Ancestral Ideas by Abby Ripley (Niger)
Early in our lineage the handy man,
Homo habilis, sees in his mind’s eye
a useful connection between his hand
and an egg-shaped basalt cobble milled
by a river’s turbulent current long ago.
He fits it to his hand and swiftly strikes
another stone which produces a flake,
a thin sharp-edged chopper or scraper
easily seen as a tool to cut trees or meat,
to scrape bark or the hide of an animal.
Striding through tall grasses of the African
savanna in the bright sunlight, Homo erectus,
holds steady the image of his hunting fellows,
taking a grazing zebra bachelor by surprise,
by their combined effort like a pack of hyenas.
They circle around under shady acacia trees,
hearing casual snorts and the switching of tails;
a lame one flees too late and is killed with clubs.
A runner, having returned to camp, brings others
with hand axes, cleavers, and growling stomachs.
Tonight, around a cooking fire, they feast while
two babies fuss suckling their mothers’ breasts.
Not enough for them but more since siblings
died. One mother clicks her tongue; the other,
blows air on her infant’s face to bring on sleep.
Pinkish streaks at the horizon announce dawn.
Lanky men emit a sliding sound, eeeennaaaa.
Sleepy youngsters stir in the dust while women
search the ground for bones that their children
can break for marrow when they feel hungry.
Men slink down a slope to a muddy watering hole.
Birds burst upwards in fright. In the night a pig has
been killed while it drank. Would there be remains
for scavenging? Only a muddle of animal tracks are
found. The group will have to search elsewhere.
Into the hot sunshine this sweating group of
early humans find it pleasurable to lope over
the wide savanna. To their minds no horizon
is too far. They move toward the blue rise of
mountains in the distance, hoping to find caves.
Blue-coloured horizons mean many days and
nights spent looking for carcasses. Savanna
grass gives way to scrub trees and succulents,
the latter becoming a reliable water source.
They meet other groups of roaming strangers.
Babies who fussed under acacia trees are now men.
Their deceased mothers left for predators or buried
in shallow soil. They carry memories of white-haired
Biftu who gave names to each in the small group to
organize them and enable members to communicate.
Succeeding this migrating group come others who
slip through horizon after horizon, over endless
surfaces, imagining what a difference a wooden
shaft would make fitted to a long sharp blade of flint.
Groups split apart, seeking alternative ways to live.
Homo sapiens emerges as intuitive, if not conscious,
aware of a companion’s motives and life’s potentials
around them. They thrive on the northern edge of the
African continent, adapting to variable environments,
learning from their experiences and positing “what if.”
By the seaside their outlook is flat and blue as sky.
They walk through a vegetal corridor and find a land
northward, not as luxuriant as the Ancestors had known.
Caves become dwelling sites, but here they encounter new
inhabitants who have moved from icy valleys in the north.
Stockier, with a heavier brow, Homo neanderthalensis
competes with the African immigrant for lynx and foxes,
pestered by jackals and hyenas. This singing cave dweller
of the Levant crafts small flint points with gripping fingers
and his sharp-edged burin carves on delicate bone or antler.
In open-air sites men design a core stone for specialty flakes.
Fishes, hippos, small cats and bears along with wild cattle are
butchered. Women look for bedding grasses, nuts and seeds.
The two competing groups realize that combining their efforts
to live make sense so they begin to cooperate and interbreed.
When Elisav loses her daughter other women cry with her and
fold the child’s knees into her chest. A niche in a rock formation
is found in order that her closed eyes look toward the northwest.
As an intentional act of affection a red deer jawbone is placed
on the girl’s pelvis. That night mothers hold their children close.
Later, offerings of fallow deer antlers and wild boar mandibles
to the dead are incorporated into a simple ritual using words of
a rudimentary language. Competition arises when a neighbouring
family shows deliberate intent to use the same burial ground. The
original group, claiming ownership, drives them away with stones.
With heads full of ideas and increasing physical skills, combined
groups, not liking a crowded landscape, disperse east and west
and proliferate along the way. Their progeny establish a variety of
races and cultural traditions. At long last successful groups beget
you and me and generations of space travellers seeking the moon.
Thus, humans evolved using an ancient cognitive toolkit that went:
I am preverbal. I am a figment embraced by imagination. I am the
moment of eureka. I am the prize of consciousness. I AM AN IDEA.
Abby Ripley (Niger 1967-68) is a seventy-nine-year-old who has had a very rich and varied life. She grew up on a ranch on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, a travel agent, a life insurance field agent, and an editor for Grolier Publishing. More recently she has exhibited as a fine art photographer specializing in composite images, a painter of watercolors and acrylics, a poet who has been named poetry finalist three successive years by Adelaide Literary Magazine, and a novelist with a historical novel in progress. Her poems and art have appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Oprelle, Squawk Back, Literary Heist, Under the Sun, Pithead Chapel, The World of Myth Magazine, Opine Magos, The Rye Whiskey Review, Amethyst Review, and Impspired. She lives with her partner.
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