Last week’s Olympics left me thinking. We’re a bunch of wimps. I mean, not just those of us who sit at home watching ultra-fit twenty-something athletes shatter world records. All of us. Including the athletes.
Humanity has been getting punier for millenia. Footprints discovered in dried Australian mud and dated around 26,000 years ago make clear that one early Aborigine, at least, was able to out-bolt any Olympic runner today. In bare feet.
Not to mention the ancient Egyptian peasantry, who spent their off-season dragging blocks of stone around. Other societies were even more physical. New Zealand’s Maori didn’t have beasts of burden. Everything had to be done with human muscle. Bones have been found with wear marks indicating tremendous development.
Early European settlers saw that, too. There are stories of Maori toa (warriors) running huge distances in the 1820s – out-stripping any marathon runner. They regularly hauled multi-ton waka (canoes) overland. Rollers helped, but it was still more physical than the equivalent task in Europe where oxen, horses and pulleys were available. In the later part of the ‘musket wars’ Maori were moving cannon the same way.
Fantastic feats of physical action. Yet, even that was puny from an evolutionary standpoint. Chimps are half our size and four times as strong. Modern humans, H. Sapiens, are even the weaklings of our own family tree - light, tall and puny by comparison with our ice age cousins of just a few dozen millenia ago. Neanderthals were short, rugged, and hugely muscled. Couldn’t sprint, but when it came to clobbering mammoths, they had the biceps for the job.
We survived. They didn’t. How? Nineteenth and early-mid twentieth century thinking pinned it on Neanderthal stupidity versus our intelligence; we were smart enough to survive, smart enough to invent machinery. The evolutionary market had spoken.
That’s still a trope today – but actually it looks as if Neanderthals were as smart as us, in their own way. Maybe smarter. They had sophisticated rituals, they buried their dead, they looked after their sick – this at huge cost to a subsistence hunter-gatherer economy in ice-age climes. But they did it anyway. The latest argument goes that stocky Neanderthal bodies were an advantage in the cold; but our smaller and thinner ancestors didn’t need to eat so much. Better survival chances when the ice age got really nasty – it wasn’t just Europe that was clobbered. Africa and the other human habitats were dessicated by it, which made food very short. The technologies that Victorian age, Tory voting club-attending gentlemen used as a definition of superior H. Sapiens intelligence came later.
There are lessons for writers. If you’ve got a historical setting, what are your characters physically capable of? Realistically. What would that do for appearance? Got magic? Why bother lifting a finger – are wizards couch potatoes? That’s a horrifying thought. Or maybe they use magic to also give themselves the physique of superman. Hmnmn… And where is wimp-inducing modern tech going to lead us?
Arthur C. Clarke put it this way. Should we be more frightened of aliens erupting from their spacecraft, all fangs, roar and tentacles. Or of helpless, weak creatures that lolled about surrounded with gadgets? Clarke was riffing on H. G. Wells’ Martians; and Terry Nation made the idea iconic with his Daleks.
What do you figure?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012