Thursday, October 16, 2008

You can't choose your ancestors, or can you?

Besides the virtual lectures, I'm also teaching on another course with live audience. The subject is general archaeology, and the course is basically supposed to include no less than the prehistory of the whole world, although by the dept. of archaeology tradition and by restrictions set by limited time, the view tends to be centered on prehistoric Europe. Yes, you might ask like my dissertation's supervisor, how and why a person supposedly specializing on the Late Classical Near East is doing this. Well, you see, I still need to eat even after I ran out of my research grant, and in fact I rather like teaching (I can hear the teen-age me howling in terror and despair, as one of the reasons I started studying something as useless as ethnology was my firm intention never to end up as a teacher).

Anyway, on last Tuesday I got to start the course by introducing our ancestors to the students. Having to go through more than 20 million years of human evolution in three hours I barely had the time to present the bare bones of the subject (quite literally). I tried to put on a lively show, but by the end of the session the group of students seemed slightly stunned and more than a little glassy-eyed. I honestly think I got more out of the subject myself, while preparing the lecture.

I'm sure I'm not the first to notice these things, but because this was something of an interesting notion to me, I'd like to share it. It is about Lucy, the fossil Australopithecus afarensis. When Lucy was found, she was quickly dubbed our ancestral mother, as it was thought at the time that we are descended from the Australopithecini. However, recently the human family tree has been extensively pruned and grafted, and now it seems that the Australopithecini were a branch separate from us. This heavy-handed gardening stripped Lucy of the status of our esteemed great-grandmother, a change which I think is reflected in these two reconstructions which I happened to find in the Internet when browsing for illustrations for my lecture.

In the first one, which is said to be from a French museum, Lucy is portrayed as remarkably human. The second one I found on BBC's site. It is a recent reconstruction and probably closer to the reality - Australopithecini were quite chimp-like in body, with the one remarkable difference: they walked on two feet. But it would not do to portray our grandmother as an ape, would it now? However, after Lucy lost her post-humously acquired touch of humanity, it is quite acceptable to do so, and by doing, to distance ourselves from these less-successful relatives.