So Spake Mo...
Perhaps it has happened once to you. Perhaps you
There is a place in the world where that is more true than any other, where the residue of ancient lives is thicker, richer in the dense, dry soil than anywhere else on earth.
At the edge of the Kalahari Desert, this cave extends nearly a mile into the hillside with lives buried in the strata beneath your soles going down 20 feet into the earth.
The murmurs begin at the surface. In the front area of the cave, we find the memory of 1909 homesteader P.E. Bosman, his wife, eleven sons, and three daughters. Here are the flagstones they laid to keep down the dust; here is the crevice in the cave wall where they built a make-shift oven to cook their meals;
here in this corner they stored their food.
Ending 130 feet deep into the cave, even earlier residents left their stories on the walls. Paintings done in ocher, white, and black, along with wall and stone carvings hint at the steady emergence of symbolic thinking and the evolution of ritual which in turn, some suggest, begat that very fundamentally human art…the art of language.
Walk along these cool, dry stone walls back into 1,000 years of painting, 10,000 years of engraving. Pass beyond Bosman’s temporary home. What lies in the 2 million years below and beyond these surface layers?
(c) M Chazan
Because of this dry air you breathe, we can see so much of what was left behind perfectly preserved. We can watch our ancient hominid ancestors divide the cavern’s spaces between the piles of soft plants gathered in their sleeping quarters for their bedding and the tool-making areas where we can watch their technologies evolve from simple flake tools through more sophisticated stone hand axes up through the more refined technologies of bone and wooden arrow points. Alongside these practical tools, we see eggshell beads emerge, decorated water flasks, and finally pottery and animal evidence of a shift away from hunter-gather living to sheepherding.
Layer, by layer, by layer.
Through the dark.
How did they make their lives so far from the sun? How did they shape tools, mend clothing, care for their children in utter darkness?
And here is where Wonderwerk Cave takes on a significance even greater than its 2 million years of archeological history. Wonderwerk Cave holds the oldest evidence of humankind’s controlled use of fire. It dates our ancestors—mostly like Homo erectus—as using fire to cook food at nearly 1 million years ago.
Charred bone fragments from rodents, antelope, and horse-like mammals, along with charred plant matter, and surface fracturing of ironstone, whisper from the depths of the soil of a huge change on the horizon for our ancestors. The technology of fire brought safety from predators, the ability for groups to set up long-term camps in caves such as this one, safety from severe cold, and modest protection from insects. Cooked food offered a form a pre-digestion that allow greater use of nutrients for non-digestive functions—such as fueling our increasingly creative brains and larger bodies. It is during this time our ancestors also developed smaller digestive tracts and molars, leading some anthropologists to believe that the evolution of our ancestors’ very bodies may have been molded by this new technology.
But there is something else a little less tangible that fire gave us as a species: a center, a place to gather and come home to. While we sat around the campfire, we evolved something more than bigger brains and smaller stomachs. We evolved our humanity. With time spent around the campfire came an evolution in social dynamic, ritual, language, an ever-increasing encyclopedia of group knowledge and custom. We passed along our wisdom; we stretched our creativity; we created the stories that defined us as a people.
And through these stories we became a people.
(c) Paula Reedyk
"The control of fire would have been a major turning point in human evolution. The impact of cooking food is well documented, but the impact of control over fire would have touched all elements of human society,” said Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto, one of the researchers at the Wonderwerk site.
"Socializing around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of
what makes us human."
So Spake Me...
There is something magical about a campfire. Beyond the warmth and the light which are so welcoming in the cold, dangerous uncertainty of night, there is something about watching the hypnotic dance of the flame transform a simple piece of wood into something other: smoke, ash, and neat cubes of coals.
Food cooked over those flames tastes different somehow, brighter, more distinctive. Is that the elemental heat of the fire or the patience in tending it on the spit, the stick, or in a small foil packet at the edge of the coals?
Stories and songs mean more there, shared so closely in that pocket of light. The flicker of flame across faces deepens the mystery, enlivens the emotions. The day is done, the soul is settled, and the words, the notes are meant for this select company alone. After they are sounded, they settle into the flame, swirl up through the light and the heat-warped air, and take their place in the forever of the stars.
May you make a moment tonight and remember the magic.
The Story of Place