THE FIRST EXPLORERS
Roof Of Africa / Dawn Of Man
Msanaa was delighted with his accomplishment, however difficult. He had reached the top of the mountain, although the word (or for that matter, any word) did not yet exist. His and other clans instead communicated with their hands and with body gestures, with various vocalizations -- some mimicking birds -- and occasionally, when the subject or event was significant enough, with images etched into whatever substrate was available. Msanaa was actually pleased with this particular method of communication because he was quite adept at the imaging skill, having practiced in his childhood the rendering of all sorts of beasts, especially the large and dangerous ones that he had been warned against approaching. His father, not heeding his own wise advice, had one day unfortunately wandered too closely and was killed by the one with the long, forward-reaching curved horn. And this accident happened in full view of young Msanaa. The wild and ferocious creature was more powerful than even his own father! The images of this creature and tragic event were indelibly patterned in Msanaa’s memory.
Msanaa had proudly passed on this important skill of drawing and painting the animals to all of his offspring, especially young Asmahani.
Cheryl and I and several others gather at the relatively non-descript cavern opening.
“Welcome to Font-de-Gaume Grotto, one of the most significant Paleolithic caverns in Europe, and containing some of the most magnificent prehistoric artistic renderings ever discovered. Some are over 20,000 years old,” states the statuesque English-speaking female French guide.
From the top of the peak, Msanaa looked out over the various landscapes. Behind him (to the south), he thought he could make out the valley where he and his clan once lived. In the direction where the powerful orb dies every evening (to the west), there were great patches of green, probably large groups of trees similar to those he encountered on the way up. He thought the conditions were likely very warm and comfortable there. He also observed a significant pond. He couldn’t tell how large or far away things were. In the direction where the life-giving orb is re-born every morning (to the east), however, something very strange. In the far distance and appearing at the horizon there was a glimmer of blue, not unlike the sky, but clearly below it. He wondered what that could be.
Ahead of him (to the north); that was the most interesting view. Stretching before him and between the huge wet (!) white plumes floating in the sky (some of which he walked through on the way up) was a long thin line of blue reaching all the way to the horizon. He was certain the line was water, and would therefore be a good route for he and his family to take. He was sure now; they would venture northward along the great (what would be named “Nile” millennia later) River, to wherever that would lead. HIS tribe, he contemplated, would be the first human explorers.
Msanaa shivered under a strong gust of chill and cold, which he occasionally felt on his ascent, even though the mountain’s surface itself was quite hot, like the fire the clans had been using to keep warm and especially to prepare the carcasses of the beasts they had managed to capture and kill. The ground actually appeared at times to be on fire. But that was a question for anther day. It was time to go down.
Before that, however, he thought he saw one more thing. The view to the horizon, however unencumbered, was not straight across. It was somehow slightly curved, not unlike the gentle curve of the edge of a large boulder in the river.
Many years had passed. Asmahani was presently leading the family, and they had made much progress. Msanaa was now quite old, and had a very difficult time keeping up. Asmahani’s mother had long since died, having also caught on fire, much like the mountain. Asmahani remembered that, although she was so very hot near the end, she strangely did not exhibit any flames.
Asmahani and the family had followed the course of the great River and, along the way had surprisingly met many other clans, although most had very little interest in his quest of following the River. But one young woman, Aliya, did. She didn’t see the Msanaa tribe migration as being pointless, as others had indicated, but instead exciting. She delighted in joining the family and became Asmahani’s mate, providing him with many children. Most stayed with the clan on their journey, although some did stop and stay and mate with members of other clans. Some family members suffered from the same internal fire as Asmahani’s mother and died. But, all in all, much of the family did reach a marvelous, verdant and lush area, seemingly at the end of the great River. It was a veritable Eden.
They often marveled at the night sky, and imagined in the patterns of lights the creatures they knew. But what WERE the dots of light? Could they be fires of other clans residing in the sky? And what of the large, bright, round orb of the night? They saw the dominant black-and-white speckled object often; its shape changing slowly as consecutive days progressed. But very occasionally all the shapes of it progressed in one evening. Most of the family members had observed this phenomenon only once, but some had lived long enough to see two or more occurrences, so the event, being apparently that uncommon, must have been important –- during one of these special events Aliya noticed that the shape of the small shadow projected on the glowing orb was softly curved, not all that unlike the curve that Msanaa saw on the world’s horizon when viewing from the mountaintop many years before. But soon, that curve went away, and the great orb was evenly bathed in a dark orange dim and wonderful light. That was what remained noteworthy about this rare and beautiful event. Not the curve.
Msanaa had become very, very old. He lay on a slick red rock formation as he failed. He did reach out to Asmahani and managed to scratch a crude image on the slick rock. Asmahani had seen and actually drawn this particular image many times. It was of the beast with the long, forward-reaching curved horn -- the powerful one that had killed his grandfather. Msanaa seemed to gesture as he slowly slipped away. Asmahani understood. This was an image that somehow represented the entire tribe. It would endure, even as family members did not.
We walk through the dimly lit cave, using our torches and marveling at the various paintings. There is a proliferation of bison, horses and mammoths. Of course, all of these creatures also left behind fossil evidence of their existence in this section of Europe. But what of the pictured hoofed African animals and especially the rhinos -- such wildlife was not ever known to have lived on the European continent. Also visible are the curious scratches (often over the polychrome paintings) of the not-so-mythical cave bear, which also lived here long ago.
Generations of Msanaa’s original tribe continued their journey, now westward, having long since turned that way. There were mountains to the north and many rivers joining their now very wide River, and the food, both plant and animal, was prolific. Some of the family members stopped at various places along the route –- perhaps at a beautiful spring or at a particularly pleasant grove of trees on the shore of the great River –- the prevailing delightful weather pattern would come to be called “Mediterranean” by distant descendents of these first human explorers.
There came a time when the family decided to turn northward. No one remembers why they decided this.
But the descendents of Msanaa, Asmahani and Aliya DID turn, possibly because of the (new) beautiful river valley stretching northward before them. Because of that decision, they also encountered large mountains, not all that different from the mountain Msanaa climbed now countless thousands of years before. These mountains, though, were unique, as they seemed far steeper and exhibited a formidable white covering. Their appearance were not simple cones but instead consisted of rugged and complex rocky shapes.
The family stayed in the valley and on the (Rhone) River’s path, walking mildly upstream. Some of the animals followed, and provided food for those who could catch, kill and prepare them. The family met many other clans, and informed them (through drawn and painted images) of their long historical journey. Some even attempted verbal communication, but that generally was not successful. There were, though, some clans that now seemed to understand each other’s guttural utterances.
The many-great grandson of Asmahani, Pandu (now the family’s leader) had become very skilled at the rendering of especially the beast with the long, forward-reaching curved horn, seeing as this image was now certainly their tribe’s long-time symbol. Such creatures had not followed the family northward; Pandu himself had never seen such a beast, but carried in his consciousness the visual history and mythology of his family and particularly of this animal.
Also, there were now some rumors that a great flood had taken place, and the wonderful River valley that the Msanaa tribe had followed for generations was somehow under water. Members of the clan even ventured up large hills and had looked back; to their disbelief, there DID seem to be a large body of water behind them, covering the previous life-sustaining River valley.
At one point, the family (now hundreds strong, even though many hundreds more had stopped along the way) turned west, ascended several hills and dropped into a different valley and watershed known to modern humans as the Dordogne. And it seemed to be getting much colder. They sought shelter.
Along this picturesque river canyon there were openings in the rock, and behind the openings large and complex caverns. Some of the caves had residents –- humans like Msanaa’s clan but also great predators with large claws. The family had to be wary of these dangerous “bears.” And the walls of the grottoes –- they were Pandu’s favorite aspect of these shelters. For, on this palette, he could tell his family’s history. He was able to control a firestick to adequately light the area deep within the cave. Pandu was careful not to foul the walls with smoke from the firestick by using a strategy of carefully placing the glowing ember away from the surface he’d chosen as a location to create an image. The long shadows on the dimly lit cave’s walls accented his work. He took advantage of the turns and undulations of the cavern’s surfaces to more fully and realistically represent the bodies of the great creatures, and discovered in the area mineral deposits that allowed the judicious use of color. He often depicted newer animals, ones that either followed the family on their journey or commonly existed in and around their most recent home. But he was careful to save his finest materials and conjured his most sublime skills to only very rarely re-create his clan’s important symbol, a creature that now had not been seen for millennia by anyone he knew, the beast with the long, forward-reaching curved horn.
Cheryl and I and the others are stopped and lined up on the narrow trail near the end of our guided exploration of Font-de-Gaume Grotto and are asked by the guide to turn off our torches. It is as dark as any place I've ever been. Our guide then suggests that we look up, and only then turn our lights back on.
Before us is a magnificent frieze of five bison (we had previously admired deep in the cave a small panel depicting rhinos, an animal not known to ever exist on the European continent), the bisons’ lovely bovine bodies artistically following the undulations of the cave, and their images displaying a beautiful use of nuanced colors likely created from local mineral deposits. We are all breathless.
“It is a masterpiece, yes?” the French guide exalted, no doubt not-so-subtly suggesting that this may be the world’s oldest known work of art.
I’d say it was.
all text and images not otherwise credited copyright
THE FIRST EXPLORERS
Roof Of Africa / Dawn Of Man
Introduction / Notes
The story accurately depicts Mt. Kilimanjaro as an active volcano during Msanaa’s ascent. The curvature of Earth can be seen from tall summits. The curvature of Earth can also be observed in the shadow it projects on an eclipsed moon. The next total lunar eclipse visible from North America is December 10, 2011. The story also depicts the Nile basin as it was thought to be at the time of Msanaa. There are many theories as to when and in what regard the Mediterranean Sea dried up during geologically-evidenced numerous closures of the Straits of Gibraltar. This story assumes that the Straits were closed during Msanaa’s clan’s journey to southern France, across the likely-verdant-then-Mediterranean plain. Font-de-Gaume and other French caves display images of African wildlife that most certainly did not ever exist in Europe; i.e. perhaps the images depicted on the walls were already part of shared human historic mythologies.
The included total lunar eclipse image, entitled “Lunar Eclipse Mid-Totality 2010,” was taken on the evening of December 21, 2010 from Conifer, CO with a Nikon D5000 camera at prime focus of a Celestron C-8 telescope optically reduced to f/6.3. Additional technical details and more photographs can be accessed at:
http://www.willisgreinerphoto.com/lunareclipse2010.htm (may not yet be available)
Link involving the geologic history of Mount Kilimanjaro:
Link involving the geologic history of the Nile River:
Links involving the theories on the closing of the Straits of Gibralter:
Links to Font-de-Gaume Grotto in southern France:
Links on eclipses:
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