The dropped stone axe:
I have shown that a population that is too large will be destroyed because of the way genes work together.  I have shown that this fact has been destroying civilizations throughout history.  It is reasonable to assume that the same thing was going on long before recorded history.  It is reasonable to ask just how long.  The evidence is that it has been going on for at least a million years. 

The date depends on a remarkable discovery.  Somebody went looking for a stone axe, and he found one.  He had reason to think it had been left there a million years before.  Just how he established that, I do not know.  The reason he went looking was that he had already found such an axe.  It was on an island in the pacific that had always been so far from other land that it could only have been reached by crossing open ocean.  A single stone axe could have been a fluke.  The second one meant that they were so common that a viable society had lived on that island.  It had to have been established by a seafaring society. 

Crossing a piece of ocean is no mean trick.  Columbus did so in 1492.  He was not the first to cross the Atlantic.  Saint Brendan is thought by some to have traveled to North America in the sixth century.  Erik the Red established a colony in Greenland in the tenth century.  That required routine ocean crossing.  In Egypt, people had built pyramids.  One of the symbols of their pharaoh was a headdress with the vulture of Upper Egypt and the cobra of Lower Egypt on it.  When Cortez found the Aztecs, they had pyramids and honored something we call the feathered serpent.  It is probably not a stretch to say they did not get the idea from Brendan or Erik, and Thor Heyerdahl showed that the kind of craft Egyptians could have made could have completed the voyage.  So it would be a brave man who would say Columbus was the first across the Atlantic.  But such crossings from that part of Europe were not routine at the time.  In 1969 men stepped on the moon. 

So if people could go from first routine ocean crossing to space faring, in 477 years, why didn’t we do it a million years ago? 

Well for one thing, the axe dropping person was not even Homo sapiens.  He or she was Homo erectus.  Maybe those people simply did not have brains big enough to build a space ship.  Maybe.  But 40,000 years ago, people had bigger brains than we do now. (Ann Gibbons, Brainy Babies And Risky Births for Neanderthals, SCIENCE Vol. 312, no. 5898 page 1429.  Sorry, I don’t have the original reference.)  They didn’t go to the moon, so brain size does not seem to be the critical issue.

It is difficult to look at a stone axe and draw many conclusions about the society that made it, but one thing is pretty clear.  A boat can only go one place at a time.  So a boat has to have somebody in charge.  There must be a social order, and the leader has to be trusted, particularly if the trip leaves the sight of land.  And by the time you set out to settle an island over the horizon, local opportunities have to be fairly limited.  Even if the only purpose is solitude, it means there are a lot of people close at hand.  So the trip was made by representatives of a large and orderly society.

Maybe it is too much to ask of those people to strike out for the moon, but they clearly had many opportunities to exploit that would have left traces – like nice tight houses or good roads.  But they did not do that.  They vanished.  So if a large and ambitious well organized society vanishes, the most likely reason would be the same reason so many other large well organized societies have vanished.  They established a large, mutually tolerant culture with ample social flexibility and then their genes destroyed their fertility before they could get very far. 

It was only because of a remarkable set of circumstances that we know they were that far advanced.  Their technology had changed little over the previous million years, so it is quite plausible that the same problem had been dogging them since two million years ago.  But the evidence for such a degree of sophistication only goes back the one million.

Either way, do not get the idea that this is a problem of the late 20th century and early 21st.  This is an unseen horror that has been having its way with us, destroying everything we have built, everything we have learned, every thing we have cared about for an inconceivable span of time. 

Don’t you think it’s high time we turned around and fought it? 

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