As he entered the office, a tall man rose from behind a desk and walked toward him with his hand extended. “I’m Peter Raincloud,” he said. He was six feet four inches tall, with a deep bronze complexion. When he turned to motion him to a nearby chair, Alex noted the dark hair was streaked with gray, and fashioned into a ponytail that hung halfway down his back. He wore a pair of weathered blue jeans, a western-style shirt and cowboy boots.
“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Dr. Raincloud,” Alex said.
“Call me Peter,” he said. “The Doctor stuff is just for students and half of them call me Peter. Or Chief Raincloud.”
“Are you a Chief?” Alex asked, having just realized Peter Raincloud was Native American.
“No,” he said, “but I don’t mind if they think so. Sara said you wanted to learn some things about prehistoric human cultures. I’m curious about what could be so important that you would come all this way rather than just a phone call.”
“Well,” Alex said, “I was going to be in San Francisco anyway, so I thought I would get a much better understanding if we could meet personally. I hope it’s not too much trouble for you.”
“Not at all,” Dr. Raincloud said. “Now, tell me how I can help.”
“Well, I’m not really sure how to ask the question,” Alex said, “but I’ll try.” He paused as he considered it. "I want to know at what point in the prehistoric record humans became human. In other words, when did we become like us and not like apes?”
“That’s a very interesting topic, Alex,” the professor said, “and there is not a simple answer. The fossil records indicate there were two or three species of what we refer to as ‘protohumans’ that emerged between two and three million years ago. They were like us in that they walked upright most of the time, and they may have made very crude stone tools, but they probably didn’t have language. In addition, they were more like apes in their diets. They didn’t eat meat.
“It’s actually a little strange,” he continued. “With most animal groups, there are multiple species that survived into the modern era: dogs, wolves, and coyotes, for example. Yet, only one species of humans exists today. As recently as 40,000 years ago, there were still multiple species of protohumans; Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon existed in the same territory for some time, but then the Neanderthal disappeared.”
“So, since about 40,000 years ago, there has only been one species?” Alex asked.
“That’s right,” Dr. Raincloud responded. “We don’t really know what happened to Neanderthal, but they died out completely. It may simply be a matter of not being able to compete with our ancestors, or it may be that our ancestors killed them off. There is no evidence that they could have, or would have, interbred to become a single species.
“Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this story is how quickly our ancestors morphed into modern humans,” the professor continued. “We use the term ‘behavioral modernity’ to refer to the set of characteristics that distinguish contemporary humans from apes and from other prehistoric humanoids. Many anthropologists, including myself, believe that this change began abruptly about 50,000 years ago. It’s really quite remarkable when you consider that protohumans had been around for millions of years and had changed very little up to that point, and then, suddenly, we see the emergence of languages, organized hunting and tribal movements, more complex tool-making, and even art. We sometimes refer to this period as ‘The Great Leap Forward’. Physically, these new humans weren’t that much different from those of 100,000 years before, but in the ways that they lived and thought they were very different.”
Dr. Raincloud paused for a moment, and then continued. “After the Great Leap Forward, humans were clearly on the path to being who we are today. The key ingredient, of course, was the development of agriculture. Without agriculture, you couldn’t have stable, structured societies, and the planet could not support the many billions of us as there are today.”
“Do we know why they changed?”
“No, not really,” he responded. “There are theories about genetic mutations and unexplained changes in the way their brains worked, but there is no real evidence for those theories.”
“What’s your theory, Peter?”
“I believe that something momentous happened about 50,000 years ago — either environmental or genetic — that led to a very significant change in the level of intelligence of our ancestors. If such an event had not happened, we might still be working with crude stone tools and grunting for conversation.”
“Very interesting,” Alex said. “I have one more question, Dr. Raincloud — sorry, I mean Peter — if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not, go ahead,” he said.
“Could the changes that occurred have been the result of something unnatural?”
“Do you mean like aliens visiting, or spirits, something like that?” Peter asked.
“Yes,” Alex said. “Something like that.”
“Well,” he said. “There have been theories around for decades about ancient aliens that visited the Earth thousands of years ago and taught humans all kinds of new technologies. There have even been television series devoted to the topic. But I’ve never seen any real evidence of that, and I don’t believe it. For one thing, if these aliens had the technology to travel through space and reach the Earth, why didn’t they teach the humans much more than just how to make bronze or how to sharpen a spear? If they had come, they would probably still be here.”
“I see,” Alex said. He recalled asking Jack Goodman the same question. He wondered what Peter Raincloud would think of aliens using Earth as a lab experiment.
“As to spirits, well, I’m not a religious person, but I suppose the theory would be that some god decided to alter the human brain and make him superior to all other creatures. You could call it a ‘Garden of Eden’ theory, I guess. Scientifically, I can’t think of any evidence that would either support or disprove such a theory, but somehow, I don’t like the notion of a god that picks winners and losers.”
“I see what you mean,” Alex said. Of course, Alex realized that someone had done exactly that: picked winners and losers. They were not gods, but from an Earthling's point of view, there was very little difference.
“I could talk about this stuff all afternoon, but unfortunately, I have a class in a few minutes, so I need to be going,” Dr. Raincloud said, looking at his watch.
“Thank you so much for your time, Peter,” Alex said as he stood up from his chair. “You’ve been extremely helpful.”
“Glad to help,” Dr. Raincloud said as he extended a business card to Alex. “Here’s my card. If you think of any other questions, please call.”
“I will,” Alex said, taking the card and handing the professor his own.
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