Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Paleoanthropological Limerick

Mermaid and Traveler, Luttrell Psalter, 14th c.
Let's start our day, shall we?

Cried an angry she-ape from Transvaal
Though old Doctor Broom had the gall
To christen me Plesi-
athropus, it's easy
To see I'm not human at all

Rarely is the debate about what it means to be human more fraught, intense or weirder (see above) than in the first decades during which fossils of ancient (really ancient) human remains were being found and acknowledged as such. I picked up Ian Tattersall's The Fossil Trail (OUP 2009) at the Museum of Natural History on Sunday and have been reading it in every spare moment. He lays out all that is at stake with an intimacy (he'll write "Alas!") and care (timelines, maps, dates, all the precision and more that an enthusiast craves) that makes this book a page-turner. And there is so much at stake: the fixity of the species first (it was actually quite important that humans had always been transcendentally, essentially humans). And then the idea of descent (from whom, how, when? asked in increasingly panicky ways). But mostly, what it meant to be human. What precise size of the brain (cast after wondrous cast of paleolithic skull caps is discussed), what kind of jaw (used in making what kind of sound), what kind of walking (no slouching!). And so there are those, as in the limerick above, who seek to preserve an absolute line between homo sapiens and anyone else. The "she-ape" in question belonged to a female fossil that Broom dubbed plesianthropus (near man) transvaalensis for her proximity to the human (determined by her teeth, her place in the growing paleoanthropological timeline determined by the fauna associated with her find-site). Broom saw the remains is confirming an "in-between" species; Hooton (the limerick author) saw another ape - never mind how by then already nebulous both the terms "human" and "ape" had become. The paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, antiquarians, doctors, and other enthusiasts who jump into the fray all give their fossils names: species follow rapidly one upon the other, little poems of wondering about a commonality or a difference. How we ask about that limit between human and non-human, how we put the question to ourselves about what differentiates, reveals almost everything about how we understand our commonalities. This precise statement is why I can't wait to teach Karl Steel's book next semester. As far as reading Tattersall now, I feel the need to see what happens in the very moment when a realization of commonality with difference emerges to start to think about medieval conceptions of human relations with the natural world (which in turn will, one hopes in designing this class, provoke more questions about our modern goings-on in our modern ecologies). The ease with which the mermaid and the traveler occupy the same space, the fluidity of their bodies, will push us to ask how the difference was maintained. We align ourselves with nature through metaphor; the gentlemen I am reading about these days balked and fought when an alignment with a distant human nature revealed a primitive they were still busy defining in opposition to their own modernity. In these rich and full days with my Eleanor in D.C. we've asked ourselves both what it means to be human, and what a government owes its people. Interestingly for a 6-year old she, at one point and then another, gave the same answer to both: "dignity." Mercy!

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