‘Filthy water cannot be washed’ African proverb
Understandably much of early Humankind’s attention has focussed upon ensuring that there was enough water, food and shelter to survive. Proximity of a water supply was thus one pre-requisite of our early existence.
Initially we humans were restless nomads. Recent research has been able to trace our migrations by studying variations in the haplotypes (a portmanteau word for haploid genotypes) present within our DNA and that have been preserved in our inherited genes down through many prior generations. These sequences, written indelibly in our cells, reveal the progress of that remorseless wandering in the history of our early species.
BRIEFER: It had been assumed until recently that it was Homo sapiens who had ‘discovered’ and first used fire, thus dating it to no earlier than 200,000 BP. However finds in 2012 in South Africa at Wonderwerk Cave, close to the Kalahari Desert, suggest that Homo erectus was using fire as early as 500,000 BP. In 2014, in a cave used by hominids at Tabun in Israel, flint tools were found bearing the signs of fire dating back to 350,000 BP.
We are all descended from early hominids that came from eastern Africa and migrated to arrive in the Arabian Peninsula around 125,000 years BP. They began to populate India 70,000 years ago and first reached Europe 45,000 years BP. Far from the Hollywood image of brutal family groups led by an alpha male, it appears they were in fact democratically functioning groups with a broad division of labour. There was no sexism either, women were often involved in the hunting and certainly the gathering.
These earliest hominids migrated to gather seasonal vegetables and to follow animal migrations as their source of meat. They sought out ready sources of water and sheltered to maintain their personal security against wild animals – and other hominids.
They moved between water sources and if they were migrating through an unknown area then it soon made sense to carry water with them in fabricated leather pouches.
For ‘evacuation’ they could use the back of their caves or go off in to the woods, taking care to look out for any like-intentioned bears or other beasts. The hominid population was so small and kept on the move so routinely that polluting water sources was not an issue, they used open defecation leaving their detritus behind them.
In Europe Homo sapiens arrived to find that they were not alone, because it had already been populated by Homo neanderthalensis, from 300,000 years BP.
BRIEFER: They are Neanderthals only because the first traces of them were discovered and scientifically examined in the Neander Valley of Germany.
Most academics agree that Neanderthal life was not so very different from Homo sapiens. They were both omnivorous, they lived in small communities, built temporary shelters, fabricated tools for hunting and dugout boats for fishing. However the Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record between 41,000 and 39,000 years BP, so both types of hominid shared Europe for 5-6,000 years and it is conjectured that they probably interbred.
BRIEFER: The Berkeley Lab ran genome sequences and reported that the common ancestor of the two hominid types lived from 706,000 BP and had split in to two separate species at 376,000 BP. They said they were ‘unable to definitively conclude that interbreeding between the two species of humans did not occur,’ but that their research ‘suggests the low likelihood of it having occurred at any appreciable level.’ (Yarris and Rubin, 2006). Yet, I submitted a personal sample to the Genographic Project and learned that I bore less than half the global average amount of Neanderthal legacy DNA (average is 2%).
It was when our early ancestors developed techniques for the store and distribute water that a more settled life could evolve and in these settlements the techniques of agriculture and animal-tending was formed enabling ever-larger communities to be fed and to prosper.
These early settlements needed to develop approaches to control water’s excesses when it arrived as storms or floods. But they also became the first to need to face the hygiene challenges of waste and sewage management, no longer able to leave it all behind them.
This challenge is clearly encapsulated in the Bible’s Old Testament, a passage dating from 1,406 BCE. The Hebrew tribes had been wandering for ‘forty’ years but now set up camp beside the River Jordan, opposite the ancient city of Jericho (more below). There they first met these hygiene challenges, it was Moses who provided the necessary advice:
You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you. (Deuteronomy 23:12-14)
A very early example of using religious authority for social control.