of their ability to walk, run and travel long distances (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.). Notable, among the Homo ergaster was their development, discovery and utilization of tools and fire which I have found drawings in grandfather’s book. According to the description in his notes, tools which included cleavers, hand axes and picks were excavated together with the ergaster’s fossils (Forey & Blaxland, 2013). The tools were used mainly in hunting and butchering big animals and heavy wood working (Forey & Blaxland, 2013).
“Is that fire I can see flickering at a distance?” I excitedly thought to myself. I better fly there and check what is happening. “Oh, I can see it now! They’re making fire!” (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.) I exclaimed happily. But for what reason are they making it? Eager to know, I continued to hover near the area. A few moments later, when the fire is burning big enough, the species then placed chunks of meat, maybe from some beast, and plant tubers found all over the savannah (O’Neil, 2013) over the burning pile of wood as if they were in a barbecue party. “How amazing!” I exclaimed, “These creatures already have knowledge making and cooking with fire!” (Forey & Blaxland, 2013). Amazed, I decided to stay a little longer hoping to learn more about them. I built a new nest on a near tree so that I could still look after my young while studying this fascinating group of species. Based from my close observations of them, I can infer that there is a clear parallelism between the Homo ergaster and our more modern human species, like tending and caring for the sick or injured, although there were no evidences of them deliberately burying their dead, staying or living within family based social bonds, an extended period of childhood (Forey & Blaxland, 2013), and communicating through a limited range of sounds and gestures (O’Neil, 2013). Also, there existed a pattern of cooperation in Homo ergaster males and females which can be attributed to a decreased sexual dimorphism between them (Forey & Blaxland, 2013).
Until one day, as I was searching for food to feed my young, that sudden strange feeling I felt before coming into this strange new place came to me again. My wings suddenly grew numb and I started falling, I lost consciousness. Few moments later, I woke up, sitting in my grandfather’s office, the book in my lap. Terrified by the experience, I decided to keep the book away but found myself seconds later more drawn to it, browsing and turning it’s every page. Then before I had the strength to put it away, the strange feeling crept through me again, then, I found myself in another strange place. This time, in a grassland area with a more temperate and cooler climate (O’Neil, 2013) far from the dry savannas of East and South Africa. Abounding in mixed steppes, the environment proved to be an ideal habitat for large grazing animals (O’Neil, 2013). Wondering why the book brought me to such an environment, I started wandering through the area. As I go about surveying the new surroundings, I realized that something very strange was happening. Other animals ran away at the instant they saw me coming. Puzzled, I continued until I came across a small pond. Hot from hours of walking, I decided to wash my face and drink from the crystal clear waters of the pond. But as I bent near the water’s surface, this massive tiger’s face appeared and stared right at me from the water. Terrified, I quickly pulled myself away from the water’s surface and got on my feet to survey the area of the lurking beast. Realizing I was actually alone, I again went near the water only to realize that the tiger’s reflection which scared me earlier was actually mine. Dumbfounded at the idea that I am now a ferocious predator, it made me realize that not only did my grandfather’s notebook allowed me to travel through time but also, it enabled me to shape shift to a different creature in each time period.
The sound of passing footsteps pulled me from my thoughts. At a distance, there was a group of short and stocky men, with large faces characterized by a flat nose, a low sloping forehead and massive brow ridge (Forey, 2013) dragging the carcass of a boar, slit open, indicating that it was attacked and eaten by bigger predator and was not killed by the men. Unaware of the present time period and geographic location where I am in, and seeing a resemblance between these men and the species of Homo ergaster which I have observed in the African continent, led me to assume and establish a connection between these two species. While secretly observing the group from behind the bushes as to keep my presence unknown, memories from reading grandfather’s notes in his office suddenly rushed through me. Then I remembered reading on the part when some groups of Homo ergaster started to move out of Africa and dispersed in parts of Asia and Europe 1.8 to 1.7 million years ago (O’Neil, 2013) and might have evolved into more complex beings or side branched into a different species. With this in mind, the idea finally struck me. The book brought me to Asia to meet the Homo erectus, possibly an ancestor or a distant cousin (O’Neil, 2013) of the modern human species, who lived 1.6 million – 100,000 years ago (Forey, 2013). But where exactly am I in Asia? China or Indonesia? As I have knowledge that the Homo erectus were geographically distributed in regions of these countries (Forey, 2013). Judging from the immediate surroundings and the cool climate, I can say that I was in China. Eager to learn more about them, I decided to follow them until they led me to what seems a small settlement. There, I observed that these species, like the ergaster, live in small band-societies, somewhat similar to the hunter-gatherer band societies (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.) Tools can also be found in the settlement. However, comparing them to those of the ergaster’s, one may notice that the tools of the erectus were more primitive as they were only simple choppers and fake tools (Forey, 2013). Also, I have seen no evidence of their use of fire which their cousins in Africa utilized (Forey, 2013). When it comes to their diet, I have observed that it mainly consist of meat supplemented by vegetables, nuts, fruits and berries (Forey, 2013).
Dried twigs and branches on the ground loudly cracked as I accidentally stepped on them informing the erectus of a presence nearby. Fearing that they become aware of my presence, I remained silently still, hidden behind the bushes. Then, I sensed movement behind me. And when I turned around, it was too late for he had already lifted and thrown a big boulder in my direction. Frightened, I just closed my eyes and helplessly waited for the rock to hit me until I blacked out. A few moments later, I was very thankful to have wakened again in my grandfather’s library. Thrilled with what was happening, I continued reading the book until I again found myself in another place, in another time period, in another creature’s form. Just as I regained my consciousness, spears and arrows made of flint started striking in my direction. Groups of men started chasing after me as I transformed into a deer when I came here. I ran and ran until I lost them. Now, having knowledge that I have time traveled 400, 000 – 200, 000 years in the past, in Europe, or maybe in Central or East Asia, in search of the Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.) which I think were the ones chasing me earlier, I immediately set off to find their settlements but anxious that once they saw me, will end up killing me for food as their diet mainly consist of meat and other vegetables (Forey, 2013). After hours of roaming in the new environment, I finally reached their settlement, but only observing them on a nearby hill, hidden from their sight. Living under cold climate to temperate climates in woodland and steppe environments (Natural History Museum, n.d), the Neanderthals developed a short and stocky physique that allows them better conservation and regulation of body heat which enabled them to survive glacial periods (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.). They also have a large middle face characterized by a double arched brow ridge, angled cheekbones and large nose utilized in warming and humidifying cold air (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.).
The Neanderthals live in complex groups and have advanced tools made of stone and flint such as blades, arrows, spears, hand axes and other flake tools which they used in hunting my kind and other big animals (Natural History Museum, n.d). Then something caught my attention. “What are they doing?” I thought, as I saw a few of them carry one man’s body to another hill adjacent my location. Curious, I went closer but still hiding from them. “Are they doing what I think it is?” I exclaimed as I saw them place the body in what seems like a grave and cover it with dirt. “Are they burying their dead?” To confirm my observation, I went to the other site where I saw them bury the man the moment they left. To my disbelief, I saw many other what seems as graves, the hill was a graveyard. This practice of actually burying their dead by the Neanderthals (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.) really amazed me. Aside from this, they also have other activities and behaviors very similar to that of modern humans, which other human ancestors doesn’t have or practice, like covering their bodies with clothes made from animal skin, plants or barks coming from trees, making and controlled use of fire, making symbolic or decorative ornaments, and sometimes marking the graves with flowers and other ornaments (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.). I suddenly felt a stinging sensation. An arrow has pierced through my back. One of the Neanderthals went back to the grave to offer flowers, saw me and fired a shot. Suffering from the pain, I mustered all my strength and tried to run away. Growing weak because of blood loss, I collapsed, The last thing I remember was laying on the ground, the man, an axe in his hand, then, everything went black.
Expecting to be waking up in my grandfather’s office, I was in utter confusion to have found myself inside a tent when I regained consciousness. Still confused where I was and why I ended up in such a place, I heard a familiar voice from behind, “What took you so long?” it said “I’ve been expecting you”. And when I turned around, there, standing behind me was my grandfather. I couldn’t believe what my eyes just saw, “What is grandfather doing here” “Is he alive?” “Am I dead?” “Is he the devil disguising as my grandfather?” these thoughts filled my mind. “Do not fear my boy. You are not dead nor I was” the man said. “Come, I will tell you the whole story,” he revealed the secrets of the book, how he was able to travel through time through it, until we reached a settlement crowded with tents made from tanned hides of big animals like the wooly mammoth, sewn together, wrapped around logs and were pulled to the ground with big rocks or dirt (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.). Then he introduced me the other people in the settlement and I found out that they were the Cro-Magnons who lived 35,000 – 10,000 years ago in Europe (Foley, 2002), my grandfather and I, now one of them. These people, unlike their contemporaneous Neanderthals, were tall and muscular in stature closely resembling modern humans although more robustly built (Foley, 2002). According to grandfather, these people, during the winter months and those living in colder areas wore clothes made from skins of animals whereas during the summer months and warmer seasons, the Cro-Magnons clothe themselves in woven barks or grass (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.). They were a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer society who used to hunt big game like the bison, mammoth, deer (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.) with finely crafted tools like spears, javelin, arrows made from made from bones, flint and antler points (Foley, 2002), as their diet mainly consist of meat and vegetables (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.). The Cro-Magnons also made use of fire, made necklaces and other ornaments from pieces of shell and animal teeth, cared for the sick and believed to bury the deceased in a single grave in cave shelters (Foley, 2002). These people also utilized manganese and iron oxide to paint pictures depicting their culture and activities on cave walls (Foley, 2002), most famous of which were the ones found in France. Having coexisted with the Neanderthals in Europe; there is a possibility of interbreeding between these two human species. However, with the extinction of the Neanderthals some 28,000 years ago, one possible reason was competition and hunting between the two (Foley, 2002).
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Having experienced all these, made me appreciate and understand more the complexity of human beings. How they have evolved from simple, unassuming beings to more intelligent and complex ones is one of our species greatest mysteries. But the question lingers? Have we, as the most complex and evolved human species occupying the top spot in this great chain of human evolution, reached our perfect and final form? Or are we, like the great ancestors before us, still undergo and are capable of evolving as we discover and learn new things with the passing of time?
Strolling inside one of the caves, marveling at the artistic paintings on the cave walls, a leopard suddenly jumps in front of us. Then, I heard my grandfather “Vado Tergum In Vicis” and before I knew it, we were back in my father’s room, on his deathbed, him in my arms, the book in my hands.
- Noelle Patricia Alonte
Dorey, F. & B. Blaxland. (2013). Homo ergaster. Australian Museum. Retrieved from: http://australianmuseum.net.au/homo-ergaster
Dorey, F. (2013). Homo erectus. Australian Museum. Retrieved from: http://australianmuseum.net.au/homo-erectus
Dorey, F. (2013). Homo neanderthalensis. Australian Museum. Retrieved from: http://australianmuseum.net.au/homo-neanderthalensis
Dorey, F. (2014). Homo sapiens. Australian Museum. Retrieved from: http://australianmuseum.net.au/homo-sapiens-modern-humans
Foley, J. (2002). Fossil hominids: Cro-magnon man. Retrieved from: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/cromagnon.html
Natural History Museum. (n.d.). Neanderthalensis (Homo neanderthalensis). Retrieved from: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/life/human-origins/early-human-family/neanderthals/index.html
O’Neil, D. (2013). Homo Erectus. Retrieved from: http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo/homo_2.htm
Smithsonian. (n.d.). Human evolution evidence. Retrieved from: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/fossils/cro-magnon-1
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