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The 2-Million-Year-Old Man Speaks.

A Stone Age survivor ponders Y2K and more

(with apologies to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner).

Scene: A guy fumbling with a tape recorder sits across a table from a small man with a scraggly beard and a been-there-done-that look on his face. The tape recorder starts to wind and the interview begins:

I am sitting here today with the 2-million-year-old man. At least that's how he identified himself when scientists found him wandering through an African fossil site last week. I must admit, sir, you look quite healthy for someone who's lived through turn-of-the-millennium hysteria 2,000 times. What's your secret to longevity?

Without a doubt, my diet. I eat lots of insects, tubers, and as much meat as I can rip off fresh animal carcasses. It's great for the digestion. I'm regular like nobody's business; I just have this glow, don't you think? Maybe I should write a cookbook. Call it something catchy, say, PaleoNosh: Quick Meals for Hungry Hominids. I have a great recipe for grub pate. Takes 15 minutes.

Sounds enticing. I understand you're a Homo habilis, or handy man. Why don't you tell us something about toolmaking 2 million years ago?

Handy man? Get real. I was a flop at toolmaking. It just didn't interest me. My wife handled that stuff. She'd find good rocks and chip them into shape. Her collection of flint scrapers and hand axes was unmatched. I'd rummage through my wife's vast inventory of tools from time to time, like if I needed a blade suitable for filleting a dead zebra. Maybe you should call me Homo depot.

So, you had a family? Did they have names like Thag and Alley Oop?

Don't be insulting. There was my wife, Fila, and our five children--Ikea, Paxil, Ipecac, Charmin, and our youngest, I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Butter.

Uh, those are all names of late-20th- century consumer products or companies.

Word origins are weird, aren't they?

Speaking of words, scientists have long argued about whether your kind had the brainpower to talk. Obviously, you can.

Let me tell you a little story about how we learned to talk, Mr. My-Brain-Is-Sooo-Special. For many seasons, before talk rocked our world, we'd sit around a fire at night and tell stories by gesturing to each other. A few folks really loved that little charade and made an act out of it. You know the shtick--they'd paint their faces, bug their eyes out in fright upon seeing an imaginary saber-toothed cat, pretend to walk against the wind, imitate our facial expressions in innocent yet mocking ways--all that mime stuff.

Well, people forced to watch mimes every night will do desperate things. Before long, we were having ritual mime tosses into the Olduvai Gorge while everyone screamed like crazy. It felt great, but we were losing all our story-tellers. So, the incoherent screaming evolved into barely comprehensible ranting, which formed the basis of all later family and political conversations. I guess we have prehistoric mimes to thank for The Jerry Springer Show.

Did you talk with other members of the human evolutionary family who lived 2 million years ago, such as Australopithecus boisei?

That sounds like a nasty speech impediment, buster. You must mean the bigmouths. Yeah, we saw them occasionally. Such huge teeth, such tiny heads. They looked like Burt Lancaster wearing an elastic swim cap five sizes too small. Kind of scary, come to think of it. Bigmouths didn't talk. I think they were missing a few links, if you catch my drift. We'd see them mashing seeds with their sorry little chipped stones and chewing on leaves. Then, we'd sneak up behind them, hide in the bushes, and wail like hungry leopards. Man, they'd freak out. Looked like a mosh pit at a Metallica concert.

In your extended lifespan, did you ever run across any Neandertals? Can you clear up for us why they died out and whether they interbred with modern humans?

You'd never know by looking at their clunky old bones, but Neandertals were masters of disguise. One minute, you'd see a big, slope-headed dude lumbering toward you, then poof--he'd morph into a dewy-eyed doe or a slithery snake or even a small person. I mean tiny. Michael J. Fox tiny. Imagine if you could change your looks at will. You'd leave a few descendants in your wake, know what I mean? Talk about a social life.

Neandertals were a clannish bunch, though. They'd assume various disguises to carry on with modern humans and then go back to their homes. They still come out from time to time, usually en masse and always in disguise. The munchkins in the The Wizard of Oz? Neandertals. British soccer fans at the last World Cup matches? Neandertals. All the contestants except for Miss Paraguay in the 1996 Miss Universe pageant? Yup.

That's shocking. No wonder I rooted for Miss Paraguay. Do you have any revelations about who first settled in the New World?

Homo erectus used to visit the New World all the time. Hawaii, too. They were party animals. Calmed down just long enough to build and repair their pleasure rafts, then they shoved off on their party cruises with their fermented berries and those perpetually depraved grins on their faces. Never stayed in one place long enough to leave a trace. They were shameless name-droppers, too. I knew an erectus woman who always managed to mention having summered in the Aleutian Islands with her dear friends, the Homo sapiens. She was so pretentious.

As a living embodiment of our evolutionary past, what do you think about the decision in Kansas to take evolution out of the curriculum?

Forget about teaching. We need to ban evolution, period. It'll drive by in a red convertible and offer you a lift with a flirty smile, then bust your chops and leave you for road-kill. Evolution makes trial lawyers and Hollywood agents seem burdened by conscience.

I've seen species come and go, and believe me, each one thinks it's the last of the line, the best of breed, the big winner in the Evolutionary Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. But when the Prize Patrol van pulls up to your driveway, lock your door, baby. Those are members of a new species at the wheel, and they're about to take measurements for your glass-eyed, stuffed stand-in at a museum of natural history "Meet the Ancestors" exhibit.

With a new millennium about to dawn, do you have any words of wisdom to pass on?

Well, here's some practical advice. Never stand downwind from a woolly mammoth. If monkeys throw dung on you from the trees, ignore them and walk on the other side of the savanna. With the passing of every few moons, clean your clothes by beating them against a flat rock in a clear stream, even if their smell helps to drive away predators at night. Try not to blurt out, "I don't get it," when the neighbors show you their new cave paintings.

But really, why get so worked up about one measly millennium going down the tubes? Humanity just keeps bumbling along as it has for hundreds of millennia. We keep changing, and somehow we stay the same.

Only I have a bigger brain than you do.

It matches your bigger ego. But I've got all the punch lines, don't I? As funnyman--or is he funny Neandertal?--Steve Martin once said, "Comedy isn't pretty." Neither is evolution, my good man.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 18, 1999
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