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The Caveman and the Mollusk
"Imagine that you are one of the last humans on Earth...but that you are a Caveman..."
The year is approximately 164,000 B.C. You are deep in another Ice Age. Your friends are a lowly band of humans, Homo Sapiens, but you don't know that. That classification comes many years into a future you don't even dream about. All you know at this moment is that your life, your eternity, is ending.
You have no name for this Ice Age. You just know life is hard. Your band of beaten and tired men, women and children, have come to the ends of the earth. To rocks and sand. These are your Stone Age friends. Survivors. The strongest and smartest.
You look around, but you can only count 200 of them now. They are all standing. Covered in animal skins. Tired, cold, hungry and sick. Wondering what to do next.
There is no place else to go. No place else to retreat. No hiding places left.
There is an ocean here and it blocks your retreat from the cold. In the future they will call this place South Africa, but to you...to you...it is survival.It must be.
The caves are warm here, but there are few stars in the dust of the skies. While you warm yourself, the others have come. Huddling in the large cave. The 'meeting cave.' They are waiting for you to decide, but you leave it to them and only wait. Letting their bodies warm these stones.
The meeting has ended now. Everyone has scattered to their own caves. The decision has been made. You are staying here and they are with you. They knew you were not leaving. Even you did not know this.
"...people seemed rather advanced for their time"
You are not the first of the humans. You are what the future calls a Middle Stone Age man. Like your forefathers of thousands of years -- maybe much longer -- you know how they worked the stone. And how to work your head.
Stone hammers, stone knives, and stone spear tips. These are your tools. Passed down from generation to generation and somehow you have been tasked with keeping this sacred knowledge in your head.
In fact, the few hundred with you are the best of your kind. Friends who convinced you to come south to escape the cold. Friends who knew your worth, just as you knew that they too were the keepers of their ways.
All of you flee the great white mountains with the knowledge of your ancestors. An accumulation of skills, hard won.
You are grateful to the tent-makers, to those of you who can fish and the others who can fashion rough coats and wraps of skins to protect you from the aching of the ice.
You cherish the medicine people, who make odd powders, paint their faces yellow and always carry bits of smoldering flowers.
You feel secure, even though the warriors are few, but big men drag the bundles of spears while the smaller ones, even the boys, keep a fresh supply of killing stones when they wander inland for fresh water and medicine plants.
You do not know it, but you and your little clan of friends are humanity's last hope. It is an awesome challenge and yet you do not even understand the task before you. That you will be honored in some far future is just nonsense.
Your future does not know you. They will only imagine your existence here and now. You hope they imagine well of you.
Your children are your challenge now. To keep them alive, that is the problem. If the ones after, the future clans, mark this spot where you have lived and died, so be it. Maybe they will learn from your life and death. Maybe they will not. Maybe you are the last of your kind.
You look at your cracked hands, the broken and bleeding fingers. These things have held onto life this long and they will a bit longer. You will them to work again, but they have become like hard bone.
All you know now is that you choose to live and maybe one day see the stars again. Too point at them, if the sky dust ever falls, and tell the old stories. Too prove to the youngest that there are lights in the skies and not just grey or pink smudges. To sing of the moon again, if it would show its face and not hide behind the gray heavens.
You wonder if your mind has betrayed you. That the stars are only dreams as the young now say.
You begin to learn here. What choice do you have? There are problems to solve and oh how you love problems. Thinking is a pastime for you. For now, you set aside your childhood memories of warmth and plenty, of flowers and fish.
Thoughts plague you. Like the cold. That you must find better stones. That is one problem. The stones here are brittle and ill suited for fishing and spear tips.
By accident you discover that a spear left too close to the fire has hardened -- become less brittle. This is only the beginning of your 'experimenting' with fire and later, the blackening; and still later you would be called the 'Blacksmith.' But for now, you are amazed by the Gods of Fire. Why have they hidden this secret from you?
You fashion other tools now. Knifes that do not chip as easily. Nearly indestructible spikes to hold the raw animal hides against the sand for drying. You prepare the meals from the things that swim in this vast ocean -- the beast of water and also the milk of life.
You even try to heat the bones of the beasts you pull from the waters, but you are not as successful in this way. Better to use the bones for simple tools and easy soups.
"They stayed in what is now South Africa."
The decades pass. Oblivion is calling.
You and your friends have found that there are no avenues farther south. You have settled, if that was this is called, in Mossel Bay. You call it that, because the females giggle wildly at the little 'mossels' they pluck from the shores. "Mossels! they yell as they shove them into their over stuffed skin sacks.
The name will stick for thousands of years more. Yet it was only an expression of surprise. A women had opened one and had been shocked and disgusted.
The name 'Pinnacle Point' you will not know, but that is what your children of the future will name this place.
You roam the shoreline, live off the sea and eat many different species of plants here. There are so many more kinds of plants here and much less dust. A veritable Garden of Eden. It has become the 'pinnacle of your mind' -- an awakening. Perhaps it is humankind's reawakening.
You wonder about this.
And here, against the oceans, you will inhabit the many caves. The Indian and Atlantic Oceans, you do not know these names, meet at your doorstep. Behind you is the deep north -- the cold and horror. You do know know that one day some will say that the name of your continent will come to mean a 'land free of cold and and horror.' Africa or 'aphrike' from the Greek. 'Phrike' meaning "tremor or shivering' but the 'a' in front means it is without cold and horror. You are missing the 'a' just now. It is very cold.
The continent was a foreboding place since it is dry and cold, even one day's walk north. The ice sheets may be farther north by now, but this place will do. South of the Phrike must do, you think. You have no wish to see the great white mountains again. Their screaming and fighting haunts you even now. Each day you do not hear them or see them is a good day.
Okay. Now step back to the now for a moment...
Judging by the lights below, our species, thus far, has survived. This is far cry from where we were about 1.4 billion hours ago. In the scheme of things, this is a very short period of time.
"Some think this was our last stand"
Evidence suggests that large populations of humans existed in and around Ethiopia in the distant past.
Even before this lowly band of humans struggled for something more basic, the chance to live, many unique species of hominids grazed the plains of Africa and spread along the valleys of the Continent.
It is thought that the Neanderthals had abandoned Africa many thousands of years before, moving toward what Eurasia and the Middle East. Later, perhaps on the order of 50,000 years, when humans survived their near extinction on the shores of the Indian Ocean, it is postulated that they gifted the Neanderthals with pathogens, from which they never recovered or they were genetically absorbed - interbred.
But during this bleak moment, in our collective past, Mossel Bay appeared to have been our last best hope. It may have been where this small band of humans beat back the world. Nothing is certain, however.
What is more interesting, but rather scary, is what some scientists think. Some think this was our last stand. That our small batch of humans were the only batch. The last batch. There were no other humans about. Not in Eurasia, not anywhere. This is one of our most curious genetic bottlenecks. We almost went the way of the Dodo. But from this low, we made it. How about next time?
"...the bay where they fished and hunted for mussels would become known as Mossel Bay"
Our small band of humans could not know then, but much later, thousands of years into the far future, the bay where they fished and hunted for mussels would become known as Mossel Bay. It was highly probable that this small group of people subsisted upon marine life. Mussels, lobsters, oysters and snails is a good guess. Their diet may have included whales, seals and dolphins too. They may have also eaten dune mole rats and ostriches or their eggs.
Today, the Port of Mossel Bay, which is the smallest such port on the coast of South Africa is coveted for its oil. Not the Omega Fatty Acids 'oil' provided by the abundant shellfish, but the kind used to produce petroleum products.
In the caves at Pinnacle Point, not washed out by the tides over thousands of years, since they were higher in elevation than many of the others, one particular species of shellfish was prevalent: the Brown Mussel or Perna Perna.
Although, oysters were also plentiful in nearby the seashore. At least one barnacle was found in the caves along with the mussel shells, seeming to support the theory that whales may have been used by our small clan, for their blubber.
The Brown Mussel is a bivalve mollusc or mollusk. They have hinged shells and no head, like a clam. Oysters are also bivalve molluscs. The Brown Mollusc is a native to Africa, Europe and South America, but not North America, where it was later introduced. These mussels live in rocky areas, like the area surrounding Pinnacle Point and can survive in temperatures as low as 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit).
Medical Applications: Byssal threads or 'beards' are used by mussels to grab and anchor themselves to objects, such as rocks or even navigational buoys and are currently being studied for use in surgical applications.These byssal threads, often removed when cooking the mussels, have unusual healing properties. The 'beards' have resulted in the creation of a new non-toxic bio-adhesive, which instantly seals bleeding wounds and helps the them heal without scarring.
Did our ancient clan use these 'beards' for medical reasons or perhaps to mix with their ochre to make paint? (More about ochre below.)
As a food source, mussels are very nutritious. Generally, mussels are an excellent source of selenium and vitamin B-12. They also contain healthy amounts of zinc and folate. As an example, a three ounce Blue Mussel has about 70 calories, 10 grams of protein, three grams of fat, no fiber, but over 200 grams of salt.
One other fact here, that I recently came across. Mollusks are very high in copper, more so than most other edible things on earth, aside from eating the metal directly. As new studies emerge about the medicinal, anti-fungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties, to name just a few -- maybe our ancestors stumbled onto a survival method quite by accident.
Back to the past...
St Blaize Cave, Mossel Bay, South Africa
...When your band settled in the area of the Mossel, you were two thousand strong. You tell your children this and that you remember a year after your arrival, only 200 remained.
Starvation and fighting took most. Some fled west and others east; and a few to the 'phrike' of the north.
Decades went by like the days and some friends, hardened by their travels, but in lesser numbers, returned. You recall the need for more fish -- more clams -- as the number of people tripled in less than a year.
Another decade finds you in your forties and your friends are numbered in the thousands, many very young, but oddly intelligent you come to understand. Already, there are the new things. They call them boats, made from the bones and hides of the sea monsters.
In your fifties you are very tired. You have trouble knowing your age, because of all the years with no sun or moon the mark the days. One among you is called he Tide Counter, for it was she in the early days, who marked the tides for the mossels and by accident, you now have a counter for the days.
The young are many, but adults are also in good numbers. The cold has retreated now and many have roamed to the places of your youth. The stories that you have told these friends, about the great forests and green valleys of your youth drive them mad with exploration and expectation.
One day, in your sixties, an age considered ancient by your friends, who have never seen such a wrinkled thing as you, a smile rests upon you face. Word has reached your little outpost that more people have been found -- a small group to the north and east. You seem to remember that you once traveled there, to a place called Habesha...near modern day Horn of Africa.
To the now...
"...there were about 200 individuals remaining"
"There are springs nearby"
Water and Aloe
Today, the area of Mossel Bay receives most of its rain at night. The rainfall is and probably was a good source of fresh water. It rarely if ever snows there today.
If the weather had been harsh over 160,000 years ago, owing to the Ice Age of the time, would this area still have been less barren than the African interior? It appears to be true.
There are springs nearby today, discovered by a Portuguese explorer named Bartolomeu Dias when he landed with his men, but this was a recent discovery – less than a thousand years ago. Remember, we are back over 160,000 years.
You knew about the springs then. You also knew the "Red Aloe," a hearty indigenous plant of the Aloe Ferox species. It is used medicinally today and is also found in cosmetics.
About the same time our band of humans was eking out a living on the wild shores of South Africa, about 160,000 years ago, there was an unusual eruption of volcanoes in South America.
You did not know about the volcanoes then, only the pink skies and rolling thunder the ice mountains made. They were the evil god to you.
It's called the Cerro Negro de Mayasquer Volcanic Complex near Columbia today. Once again this complex of volcanoes is showing disturbing trends.
Yellowstone volcanic activity is another suspect. Again, all those years ago there was major volcanic activity in Yellowstone.
"...ochre was an early antibiotic..."
Ochre and Clay
Ochre was another item of interest. Our band of survivors may have used it as a pigment, as a medicine, both externally and internally. It is suggested that ochre was an early antibiotic, good for skin conditions and an all around versatile substance.
One could also carve designs into the rocky ochre and also use the pigment as a result of iron oxide...for painting the cave walls.
Ochre is also considered a clay. Certain birds and other animals actually eat similar clay(s). NASA even experimented in the 1960s with clay consumption and found that there was better calcium absorption when one consumed certain clay supplements. What ever the reason, certain ochres later became very expensive.
During the time of the ancient Greeks ochre was a coveted substance.
You knew about the ochre long ago.
Curtis Marean: Scientific significance of Pinnacle Point (2013)
"...the Cerro Negro de Mayasquer Volcanic Complex..."
For all our successes as humans, we have to remember, that on some lonely outcrop of cliffs a few years ago, we were almost wiped out. Maybe the Neanderthals would have succeeded or some other hominid. Maybe they would have evolved. Maybe not.
And we have other things to worry about now.
- Ongoing extinctions of many other species.
- Giant volcanoes.
- Over-sized asteroids.
- A nearby supernova.
- A cooling sun.
- An exploding sun.
- Food shortages.
But maybe worrying makes us smarter. It keeps us thinking.
A few short years ago, Stone Age people figured out how to survive in caves, eating oysters from the sea. They probably scavenged for edible plants and used medicinal clay. When the weather forgave them, they rebounded and explored the globe.
It then took us 160,000 more years to land on the moon.
Time might be running short. If the weather or some solar storm does not thrust us, once again onto the shores potential extinctioin, maybe a new war will annihilate us.
It's time to get off of our backsides.
We are a species of explorers.
You are no longer in Mossel Bay. Only your memory remains.
What if this happened in the near future?
For a bit of future fiction about a Second Little Ice Age, please read my short-story about an old man who survived one:
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4. "When the Sea Saved Humanity", Scientific American, December 7, 2012
5. "The Great Human Migration, Why humans left their African homeland 80,000 years ago to colonize the world." Smithsonian, Guy Gugliotta, July 2008
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10. "Paleoanthropologists write 'untold story of our salvation'" Arizona State University, August 6, 2010
11. "Earliest Known Seafood Dinner Discovered", Scientific American, J.R. Minkel, October 17, 2007
12. "Perna Perna" (Brown Mussel), Wikipedia, accessed September 3, 2015
13. "Role of Sacrificial Protein-Metal Bond Exchange in Mussel Byssal Thread Self-Healing", US National Laboratory of Medicine National Institutes of Health (cited from Department of Biomaterials Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces , Potsdam 14424, Germany), August 28, 2015
14. "New mussel-inspired surgical protein glue: Close wounds, open medical possibilities", Phys.org, (from Pohang University of Science & Technology), July 21. 2015
15. "Mussel" Wikipedia, accessed September 3, 2015