Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
by Nicholas Wade, published 2006
Evolution and history are not two distinct processes, with one following another like the change between royal dynasties. Rather, evolution and history overlap, with the historical period being overlaid on a still continuing process of evolutionary change. (pg. 272)
Something I always used to wonder about when reading history was the recurring theme of barbarian invasions of “civilized” societies striking from the frontiers. Why were there separate civilized and barbarian populations? And where did all these barbarians keep coming from, given that the explanation invariably given for their invasion was that they themselves were being invaded/pressured by other barbarians on their frontier? (Was it barbarians all the way down?) I purchased Wade’s “Before the Dawn” to try to better understand the debate about “race” — which is one chapter of twelve in the book — and ended up with a much better understanding of this perennial personal historical quandary, the book having offered a framework for understanding early human history and migration patterns and the way evolution played the keyboard simultaneously.
The most descriptive word that comes to mind when I think of this book is “sweeping”, which is both its strength and its weakness. This is very much a strategic book examining large trends that took place over vast geographic expanses and long periods of time, rather than a tactical examination of the various microphenomena involved, although there’s some of that, too. Concerning itself with the evolutionary changes which led to the splitting of the human and chimpanzee genetic lines 5 million years ago, and then the ensuing genetic changes and speciation of the pre-modern human genetic lines between 5 million and 50,000 years ago and then finally sorting out the geographic expansion and social and likely genetic transformation of modern human beings from 50,000 years ago to the present, the author surveys key findings and scientific developments since Darwin’s writings that have helped to piece together the early history of humanity. And while it’s supposed to be an introduction written for the knowledgeable layman, Wade nonetheless covers so much ground, so many academic controversies, so many studies and theories and oddly-named regions and eras and behavioral developments — the world’s scientific community seems to have an unresolved dilemma when it comes to naming things — that it is sometimes hard to keep up and remain focused on the broad narrative of which these items are a part.
The book has 12 chapters, simply named, which serve as essential themes explored:
- Genetics & Genesis
- First Words
It’s a testament to either the astounding volume of detail in this book, or the limits of my own cognitive abilities, or both, that having just finished this book last night after picking it up just over a week ago, I couldn’t reliably tell you which parts of the story fit in each section, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it all here. Instead, I thought I’d mention just a few pieces that I found especially interesting.
First, the “out of Africa” moment. I didn’t realize that this was not one moment, with one group of people. It happened many times with many different groups of people who, according to the historical record, went many different ways from there, some traveling around the coasts and then into the interior of Asia (and eventually outlying islands and over the land bridge to North America and South America), others migrating through Southern and Northern Europe. Wade argues that they were strong mariners due to the navigation and spread throughout the south Pacific archipelago, but why weren’t they navigating the coasts of North Africa and the Mediterranean and transiting out of Africa directly into Southern Europe? Meanwhile, numerous other pre-modern humans such as the Neanderthals (Europe) and Homo erectus (Asia) had already left Africa thousands of years before and fully populated the regions they were migrating into. But there was little discussion or exploration of how these other human species managed this, or why they might’ve been the firsts. Geologic history plays an important role here as well, and the multiple ice ages which occurred during these migration waves not only may have been drivers of evolutionary change which then led to social and migratory change, but they also dictated where various migrations could reasonably be achieved and increased the chance of tension and conflict between previous inhabitants and new arrivals in environs experiencing increased ecological scarcity.
Another important idea in the book, which for the present appears to be a hypothesis with a disputed body of evidence behind it, is that we might be able to peer deeper and more accurately into the historical record by means of the interplay between language and genetic diversification. The idea seems to be that every time a distinct genetic population splits off from an existing group, they tend to modify their language as well. Understanding where and how various language splits occurred might allow scientists to pinpoint new genetic branch timelines and vice versa, all the way back to the “original mother tongue” of the first “out of Africans”. One extremely speculative hope is that this original human language might even be reasonably reconstructed. Proto-Esperanto?
A third item I wanted to highlight isn’t interesting so much as it is entertaining, what I consider to be a bit of comical proledom. In a discussion of the relationship between last names and shared genealogy in Britain, Wade states,
Commoners acquired surnames between AD 1250 and 1350, apparently for the convenience of feudal record keepers who needed to differentiate between tenant farmers with the same first names. The surnames were not highly original. They tended to be a person’s profession (Smith, Butcher), or a patronymic (Johnson, Peterson), or derived from some landscape feature (Hill, Bush).
He goes on to give an example where it turned out that two Brits with the same last name, one a CEO and one an academic, actually did have a shared lineage originating to a common ancestor in a particular region of Northern England/Southern Scotland of whose geography the surname was descriptive, and who lived in that area according to official records. I got a chortle out of the way the elites of yore chose to humanize and differentiate amongst their tax cattle simply to aid their own tax farming, and that they didn’t bother to come up with anything more illustrious than tacking on terminology for slight changes in elevation on the land the peasants originated from, etc. It’s also interesting to think of how many people today have “commoner” last names (which group of ancestors, then, was reproductively more successful, the commoner or the elite?!) and how the market economy has allowed the sons of so many peasants to accumulate so much wealth!
A fourth item worth mentioning is the issue of “race”. It appears from this reading that “race” is a real and scientific phenomenon, though the implications of race are not well-know and are likely far different from what both “supporters” and “critics” of the concept currently think they can extrapolate from it. I’d like to learn more about race, and I think there will be more race-related scientific discoveries in the near future as this area of genetics is more thoroughly explored, but I would say I have less confidence in current race debates and their conclusions than I might have going into this book.
I’ll probably keep this one on the shelf and come back to some of the questions raised as I explore more books on the subject of genetics and evolution, pre-modern history, archaeology, economic history, etc. But I was less engaged with this book than I had hoped to be and I do hope there is a better organized, updated treatment of the subject I can read and discuss with my children in the future.