Fatal Fall Into History


April 8, 2010

News about the discovery of two mostly intact skeletons from nearly 2 million years ago focuses on claims that they represent a previously unknown branch in the human evolutionary tree. I appreciate the potential significance of Australopithecus sediba, as the middle-age woman and adolescent boy have been dubbed. But my focus keeps drifting to questions whose answers, forever out of reach, would never make news.

What made the pair, possibly mother and son, fall into a South African sinkhole littered with bones of saber-tooth tigers and other animals? With brains one-quarter the size of ours or less, what hopes and dreams did they — or could they — harbor? If they experienced terror before their fatal fall, was it fear any different than our own? Too bad archeologists can’t unearth thoughts and feelings along with tangible evidence like bones.

This much is certain: in dying many millennia ago, this woman and boy with human and ape-like features may have secured a lofty spot in history, an accidental achievement as incomprehensible to them as the universe is to us. So why care? Despite long odds, our lives might find purpose long after they end.