Arriving in Prague that morning, we had time on our hands.
Our flight to Amsterdam was in the evening.
It was the summer of 2018, at the height of the tourist season in Europe and wherever you looked, there were people and more people.
Seems like another world now and well, it was.
We had been walking in the south of the Czech Republic for the previous month and now, after weeks of solitude, there was no avoiding it: a long day in super overcrowded airports and public transport.
We weren´t interested in sight-seeing. We had visited Prague several times in the past and didn’t want to devalue our memories. Like most other European cities including Amsterdam, Prague was over commercialised, over-priced and over-crowded.
For want of any other ideas, we went to the Prague City Museum.
It was housed in a beautiful old, classical style building, but besides it’s architecture, the exhibits didn’t make a lasting impression on me.
Except for one: a replica of a woolly mammoth……
A great exhibit captures your imagination. It’s a journey in itself.
Walking around this huge hairy beast with its long tusks, I pictured primitive human beings – I thought of Neanderthals – hunting these mammal Leviathans with primitive spears. A dramatic contrast with today’s so called ‘hunters’ with their high powered rifles and telescopic sights and whose trophies, the heads of deer and bears, ornamented the walls of many a café or hotel in the Czech Republic.
Which I tried to avoid whilst sipping my tankard of beer.
In the afternoon we caught the bus to the airport. It was very busy and very noisy, with people thronging in all directions and announcements echoing from the pa system. It was the first instalment of an endurance trip: the hours of sitting around waiting, the flight to Amsterdam, the train to Rotterdam and the Metro to our apartment in the south – at the busiest time of the year.
Our flight departed at 6pm and we reached our apartment near midnight.
But during this tedious trip, I was on another journey…..
Thanks to this one single exhibit, I found myself in the realm of the woolly mammoths, when those extraordinary animals shared a frozen world with the Neanderthals, when there were no cities, towns, people, no airports …only ice, vast expanses of ice….a harsh and primeval world.
In the lounge of Prague Airport, I began scanning information from the net about woolly mammoths.
They were members of the elephant genus which 800, 000 years ago branched off and began to adapt and eventually flourish in the sub arctic zones of our planet at a time when the climate was far cooler than today. Evolution is a slow process; the fully adapted species, like the display in the museum, didn’t appear until around 400,000 years ago. Evolution is also a blind process: a species appears, fails to adapt and vanishes. Several lines of mammoth appeared but only one survived – and thrived, proliferating across an enormous area – northern Russia and America. And from today’s Scandinavia down to southern Germany and including today’s Czech Republic. The woolly mammoth was one of the most successful species ever to appear from evolution’s harsh laws. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them.
The Neanderthals evolved from the earliest migrations of hominids from Africa (Homo Erectus) and spread over the Eurasian continent 2-300,0000 years ago. Like the woolly mammoth it was one of evolution’s success stories. Both species were genetically configured to thrive in arctic temperatures. The Neanderthals however unlike the mammoths, were carnivores. They were adapted to hunting in northern arctic conditions. Their large, deep sunk eyes, green coloured, were like night vision binoculars. Their thick set, muscular bodies were covered in a layer of fat and hair and their long noses warmed the air they breathed.
During their long reign however, it was not the woolly mammoth which provided them with their main source of meat; attacking a woolly mammoth was a tendentious proposition for Neanderthals given their rudimentary tools and weapons. It was the smaller mammals such as reindeer which made up the large part of their diet.
Another species of hominid was far better equipped to hunt the woolly mammoth.
As I sat there in the overcrowded lounge of Prague’s airport processing information, a scenario unfolded which was familiar to me, having read the books of American evolutionary biologist Jarred Diamond (including ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee’) and the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Hariri (‘Sapiens: A Short History of Humankind’) – and which I had kept on my e-reader long after finishing these books and now, in the airport, began re-reading selected chapters.
It was Homo Sapiens which hunted the woolly mammoths in large numbers.
Indeed. Hunted them to extinction.
Along with every other species of giant mammal inhabiting every continent then – the so called megafauna. Giant flightless birds, sloths, kangaroos, wombats, sloths and so on. Animals that survived countless changes in climate. Sapiens appears and they’re gone.
The Neanderthals were like us: they helped their old, they buried their dead and so on.
But Sapiens was us.
Sapiens appeared on the scene 60-50, 000 years ago. Within 20,000 years of its arrival, both the Neanderthals and the woolly mammoths, two of the most successful species in the history of evolution, were extinct.
What was it about Us that made Us such a lethally efficient hunter species?
The brains of the Neanderthals were slightly larger.
In a one-to-one contest, we would have stood no chance against a Neanderthal.
What was it then?
Modern research has indicated that the Neanderthals also communicated via language and worked in groups, but such attempts to ‘humanise’ the Neanderthals have their limits. By whatever means they communicated, it was extremely primitive in comparison with Us.
Sapiens means of communication was revolutionary. It was recognisably modern with a wide vocabulary, tenses, adjectives and adverbs.
Language was power and it heralded change the likes of which had never been seen before.
Language allowed Sapiens to do something which was unknown amongst other hominids: to coordinate itself as a social group, to make plans and to operate as an effective unit: a team. This was the most profound communications revolution in our short history as a species.
Sapiens coordinated its attacks on large animals or competing bands of Neanderthals. Tactics, plans, strategy.
With language and the pooling of ideas, Sapiens invented weapons. Spears, axes, bows and arrows, traps, nets. Rifles with telescopic sights were a way off and yet inevitable.
Sapiens invented musical instruments – and art. Sapiens created beautiful paintings of the creatures it eventually wiped out on the walls of caves all over Europe and Russia – bison, giant sloths and birds, antelope and, woolly mammoths. Paintings whose colours were still fresh thousands of years later.
When We emerged from evolutions blind and inexorable laws armed with language, our dominance over the entire planet was a foregone conclusion.
With our debut as a species, a restless energy was released. An insatiable drive for power and knowledge, to constantly transcend limits. To build and to destroy. As Noah Hariri has written, with its large brain wired up to language, Sapiens was able to imagine and to believe in powerful fictions – such as religion, money, nations – which magnified its capacity for Good and Evil.
Like our predecessors who created beautiful paintings of the species it hunted to extinction, we have destroyed so much and created so much, our history strewn with disasters and triumphs. Amongst our disasters two terrible world wars and Auschwitz (The horror! to quote Conrad’s mythical figure Kurtz); amongst our triumphs, Beethoven and Mozart and the creation of beautiful cities.
And planes and air travel.
After hours of waiting in one overcrowded airport it seemed like a triumph to finally be in the air – and on our way to another overcrowded airport.
As I sat there crammed in between so many other people – the flight was full of course – memories of Prague loomed before me. In 1992 we travelled there by bus. No such thing as short flights then. Forty five years of communism, of being completely cut off from the rest of the world, hung over the city as heavily as the snow. There were long queues outside of the few shops which had anything on their shelves. Statues of Marx and Lenin, those fallen idols, were dusted in snow. The classical buildings were stained from decades of coal smoke. There was the magic of visiting the house where Mozart stayed when he wrote his famous Prague symphony and the opera Don Giovanni; of going to concerts in a theatre unchanged since his time. There was the magic of walking empty streets alone. In later years, as the E.U. pumped money into the Czech economy, Prague emerged from its cocoon of grey like a butterfly departing its chrysalis. The buildings were cleaned and repaired and new station built and new shops and cafes opened. The first tour groups began appearing and within a few years, Prague became one of the most popular cities in Europe.
As our flight descended and I looked out over the Dutch landscape eerily illuminated in the remains of the sunset. Everything ordered: canals, lakes, dykes, towns, roads. An entire country created by Sapiens, wrenched out of seas and rivers and turned into one of the most densely populated – and prosperous and egalitarian – nations in the world. Amsterdam, so different to Prague and yet also beautiful with its canals and bridges and narrow fronted merchant houses dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Arriving in Rotterdam late at night: such a different city: bombed flat during the war and now a cutting edge city with towers of glass and steel.
Prague, Amsterdam and Rotterdam: three very different cities, each of them with its own unique history yet sharing one underlying foundation: none of them possible without language.
Near midnight, sitting on the little balcony of our little apartment on the third floor of a four story apartment block illuminated by a rising moon, alone with a glass of whisky and my thoughts…..
Thinking implies the knowledge of language.
Our consciousness, our minds, our idea of ourselves, is anchored in language, in the ability to talk – at the most basic level, to ourselves in our private moments, and in a larger sense, to others, our loved ones, our friends, our acquaintances – and to our enemies and competitors too.
‘In the beginning was the word’. This was where Sapiens, the world conqueror, began its journey, short in evolutionary terms. This was where all the extraordinary changes began; the changes, the ever accelerating changes.
How and why did Sapiens acquire language?
It remains one the single greatest mysteries of evolutionary biology.
Without it, we would have lived as Neanderthals, in harmony with our environment and destined to survive for another 100,000 years at least.
Our destruction of that species and so many others was a warning for Sapiens. Evolution always favours success in the survival stakes. In our case though, it appears to have created a kind of Frankenstein.
We are the only species to evolve which is so successful that we are quite capable of endangering our own existence.
Time to go to bed and to forget….
Walking in the Czech Republic: