Before Lucy: Earliest human ancestors

The term “Primate” is due to the 18th Century Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, representing his view that this group, which of course includes humanity, sat firmly at the top of creation’s tree.

To most people, the term “primate” means the anthropoids, i.e. apes and monkeys – creatures that bear more than a passing resemblance to ourselves. Nor do the similarities end there. Although we tend to think of ourselves as something apart from the rest of nature, characteristic human features such as intelligence, upright walking and our complex society all stem from our primate roots.

What is a Primate?
Curiously there is no universal agreement as to what unique traits can be regarded as defining features of the Primates.

Primates are one of 21 orders of placental mammal (Infraclass Eutheria). There are around 200 living species of primate, conventionally grouped as lorises, lemurs, tarsiers, New World monkeys, Old World monkeys, lesser apes, great apes and humans. They are typically arboreal (tree-dwelling) inhabitants of tropical and subtropical ecosystem.

Primate skeletal anatomy contains features characteristic of mammals in general but also some that are more specific to the primates. Like other mammals, primates have four types of teeth – incisors, canines, premolars and molars. Early mammals had three incisors (I), one canine (C), four premolars (P) and three molars (M) on each side of each of their jaws (or quadrant) – a “dental formula” of 3-1-4-3; but primates have lost the first two premolars (P1 and P2).

Most primates possess the following features (Klein, 1999):

1.Retention of primitive mammalian conditions (i.e. those possessed by early mammals) such as the pentadactyl (5 digits) limb and the clavicle (collarbone). Many mammals have lost some of these digits, e.g. horses (who have a single digit).

2.Grasping hands and feet with highly mobile digits including big toe and usually an opposable thumb.

3.The replacement (in all living species) of primitive mammalian claws with nails (evidenced in the fossil record by flattening of the underlying phalanges.

4.Convergent orbits (eye-sockets) producing overlapping fields of vision and permitting stereoscopic (3d) vision, together with the enhanced neurological apparatus for processing visual information, requiring enlargement of the visual cortex in the occipital and temporal lobes of the brain. The orbits themselves are (in living species) surrounded by a bony ring known as the post- or circum-orbital bar. Higher primates add a bony wall known as the post-orbital plate or septum separating the orbits from the skull behind.

5.The muzzle or snout is shorter than that of most mammals and the sense of smell reduced, with corresponding reduction of the olfactory regions of the brain.

6.A fully bony auditory bulla (middle ear) in which the ventral floor is composed of an extension of the petrosal bone that encloses the inner ear, or a combination of the petrosal bone and the ectotympanic bone or tympanic ring (across which the eardrum is stretched). In other mammals the floor of the bulla generally comprises an independent entotympanic bone; this has been lost in the primates.

7.Reduction of the number of incisors and premolars compared with basal (early) mammals and a relatively simple and primitive cusp pattern on the molars.

8.A unique sulcal (fissure) pattern on the surface of the cerebral cortex of the brain. Also, relative to body size, primates tend to have larger brains than other mammals.

Finally we should ask what is the defining feature of the primate survival strategy – the “killer app” or “unique selling point” to take a couple of crude analogies? Most mammalian (and indeed other) groups have one: the bats combination of flight and echolocation, the rodent ability to gnaw and eat just about anything, the ruminant digestive system and so on. The primate “killer app” is brain-power; primates have large brains for creatures of their size, even in relation to other mammals. Basically the key to primate success has always consisted of being smarter than the competition.

Classifying the Primates
Within the mammals, Primates are grouped with the colugos (Order Dermoptera), tree-shrews (Order Scandentia) and the extinct plesiadapids in Superorder Eurarchonta (“true ancestors”). The Euarchonta is part of a larger grouping, Euarchontoglires, which additionally includes rodents and rabbits.

The plesiadapids were primate-like mammals bearing some resemblance to squirrels. They are now usually classed as order Plesiadapiformes within Euarchonta, though some continue to regard them as a suborder of the primates.

The Primates were traditionally divided between prosimians and anthropoids (or simians). The prosimians comprise four living groups: the lemurs, the lorises, the aye-ayes and the tarsiers.

Lemurs have long tails that they use for balance, but they cannot use them for grasping, unlike monkeys. Their tails are also used as a form of communication, and for male “stink fights”. They have the characteristic primate opposable thumbs and long toes adapted for gripping tree branches, and nails rather than claws on all digits except the second toe of each hind foot, which has a claw used for grooming. Lemurs have a tapetum or reflective layer over the retina, to enhance night vision. Smaller lemurs tend to be nocturnal; the larger ones are diurnal. Studies suggest lemurs have trichromatic colour vision, though it is less sensitive than that of humans. Lemurs range in size from 30 gm to 10kg. They occur in the wild only on Madagascar and are thought to have “rafted” there from Africa after Madagascar broke away from the mainland. Safe from competition, they flourished and diversified.

The lorises are slim diurnal arboreal primates living in tropical central Africa and south and southeast Asia. They have large forward-facing eyes and small ears. The thumbs are opposable and the index finger is short. In common with the lemurs the second toe of the hind legs has a claw for grooming. Their tails are either short or completely absent. They range from between 17 to 40 cm in length and between 0.3 to 2 kg in weight.

The galagos and pottos are grouped with the lorises in the lorids. Like the lorids they are tree-dwelling, but they are nocturnal.

The aye-aye is an endangered species known only from Madagascar. It is the sole member of the Chiromyiformes and is a large (2.5 kg) nocturnal primate. The relationship of the Chiromyiformes to the lemurs and the lorises is uncertain; some make it ancestral to the other two groups.

Tarsiers are small nocturnal primates, now found only in Island South-east Asia, although they were once more widespread. They are characterised by enormous eyes, long hind-limbs and extended tarsus bones (which gives the group its name). They second and third toes of the hindlimbs have grooming claws. They lack a tapetum but they do possess a retinal fovea, suggesting their ancestors were either diurnal or cathemeral (active both day and night).

The taxonomic status of the tarsiers is controversial. They share many key features with the anthropoids, including a hemochorial placenta (i.e. one in which the mother’s blood is in direct contact with the chorion (the outermost of the membranes surrounding the fetus)), a feature not possessed by other prosimians.

Accordingly the tarsiers are now generally grouped with the anthropoids in Suborder Haplorrhini (“dry-nosed”) with the remaining prosimians being placed in Suborder Strepsirrhini (“wet-nosed”). “Wet-nosed” refers to the rhinarium, a moist hairless pad around the nostrils of the nose. This feature can be seen in cats, dogs, mice and indeed it is present in most mammals, including the strepsirrhini, but it has been lost by haplorrhini.

The anthropoids are divided into two groups – the Platyrrhini (“flat-nosed”) – New World monkeys, including marmosets and tamarins; and Catarrhini (“narrow nosed”) – Old world monkeys (cerapithecoids), gibbons, apes and humans (hominoids). The Platyrrhini, the Catarrhini and the anthropoids at large are all believed to be clades or natural groups. The status of the Haplorrhini depends on the affinities of the tarsiers – if any – to the anthropoids. By itself, the term “monkey” does not define a natural group, since the Catarrhini also includes apes and humans. Similarly the apes are not a natural group unless humans are also included.

The extinct adapids and the omomyids are usually assigned to the Strepsirrhini and Haplorrhini respectively. The omomyids are believed to be more closely related to the tarsiers than to other prosimians and to form part of the Haplorrhini, albeit as an outgroup. The adapids are often claimed as ancestors to the lemurs, which seems plausible.

These groupings reflect supposed evolutionary relationships; the supra-ordinal classifications relate to early divergences of the placental mammals, probably occurring in the Cretaceous; the sub-ordinal classifications relate to more recent divergences; for instance the branch between the New and Old World monkeys probably occurred about 40 million years ago (mya).

Trying to represent these relationships within a traditional Linnaean taxonomy is problematic and can only be accomplished by use of a bewildering multiplicity of subdivisions of the main categories. It is far better to try to describe the above groups as clades, or branches on an evolutionary tree.

Origin of the Primates
Primates are of course mammals, a class of vertebrates that evolved from the therapsid or mammal-like reptiles during the Triassic period 220 mya and soon diverged into a number of lines including the therians, which turn includes the marsupials (metatherians) and placentals (eutherians). The placentals and marsupials diverged early in the Cretaceous period 125 mya; the earliest currently known placental is Eomaia scansoria (“climbing dawn mother”) discovered in Liaoning Province, China and described in 2002 (Ji et al, 2002). Early placental mammals were similar to modern animals making up the now-abandoned Order Insectivora, the most primitive mammals (moles, shrews, hedgehogs, etc) but now known to be polyphyletic (i.e. lacking a common ancestor that is part of the same group). These creatures tended to be small and were probably nocturnal – both advantages in a world dominated by dinosaurs.

The long reign of the dinosaurs came to an end at the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary 65.5 mya, almost certainly as a result of an asteroid that struck Earth leaving a massive crater near what is now the town of Chixulub in the Yukatan Peninsula in Mexico. The impact would have triggered tsunami, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Material ejected into space by the impact would have re-entered the atmosphere, triggering firestorms across the globe. Finally the dust lofted into the upper atmosphere would have produced an “impact winter” lasting for up to a decade after the impact. Under these conditions, it is little surprise that 50% of the world’s species became extinct.

Nobody doubts that the mammals were the main beneficiaries of this event, but there are three models for their diversification: the Explosive model, the Long Fuse model and the Short Fuse model.

The Explosive model – which is the traditional position – postulates that there was a mammalian “big bang” immediately following the dinosaurs’ disappearance; an evolutionary rush to fill the vacant niches. On this picture, the divergence of the mammalian orders from each other and subsequent diversification within these orders occurred mostly or entirely after the K/T boundary.

The Long Fuse model also places most of the diversification within each mammalian order after the K/T boundary, but in this scenario, the orders themselves diverged from each other well back in the Cretaceous.

Finally, the Short Fuse model postulates even within the various mammalian orders, some diversification had begun to occur over 100 mya, long before the end of the age of the dinosaurs.

These models should not be regarded as mutually exclusive and really mark three points on a continuum of possible models of mammalian diversification.

In 2003 a study was carried out (Springer, Murphy, Eizirik & O’Brien, 2003) applying Bayesian statistics to both genetic and taxonomic data, with constraints based on fossil data. Overall, the results supported the Long Fuse model. The primates diverged from other mammalian groups 85 mya, and the strepsirrhines and haplorrhine diverged 77 mya. The 85 mya date for primate emergence is 17 million years before the earliest known fossil of a possible primate, a creature known as Purgatorius, to which we now turn.

Purgatorius: the first Primate?
Purgatorius, known from a single tooth molar dated to the Late Cretaceous 67 mya and from more comprehensive Palaeocene remains, is the earliest possible primate known from the fossil record. Fossils are known from North America. Although its exact affinities are not known, dental evidence does strongly suggest a link with the primate order. Purgatorius had primitive molars with high cusps, three incisors, a relatively large canine, and four premolars in each quadrant (i.e. on each side of upper and lower jaws). The molars of later primates are more bulbous, none have more than two incisors, and only the more primitive retain four premolars; monkeys apes and humans have lost the two most mesial (i.e. towards the midline). Purgatorius is believed to have been about the size of a mouse or a small rat. It was almost certainly nocturnal, with large eyes adapted for night-vision. It possessed a shrew-like snout and had claws rather than nails. Its diet would probably have consisted of insects and fruit.

Purgatorius survived the K/T boundary event and it was sufficiently generalised in its anatomy to have given rise to the later Eocene primates, but there is no reason to suppose it actually did so.

The Plesiadapids
The Palaeocene (65-56 mya) is the first period of the Cenozoic era, directly following the extinction of the dinosaurs. At that time, the Americas were separated by ocean, but North America was connected to Europe. Climate was much warmer than today, with tropical and subtropical forests in middle latitudes. Palaeocene primates in the fossil record are best known from the Euroamerican land bridge.

The plesiadapids were the most abundant primates (or near-primates) of the Palaeocene and are known from the Palaeocene and Eocene epochs. They ranged in size between mice and squirrels, bearing some resemblance to the latter.

The plesiadapids thrived during the Palaeocene in North America and Eurasia, and some made it into the Eocene, but all had become extinct by the Oligocene, possibly due to competition from rodents. They probably arose in North America, later crossing the land bridge to Eurasia. Like Purgatorius they had claws rather than nails and possessed a generalized, un-evolved skeleton and an elongated skull in which the orbits (eye sockets) were confluent with the temporal region (sides and base) rather than being separated by a bony bar, as is the case with later primates. The affinity of the plesiadapids to later primates – if any – is not known with any certainty. Unlike Purgatorius they possessed dental specialisations including large procumbent central incisors (possibly used to grasp food), a reduced number of lateral incisors, anterior premolars or both (Klein, 1999). No later primate possesses these features, suggesting the plesiadapids died out without issue. Regardless of whether or not you consider them to be true primates, the pleasiadapids are what cladists call an “outgroup” in relation to (other) prmates, i.e. less closely related to other members of a clade.

Adapids and Omomyids
The Palaeocene is followed by the Eocene (56-34 mya). Early in this period the land connection between Europe and North America was broken; however the mild climate persisted. Forest vegetation, increased rainfall and hotter conditions had spread from the equator to the poles. Two diverse primate groups – the adapids and the omomyids – become very common in the early Eocene fossil records of North America, Europe, Asia and possibly Africa where Altiatlasius koulchii, known from 60 million year old teeth discovered in Adrar Mgorn in Southern Morocco, has been assigned to the omomyids. Both groups possessed features associated with living primates such as grasping hands and feet with digits tipped by nails instead of claws, and a complete postorbital bar. There was a shift in emphasis from sense of smell to vision.

The adapids tended to be relatively large, with a typical body mass of 1kg. Characteristic features included small orbits, suggesting a diurnal lifestyle and cheek teeth adapted for diets consisting of leaves and fruit. Postcranial remains (i.e. those below the cranium) suggest an arboreal lifestyle. They resembled lemurs but lacked some of the specialisations of living lemurs and lorises. They retain four premolars on each side of the jaw, whereas lemurs have only three. They had generalised lower incisors and canines; in lemurs these are elongated and protruding to form a dental comb. That the adapids were ancestral to the lemurs is widely but not universally accepted. That they were ancestral to the anthropoids seems less likely, though it cannot be ruled out.

By contrast the omomyids were smaller (below 500gms), with much larger orbits, suggesting a nocturnal habit. Their cheek teeth were adapted for a diet primarily of insects. They possessed elongated tarsal bones, similar to those of the tarsiers. It is a popular view that they were ancestral to the tarsiers and/or the anthropoids; again, though, this is not universally accepted.

Were early primates diurnal?
The commonly-held view that early primates were nocturnal rests largely on the fact that the majority of living prosimians are so, and the large orbits of many fossil forms, suggesting that they were also.

We have already seen that there is reason to believe that the tarsiers evolved from diurnal ancestors, and this is supported by a study of the gene sequences of opsins in primates, which rejects the nocturnality – or at least exclusive nocturnality – of ancestral primates.
Opsins are light-sensitive proteins found in retinal photoreceptor cells. Trichromatic or colour vision requires three types of opsin, sensitive to short, medium and long wavelengths. However colour vision is not is particularly useful for nocturnal animals, and has been found that in nocturnal animals either the genes coding for short wavelengths or those coding for medium/long-wave opsins rapidly pick up deleterious mutations, rendering the opsins themselves non-functional and giving the animal only monochromatic (“black-and-white”) vision. Because the “bad” opsin genes do not in such cases affect the organism’s survival, there is no Darwinian natural selection acting to eliminate them.

For any species, this mutation would be expected to occur at the same rate across successive generations, and on the nocturnal picture the opsin genes in all nocturnal primates would be expected to have undergone similar degrees of deleterious mutations, reflecting similar times of divergence from the last common diurnal ancestor (presumed not to be a primate).

However this prediction was not borne out by the study, which showed considerable variation in the degree of genetic defects found across a range of prosimians, indicating different time periods of deleterious mutation for different lineages, and suggesting different diurnal ancestry for each.
This in turn implies that the common primate ancestor of all of these lineages must have been diurnal, unless each lineage independently went through a phase of diurnality, before reverting to nocturnality, which seems unlikely (Tan, Yoder, Yamasita & Li, 2005).

Origin of the Anthropoids
As we have seen, the Springer, Murphy, Eizirik & O’Brien study gives a date of 77 mya for the divergence of the Haplorrhini from the Strepsirrhini. Other estimates range from 90 to 63 mya.
The origins of the anthropoids within this group are incompletely understood, with four competing theories of anthropoid phylogeny: 1) they evolved from Eocene adapids; 2) they evolved from Eocene omomyids; 3) they evolved from tarsiers; 4) they diverged from other haplorrhines early in the Cenozoic, and form a sister group to the omomyid/tarsier clade.
There are also four major competing views concerning the geographic origins of the anthropoids: 1) anthropoids originated in the circum-Tethyan region (the shores of the Tethys Sea, an ocean separating the supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana); 2) anthropoids originated on the Asian continental landmass; 3) anthropoids originated as part of a southern continental fauna, centred on Indo-Madagascar; or 4) anthropoids originated in Africa.

A review of existing data and theories about anthropoid origins was published in 2005 (Miller, Gunnell & Martin, 2005). Morphological, molecular and biogeographic evidence was considered. The review rejected ancestry with any known primate group. It claimed the anthropoids have existed as long as any known primate group, and that the time-depth is too great for their ancestry to be reliably determined, though its authors did not rule out one of known groups could be more closely related than the others.

This is a rather extreme view: the last phylogeny of the four above seems to be a less extreme position (Beard, K. C., Krishtalka, L. & Stucky, R. K., 1991). On this picture, there is a relatively early split in the Haplorrhini between the anthropoids and the common ancestor of both the omomyids and the tarsiers.

The Miller, Gunnell & Martin review also considered geographic origins of the anthropoids, and came down in favour of either an African or Indo-Madagascan origin.

Eosimias: Dawn Monkey from China
Currently, the earliest known anthropoid is Eosimias sinesis (“dawn monkey from China”), which is believed to have lived 45 mya. A fragment of a lower jawbone and foot bones were unearthed in China in the 1990s by joint American-Chinese expeditions led by Dr. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Eosimias is believed to have weighed no more than 100 gms, about the size of a pygmy marmoset. Beard and his colleagues claimed the remains suggest a Middle to Late Eocene emergence in eastern Asia of the mosaic of traits leading from primitive to anthropoid physiology. It shares derived features with undoubted anthropoids, including a 2-1-3-3 dental formula, a single-rooted anterior lower premolar (P2), shortening and crowding of the third and fourth premolars (P3 and P4) and labial expansion of the crowns. However, the two halves of the jawbone are not fused at the symphysis (cartilaginous joint), unlike all later anthropoids.

The anthropoid status of Eosimias was supported by a study published in Nature in 2000. A parsimony analysis of eleven tarsal characters using the PAUP 4.0 (Phylogenetic Analysis Using Parsimony) computer program suggested that Eosimias is a sister group to other anthropoids (Gebo, Dagosto, Beard, Qi & Wang, 2000).

Later Eocene Anthropoids
From Myanmar (Burma) come fragmentary jaws believed to date to 44-40 mya, representing at least two possible anthropoid species – the gibbon-sized Amphipithecus mogaungensis and the less well-known Pondaungia cotteri.

Amphipithecus had a number of features linking it with the anthropoids: the jawbone was deep compared with molar crown height and remained deep all along the jaw (in prosimians it is shallower, especially towards the front); the jawbone was fused at the symphysis (unlike Eosimias) and reinforced by an inferior and a superior transverse torus (a horizontal shelf-like thickening of bone; when this feature is present in prosimians they have only the inferior transverse torus); the second molar was parallel-sided (in common with anthropoids) and not narrowing towards the front (unlike the prosimians).

In common with Eosimias the dental formula is 2-1-3-3. The molar crowns were relatively flat, with low blunt cusps, suggesting a diet focussed more on leaves and fruit and less on insects than is typical for prosmimians; its premolar morphology was close enough to that of Eosimias to suggest descent; its overall form was sufficiently generalised for it to be ancestral to both the Catarrhini and the Platyrrhini (Klein, 1999).

Fossils of the Fayum Depression, Egypt
One of the most productive fossil sites for early anthropoids is the Jebel Qatrani Formation in the Fayum Depression, near Cairo, Egypt. The sheer diversity of the Fayum taxa is strong evidence for an African origin and early radiation for the anthropoids. It also supports the greater time depth for the anthropoids than was once supposed, as suggested in Miller, Gunnell & Martin review.

The site was originally attributed to the early Oligocene, but is now believed to straddle the Eocene/Oligocene boundary, 34 mya. Late Eocene material includes partial jaws, skull fragments and limb bones and has been assigned to four anthropoid genera (Catopithecus, Proteopithecus, Serapia and Arsinoea), all believed to have been small, weighing less than 900 gm, roughly the size of a squirrel monkey. Their premolars and molars resemble those of later Oligocene anthropoids.

A nearly complete skull of Catopithecus reveals clear anthropoid features including fused frontal bones, a postorbital plate separating the orbit from the braincase and an ectotympanic bone fused to the margin of the auditory bulla. However its brain was smaller than that of a modern anthropoid of the same size. Proteopithecus retained the 2-1-3-3 dental formula of Amphipithecus, the formula still found in living platyrrhines, meaning it may lie near the common ancestry of both the platyrrhines and the catarrhines. On the other hand Catopithecus has lost a premolar and has the 2-1-2-3 found in later catarrhines.

Both Catopithecus and Proteopithecus are tentatively assigned to the propliopithecids, a catarrhine/proto-catarrhine family known mainly from the Oligocene. However the affinities of these taxa to later groupings are very tentative and the 2-1-3-3 dental formula of Proteopithecus makes such an association questionable.

The Platyrrhine/Catarrhine split
New World monkeys show up in the South American fossil record from 25 mya. Nobody knows for certain how they got there but rafting from Africa likeliest explanation. This theory suggests that the ancestors of the New World monkeys (and presumably other animals) were swept out to sea by flash floods, together with mats of vegetation on which they were able to survive until the currents brought them ashore in South America.

Although it might seem more feasible to suggest that the New World monkeys reached South and Central America via North America, there are two objections. Firstly there is no fossil evidence to suppose that any anthropoids ever lived in North America prior to the arrival of humans; secondly the Americas were still separate and actually further apart than South America was from Africa and South America. Furthermore there were probably chains of islands stretching between the two continents, so series of shorter rafting events could have taken place. Notably some rodents are also believed to have reached South America from Africa.

Estimates based on molecular data suggest the split between the Platyrrhine and Catarrhine occurred approximately 40 mya. Although the platyrrhines are believed to have originated in Africa, fossil evidence is lacking. Proteopithecus has many features resembling both fossil and present-day platyrrhines, but these appear to be pleisiomorphies, i.e. features shared with anthropoids predating the platyrrhine/catarrhine split (Miller & Simons, 1997).

Into the Oligocene
The Oligocene (34-23 mya) is the third period of the Cenozoic Era. At the transition to the Oligocene global temperatures dropped sharply as the configuration and topography of the continents changed, altering oceanic and atmospheric circulation. The cooler, dryer conditions resulted eventually in the disappearance of subtropical forest from middle latitudes. It was during this period that the promsimians went into decline and became confined largely to nocturnal niches, suffering from both loss of habitat (in Europe and North America) and competition from the anthropoids (in Africa and Asia). Only in Madagascar – which the anthropoids never reached – did the prosimians continue to flourish.

Roughly 1000 primate specimens have been recovered from the Oligocene layers of the Fayum, of which all but a handful are anthropoids. Twelve species in six genera are generally recognised: Qatrania, Apidium, Parapithecus, Propliopithecus, Aegyptopithecus and Oligopithecus. These are grouped into the parapithecoids (Qatrania, Apidium and Parapithecus) and the propliopithecoids (Propliopithecus, Oligopithecus and Aegyptopithecus). Not all lived at the same time and some may have evolved from others.

By the standards of present-day anthropoids, the Oligocene Fayum taxa were small, ranging from 300gms for Qatrania to 3-4 kg (Parapithecus) up to 5.9 kg (Aegyptpithecus, some species of Propliopithecus). They were still larger than any modern insectivorous primates, suggesting they were mainly fruit or leaf eaters. The majority had short molar shearing crests, suggesting they were fruit eaters. Most were probably arboreal (by analogy with similar-sized living primates). The limb bone morphology suggests they were either quadruped-climbers (Propliopithecus and Aegyptopithecus) or quadruped-leapers (Apidum).

The parapithecoids possess the 2-1-3-3 dental formula of platyrrhines. They are probably basal to the anthropoids as a whole: their origins predating the platyrrhine/catarrhine split. It seems quite likely that they represent a separate and extinct branch of the anthropoids and are not ancestral to either the platyrrhines or the catarrhines.

The propliopithecoids have a 2-1-2-3 dental formula, suggesting a link with the catarrhines. Skull and postcranial evidence, in particular from Aegyptopithecus, suggests that they lie close to the ancestry of both the Old World Monkeys and the hominoids, but predate the split between these two groups.

Cerapithecoids and Hominoids
The penultimate split in the primate line is that between the cerapithecoids (Old World Monkeys) and the hominoids (apes and humans). Just when the split occurred is not known for certain due the poor fossil record. However the split must have occurred between the time of Aegyptopithecus (33 mya); and that of the first generally accepted apes Morotopithecus (21 mya) and Proconsul (20 mya). A commonly-accepted date is 23-25 mya (Late Oligocene/Early Miocene), based on molecular data, though one study using a technique known as maximum likelihood-based quartet analysis places it much further back, at approximately 30 mya in the Early Oligocene. Maximum likelihood-based quartet analysis is a computer-intensive statistical technique that has found widespread use in calculating divergence times (Steiper, Young and Sukarna, 2004).

The Early Miocene
The Miocene (23 – 5.33 mya) is the fourth period of the Cenozoic Era. By this time the configuration of the continents was approaching that today, and many familiar geographic features formed as a result of continental collisions during the Miocene. These included the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, the Ethiopian highlands and the Rift Valley. The Ethiopian highlands interrupted the eastwards flow of rain, creating a rain-shadow across East Africa, which saw a significant rainfall reduction. This effect was exacerbated by the uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

From the earliest Miocene, 23 million years ago, the rainforest belt covering Africa had been breaking up into distinct ecological niches with increasing patches of woodland/grassland interrupting the rainforests.

As Africa’s northward drift brought it into contact with Eurasia, the Tethys Sea closed, causing southern Eurasia to become cooler and dryer. Equally important, the new land connections permitted faunal exchange between Africa and Eurasia, and among the migrants were the hominoids, who radiated through the forests of Eurasia, from Spain to China.

In eastern Africa, primates inhabited tropical forest and woodland. Most were hominoids with cerapithecoids being infrequent. Cerapithecoids only predominated in the less forested regions such as northern Africa.

A number of early Miocene hominoid species are known from fossil deposits in eastern Africa. The best known is Proconsul but at least five other genera are known: Dendropithecus, Micropithecus, Morotopithecus, Afropithecus and Turkanapithecus.

The ape-like Proconsul, discovered in 1909 and named in 1931, appeared in Kenya about 20 mya and possessed some Old World monkey features such as short forelimbs and a deep, narrow chest. Its forelimbs were adapted for walking on palms rather than the knuckle-walking of modern chimps and gorillas. In common with modern apes it lacked a tail and had a slightly larger brain, relative to its size, than a monkey. Proconsul was a forest-dwelling arboreal quadruped, spending much of its time in the trees. Its facial anatomy and low-cusped thin enamelled molars suggest that its diet consisted largely of soft fruit. It lacked the enlarged fruit-peeling incisors of chimps and orang-utans and the high-cusped leaf-chewing molars of gorillas. It was sufficiently generalised to be close to the common ancestry of all three. Proconsul comprised 3-5 species, ranging in size from 11 kg (roughly the size of a gibbon) to 87 kg (orang-utan sized). The name “Proconsul” is a reference to it having evolved before chimpanzees; “Consul” was a common name for chimpanzees at that time, including one at London Zoo.

Out of Africa – and back again!
Kenyapithecus africanus, a hominoid that appeared around 16-15 mya, is often touted as the direct ancestor of the great apes and humans. Its more immediate descendents could have included a number of later Eurasian Miocene hominoids: Ouranopithecus, Sivapithecus and Gigantopithecus. Kenyapithecus had a robust jawbone, enlarged upper premolars and thick enamel – features that are certainly steps in the direction.

By this time, beginning 17-18 mya hominoids were migrating across the newly-established land bridge into Eurasia where, as already noted, they flourished. At least seven genera probably existed: Dryopithecus (14-8 mya, known from central and western Europe), Pliopithecus (16-11 mya, known western and south-central Europe and southern China), Ouranopithecus a.k.a. Graecopithecus (9.6-8.7 mya, known from Greece), Sivapithecus (12.5-7 mya, known from Siwalik Hills on India-Pakistan border and in Turkey), Gigantopithecus (6.3-0.5 mya, Siwalik, western China, Vietnam [largest primate ever, bigger than a gorilla]), Lufengpithecus (8-7 mya, known from Lufen in southern China) and Oreopithecus (9-8 mya, known from Italy).

These apes ranged in size from gibbons to chimpanzees, though the aptly-named Gigantopithecus was even larger than a gorilla and is the largest primate ever to have lived. They were further evolved in the direction of modern apes. Dryopithecus, for example, had a shortened inflexible lumbar vertebral (waist) skeleton, broad flat thorax (chest), scapulae (shoulder-blades) behind the thorax (rather than alongside), long arms that could rotate around the shoulder joint, implying upright (orthograde) posture (as opposed to prograde), and able to hang below branches or climb hand over hand – it is the oldest hominoid for which this characteristic ape-like posture and locomotion can be implied.

Others, such as Ouranopithecus had thick enamel, permitting it to eat nuts, seeds, tubers and other hard grit encrusted food, which became common in relation to fruit as woodland replaced forest. Faunal remains suggest it occupied open woodland and savannah and had to spend significant amounts of time on the ground to get at its preferred foodstuffs. Its teeth resemble those of the later australopithecines, suggesting it is close to the line leading to humans. Unfortunately no post-cranial remains have been found.

Sivapithecus also had thick enamel and lived in open woodland. It had many features in common with orang-utan and is thought to be ancestral. If so, it suggests orang-utans had split from the line leading to African hominids by 12 mya.

If any of these Eurasian apes was the common ancestor to modern-day gibbons, great apes and humans, how did we end up with gibbons and orang-utans in Asia, and gorillas, chimps and humans in Africa? The poor hominoid fossil record in Africa after 13 mya has led some to propose scenarios in which hominoids left Africa, but their descendants later returned.

One possible scenario is that the ancestor of the gibbons left Africa, leaving behind the ancestor(s) of orang-utans, chimps and gorillas. Subsequently the ancestor of orang-utans dispersed to Asia.

A second scenario, involving fewer assumptions, is that the ancestor of all of the above (possibly Kenyapithecus) dispersed out of Africa and gave rise (via one of the genera described above) to the gibbons and great apes in Eurasia. One group later moved back to Africa and begat the gorillas, chimps, and humans. This move back to Africa would have happened after the gibbon/great ape divergence, but before the emergence of Sivapithecus. This “Out of Africa and back again” scenario seems highly plausible.

If this second scenario is accepted, then the immediate ancestor of the hominids emerged from Eurasia 14-15 million years ago and joined a general faunal migration into Africa, taking advantage of the new cooler conditions at the expense of the endemic fauna.

Finally, about 6 million years ago, the line diverged again, with one line leading to chimps and the other to the australopithecines and, ultimately, to humans.

Nakalipithecus nakayamai
However recent discoveries (Kunimatsu, Yutaka et al., 2007) have cast doubt on the “Out of Africa and back again” scenario. A jawbone and teeth recovered from Nakali, Kenya have been assigned to a new genus of great ape, Nakalipithecus nakayamai. N. Nakayamai is described as a large hominoid with dental size corresponding to female gorillas and orang-utans and it has similarities to Ouranopithecus. It appears to be slightly older than Ournaopithecus (9.9-9.8 mya, versus 9.6-8.7 mya). Another fossil great ape, Chororapithecus abyssinicus has also recently been discovered in Ethiopia (Suwa et al, 2007).

These findings together with the long-established existence of a third Late Miocene hominid, Samburupithecus kiptamali, discovered in 1982 in the Samburu Hills, northern Kenya, weaken the view that hominoids disappeared from Africa in the late Miocene. Although it is not necessarily the case that any of these apes are the last common ancestor of humans and African apes, it may well be the case that they are close relatives.

Clearly further fossil evidence is required, and all that can safely be said at the present time is that the matter is far from settled.


Beard, K. C., Krishtalka, L. & Stucky, R. K. 1991: First skulls of the early Eocene primate Shoshonius cooperi and the anthropoid–tarsier dichotomy. Nature (349), 64–67 (1991).

Cameron, D and Groves, C 2004: Bones, Stones and Molecules: “Out of Africa” and Human Origins, Elsevier Academic Press.

Colbert, E and Morales, M 1991: Evolution of the Vertebrates (4th edition), John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Gebo, Dagosto, Beard, Qi & Wang 2000: The oldest known anthropoid postcranial fossils and the early evolution of higher primates, Nature (404) 16 March 2000 pp 276-278.

Groves, C 1991: A Theory of Human and Primate Evolution, Clarendon Press Oxford.

Ji et al 2002: The earliest known eutherian mammal. Nature (416), pp 816-822.

Klein, R 1999: The Human Career (2nd edition), University of Chicago Press.

Kunimatsu, Yutaka et al. (2007): A new Late Miocene great ape from Kenya and its implications for the origins of African great apes and humans. PNAS 104(49) pp.19220–19225 (December 4, 2007)

Levin, R and Foley, R 2004: Principles of Human Evolution (2nd edition), Blackwell Publishing.

Miller, Gunnell & Martin 2005: Deep Time Depth and the search for Anthropoid Origins, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 48:60–95 (2005).

Miller, E & Simons, E 1997: Dentition of Proteopithecus sylviae, an archaic anthropoid from the Fayum, Egypt, PNAS Vol. 94, pp. 13760–13764, December 1997

Springer, Murphy, Eizirik & O’Brien 2003: Placental mammal diversification and the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, PNAS February 4, 2003 vol. 100 no. 3 1056-1061.

Steiper, M, Young, N and Sukarna, T 2004: Genomic data support the hominoid slowdown and an Early Oligocene estimate for the hominoid–cercopithecoid divergence PNAS December 7, 2004 vol. 101 no. 49 17025.

Suwa, Kono, Katoh, Asfaw & Beyene 2007: A new species of great ape from the late Miocene epoch in Ethiopia, Nature (448), 23 August 2007, pp 921-924.

Tan, Yoder, Yamasita & Li 2005: Evidence from opsin genes rejects nocturnality in ancestral primates, PNAS October 11, 2005 vol. 102 no. 41 14715.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Late on Tuesday, I had just finished posting an entry on this blog (a science-fiction story, ironically) and as I often do, I took a last look for the day at the BBC website where I learned that Sir Arthur C. Clarke had died at the age of 90.

As a life-long SF enthusiast, I was familiar with Clarke’s short stories long before I was familiar with him by name. At the age of ten, much of the science fiction in the children’s section of the local library was in the form of multi-author anthologies and the first work by Clarke that I read would have been either Breaking Strain or Hide and Seek (I think they both featured in the same volume).

Breaking Strain is one of the best character-driven short stories ever written – a space freighter is struck by a small meteorite, which causes most of its oxygen supply to be lost into space. Enough oxygen remains to last the two-man crew 20 days – but the ship is still 30 days from its destination. However one doesn’t have to be Einstein to realise that the oxygen could last one man for 40 days…

Here was surely a superb opportunity for a movie in the vein of Lifeboat or Strongroom, but sadly when a film version appeared in the 1990s it was dire: Grant and McNeill (the original crew, whose first names we never learned) were joined by four other shipmates (including the obligatory hot chick), who waste very little time in starting to kill each other. This is in complete contrast to the original in which Grant and McNeill are portrayed as two men of sound if contrasting character, who are gradually driven to extremities by their situation.

The movie’s title was changed to Trapped in Space – something more appropriate for an episode of Thunderbirds.

I recall reading Hide and Seek while my father looked round a house we subsequently moved to. Presumably we had gone via the library: it was more or less standard procedure on a Saturday morning. In this story, the one man crew of a scout-ship takes refuge on the Martian moon of Phobos and manages to elude a pursuing warship until reinforcements arrive.

By 14 I’d graduated to the adult section of the library and duly encountered Arthur C. Clarke’s novels – by the end of 1971 I must have read most of them. Three that stood out for me were Against the Fall of Night (I didn’t come across the expanded version, The City and the Stars, until later – like Clarke himself I have never been able to make up my mind which version I prefer), Childhood’s End and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Strangely enough I did not see 2001 when it came out and in an era before DVDs or even VHS I had to wait until its second cinematic release in the late 1970s. So for many years I was only familiar with the novel version.

The following is a piece I posted on my personal website back in 2000 in an attempt to promote my own rather more modest career as a science fiction writer (square [] brackets denote my later comments):

In just a few months from now, the best-known date in science fiction history (along with 1984) will be upon us.

2001 is undoubtedly Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s best-known work, if not quite his best. The novel cannot really be separated from the late Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film, as the two were written in conjunction. The book version is not a “novellization” of the movie, nor is the movie version the “film of the book”. It says much for the genius of both Clarke and Kubrick that the two versions stand on a par – you cannot really say that one is better than the other, and they are both classics in their own medium.

2001 is based upon a 1948 short story, The Sentinel, which appears in the collection Expedition to Earth (which additionally features the Hitchcock-esque classic Breaking Strain, another childhood favourite of mine, Hide and Seek and the cautionary tale Superiority) [I added these remarks to try and sell Expedition to Earth and other SF books from my site via Amazon, but I don’t think anybody even read the review let alone used the Amazon hyperlinks]. The Sentinel tells of a crystal pyramid (rather than the familiar monolith) found on the moon. It takes 20 years to find a means of breaking through the force-field that surrounds it, and the artefact is destroyed in the process. The narrator speculates that it has been left on the moon in prehistoric times to await the arrival of man, patiently signalling that nobody has found it. Once found and put out of action, it will alert its creators to the fact that man has mastered the secret of space travel.

2001 begins four million years ago, with the appearance of a monolith on Earth which stimulates the development of a group of primitive pre-human hominids (Australopithecus?). The sight of it, the Sun and a crescent moon will be a recurring theme in the movie. The hominids are starving to death in the midst of plenty, with no inkling that the herds of pigs roaming unsuspectingly close by represent a very convenient source of food. The monolith changes that and in a dramatic example of conceptual breakthrough, a hominid visualises how an animal bone can be used to kill the pigs.

The animal bone can be used for killing things other than pigs. The opening scene of the movie ends dramatically when the hominid leader uses it to club to death the leader of a rival group, thus giving the latter the highly dubious honour of becoming the first ever casualty of a war. Unaware of the unfortunate trend he has just started, the hominid leader triumphantly hurls the bone up into the air. It circles round and is replaced by the image of an orbital satellite. The serene “dance of the machines” and its Blue Danube accompaniment contrasts sharply with the brutality of the previous scene [and with the 11 September terrorist attacks, which in our universe at least, was the event for which the year 2001 will be chiefly remembered].

2001 was not the first science fiction movie to use classical music [as opposed to a dedicated score], but none before or since has done so a tenth as effectively.

There is a minor but amusing difference between the two versions at this point. In the movie, we see Floyd’s space shuttle has to spin on its central axis in order to dock with the wheel-like space station; in the book the docking section of the wheel does not rotate and the shuttle is able to dock without it and its occupants being “whirled disastrously around”, as Clarke puts it!

After an interlude aboard a space station that is a masterpiece of ‘Sixties interior decor, Floyd’s journey to the moon resumes aboard an Aries-1B moon shuttle; after landing at Clavius Base he is conveyed by surface transport to Tycho, where the Monolith awaits. As he and his colleagues contemplate the enigmatic ebony-black slab that has been identified by its anomalous magnetic signature, their helmet radios are filled with a piercing burst of sound. It’s not a malfunction – the radios are picking up a signal emitted by the Monolith as the Sun shines on it for the first time in three million years. We see again the mystical alignment of monolith, Sun and a crescent Earth (replacing the crescent moon seen earlier). Unfortunately, the scene is a howler in more ways than one – just minutes earlier, we saw Floyd’s surface transport skimming across a lunar landscape lit by a gibbous Earth!

Both versions now switch to the USS Discovery, en route for Jupiter. But where as in the film the king of the planets is the final destination, in the novel the ship does not stop there but uses the principle of “gravity assist” to speed her passage to her final destination – Saturn. This is exactly the same techniques used just a few years later by NASA to send Pioneer 10 and the two Voyager probes to Saturn. The events aboard the Discovery as HAL turns against David Bowman and Frank Poole are too well known to be worth recounting her. But while in the movie HAL refuses to let David Bowman back aboard the ship with the famous, almost apologetic “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”, in the novel, the maverick computer simply opens the hangar – which does avoid the obvious question as to why Bowman left his helmet behind in the first place.

The movie version is, however, truer to one of Clarke’s pet ideas, that of an astronaut trying to cross between two spacecraft without a spacesuit. Clarke first explores the idea in Earthlight, when the Earth liner Pegasus goes to the aid of the stricken Federation warship Acheron and manages to take off most of her 120-strong crew, despite there being a grand total of five spacesuits aboard – a humanitarian action that shames the two warring sides into signing a peace treaty. The idea crops up again in Take a Deep Breath, one of a series of linked stories set aboard a space station and originally written for the Evening Standard in 1957, when four men have to be rescued from a compartment that has come loose from the rest of the station.

In their very different but equally effective ways, the novel and movie versions follow David Bowman’s mind-boggling jouney through the Stargate (located in orbit around Jupiter in the movie, but on the surface of the Saturnian moon of Japetus in the novel), where he is transformed into a higher but child-like lifeform, capable of returning to Earth in literally no time at all.

The idea of a higher but child-like lifeform is another recurring Clarke theme – in Childhood’s End, mankind is reborn as part of the Overmind with the assistance of the Overlords, a race of satanic-looking beings who are actually benign “cosmic midwives”. And in Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars, the restless Alvin encounters Vanamonde, a creature of pure mentality that is still millions of years away from maturity.

It is a simple but very effective tribute to Clarke’s genius that his unique writing style more than compensates for the absence of the movie’s breathtaking visual effects. As for the movie, it is still stunning after over three decades, with the real 2001 just around the corner.

Perhaps it would have been better if things had been left with the Star Child contemplating the planet Earth, but even Sir Arthur C. Clarke is only human and the temptation to write a sequel must have been overwhelming. As a reader, I have to confess I couldn’t get hold of a copy of 2010: Odyssey Two fast enough. It, 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey are all extremely readable (as one would expect from Clarke), all contain fascinating ideas of which the most interesting are the ill-fated Chinese landing on Europa and the discovery of life there, an asteroid-sized diamond left over from the destruction of Jupiter and a very believable account of life at the dawn of the Fourth Millennium.

Eight years after I wrote this piece it is probably worth pointing out that Clarke and Kubrick were also responsible for the pronunciation of 21st Century years – Two Thousand and One rather than Twenty Oh One. The latter would have been consistent with the way years were pronounced in the last century, thus 1999 was pronounced Nineteen Ninety-Nine: only legal documents would have written it as Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine. At some stage we will probably revert to the previous convention, I suspect no later than 2066 if only because the most famous date in English history has always been pronounced Ten Sixty-Six and not One Thousand and Sixty-Six, though I’m unlikely to be around to find out .

Until the 1970s Arthur C. Clarke’s stories regularly featured faster than light travel, which according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is impossible. To quote Clarke’s First Law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

In one of his non-fiction works, Clarke took a swipe at the Principle of Equivalence, which states that there is no way to tell the difference between a gravity field and the effects of acceleration. Clarke claimed that this must be incorrect because a gravity field obeys the Inverse Square Law (the field weakens as the square of the distance) whereas the effects of acceleration is uniform. Therefore “there might be a hole through which we can push our trans-photic [faster than light] ship”. Arthur C. Clarke was a far better physicist than I am (he gained a First from King’s College, London whereas I only managed a 2.2 from the same institution), so I assume this remark was tongue-in-cheek as even I can see the flaw in this argument.

Clarke remained a prolific writer during the 1970s but it is interesting that his writing then underwent a paradigm shift in that he rejected the possibility of faster than light travel and it did not feature in any of his subsequent stories.

The flood of thought-provoking ideas continued unabated however. Imperial Earth – set 300 years in the future – featured a particularly cool gadget called a Mini Sec which was basically what we’d now call a PDA. At the time, I wanted one but didn’t expect to be able to own one in my life time. In fact, I only had to wait ten years before the first PDA – the Psion Organizer – had made its appearance. However the Mini Sec was based on the then cutting-edge pocket calculator: Clarke failed to anticipate the touch-sensitive screen. He also predicted that the chord-keyboard featured in the late 1980s Microwriter AgendA would come into standard usage, but it never really took off.

Clarke’s more successful predictions include mobile phones and communication satellites (though he anticipated that they would need to be manned) and to this day the geostationary orbit is named the Clarke Orbit. The space elevator remains unrealised, but its time will come.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke has said that he would prefer to be remembered as a writer and it thus that he will be largely remembered. However he was much more than just a science fiction writer and it is certainly safe to say that if he had never written a single work of science fiction, he would still have been a household name.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The Face of Noah

In the cramped confines of Pathfinder One, Lycurgus Burrell was ready to become the first man in space. For the first time he noticed the fresh tang of his own sweat. He was uncomfortably aware that he was sitting on top of enough kerosene and liquid oxygen to blow him all the way to the Moon. Once again he found himself staring out through the tiny window in front of him, which showed nothing but bright blue skies.

Outside, tinny loudspeakers proclaimed the countdown to be into the last three minutes and urged clearance of the launch area. In a short while, he’d see the inky blackness of space. In less than half an hour, he’d see the Moon go rushing past at three and a half miles per second.
An hour from now – assuming he wasn’t dead – he’d be back on the ground. This was the culmination of a quarter of a century, during which he had been labelled variously as a visionary, a heretic – and a fool pure and simple.

And even he didn’t know which was right…

Like a misshapen blood-orange, the Moon shot up above the western horizon. In less than a minute, its hue had faded to a leaden off-white. Lycurgus Burrell stared absent-mindedly at the shadows of the nearby line of trees, marching in step with the Moon’s rapid progress across the heavens. Then the light dimmed, briefly attenuated as the Moon passed behind the sinister plume rising above Mount Erebus.

He could still faintly hear pop music and smell wood-smoke from the campsite, half a mile away.

“An archaeological dig led by a mad middle-aged hippie!” he said disgustedly. “What am I doing here?” But the disgust was directed at himself, and the question purely rhetorical.
Lycurgus stared up at the almost-full Moon. The enigmatic Face of Noah was well placed for observation, on the Moon’s eastern limb. Astronomers claimed there had once been a time when the whole of the feature could clearly be seen from Tellus, but changes in the Moon’s orbit were gradually carrying it out of view.

Why had it given rise to a Biblical story? Presumably because of a coincidental likeness to a human face. The idea that men had been to the Moon in Biblical times and carved the feature there was too ludicrous for words.

Dr. Auerbach wanted to go to the Moon for real in the here and now and he, Lycurgus Burrell, could have been a part of that quest. But he’d blown it big time.

“What a bloody mess!” he said aloud.

“Gus? Is that you?” said a voice behind him. It was that of Olwen Rees – the mad hippie herself.

Mildly curious, he turned round. “Professor?”

The tall square-jawed archaeologist favoured him with a sympathetic smile. The quartz crystal she wore as a pendant glinted in the moonlight. Doubtless news of his disastrous move for Catrina was all over the camp by now. Had she come looking for him? It was an oddly appealing thought, but the backpack she was wearing suggested some other agenda.

“Not partying?” she enquired.

“I’m not in a party mood,” Lycurgus admitted. “You’re going somewhere,” he ventured.

“This modern pop’s hardly my scene,” Olwen said.

“Are you planning on getting so far away from the music you need a backpack, Professor?” Lycurgus persisted.

Olwen shrugged. “Dr. Potter’s called me on the R/T. He reckons Erebus is about to blow its top. There’ll be accompanying quakes and the works. The quake that opened the fissure was only a prelude.”

“When’s this going to happen?”

“Any time within the next three days. Potter’s getting his team out at first light and he strongly suggested we pull out too.”

Lycurgus felt a glimmer of hope. “What are we going to do?”

“I’m taking Potter’s advice.”

Praise be, Lycurgus thought. Now he could go home and put this humiliating experience behind him. Maybe he could take up that placement with the NLIS after all.

“Why couldn’t the bloody thing have waited another week?” Olwen bemoaned. “A few days at the site, just a few poxy days! That’s all we’d have needed.”

The backpack!

“Professor, if this is true, I don’t think going to the site on your own is a particularly good idea.”

“I’ve about eight hours before sunrise and it’s only another couple of hours walk to the site. That’ll give me four hours at the site – it’s better than nothing.”

“Are you crazy?” Lycurgus exclaimed.

“Gus, three days from now at most the Novacastra Diggings will have gone forever, and with it any chance to investigate what Potter’s team claim they saw.”

“They’ve got photographs, haven’t they?” Lycurgus was surprised how keen he was to dissuade her from going.

But Olwen was unimpressed. “Potter and his team are geologists, not archaeologists. They wouldn’t have a clue what to photograph. We can safely assume that anything they have got will be of little value.”

Lycurgus found himself offering to accompany Olwen.

“T minus one minute,” Robert Auerbach announced over the radio.

Burrell recalled the Catrina episode with wry amusement and the benefit of twenty-five years of hindsight. Even for a young man of 21 he had been spectacularly naive.
He’d always got on very well with Catrina, but assuming that her split with her boyfriend had left the way open for him had been unwarranted: her reply to his declaration of love entirely predictable.

“Switching over to internal power now,” said Auerbach.

Burrell sighed.

Catrina had never seen him as anything but a friend. To rub salt in the wounds she’d claimed she’d now become involved with somebody else.

As a second year Engineering student, he should have realised the folly of turning down Auerbach’s offer of a summer placement with the New London Interplanetary Society. He’d done so in order to join Catrina on the hastily assembled archaeological expedition. But his decisions at that time were generally testosterone-led. Come to think of it, would he have accompanied Olwen Rees that night if he hadn’t fancied her?

Auerbach continued to intone the final stages of pre-flight liturgy. “T minus thirty seconds and counting. Vehicle is now on internal power. Umbilicals disconnected.”

Not long to go now. Burrell’s heart began pound. He drew a deep breath. “Here we go,” he muttered. The countdown entered its final stage.

“- Ten – Nine – Eight – Seven – Six – Engine sequence commence – Five – Four – Three -” Auerbach intoned.

A distant rumble that grew to a thunderous roar.

“- Two – One – Zero. All engines running. Lift-off – we have lift-off.”

“The clock is running,” Burrell called.

“Lift-off of Pathfinder One at thirty-two minutes past the hour –“

“Spacecraft systems all go,” Burrell reported.

He felt a terrible jarring motion, throwing him from side to side.

“Tower clear!” Auerbach announced.

The spacecraft rose in a fury of sound. Now Burrell felt a mounting pressure on his chest. Forty seconds after lift-off, the shuddering began to smooth out as Pathfinder One broke through the sound barrier. But the weight on his chest climbed remorselessly. His arms and legs felt like lead. The accelerometer read three gravities and continued to creep upwards.

“Lift-off AOK,” Auerbach said reassuringly. “Pathfinder One, you’re looking good.”

Lycurgus and Olwen picked their way across the moonlit ruin of what had until a few days ago been a prosperous vineyard. The heavy smell of sulphur hung in the air.
Ahead of them the ground was riven as if by a gigantic meat-cleaver.

“That must be the fissure,” Olwen said, excitement evident in her voice.

Olwen shone her torch down into the blackness. The fissure seemed to slope down reasonably gently.

“How deep is it?” Lycurgus cast an anxious glance at Mount Erebus. An ominous red glow could be seen at the summit.

“According to Potter, about 75 feet. The fissure is two miles long, 30 feet across at the widest point.”

They started down, picking their way cautiously over the uneven ground.

“Do you think these remains really could be a thousand years older than Novacastra?” Lycurgus asked.

“Potter thinks so, based on geological evidence. Of course he couldn’t comment from an archaeological perspective.”

Olwen broke off as a rumble sounded from above. The ground trembled slightly.

“Uh-oh,” Lycurgus said nervously.

Olwen was unperturbed. “According to Potter, it’s been like this ever since the initial quake – the one that opened this fissure. It’s when Erebus starts ejecting molten material that we need to worry.”

“I hope he’s right.”

Lycurgus made no further comment as they continued on downwards, and presently they were at the bottom.

“It’s only about another quarter of a mile,” Olwen said, picking out the way ahead with her torch and striding confidently on.

Lycurgus followed, looking up at the narrow crack of starlit sky above. Erebus emitted another ominous rumble. As they continued, the fissure gradually widened, then after about five minutes, Olwen’s torch picked out an almost buried house front.

“That is it!” she said triumphantly.

Together they stared into what looked like the front reception room of a small house. Traces of carpet were still visible on the floor, together with what might have been the remains of tables and chairs.

“Oh!” Lycurgus exclaimed as the torch beam fell upon a mummified human body.

“She seems to have collapsed and died while attempting to flee the building,” Olwen said.

“She?” Lycurgus said doubtfully.

“These are the remains of a woman,” Olwen said, a trifle testily. Surely you can see that!”

Lycurgus, whose lack of familiarity with the female form was a source of embarrassment to him – especially now – stammered “She must have been almost six feet tall.”

“So? I’m 5ft11 myself.”

“Yes, but in the Classical Era I thought even men were only around 5ft6 on average.”

“Gus, this woman isn’t from the Classical Era,” Olwen said, stepping through what had been the front door of the house. “Come on, if Potter’s correct you are in for another shock or two.”

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Lycurgus replied, but he followed Olwen anyway. She shone her torch along the hallway they had entered. Here and there, plaster had crumbled from the walls. “Professor, that’s –” he started.

“Breeze-block, yes. And no, they didn’t have that in the Classical Era either.”

They entered the front room. Olwen knelt down beside the mummified woman and began to examine her left wrist.

“Is that a bracelet she’s wearing?” Lycurgus enquired.

Olwen looked up. “No, Gus, it looks as if Potter was right about this too. She’s wearing a wrist-watch.”

“Dr. Potter told you about this?”

“Yes, hence my need to see it for myself, before it disappears under another 75 feet of pyroclastic flow,” Olwen said, rising to her feet.

“It’s clearly a hoax!” Lycurgus protested.

“No it’s not,” Olwen replied. She took off her backpack and brought out a camera and a flash-gun. “Unless you doubt Dr. Potter’s integrity. Nobody else but he and his team have been here since the fissure opened up nine days ago.”

“But how could there possibly have been a civilisation as advanced as ours five thousand years ago? And even if there were, how come we’ve found no trace of its elsewhere?”

Olwen began photographing the woman. “What we are seeing here,” she said, peering into the viewfinder of her camera, “is proof of my theory about the real origin of Mankind.”

Pathfinder One soared on upwards through the ever-thinning atmosphere. Eight gravities weighed down upon Burrell. He could hardly breathe, but he didn’t care.

The clock showed two minutes, fifteen seconds. Right on cue came a slight diminishing of the weight on his chest followed by a shudder, as the solid fuel boosters cut out and dropped off.

“Twenty seconds to sustainer shut-down,” announced Auerbach.

“Almost there,” Burrell breathed.

Another shudder as the escape tower was jettisoned, followed a few seconds later by the lifting of the crushing weight from his chest as the sustainer shut down. Now his stomach seemed to be heading for the top of the cabin as the craft went into free-fall, moving purely under its own momentum. There came a dull thud as posigrade rockets separated the capsule from the booster.

Through the capsule’s small rectangular window, the skies deepened from blue to indigo, then as the spacecraft exited the last fringes of atmosphere, it turned velvet black, and then the stars came out.

Pathfinder One exiting the atmosphere now,” he reported calmly.

“Confirm you are on course, Pathfinder One. Your time to the Moon is twenty-six minutes, forty seconds and counting,” said Auerbach.

Twenty-six minutes! He was going to make it!

“Tell me, Gus, what do you know about the Theory of Evolution?” Olwen said.

Shocked at the reference to one of the most notorious religious controversies in centuries, Lycurgus was silent for a moment.

“It resulted in Octavian Rees being accused of heresy 150 years ago and forced to recant; the last such case before the Tellurian Inquisition was disbanded,” he said eventually. “Wait a minute, Octavian Rees –“

“Yes – I am a direct descendant,” Olwen said. “But what do you know of the theory itself?”
Feeling decidedly uncomfortable, Lycurgus trawled through his childhood memories of Scripture lessons.

“Only that the theory is wrong,” he said.


Quoting reluctantly from Cardinal Cranfield’s Creationism, Lycurgus said, “Man clearly hasn’t evolved from any other life form on Tellus. Evolutionists point to fossils they claim are antecedent to animals living today as evidence for their theory – but they are unable to explain the complete absence from the so-called fossil record of creatures antecedent to Man. We should not be surprised, as the whole idea is absurd. How could something as complex as Man evolve by pure chance? Man has obviously been created by God.”

“It is difficult to believe that unscientific rubbish like Cranfield is still legally required reading in schools across the Tellurian Commonwealth,” Olwen said with a flash of anger. “Do you realise that radiometric methods have definitely established that Tellus has existed for at least two billion years, and probably much longer; and that life has certainly existed for hundreds of million years? Why would God wait all that time before creating Man, who has only been here for a few millennia?”

“I don’t know,” Lycurgus admitted, “but it doesn’t alter the fact that Man clearly didn’t evolve.”

“Man clearly didn’t evolve on Tellus,” Olwen said. “Neither, by the way, did any of our domestic animals – cattle, sheep, chickens, horses, cats, dogs, etc. But all other Tellurian life is consistent with the Theory of Evolution. The fossil record can only be explained in terms of gradual changes, occurring over millions of years. Now, Gus, what does that suggest to you?”

“That most animal life evolved first; then Man and the domestic animals were created by God later on?” Lycurgus suggested.

“Or that Man evolved somewhere else, on another planet, and only came to Tellus later – bringing his domestic animals with him.”

“Are you saying man originally came to Tellus in a spaceship?” Lycurgus shook his head.

“With all due respect, Professor, that sounds a bit far-fetched to me. Though probably no more so than the idea of carving the Face of Noah on the Moon in Biblical times.”

“Why,” Olwen retorted. “As you yourself have pointed out, liquid-fuelled rockets have already attained altitudes of several miles and there is no reason to suppose that manned spaceflight will not become a reality in our lifetimes.”

“But Professor,” Lycurgus said wearily, “there’s a bit of a difference between going to the planets and interstellar travel. The nearest solar system to our own is more than four light years away. And even if it were possible for our forbears to have travelled such a distance, what happened to this advanced civilisation and why have we found no trace of it elsewhere on Tellus?”

“These remains must be part of the original settlement established by the space travellers,” Olwen said, her face animated. “They hadn’t had time to expand beyond Novacastra before the settlement was destroyed by a major eruption. The survivors lapsed into barbarism before slowly climbing back up the long ladder to civilisation.”

“Even if so, surely some record would remain, if only as a legend. Or are you going to tell me the story of Noah’s Ark is the clue?”

“Not the Ark,” Olwen said. “Are you aware that there are two versions of the story of Noah? There’s the widely-known version that occurs in the Tellurian Authorised Bible in which Noah builds the Ark, of course, but the story of the carving of the Face actually comes from the older Orthodox Version in which Noah and his family take shelter on Mount Ararat and –-“

Olwen broke off as the loudest rumble yet sounded from Mount Erebus. The ground began trembling, but this time it did not die away.

“Professor, I think perhaps we should get out of here,” Lycurgus said.

“I think perhaps you might be right,” Olwen replied. Hastily, she packed away her camera.

They ran for it. Above, the night sky was streaked with red-hot ejecta from Mount Erebus. The tremors became worse, the sound a continual roll of thunder broken by the occasional whistling as particularly large bolides passed overhead.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact no more than a few minutes, they were rushing up the slope, and presently they were back at ground level.

Lycurgus paused briefly to get his breath back and look back at Mount Erebus. The whole top of the mountain was glowing red, and smoke and flames were pouring fourth.

“We must keep going,” Olwen urged.

They resumed running. The sulphurous smell was overpowering, giving Lycurgus a constant urge to cough. The noise grew ever louder, even though they were running directly away from Erebus as fast as their legs could carry them. Despite being fifteen years older than he was, the long-legged Olwen Rees seemed to be rather fitter, Lycurgus noted ruefully.

Suddenly the skies were lit up, as if the Sun had risen directly behind them.

“Cover, we need cover!” Olwen shouted.

Lycurgus looked frantically round. “That hollow over there.”

“It’ll have to do.”

Three or four feet deep, the rectangular depression might well have been the remains of one of the early excavations of the site, a century earlier. They dropped down into it and threw themselves down on the ground. Lycurgus landed painfully on a rocky outcrop.

There was a scything roar that sounded as if the Gates of Hell themselves had opened – was this a manifestation of God’s displeasure? Lycurgus asked himself. A battering blast tore at him. The heat was stifling. He clung desperately to the outcrop as the merciless pummelling continued; but Olwen had nothing to hold on to. Lycurgus saw her hands claw desperately into the ground as she sought a handhold.

Now he felt as if the air was being sucked out of his lungs. Through a rising grey fog, he saw Olwen’s grip fail. She was swept away and hurled bodily out of the hollow.

Lycurgus lost consciousness.

He had regained consciousness in hospital. His survival had been little short of a miracle. A rescue helicopter had spotted Olwen and himself and airlifted them to hospital. He had been suffering from shock and gas inhalation but had been otherwise unharmed. Olwen had not been so lucky; the explosion had thrown her nearly hundred yards from the hollow and she had suffered massive internal injuries.

Rescuers had located Dr. Potter and his team, but they were already dead: killed by inhalation of poisonous gases from Erebus.

Three days after the explosion, Olwen Rees died without ever regaining consciousness, leaving Lycurgus Burrell as the only living witness to what had been so briefly revealed at Novacastra. There was no evidence to support his story – Olwen’s camera had been smashed when she had been swept out of the hollow; and Dr. Potter’s had never been found. Nobody had believed him – except for Robert Auerbach.

It had taken twenty-five years to build a spacecraft capable of making the trip, twenty-five frustrating years of shoestring budgets, a sceptical public and a deeply-hostile Church. Even then the trip would have been impossible had he not been able to persuade the now-elderly Auerbach to abandon his plans to land on the Moon and opt instead for a flyby with a spacecraft fired out of the atmosphere on a sub-orbital ballistic trajectory.

Now Pathfinder One and its middle-aged pilot were less than two minutes away from rendezvous with the Moon, a grey potato dominating his view, growing every second. He switched on the targeting grid and the cameras.

The Face of Noah was clearly visible, no longer foreshortened by its proximity to the Moon’s hidden side. Only Burrell was having difficulty seeing any resemblance to a human face.
For the first time he felt a pang of doubt.

“Mission Control, it’s negative so far. You’re going to have to get me closer. I want a trajectory that will get me to within ten miles.”

“Pathfinder One, I don’t have to remind you that that’s extremely dangerous.”

“So’s being fired into space in a tin can. I’ll need the correction burn at close approach minus one minute.”

“Lycurgus, you’ll have to accept the facts. Professor Rees was wrong – the Face of Noah is clearly a natural feature.”

“Robert, I never told you what Olwen Rees said just before the explosion and what I think she was about to tell me – you’d have thought I was completely mad. It’s not only the Face. Now get me closer or I’ll do it myself.”

“Very well.”

As Pathfinder One approached the peak of its trajectory, so the whole of the Face was finally revealed to Burrell. Now he could clearly see that it was a perfectly normal crater whose resemblance to a human face was vague at best.

The cabin shuddered as the thrusters fired. The Moon’s rate of approach increased. Desperately Burrell scanned for surface installations; for evidence that would support the theory – but there was none. Was the whole thing nonsense – had he flown to the Moon on a fool’s errand? And was he going to get himself killed to boot? For it was beginning to look as if Auerbach had miscalculated and the burn had put Pathfinder One on a collision course.
He held his breath as the Moon came barrelling towards him… then he was soaring up above the lunar equator. He’d missed by no more than a couple of miles. The far side of the Moon, unseen from Tellus for thousands of years, came into view.

Then he saw it.

“Mission Control, I can see two identically-sized perfectly circular holes set into a large rectangular block. I think this is the evidence.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure but the cameras will clinch it. I’m nearing peak altitude now – Oh MY GOD!”

“What is it?” Auerbach said anxiously.

Picked out in lights on the Moon’s surface, still burning after thousands of years, were the words:
U.S.S. Ararat: 2260 A.D.
Per Ardua ad Astra

“Come in Pathfinder One. Lycurgus are you OK?” Auerbach called insistently.

“I’m fine, Robert. I’ve seen the conclusive proof. Olwen Rees was right. The clue is in the old Orthodox Version of the Bible and the story of Noah in which God hollowed out Mount Ararat to provide a floating haven for Noah, his family and the animals. But it was Man who hollowed out Ararat, which must have been an asteroid in his original home system.”

“Are you saying the Moon is some kind of spaceship?” Auerbach said incredulously.

“Yes! It was fitted with engines – and turned into a gigantic spaceship to carry Mankind to Tellus.”

“But what sort of power could move something that size through space?”

“I don’t know,” Burrell admitted. “But some scientists believe that enormous amounts of energy could be liberated by splitting atoms. Maybe our forbears mastered the technique.”
The Moon was receding, and Pathfinder One was beginning its long fall back to Tellus. The voyage through space would have taken generations, maybe even centuries, and employed techniques that Man was only now beginning to rediscover.

Pathfinder One, we have confirmed your new trajectory and revised point of landfall,” Auerbach said. “Recovery crews advised accordingly.”

He had to go back to the Moon, this time to land, explore and learn its secrets. With the evidence now at his disposal, the New London Interplanetary Society should have no problems in obtaining funding and even the Church might drop its opposition.

A sense of triumph and purpose filled Burrell as Pathfinder One approached the outer fringes of Tellus’s atmosphere, and he braced himself for the rigours of re-entry.

© Christopher Seddon 2002, 2008

The quest for the Proto-Indo-European homeland.

The Quest Begins
In 1786, a 40 year old English judge by the name of Sir William Jones made a remarkable observation suggesting far-reaching events many millennia previously; events that had left an eerie footprint in languages spoken by diverse people living thousands of miles apart, between which absolutely no link now existed in the historic record.

The son of a mathematician, Jones was a linguistic prodigy who had learning Greek, Latin, Persian and Arabic at an early age. Despite the death of his father when he was aged three, he went to school at Harrow and then on to Oxford. However, he was forced to work as a tutor in order to make ends meet and in 1770 he took up the legal profession, doubtless at least to some extent attracted by the prospect of financial security. After working as a circuit judge in Wales, he went out to India in 1783 to serve at the High Court in Calcutta. There he became interested in Sanskrit, the classical language of India, a language holding a position analogous to Latin in South and Southeast Asian culture. It dates to around 1500 BC and possibly earlier, and although it has not been spoken for many centuries, it is still used in religious texts and remains to this day as one of India’s 23 official languages.

Jones noted Sanskrit shared many similarities of both grammatical structure and vocabulary with Ancient Greek and Latin – all of which are “dead” languages that were current at roughly the same time. In a famous address to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, he claimed that these similarities could not be dismissed as chance and suggested all might have arisen from the same source. Jones also speculated that Gothic (the precursor of German), Celtic and Old Persian might also share the same common origin.

The idea that languages spoken in places as far apart as Iceland and India might be linked was startling to say the least, but the connection seemed real. Furthermore the language group – which was soon dubbed Indo-European – grew rapidly. In many cases, relationships among language groups were readily discernable and during the first half of the 19th Century, no fewer than nine major language groups were recognised as members. Thereafter progress was slower and it was not until the late 19th and early 20th Century that the last two major language groups were admitted to the fold. The Tocharian languages – once spoken in the Tarim Basin in Central Asia – were uncovered from a fifth century AD manuscript procured from a Buddhist monastery by the Hungarian-born archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein. Hittite – another lost language – was deciphered by Bedrich Hrozny in 1917 from cuniform tablets excavated in Anatolia some years earlier, and it and other related languages in the region are now recognised as making up the so-called Anatolian group.

Today, no fewer than eleven major Indo-European groups are recognised:

1) Celtic. Includes Welsh, Cornish, Manx; spoken Britain, Ireland, across Europe, from the Bay of Biscay and the North Sea to the Black Sea and the Upper Balkan Peninsula; first attested 1000-500 BC.
2) Italic. Includes Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, spoken in Italy; first attested 1000-500 BC.
3) Germanic. Includes Danish, German, Dutch and English, spoken in Germany and Scandinavia; first attested AD 1-500.
4) Baltic. Includes Latvian and Lithuanian, spoken east and south-east of the Baltic.
5) Slavic. Includes Russia, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, spoken in Eastern Europe and the Balkans; first attested AD 500-1000.
6) Albanian. Spoken in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia; First attested AD 1500.
7) Greek. First attested 1500-1000 BC.
8) Anatolian. Includes Hittite, spoken Asia Minor; first attested 1500-2000 BC.
9) Armenian. First attested AD 1-500.
10) Indo-Aryan. Includes Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi, Iranian, spoken in India and Iran, first attested 1500-1000 BC.
11) Tocharian. Spoken Tarim Basin, Central Asia; first attested AD 1-500.

In addition, ten minor groups are recognised: Lusitanian, Rhaetic, Venetic, South Picene, Messapic, Illyrian, Dacian, Thracian, Macedonian and Phrygian.

What does all this mean? During the course of his 1786 lectures, Sir William Jones also put forward the idea that the various ancient languages could all be traced back to “some central country” which he argued was Iran. He set in motion a debate that has continued ever since, during which the “central country” has been located at just about every point on Earth, leading the American scholar JP Mallory to comment “One does not ask ‘where is the Indo-European homeland?’ but rather ‘where do they put it now?’”.

That a group of languages – a so-called “language family” – can arise from a common origin was already accepted in Sir William Jones’ day. It had long been realised that French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, etc had all diverged from Latin and from each other after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD. Following the same chain of reasoning, it was therefore logical for the early Indo-European scholars to assume that Sir William Jones was right and that similarities between the Indo-European languages could be explained by divergence from a single ancestral language; and that its original speakers had arisen from one region. This hypothetical language was termed Ursprache by German scholars, or Proto-Indo-European (often abbreviated to PIE). Its’ supposed speakers became known as the Urvolk and their original homeland the Urheimat.

But who were the inhabitants of this homeland, when did they live and how did languages descended from their ancestral tongue come to be spoken across such an enormous area, far greater in extent than the Roman Empire? It really is the ultimate “whodunit”.

On the face of it, given the absence of anything in the historic record, the task facing Indo-European scholars in trying to answer any of these questions might seem impossible. In fact in the rather more than two centuries since Jones’ discovery, three main lines of enquiry have opened up – linguistics, archaeology and population genetics. The linguists moved into action almost immediately but prehistoric archaeology did not really develop as a discipline until the mid-19th Century; and not for another fifty years was archaeological evidence systematically called upon in attempts to solve the problem. Population genetics is a far more recent discipline and not enter the fray until the latter part of the 20th Century. Only now – with these three very different disciplines supported by statistics and modern computational methods – is a clear picture at last beginning to emerge.

How Languages spread and change
As linguistics was the first line of attack upon the Indo-European question, it makes sense to start with a review of the various linguistic and related methodologies that have been brought to bear on the problem since the 18th Century. Before tackling the Indo-European question in detail, however, we should first ask how a particular language comes to be spoken in a particular region?

Obviously when settlers move into a previously uninhabited region for the first time, they will bring their language with them. But the languages spoken by, for example, the people who moved into Britain and Northern Europe at the end of the last ice age have long since vanished. What happened to them? There are two things that can happen to a language once it has been introduced to a region – firstly it can be replaced by another language; secondly it can itself evolve.

Language replacement happens when the language spoken in a particular region is replaced by another brought in by people from a different region. There are a number of ways this can happen.

Subsistence/Demography occurs when large numbers of people move into a territory, bringing their language with them. The newcomers don’t have to be conquerors – the process usually refers to subsistence farmers moving into a territory previously inhabited only by hunter-gatherers. This is a process we shall return to in greater detail.

On the other hand elite dominance occurs when invaders conquer a territory and impose their language on native peoples. It will clearly be to the advantage of the subjugated people to learn the language of their conquerors when doing business, pursuing legal and religious matters, etc, though initially they will continue to converse in their native language when with friends and family. Although the first generation will only speak the new language as a second language, the next is likely to be fully bilingual, having been exposed to the both languages from birth, and the one after that will probably regard the old language as a second language, used mainly for conversing with their grandparents. Within a few generations the old language will die out altogether.

The classic example of elite dominance is the spread of Latin, which was originally confined to a small area around Rome. At that time, one would have had to have travelled no more than 40km north of Rome to find people speaking a different, albeit closely related language – Faliscan. Only a little further to the north, people were speaking Etruscan, a completely unrelated language. But as Rome’s power grew, Latin came to be spoken throughout the whole of Italy and eventually across large areas of Europe.

Another model of language replacement is system collapse, which occurs when an organised society collapses or at least retreats from the peripheries of its zone of influence and other groups move in to exploit the resulting power vacuum. This happened in Britain after the Romans left and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes moved in, bringing with them the West Germanic language from which in time English arose.

Finally there is lingua franca, where a trading language (pidgin) develops in a region as a result of trading or other activity by outsiders. Usually the pidgin is a simplified version of the outsider language. In time a creole – which is a brand-new language – may arise from the pidgin.

Language development as opposed to language replacement occurs over time because languages themselves are not static. There is nothing strange about this – in fact it would be strange if languages did not change with time. For this to be so, people would have to reproduce exactly the same sounds and idiom from one generation to the next, something contrary to human nature even if we isolated a population from social change, contact with other cultures, etc.

For a written language, change can easily be demonstrated by studying texts over a period of many centuries. English has undergone considerable change over the last millennium, as illustrated by these four versions of the 23rd Psalm:

Modern English
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
In meadows of green grass he lets me lie.
To waters of repose he leads me.

Early Modern English
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.

Middle English
Our Lord gouerneth me, and nothyng shal defailen to me.
In sted of pasture he sett me ther.
He norissed me upon water of fyllyng.

Old English
Drihten me raet, ne byth me nanes godes wan.
And he me geset on swyth good feohland.
And fedde me be waetera stathum.

Most of us will, if anything, be most familiar with the second version, which has a “biblical” feel to it but is in reality the way people spoke in Shakespeare’s day. But the third version is decidedly strange and the fourth might as well be written in a foreign language. Unlike Modern English, Old English was a fully-inflected language, and it also predates the enormous influx of so-called “loanwords” from French that occurred after 1066. It should be noted that the change is continuous – “Modern English”, “Early Modern English”, “Middle English” and “Old English” are no more than arbitrary points in the evolution of the English language. But how do these changes come about?

One way is by the “morphing” of words as one generation’s sloppy speech becomes the received version. As noted above, English was once an inflected language and nouns had case endings, but in time these fell into disuse – for example the plurals of “fox”, “tongue” and “book” were once “foxas”, “tungan” and “bec”. Some of these archaic forms do survive – for example ox/oxen, sheep/sheep, man/men, woman/women, and child/children.

Pronunciations also change with time – for example the silent “k” in words such as “knife”, “knee” and “knight” was once pronounced; the Old English forms of these words were “cnif”, “cne” and “cniht”. Similarly the “ch-“in words such as “chicken” and “cheese” was once pronounced as a hard “c-”, i.e. “cycen” and “cese”. A recent (trivial) example of pronunciation change is the planet Uranus, which before the advent of popular science broadcasting was usually pronounced with the stress on the second syllable – then about thirty years ago, somebody in authority must have become embarrassed and insisted on a change.

Another way a word can morph is by conflation with the indefinite article – for example “nickname” was once “eka name” – the now-archaic word “eka” meant “also”. But in time, people began to pronounce “an eka name” as “a neka name” from which the progress to “a nickname” was fairly straightforward. The reverse can also happen – oranges were once known as “noranges” (from Hindi) – but “a norange” eventually became “an orange”.

Not only do words morph, they can also acquire additional meanings, or change their meaning entirely. This process is known as semantic change. An obvious example is the word “gay”, which originally meant “carefree”. During the 20th Century the word gradually came to mean homosexual; but by the turn of the century it had acquired an additional pejorative meaning – to describe something as “gay” is to decry it. Other examples include “silly” (original meaning “glorious”), “villain” (a peasant farmer in feudal times) and “husband” (which originally meant manager of a house). The process continues – a future age might recall that “wicked” once meant “bad” and that “cool” meant the opposite of “warm”.

Not only do words morph and change their meaning; new words can be “borrowed” from other languages. As previously mentioned, English has borrowed heavily from French and such “loanwords” include “ability”, “finance”, “rendezvous” and “theatre”. But English also contains loanwords from other languages including “hinterland” (German); “bazaar” and “bungalow” (from Hindi); “alcohol”, “algebra” and “arsenal” (from Arabic).

Language change is as inevitable as death and taxation – only in a society of telepathically interconnected beings such as Star Trek’s Borg could things be any different.

But how can a group of languages can arise from a common origin? As already noted, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, etc all diverged from Latin, but how does this happen? Why are the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and Romanians not still speaking Latin, albeit a version that has changed since Roman times? The answer is that in a sense they are.

Just as a language is not fixed in time, so it also varies across regions. In reality there is no such a thing as a language, only dialects. Old English, in fact, had differing dialects from Day One as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain all spoke various dialects of West Germanic, all with their own peculiarities, resulting in at least three dialects of Old English – West Saxon, Northumbrian and Mercian. This state of affairs persisted over the centuries and what became known as “Standard” English was no more than the mixture of Essex and Middlesex dialects that happened to be spoken in London. But by the 1400s London had become the hub of the newly-established manuscript printing industry – so written English was more likely to be this version, which combined with London’s influence resulted in it becoming accepted as the “standard” version, although the other dialects were equally valid language systems. Similarly in France the Paris dialect came to predominate, with others being dismissed as “patois”.

Even in Roman times, different dialects of Latin were being spoken in different parts of the Empire. After the fall of Rome contacts between the various peoples reduced and the differences began to become more marked. Eventually the Latin dialects spoken in Italy, France, Spain, etc diverged to such an extent that they became distinct languages.

Reconstructing PIE
We are now in a position to consider what the linguistic evidence has to tell us about the Indo-European question. For over a century, scholars attempted to locate the Proto-Indo-European homeland on the basis of linguistic arguments alone, without being able to call upon supporting evidence from any other source. The picture that emerged was blurred and often contradictory, but bearing in mind that Proto-Indo-European was never written down, what has been achieved is remarkable.

By examining cognates – words in different languages with shared roots – it proved possible to reconstruct much of the lost Proto-Indo-European language and build up its proto-lexicon or vocabulary. This task really got underway after around 1850, but important groundwork was done earlier.

In the early 19th Century, linguists discovered a powerful principle: sound shift, where phonetic features in one language differ from those of another in a consistent way. For example in Latin the f sound in many words corresponds to the b sound in Teutonic languages, thus frater in Latin becomes brother in English and Bruder in German. This principle was first noticed by Rasmus Christian Rask in 1818. It was later extended by Jakob Grimm, elder of the Brothers Grimm and is (perhaps a little unfairly) usually known as Grimm’s Law. However, some scholars insist on referring to it as Rask’s-Grimm’s Rule. Also around this time it was noticed that there are structural similarities between the languages, with words displaying similar grammatical case endings.

However before reconstruction of PIE could properly begin, it was necessary to form a better understanding of the relationships between the various daughter languages. Two models were put forward. The first, by August Schliecher in 1862 was the genealogical or “family tree” model of languages, which was influenced by Charles Darwin’s then recently-proposed Theory of Evolution. Languages with strong similarities languages such as French and Italian were grouped together; these groups were in turn linked to produce larger groups. It is assumed languages give rise to daughter languages; thus for example Italo-Celtic split to give Celtic and Italic, Italic then split to give Oscan, Umbrian and Latin. The model has a number of weaknesses. It assumes the different daughter languages remain isolated, whereas in practice this is not the case. For example English (a Germanic language) was heavily influenced by Medieval French and Latin (Italic). It also fails to explain similarities which cut across different language branches. These similarities are known as isoglosses. The best-known example of an isogloss is the so-called centum/satem division, named for the words for one hundred – centum in Latin and satem in Avestan (a liturgical Old Iranian language used to compose the sacred hymns and texts of the Zoroastrian Avesta).

A more realistic model was proposed by Johannes Schmidt in 1872. This was known as the wave hypothesis. On this picture, language changes spread out over a speech area like ripples on a pond. The main weakness of this model is that it assumes all the languages under consideration are all being spoken at the same time, whereas some may be separated from others by thousands of years. Despite their drawbacks, no universally-accepted alternative to these two models has ever been proposed.

Nevertheless linguists were in a position to commence the task of reconstructing PIE. For example the word “sheep” is avis (Lithuanian), ovis (Latin), ois (Greek), oveja (Spanish) and ewe (English). The PIE word is believed to have been *owis, the asterisk denoting a reconstructed word. Other reconstructed words include:

*mehter mother, *phator father, *swesor sister, *bhrater brother, *dhughater daughter, *suhnus son.

*owis sheep, *tauros bull, *gwous cow, *uksen ox, *porkos pig, *ekwos horse, *kapros goat, *mus mouse, *kwon dog.

*oinos one, *dwo two, *treyes three.

One thing that stands out about these words is their familiarity – even if their meaning isn’t immediately obvious it doesn’t take much working out. For example, ewe from *owis and hound from *kwon.

Much of the work of reconstruction was completed in the 19th Century, though refinement has continued ever since. New information has been incorporated as lost languages such as Hittite and Tocharian have come to light. Not all reconstructed words are regarded as equally secure. Ideally a reconstructed word should have a shared correspondence between a European language and a non-adjacent Asian one, but this is not always possible.

Having built up a picture of how the various Indo-European languages are related to each other and reconstructed some of the original language itself, can we make any inferences about the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their homeland? In fact a number of methodologies have been used with varying degrees of success to try and tease clues out of the linguistic data.

When was PIE spoken?
The most obvious question to tackle first is when was PIE spoken? Up until now we have assumed that it is prehistoric language, purely on basis of having no historic record of when and where it was spoken. We can set an upper limit by looking at when the various written Indo-European languages are first attested, and must therefore by that time have diverged from PIE. Just as Latin fell out of everyday use as French, Spanish, Italian, etc diverged from it, so we can assume that by the time the earliest Indo-European languages had diverged from PIE, PIE itself was no longer being spoken.

The three earliest are Anatolian, at c.2000 BC; Indo-Aryan, inferred from a treaty between the Mittani of Northern Mesopotamia and the Hittites dating to around 1400 BC; and Greek, which goes back to at least 1300 BC and probably rather earlier. Mycenaean Greek is attested by the Bronze Age Linear B tablets excavated in 1900 by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete, and deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952. These three groups are sufficiently different from each other to suggest that they had all been going their separate ways well before 2000 BC – but how much earlier?

Linguistic Palaeontology
In the mid-19th Century an approach was set out known as linguistic palaeontology, named from an analogy with palaeontology – the study of the development of life of Earth based on the fossil record.

The basic assumption is that if a PIE word exists for something, then the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been familiar with it, and inferences can therefore be made about their material culture, social organisation and the geography of their homeland.

PIE contains many words for domestic animals such as sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and horses (though it uncertain whether these were domesticated or wild); but there are fewer words pertaining to agriculture. Words exist for wheels, axles and wheeled vehicles.

This led some to suppose that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were pastors (tending flocks of animals) rather than agriculturalists. On the basis of this argument many homelands were proposed during the 19th Century, with Central Asia and Northern Europe among the favourites. In 1890 Otto Schrader proposed the South Russian steppe, from the Carpathians to Central Asia. Nomad pastoralism has been practiced in this region since the time of the Scythians, who were a nation of nomadic pastors described by Herodotus around 440 BC. There was certainly no reason for Schrader not to suppose that the region had supported nomadic pastors since prehistoric times.

We now know that animal domestication and agriculture first appeared at around 8000 BC in the Near East, spreading gradually to southern Europe before moving both north and west and reaching the northern and western peripheries of Europe by around 4000 BC; the horse was first domesticated at around 4000 BC. The wheel was invented no earlier than 4000 BC.

So – if we accept these conclusions – we get a date for PIE that is no earlier than 4000 BC. But how safe is it to do so? Can we be sure that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had wheeled vehicles? The answer is “no”. In 1969 Calvert Watkins suggested that terms pertaining to wheeled vehicles were chiefly metaphorical extensions of older IE words with different meaning. For example *nobh- (wheel-hub) meant “navel” and the word for wheel itself, *kwekwlo- is derived from the root *kwel- “turn, revolve”. Another possibility is widespread borrowing of the word for wheel. Because the wheel was such a useful invention, the words pertaining to wheeled vehicles spread along with the things themselves. Subsequent sound-shifts in the borrowing languages would create the illusion that borrowed words were part of the proto-lexicon. Only if we reject these possibilities can we trust a date arrived at through linguistic palaeontology.

Reconstructed words for kin are a fertile ground for inferences about the social systems of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The systems by which people organize their kin vary across the world and a number of kinship systems are recognised by anthropologists, typically named for the ethnic groups among which they were first studied. A loose correlation has been found between kinship terminology and social and family organization.

The system with which most English-speaking people are familiar has separate words for each member of the nuclear family – “father”, “mother”, “brother”, “sister” – none of which are used for anybody who isn’t a member, with different terms being used for “aunt”, “uncle” and “cousin”. (I am ignoring here the colloquial use of the terms “aunt” and “uncle” within a family to refer to unrelated family friends.) We tend to take this system – which is actually termed the Eskimo system – so for granted that we don’t really think of it as a “system” at all, much less that other systems are possible.

In fact it is just one of many kinship systems. Some lump together fathers and uncles, and mothers and aunts. Others extend the definition of brothers and sisters to include male and female cousins. The Omaha system, practiced by the Native American Omaha tribe (and also the Dani tribe of Papua New Guinea and the Igbu of Nigeria) combines nephews and grandsons. The Omaha system is also associated with a strong patrilineal social organization, i.e. descent through the father’s line.

The PIE word *nepots actually means “grandson”. Less secure is that it also means “nephew” (which might have been a later meaning) but if so, it is possible that the Proto-Indo-European kinship system was of the Omaha type.

There is a cognate word for “king” in many Indo-European languages – e.g. Sanskrit raj, Latin rex and Old Irish ri. Some have taken this to imply that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were ruled by a king, implying a complex stratified society. (It has even been suggested that the absence of a word for “king” in some Indo-European languages is evidence for some kind of prehistoric revolution in which the king was driven out and the word was forgotten!)

In fact we need look no further than English to see that the whole notion of Proto-Indo-European kingship is highly suspect. The word “king” comes from the Old English cyning – the true cognate in English is “ruler”. The verb “to rule” can indeed mean to reign, but it also possible to rule on other matters – a point of law, or even whether or not a goal scored in a football match is offside. Finally it is possible to rule a straight line. The correspondence between straight lines and rules can be seen in the expression “to keep on the straight and narrow” and this correspondence is also found in other Indo-European languages. Rather than a king, the reconstructed word *reg might have referred to a tribal head, or simply an arbiter of right and wrong.

Linguistic palaeontology has also been used in attempts to locate the Proto-Indo-European homeland itself, this time by considering words for geographical features. PIE words exist for hills, mountains and swift-running rivers, leading some to suppose that the homeland was mountainous – Armenia has been suggested. But one need not actually live in mountainous terrain to be familiar with mountains. Few candidate homelands are so far away from any mountainous terrain that their inhabitants could dispense with words to describe it, and such inferences are questionable. PIE words for hot, cold, snow and ice, suggest a seasonally-varying (i.e. temperate) climate, but this really only rules out a homeland in the tropics.

Similarly attempts have been made to equate words for flora and fauna to the distributions of these. For example much effort has focussed on the beach tree and the salmon. Unfortunately we cannot be sure that the reconstructed word for the beach tree actually referred to it and not something else, such as the elder, oak or elm. Similarly with the salmon – did the PIE word refer to the Atlantic salmon or the salmon trout? The distributions of these species differ.

Later Linguistic approaches
Other linguistic methods have been brought into play in the quest for the Urheimat but they tend to produce results that can – to be candid – support more or less any conclusion desired. One such method is to consider the relationship between the Indo-European languages and those of other language families on the basis that the one showing the strongest affinities might serve as a pointer to the location of the Urheimat. In fact loanwords and grammatical loans have been discerned between Indo-European and all its neighbours – Uralic, Afro-Asiatic and Kartvelian; these have been used to support homelands set respectively in the Eurasian steppes, Anatolia and central Asia.

Even approaches that produce a definite conclusion are frequently contradicted by methods producing another. Cladistic correlation assumes that the family tree of the Indo-European languages corresponds to the geographical relationships between the various languages and that the first group to diverge from PIE will have a geographic seat in or close to the homeland. It is generally accepted that the earliest known split is that of Anatolian, suggesting a location for the homeland in or close to Anatolia.

The conservation principle makes the assumption that if a language has not moved it will have undergone less change than one that has due to the impact of what are known as substrate languages. A substrate language is one that is supplanted by a second one, but exerts an influence on the new language, e.g. through loanwords, with the consequence that the latter undergoes change. In the case of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, it is assumed that Indo-European languages spoken further away from the homeland will have experienced more change than those close to it, and those spoken in or near the homeland will be the least changed of all.

The Baltic languages, particularly Lithuanian, turn out to be strongly conservative. Lithuanian is a language that was once far more widespread than present-day Lithuania, extending into Russia. So either a Baltic or Russian homeland is suggested – rather at odds with the result obtained from cladistic correlation.

But neither approach is without its faults. The assumption family tree relationships can be equated to geographical locations is dubious. For example Indo-Iranian appears close to Greek and Armenian, but no obvious geographical relationship can be discerned. The conservation principle is also flawed in that the various languages entered the historical record at different times and were current at different times and a comparison across the full range of Indo-European languages cannot be done on a level playing field.

Returning now to the matter of when PIE was spoken, another method that has been used to seek a time-depth for it is glottochronology. First proposed by the American linguist Morris Swadesh in the mid-20th Century, it assumes that the core vocabulary of any language is lost at a consistent rate and can so be used as a “linguistic clock”. Swadesh used a core vocabulary of 200 words, later reduced to 100. By determining what fraction of the core vocabulary is cognate between two languages, an estimate can be made as to when they diverged from a common ancestor. Before the technique could be used, it was first necessary to determine the speed at which the “clock” runs – a figure for the rate of word loss. This was achieved by comparing pairs of languages where the date of divergence was known, and a figure of 14% per thousand years was obtained.

Critics of glottochronology point out that there is no reason to suppose that languages do lose words at a consistent rate; indeed every reason to suppose that the reverse is true as social factors change. Nevertheless when applied to various European languages glottochronology gives results that are in reasonable agreement with accepted dates; and when applied to PIE, the technique has tended to give time-depths of no earlier than 4000 BC – consistent with the findings of linguistic palaeontology. Does this mean that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had the wheel after all?

Not necessarily. In 2003 a study by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson using Bayesian inference gave a rather earlier date of 7000 BC, though with a secondary burst of linguistic expansion around 4000 BC. Bayesian inference – named for the 18th Century mathematician Rev. Thomas Bayes – is a powerful but computational-intensive statistical method that has been brought to the fore by the increased “number-crunching” abilities of modern computers.

We shall return to this interesting conclusion later.

Religion and Mythology
Another field of study that has long attracted Indo-European scholars is the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Linguistic reconstructions do not produce many correspondences, although the word for “god” is widely attested: devas (Sanskrit), deus (Latin), dievas (Lithuanian) and dia (Old Irish). The reconstructed word is *deiwos. Rather more striking is the word *dyeus phater (sky father), better known to anybody familiar with Greek or Roman mythology as Zeus (Greek) or Jupiter (Roman). While there is an obvious temptation to assume, therefore, that the chief deity of the Proto-Indo-European pantheon was a brash thunderbolt-hurling alpha male, we cannot be certain that this was the case, as he seems less prominent in other religions and it has been suggested that his pre-eminence in Mediterranean religions was a later phenomenon involving his conflation with local weather deities.

Comparative mythology is another area of interest. The French scholar Georges Dumezil has been particularly active in this field, developing the notion of a ranked tripartite caste system underlying many Indo-European societies: priests at the top, then warriors and finally herder-cultivators. Thus in Vedic India there are the brahmanas (priests), ksatriyas (warriors) and vaisyas (herder-cultivators); in ancient Gaul these three were druids, equites (horsemen) and plebes. Each caste has its own gods – in Roman mythology there was the ruling god (Jupiter), the god of war (Mars) and the god of the people (Quirinus).

Does this tripartite structure suggest a common origin in an earlier proto-Indo-European institution? It is very plausible that the same phenomenon that spread Indo-European languages could also have spread institutions, customs, beliefs and legends – but only if a certain level of social complexity for Proto-Indo-European society is assumed.

Archaeology joins in
The above considerations have given us tantalizing but tentative insights into the possible worlds of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The picture is very blurred and most methodologies come with health warnings. More is needed to bring things into sharper focus, and clearly linguistic inferences can only be taken so far. If a convincing solution to the Proto-Indo-European problem is to be found, then evidence from other sources must also be considered.

The need for such an approach was recognised by the end of the 19th Century and first use of a methodology that included archaeological considerations was made by Gustaf Kossinna in 1902. He identified the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the Corded Ware culture, a wide-spread culture that flourished across northern Europe between the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages, developing in various areas from 3200 BC to 2300 BC and who were named for the characteristic decoration of their pottery by means of impressions of fibre cord. Kossinna placed the homeland in North Germany and envisaged the Proto-Indo-Europeans expanding towards Iran and India, carrying their language eastwards. Kossinna was the first to equate pottery styles to specific peoples and their movements, a methodology that is still current.

Kossinna’s work was followed up by Sydney-born Vere Gordon Childe, a philologist by training, who rejected a career in politics because of his interest in archaeology. Childe coined the term “Neolithic Revolution” to describe the coming of agriculture and “Urban Revolution” to describe the subsequent transformation of agricultural villages into complex societies and he is considered to be one of the most influential figures of 20th Century archaeology.

In 1926 Childe published The Aryans: a study of Indo-European origins in which he surveyed the various archaeological cases for the homeland being located in Asia, Central Europe, North Europe and the South Russia steppe and, following Schrader, came down in favour of the latter. Childe equated the Proto-Indo-Europeans to the Kurgan culture, which embraces a series of cultures that occupied the steppe and forest-steppe of southern Ukraine and southern Russia, possibly originating in the Volga-Ural region. The word kurgan comes from the Russian word for their trademark barrows or burial mounds. Childe reversed the direction of Kossinna’s migrations, and had Corded Ware people moving westwards from the steppes of Russia rather than eastwards as Kossinna had proposed.

The word Aryan came to be applied to the Proto-Indo-European people during the 19th Century, though there is no evidence to suppose they applied the term to themselves. The word comes from the Sanskrit word arya, which means “noble”, “free”, “spiritual” or “skilful”. The name Iran literally means “Land of the Aryans”. Unfortunately the word Aryan is now so indelibly associated with the Nazis that post-war scholars have tended to avoid the term, and Childe – who was a committed socialist – later repudiated his work.

In the second half of the last century what are now regarded as the two main competing theories were both put forward. These are the Kurgan hypothesis, proposed by Lithuanian émigré Marija Gimbutas in a series of papers between 1956 and 1979; and the Anatolian hypothesis, set forward in detail by Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, in 1987.

The Kurgan hypothesis
Marija Gimbutas’ Kurgan hypothesis followed Childe in locating the homeland on the South Russian/Pontic-Caspian steppe and like him identified the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the Kurgan tradition. Drawing on both linguistic and archaeological evidence, Gimbutas envisaged the Kurgan people as a warlike male-dominated society, worshipping masculine sky-gods. They were a highly mobile society of nomad pastors, who used ox-drawn wagons and horses for transport. Only a few permanent settlements have been found – as could be expected for mobile people – and they are known mainly from their mortuary practices whereby the dead were interred in earthen or stone chambers, above which a burial mound was frequently erected.

By contrast the people of Neolithic Europe – or “Old Europe” to use Gimbutas’ term – were settled farmers, living in small family-based communities. Gimbutas characterised them as peaceful, matriarchal and possessing a mother goddess-centred religion.

Between 4000 and 2500 BC the Kurgan people expanded from the steppes in a series of hostile invasions, moving into Europe, the Caucasus and Anatolia and onwards towards India; and eastwards along the steppe into Central Asia. The archaeological record shows that Old Europe’s female-centric culture disappears and is replaced by that of Kurgan warriors. Fine ceramics and painted wares give way to cruder Kurgan material. Kurgan burials appear, generally confined to males and accompanied by arrows, spears, knives, horse-headed sceptres. There is evidence of suttee – an atrocious practice whereby women were killed on the deaths of their husbands – clear evidence of a male-dominated society. Stone stelae are seen in the Alpine region depicting horses, wagons, axes, spears and daggers – all of which are valued by a warlike society.

Thus Gimbutas claimed the Kurgan people brought about the collapse of the south-eastern European Neolithic culture and absorbed it into hybrid Kurgan societies. These “kurganised” societies then move north and westwards, eventually leading to the Corded Ware culture in northern Europe. Similar evidence is seen in the south Caucasus and Anatolia; and to the east in southern Siberia, from which the Iranians are derived.

Although widely accepted, the Kurgan Hypothesis has its critics. Many reject the exclusively military nature of the expansion and believe more complex factors were involved. One of these is the so-called “secondary products revolution”. In 1981 the late Andrew Sherratt noted that late in the European Neolithic there was an increased exploitation of such products as milk, cheese, wool and the use of animals for traction. Many of these new features – such as plough agriculture and increased stockbreeding would have enhanced the male role in productive economy. This may have brought about the social changes that Gimbutas attributed to invaders.

(See this article The Peopling of Europe for an account of the possible demographics of Neolithic Europe.)

The Anatolian Hypothesis
In 1987 Colin Renfrew put forward an entirely different model. According to Renfrew, the Indo-European languages were spread by Neolithic farmers, who originated in Anatolia at around 7000 BC, a date far earlier than that proposed for the Kurgan Hypothesis. In Archaeology and Language Renfrew summarised and then rejected all attempts to date to solve the Proto-Indo-European problem. He made three major criticisms of the Kurgan Hypothesis.

Renfrew’s first target was linguistic palaeontology and “the lure of the proto-lexicon”. We have already seen that this approach has its pitfalls. In addition to some of the points already noted above, Renfrew criticised the inference that the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been nomadic pastors on the basis that the proto-lexicon contains more words for animal species than it does for plants. He pointed out that pastoralists are in fact dependent upon their co-existence with farmers. If the Proto-Indo-Europeans were familiar with domesticated sheep, goats or cattle, they must have also been familiar with wheat, barley and peas regardless of whether we have been able to reconstruct words for these species. The argument that the absence of these words implies the Proto-Indo-Europeans were pastoralists therefore collapses.

Renfrew then went on to challenge the assumption that of the appearance in a region of a new pottery style such as Corded Ware or Bell Beakers, or of new mortuary practices such as the kurgans, are evidence of migrations by corresponding groups of people. Kossinna, Childe, Gimbutas and others sought to explain cultural changes in terms of repeated waves of invasions, a viewpoint that was widely held by archaeologists during the first half of the last century. Thus the Beaker culture, an archaeological culture current in Western Europe between c.2800-1900 BC, was seen by Childe as “warlike invaders imbued with domineering habits and an appreciation of metal weapons and ornaments which inspired them to impose sufficient political unity on their new domain for some economic unification to follow”.

In fact, by the 1980s this “migrationist” view was becoming unfashionable. Renfrew saw the appearance of these objects as the result of cultural diffusion whereby ideas, cultural traits, material objects etc were spread from one local community to another independently of mass migrations, a model known as “peer polity interaction”. On this model, the characteristic pottery styles were simply spread either by trade or the development of the appropriate manufacturing skills rather than by hostile invaders.

Renfrew’s final criticism of the Kurgan hypothesis was that insufficient attention had been paid to the dynamics of the supposed expansion. Why would it take place at all? He questioned the whole notion of the homeland people as pastoral nomads. He argued that nomad pastoralism normally develops from mixed farming and herding, which would have been practiced in Central and Western Europe. Transhumance – where cattle are moved from the village to summer pastures – probably developed during the “secondary products revolution” mentioned earlier. Nomadic pastoralism in southern Russia was probably an adaptation to the steppes of older European transhumance. The western steppes must have been colonised from the west, their language must have also have been the language of farmers living to the west and not vice-versa as suggested by the Kurgan hypothesis.

Having rejected the Kurgan Hypothesis, Renfrew drew on the studies by Italian geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and his collaborator, American archaeologist Albert Ammerman. In papers published in 1973 and 1984, Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza claimed that Neolithic farmers had expanded across Europe in a slow continuous “wave of advance”, with farmers spreading out into previously-unfarmed regions as population pressures grew; with further expansion occurring as these regions in turn filled up, and so on. In support of this claim they put forward evidence based on the protein products of genes that showed a genetic gradient that spread across Europe in a south-east to north-west direction.

Renfrew proposed that the Proto-Indo-European expansion had begun 9,500 years ago in Anatolia, far earlier than had been proposed up until now. From Anatolia, the expansion had moved into Greece and from there in a north-westerly direction across Europe. He also offered a choice of two hypotheses as to the spread of the Indo-Iranian languages, which he referred to as Hypotheses A and B. Hypothesis A proposed a wave of advance similar to that proposed for Europe. Hypothesis B on the other hand invoked the steppe-invader model. Once the wave of advance reached the steppe and nomadic pastoralism developed, the pastors moved swiftly east across the steppes and into Iran and northern India, possibly taking advantage of (though not bringing about) the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization which flourished between 3000-1800 BC.

Renfrew’s theory attracted a lot of interest, but it was also criticized, largely because it seemed at times to fly in the face of linguistic evidence. But as we have seen much of this evidence is suspect. Archaeology can identify pottery styles and mortuary traditions – but again, some of the inferences that have in the past been drawn from these are questionable.

Linguistics and archaeology have led us to a choice of two theories, but which – if either – is correct?

The emerging synthesis
Colin Renfrew coined the term Archaeogenetics, which refers to the application of population genetics to the study of the human past. Techniques include the analysis of ancient DNA recovered from archaeological remains; the analysis of DNA from modern humans and domestic animals and plants in order to study migrations and the spread of farming practices; and the application of statistical methods to this data.

It is now necessary to give a very brief introduction to the science of genetics. The human body is comprised of cells, most of which contain a nucleus which holds two copies of what is known as the human genome. The human genome is a collection of genes and it is basically a set of instructions for making a complete human being, though the various types of cells generally implement only a few of those instructions depending on their function. One of our two genome copies comes from our mother and the other from our father.

Although the basic structure of the genome is identical for all human beings, the actual genes themselves can differ because a particular gene can exist in a number of different forms. Such genes are said to be polymorphic and each “version” is known as an allele. Different alleles are responsible for differences in such characteristics as blood groups, hair colour and eye colour.

It is these genetic polymorphisms that are the basis of population genetics, which dates back to World War I. Studies of blood groups carried out on soldiers and POWs showed that the proportions of individuals belonging to various blood groups depended on ethnicity. At that time only the classic ABO blood group polymorphism was known, though many others soon followed. O is the commonest type, but its frequency varies considerably from 61% in East Asia and 65% among Europeans to 98% among Native Americans.

In the 1960s Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and the British statistician Anthony Edwards began applying a statistical method known as principal component analysis to raw data compiled over several decades. Cavalli-Sforza later collaborated with Albert Ammerman to back up his “wave of advance” model with genetic data. He did in fact make his data available to Colin Renfrew but Renfrew felt at that time that genetic data based on blood groups could lead to misleading interpretations and chose not to use it.

At that time the study of DNA itself as opposed to its products (such as blood proteins) was still in its infancy. However in 1995 Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University presented the results of his studies on mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are structures that exist in every cell and help cells to produce energy by production of a high-energy molecule known as ATP. Mitochondria contain their own DNA, a rather surprising state of affairs that suggests they were once free-living bacteria that took up residence in more advanced cells, initially as parasites but later in a mutually-beneficial relationship that has endured to the present day. In human sperm cells the mitochondria are located in the whiplash tail that is shed when the sperm penetrates and fertilizes an egg cell. The latter however retains its mitochondria; thus all mitochondrial DNA is passed through the maternal line and is said to be non-recombining, unlike nuclear DNA which is as we have seen an admixture of maternal and paternal components.

Sykes’ results appeared to show that only around twenty percent of modern Europeans could trace their ancestry back to the early Neolithic farmers. The immediate assumption was therefore that Renfrew was wrong. Nobody disputed that farming had spread gradually across Europe: the archaeological evidence was incontrovertible. But had farmers spread? Or had the idea of farming simply spread as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers gradually took up agriculture? In which case Renfrew’s theory was seriously flawed as it while it seemed highly plausible that hunter-gatherers could learn a new way of life from the farmers, it hardly seemed likely that they would choose to speak the farmers’ language in preference to their own.

In fact it is only a problem if one assumes that there was no intermarriage between the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the incoming Neolithic farmers. Even a small number of such “mixed marriages” would gradually dilute the Neolithic genes with those of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. On this picture the observed “genetic gradient” is exactly what one would expect. But while the Neolithic genetic signal would gradually weaken, the linguistic signal would not. Anybody marrying into the farming community would have to learn the farmers’ language and their children would certainly come to speak it as their first language. It is easy for somebody to be of mixed-race; rather less so to speak half a language.

Does this mean that Renfrew is right and Gimbutas is wrong? Or could they both be right? Cavalli-Sforza thinks so. He believes that the original Anatolian farmers spoke and early form of Proto-Indo-European, which he describes Pre-PIE. The expansion occurred as Renfrew describes, eventually reaching the South Russian steppe. So Gimbutas’ Kurgan people were speaking a later version of Proto-Indo-European when they began their series of expansions from the steppe, which was if you like a “secondary urheimat”. This is in fact entirely consistent with the second of the two hypotheses presented by Renfrew to explain the spread of the Indo-Iranian languages.

Further support for this view comes from the Gray and Atkinson study which dated PIE (or Pre-PIE) to 7000 BC (when the Neolithic expansion began) with a secondary burst at 4000 BC (when the Kurgan expansion begun).

Is this the solution to the Indo-European problem; is the 220-year quest for the urheimat finally at an end? And if so, why did it take so long to come up with the answer?

Obviously the technology to investigate DNA and archaeological techniques such as radiocarbon dating did not exist in 1786, but that is not the whole picture. Part of the problem may have been tendency to look for a monocausal explanation analogous to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In fact it was obvious even in Sir William Jones’ lifetime that this was not so because the Indo-European expansion was continuing, having begun a new phase after 1492. Christopher Columbus and his crew were certainly not the first Indo-European speakers to reach the Americas but they set in motion a process which eventually resulted in the linguistic domination of the New World by three Indo-European languages – Spanish, Portuguese and English. The relatively short time since the voyages of Columbus has seen the completion of a process that began shortly after the end of the last Ice Age.

If Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is correct then the Indo-European expansion actually happened in three phases, millennia apart, in which technology and social conditions were totally different. Under such circumstances, seeking one all-encompassing explanation is clearly futile.

But it’s a big “if”. There have been many twists and turns in the lengthy quest for the Proto-Indo-European homeland, and it would be premature to suggest that the saga is definitely at an end.


Bellwood, P & Renfrew, C. (eds.) 2002: Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis, McDonald Institute, Cambridge.

Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. 1996: The spread of agriculture and nomadic pastoralism: insights from genetics, linguistics and archaeology in The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia, edited by Harris, D.R., UCL Press, London.

Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. 2000: Genes, Peoples and Languages, North Point Press, USA.

Gimbutas, M 1997: The Kurgan Culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe, edited by Dexter, M. R. and Jones-Bley, K, Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph No. 18.

Gray, R.D. & Atkinson, Q.D. 2003: Language-tree divergence times support Anatolian theory of Indo-European origins, Nature vol. 426 pp 435-439.

Mallory, J.P. 1989: In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

Mallory, J.P. & Adams, D.Q.: 2006 The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University Press.

McWhorter, J. 2002: The Power of Babel: a Natural History of Language, William Heinemann, London.

Renfrew, C. 1987: Archaeology and Language: the Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, Jonathon Cape, London.

Renfrew, C. 1999: Time Depth, Convergence Theory, and Innovation in Proto-Indo-European: ‘Old Europe’ as a PIE Linguistic Area, Journal of Indo-European Studies 27, 257-93.

Sykes, B. 2001: The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bantam Press, London.

Watkins, C. 1969: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston MA, USA.

Wells, S. 2002: The Journey of Man: a Genetic Odyssey, Penguin Books, London.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

"Articles" – a short story

As he followed the sullen guard from the elevator into a dimly lit rocky corridor, Falvar began to fear “protective custody” would turn out be “summary execution”. From the slight but perceptible increase in pseudo-gravity, he deduced that they were a couple of hundred feet below the Realm’s inner surface, which meant they must be in the detention centre’s maximum-security wing. Unused in all the decades since leaving Earth’s orbit, it has been the subject of innumerable popular rumours over the years, one of which was doing nothing to ease Falvar’s nerves.

The guard stopped outside a forbidding door of ribbed steel. He pointed a remote at the door, keyed a security code, and it slid open.

“In there,” he said coldly, speaking for the first time since they’d left the surface. He favoured the deposed Director with a frosty glare.

Falvar entered the narrow cell. It was reasonably well appointed, with two facing bench-seats/bunks and a table carved out of the solid rock, but there was dankness about it that the air conditioning could not entirely dispel. Of more interest to Falvar, though, was his cellmate. Sitting on one of bench-seats was Xeras.

She did not rise to greet him, but looked up, a resolute expression on her face.

“Hello Director.”

“You do realise they’re probably getting ready to space us both as we speak.”

“Director, you don’t seriously believe that old myth about the cells down here doubling as air-locks, do you?”

Despite everything that had happened in the last three days, Falvar found Xeras’s familiar assertive voice as reassuring as ever.

“You’ll forgive me if I’m a little jittery,” he said. “I’ve just been “rescued” – if that is the right word – from a lynch mob. You and me aren’t exactly the two most popular people on the Realm.”

“Which is why we are both down here – for our own safety. There are still sixty feet of rock below us, to say nothing of the ice shield. Believe me, if they wanted to quietly tip us out into space, they wouldn’t put us down here.”

There were doubtless other means by which they could be conveniently disposed of, but Falvar did not pursue the matter. He settled himself on the seat facing Xeras.

“We’re down here because you disobeyed a direct order to disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm,” he said, aware as he said it how ineffectual it sounded.

“You were no longer in a position to give orders, sir,” Xeras replied firmly. “The only authority operative was that vested in me by the Articles, and I acted accordingly.”

“The Articles!” Falvar exploded. “What in God’s name does devastating a planet have to do with the Articles? You’ve wiped out the avisaurs out along with everything else.”

Grimly he recalled the latest probe images from the planet, broadcast over the Realm’s news channel that morning, the third day after the impact.

The planet was still ablaze from pole to pole. Already, billions of tons of soot, together with ejecta from the impact itself were turning the skies black. Soon the once-inviting world would be plunged into a winter that would last for two years, though the destruction of the ozone layer and acid rain would render it uninhabitable for at least a century.

An hour after the broadcast, a mob had attacked Falvar’s residence, where he had been held under house arrest since Theox’s revolution.

Xeras rose to her feet and from a locker in one corner of the cell she produced her palmtop computer, which she had been allowed to retain.

“Allow me to explain, sir. There’s something we missed, something absolutely crucial…”

Looking up, Director Falvar saw not the comforting familiarity of the Realm’s cities, fields, forests and rivers – instead there was a strange blue void, apparently forming a vast bowl over his head, punctuated only by fluffy white and grey amorphous shapes. He tried to keep his breathing normal. He did not want to let his agoraphobia show.

“The holosims can never really prepare you for this, sir,” Xeras said. The note of sympathy in the young Science Officer’s voice made it clear she’d had no difficulty in reading Falvar’s body language. Equally clear was that she was quite unperturbed by the scene, despite it also being her first trip down to the surface.

Rather shamefacedly, Falvar did take a deep breath and tried to take full stock of his surroundings. The elevated heath on which the shuttle had landed sloped gently away from him, meeting a large lake at its foot, about a mile away. On the far side of the lake was a forest which stretched away to what he knew was the “horizon”. But on the near shore was something that would have added to his unease – a mile distant or not – had he not swiftly recognised the great long-necked sauropod as a species definitely identified as vegetarian in dietary habit. His nervous system must have been running a second or two ahead of his thought processes; his heart started pounding.

The blue coloration of the “sky”(that was the word, wasn’t it?) was an optical effect caused by scattering of light from the planet’s primary, the still-blinding yellow disc low in the west that he had been so strongly advised to avoid looking at. He could feel its warmth on his face: in fact he was now beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. Or was it the psychological effect of being this close to a star – something that Falvar was used to thinking of as a remote point of light.

He became uncomfortably aware that he was a tiny speck of organic matter standing on the outside of a solid body, with only the force of gravity stopping both the atmosphere and himself from flying away into space… he felt a renewed rush of agoraphobia. Involuntarily, he closed his eyes. He tried to take a hold of himself. He took a deep breath and told himself that his people had evolved and lived on Earth, and that Earth was – or at least had been – a planet just like the one upon which he was now standing. But he felt no immediate urge to open his eyes again.
Temporarily deprived of vision, he became aware of the clamour of other senses – the constant chatter of the planet’s primitive, toothed birds, the distant roar of a creature somewhere down in the forest. He felt a gentle, cooling breeze on his face and became aware that the combination of it and the star’s warmth was infinitely more pleasant than the effect of the great daylight lamps strung along the Realm’s central axis. He took another deep breath. The air was fresh – it was indescribably different from the sterile, recycled atmosphere of the Realm.

He reopened his eyes, feeling much better. Yes, this was a beautiful world. The sort of world Earth had been once, many centuries ago, if the records were to be believed. Just the sort of world the Falandrafar Foundation had intended them to settle. But, if Xeras was right, there was one detail that was going to be a problem. And God only knew how they were going to get round it.

“How long do we have?” he asked.

“To make our rendezvous with the comet, we need to leave here within twelve hours,” replied Xeras. “There’s only an hour to sunset, we have plenty of time.”

“Let’s deploy the ground-effect vehicle,” said Xeras.

Night was falling as the ground-effect vehicle hummed across the surface of the lake. The sauropod Falvar had seen earlier had gone; he was not sure whether he was disappointed or not at being unable to see the great beast at close quarters, herbivore or not. In the west a brilliant object was visible. For a moment Falvar thought it must be the comet, then he realised it would still be a morning object from this hemisphere. It must be the next planet inwards from this one he could see, a virtual twin in size, but utterly inhospitable. Rising in the east Falvar could see the planet’s solitary moon rising. It was not quite full and even with the naked eye he could make out considerable detail on its surface.

“Unremarkable,” said Xeras. “Much smaller than Earth’s moon, and indeed similar moons we’ve seen in other systems. As far as we can tell, they are all formed in the same way, coalescing out of ejecta from collisions between their primaries and large primordial bodies.”

“Still an impressive sight, though,” said Falvar.

“We’re almost there, sir,” said Xeras, checking the vehicle’s GPS. A constellation of twelve navigation satellites had been placed in orbit around the planet; it had eliminated the need to leave marker beacons at sites of interest. Xeras switched the vehicle to silent running mode. Its engine hum sank to a whisper, but it lost height and was now suspended only a few inches above the water.

Falvar stared at the leafy shore. “I don’t see anything.”

“The creatures are small, sir,” said Xeras. “And they won’t become active until after dark.”

“While we are waiting, perhaps you could summarise what your team has found,” said Falvar. “In layman’s terms, please – I feel I might have missed some of the detail in your reports.”

“Very well, sir,” said Xeras, “First of all I must point out that the bulk of the data has by necessity come from the robot surface probes that are still exploring the planet. However my team has found nothing that conflicts with the probe data. The planet’s biosphere is remarkably like that of Earth. Life is DNA-based, there are three domains – anaerobic bacteria, which probably evolved first: normal bacteria: and eukaryotic forms broadly split up into protozoa, plants, fungi and animals. We’ve identified around 30 animal phyla, including chordates and arthropods –“

“I said in layman’s terms,” protested Falvar.

“What I mean is we are seeing that local life forms are similar at the most fundamental levels to those that lived on Earth,” said Xeras. “One consequence of this is that all the proteins, sugars, vitamins, etc. that we require for sustenance can be obtained from animal and vegetable sources, either by extraction or – in most cases – by direct assimilation.”

“In other words the food is edible,” said Falvar.

“I believe that is what I said, sir.”

The trouble was she probably did. “Continue,” Falvar grunted.

“Very good sir,” said Xeras. “We have been able to show, with a high degree of confidence, that although there are several classes of bacteriological and viral organisms that are harmful to us, there are none that are resistant to standard antibiotic and immunisation techniques.”

They could eat the food and there were no harmful diseases they couldn’t cope with. Coupled with the favourable geological reports and that the sun would be good for at least a billion years, the planet was ideal for their purposes, but for that one bloody thing – unless there was some kind of get-out.

“The final consequence,” continued Xeras, “is we can predict the future course of evolution on this planet with considerable accuracy. Great changes will occur among the land-living vertebrates within the next five million years –“

She broke off, reached for a pair of dark-vision binoculars and trained them on the shore. She must have heard something move on the shore – the light was now too dim to see anything with the unaided eye.

“Can you see anything?” said Falvar.

“I heard something, sir,” said Xeras. She swept the binoculars slightly from side to side. “Yes, there they are. Out a little sooner than last time.”

Falvar picked up a second set of binoculars. “Lead me in,” he said.

“Yes sir,” Xeras said, activating the short-range direction sender on her binoculars.

A red targeting grid appeared in the bottom left corner of the view field in Falvar’s binoculars. He swung them round until the grid was centred. A few dim trees and that was it.

“I don’t see anything,” he snapped.

“The gain, sir,” said Xeras evenly.

Hell! He really was doing a good job of making himself look like a complete idiot on this trip. He turned up the gain on the binoculars’ light intensifier and zoomed in. There! Scurrying around were three small, feathered bipedal animals.

“Tell me about these creatures,” he said.

“They represent a class of vertebrate intermediate in form between reptiles and birds. The group evolved fairly recently from archosaur stock and is not yet widespread. We’ve called them the avisaurs, or bird-lizards. They are warm blooded, like birds and several archosaur species. But here the feature has evolved to accommodate the energy requirements of a comparatively large brain, not to sustain powered flight. The brain in turn has evolved in response to the need to survive by it rather than brawn in a world dominated by archosaurs – and it has an important consequence.”

Falvar took a deep breath. “You are seriously expecting me to believe that these little creatures will go on to develop a civilisation?” he said.

“Not exactly, sir,” said Xeras. “What is happening on this planet is a long term drop in global temperatures. This is being caused by continental movements and their effects on weather systems, and will result in the planet being subject to periodic ice ages.”

“Like the ones that are supposed to have occurred in prehistory back home, before The Warming?” said Falvar.

“Yes, sir,” said Xeras. “Our forbears lived through them, as will these small warm-bloods here, as will the archosaurs. But our projections show that each ice age will progressively weaken the grip of the archosaurs, and descendants of the little avisaurs you see here will fill each evolutionary niche as it falls vacant. Eventually – about seventy-five million years from now – this will appear.”

Xeras produced a palm-top showing a computer-generated image of a feathered biped. The creature was humanoid, but did not look in the least bit human. The prominent bony crest on its forehead was the most obvious difference, but it differed also in numerous other more minor ways.

“How intelligent are these creatures – or how intelligent will they be?” said Falvar.

“As intelligent as we are, sir,” said Xeras. “There is no doubt they will achieve a global civilisation.”

“Assuming they evolve at all.”

“All five Projection Programs predict that they will, with mean confidence of ninety-five percent,” said Xeras solemnly. “You know what that means, sir.”

Yes, Falvar knew what it meant. He had known since he’d read Xeras’s reports, but he’d needed to make certain for himself.

“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “We have a comet to deflect.”

The cometary nucleus was close now, its mottled bulk filling the entire viewing-screen. The dust tail was visible only as a white glow off to one side. A fainter blue glow marked the ion tail. Falvar could make out surface features resembling small craters and mountains. Suddenly, a luminous fog filled the screen, through which the surface could only be seen dimly.

He watched as Xeras activated the smaller graphical display on the screen. Their trajectory was fine; their velocity relative to the comet was now less than eighty miles per hour.

“Three minutes to optimum release point,” said Xeras.

The comet’s nucleus measured roughly eight miles by five: not enormous by cometary standards, but more than large enough for their purposes – assuming they did go on… what was he thinking of? Of course they were going on, there was no way they could stay and his only motives for insisting on hitching a ride to see for himself was to delay the inevitable decision he knew he must make. It was the only decision he could make under the Articles, but was it the right decision? Theox, of course, would not think so.

Two minutes to go.

The Chief Councillor had recently thrown his weight behind the campaign to abolish the Articles and replace them with a written Constitution vesting supreme authority in a democratically elected civilian government, rather than the Director.

You can’t run a spaceship by committee – not even one as big as the Realm. But the issues addressed by the Articles went way beyond the running of a spaceship – they addressed the whole future of the human race and its role in the universe. Surely such matters should be considered and evaluated by the whole of that race… who was he, or the long-dead Falandrafar for that matter, to say that ordinary people were not to be entrusted with such matters? I do solemnly swear to uphold the Articles of the Realm so help me God. Fifteen words that guaranteed a lifetime of unswerving devotion to the Articles from every cadet inducted into the Crew.

“The psychological tests provided for in the Articles ensure that only people of a certain mindset were accepted for cadet training. People who fit readily into what is a military caste in all but name.”

So Theox had said in one of his recent speeches. But the Chief Councillor was wrong, because here he was – Falvar, Director of the Realm – having serious doubts about what he was doing. Or was Theox wrong? Falvar intended to do as the Articles decreed anyway.

Only one minute to go now.

There was little to do; the release was automatic and the device was programmed to carry out its mission without human guidance. Outside, little could be seen through the nacreous glow of the comet’s inner coma – the nucleus was already extremely active, despite still being ten days from perihelion.

There was a gentle shudder as the device left its cradle. Simultaneously, Falvar felt the firm grip of the restraining fields on his body and the shuttle went to full acceleration, pushing him back into his seat. Presently the brighter stars began to shine through fast-thinning fog as the shuttle cleared the comet’s inner coma. He saw Xeras checking the telemetry from the device.

“All systems nominal. Chemical motor has successfully killed residual velocity relative to comet,” she reported.

Two minutes passed. Outside, the last wisps of gas were flying past. The comet’s brilliant dust tail, still greatly foreshortened, came into view along with the fainter blue ion tail. Xeras set the main viewer to departure angle, back along the way they’d come. Another minute passed with interminable slowness. Supposing the device failed to have the desired effect? It was sheer luck a suitable comet had been so close to perihelion – if anything went wrong, they’d have to wait months if not years for another opportunity.

Sheer good luck… or sheer bad luck? Stop thinking like that, he told himself furiously. A blinding white glare filled the screen. At a distance of three miles from the surface of the nucleus, the device had irradiated around a third of the surface with hard gamma rays. The comet appeared to develop a third tail, tangential to the other two, as over a billion tons of water methane and ammonia ices were converted instantly to superheated gas.

There was a danger that the rocket-like thrust so imparted would shatter the nucleus, but so far all looked well as radar images confirmed it was still intact, albeit erupting furiously in a dozen places on the shocked surface.

The shuttle was comfortably outrunning the expanding gas cloud, which had increased the luminosity of the comet by several magnitudes. It must be a spectacular sight now from the third planet. Of course, if all had gone according to plan, in a few weeks time it was going to become considerably more spectacular. It would swing by at just fifty thousand miles, using the planet as a gravity brake to place it in a near-circular orbit around the sun, permitting its desperately needed resources to be mined at leisure.

“It looks like the deflection has been a success,” said Xeras. “Though we did err on the side of caution, and my guess is we’ll have to fine-tune the trajectory with a second device just before the comet approaches the third planet in twenty-three days time.”

“Take us back to the Realm,” said Falvar.

As he waited for Theox to arrive, Falvar stared up through the glass-domed roof of his private office in the Realm’s Control Centre. The daylight lamps were approaching full strength, flooding the Realm with their golden glow. There were still a few of the original inhabitants of the Realm left alive. Now, for the first time, he could truly appreciate what it must have been like to watch a sunrise on Earth – a proper sunrise, not the switching on of a glorified light bulb.

At forty-eight, Falvar was still just about young enough to have hope that a suitable planet might be found in his lifetime.

But Theox was one of those original voyagers, and at his age there was no such hope.
The telephone on his desk chimed. It was his secretary, announcing the arrival of Theox. “Show him in,” he said and rose to greet the elderly politician, whose face was set in an angry glare. There’s been a leak, Falvar thought. That’s all we need. “Thank you for coming to see me, Chief Councillor,” he said a little lamely.

“Let’s not waste time on pleasantries, Falvar,” Theox growled. “We both know why I’m here. I have it on good authority that a comet has been diverted into a suitable orbit for us to mine it. Why would we do that if we didn’t need to refurbish the Realm’s ice shield, so we can continue the voyage?”

“We’ve found life-forms on the planet that will almost certainly evolve into intelligent beings,” said Falvar defensively.


“All five of the Projection Programs give the same answer, with a mean confidence far greater than that specified by the Articles.”

“Very well,” said Theox, “let’s assume for the sake of argument that the results are valid. You are saying that we are going to turn our backs on the first planet we’ve found completely suitable for colonisation because of some avisaurs that will become intelligent millions of years from now?”

Falvar made a mental note to carpet Security Chief Naxxy as soon as the meeting was over.
“Article 1 is quite unequivocal on the matter,” he said.

“Seventy-five million years in the future?” said Theox, his voice rising. “Do you seriously think we should be thinking so far ahead? We are an intelligent species existing now.”

“The Articles –” began Falvar.

“To hell with the Articles!” stormed Theox. “You know perfectly well they are an irrelevant doctrine, compiled by humans long dead, who furthermore knew perfectly well that they would never have to live with the possible consequences.”

Falvar was silent for a moment, struggling to keep heretical thoughts at bay. “Do you seriously think that Falandrafar spent thirty years setting up the Foundation and getting the construction of the Realm started, then devised the Articles as an act of spite because he knew he’d be dead long before it reached its destination?”

Theox must have sensed his doubt and appeared visibly less angry. “I think you’ve got to accept that he was under tremendous pressure throughout all those years, and that he was terminally ill when he drew up the Articles might have clouded his judgement.”

“Nobody wants to leave this world behind,” Falvar said. “But we have no choice.”

“Wrong,” said Theox, with a return to his aggressive manner. “You have no choice. The Crew have no choice. But I never swore to uphold your precious Articles and neither did the vast majority of the people on this Realm.”

“What are you saying?”

“I suppose it has occurred to you that as the Crew are outnumbered about a thousand to one by the civilian population, if enough civilians felt strongly enough about it, there’s not a lot you could do to force us to continue the voyage. Especially as the Articles prohibit the Crew from bearing arms.”

“Is that a threat, Chief Councillor?”

“No, Director, merely an observation.”

The Primary Control Room was bustling with activity as Xeras’ shuttle made its final approach to the comet, but Falvar, seated beside First Officer Cephella on the command dais, had little to do but stare up at the display cluster. The large main monitor was displaying images of the comet. Smaller monitors were still showing probe images from the third planet, but nobody was paying them any attention. He had heard, though, that Xeras had been taking data feeds from the surface probes throughout her two-day journey to intercept the comet.

Maybe Theox had been planning a revolution, but had been unable to drum up the necessary support. The daily demonstrations outside the Control Centre had been growing steadily smaller for the last week. It wasn’t that surprising, really. Ninety percent of the population had been born on the Realm; probably a significant number of those found the prospect of adapting to a wholly new way of life daunting, even if they wouldn’t admit it. Notably few of the few remaining protestors were under fifty.

Or was there something he’d missed? There was something about that exchange with Theox. It wasn’t just an observation; it hadn’t sounded like an idle threat either.

Falvar tried to tell himself he was being paranoid. Or was he secretly hoping a revolution would let him off the hook?

The comet was getting close now, but the release point was still some minutes away. Xeras signalled that she had fired her retro-rockets to kill the shuttle’s residual relative motion with respect to the comet.

The nuclear device, much lower in yield to the one detonated twenty-three days earlier, would fine-adjust the comet’s trajectory, so it would make a close approach to the planet, travelling against the direction of its orbital motion. The effect would be the reverse of a gravity assist – a gravity break. Success was vital. Without the comet, the voyage could not be continued. It would be months, if not years before another suitable comet could be located. Which just might give Theox the time he needed to organise a revolt.

Falvar became aware of a commotion behind him, but nobody on the command dais moved or spoke. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Security Chief Naxxy. He looked round. About a dozen of Naxxy’s men were fanning out across the Control Room.

“What the hell is going on?” he barked at Cephella.

The First Officer looked him straight in the eye. “Recall Xeras, Director. Order her to disarm the nuclear device and return here immediately.”


“Recall Xeras, Director. It’s over. I’m relieving you of command.”

Falvar rose to his feet. “On what authority?”

“Mine, Director,” said a voice behind Falvar.

He spun round to see Theox standing behind the command dais.

“Pending free elections, the Realm is now under a provisional civilian government headed up by myself,” Theox continued calmly. “The Articles have been suspended and Crew functions will from now on be under the command of Cephella.”

Falvar stared round the Control Room, now liberally sprinkled with security men. It was obvious that only a minority of the Crew had joined the mutiny, but nobody looked willing to actively oppose it either. He could now quite reasonably surrender responsibility for abandoning the planet. He felt a guilty – and short-lived sense of relief.

Because he did still have one option.

“Suppose I refuse to order Xeras to abort the comet-deflection mission? You need to stop the mission, don’t you? Because if you don’t, your revolution might fail.”

“You are perfectly correct,” replied Theox, “but Xeras’ mission will fail anyway if you don’t order her to abort. Her nuclear device is booby-trapped. If she attempts to launch it, it will detonate immediately.”

“You’re bluffing.”

Theox looked Falvar in the eye. “Are you prepared to take a chance, Director?”

“This is nothing short of terrorism,” stormed Falvar.

“I greatly respect the principles behind the Articles, but I have to think of the million people we’ve got here on the Realm. We will do what we can for the avisaurs – perhaps our distant descendants will share the planet with another intelligent species.”

Wearily, Falvar resumed his seat and looked over to Cephella. “Patch me through to Xeras.”

“A word of advice, Falvar,” said Theox. “Don’t try warning Xeras. She’s foolish enough to think it’s a bluff too.”

“You have contact, Director,” said Cephella.

The fuzzy image of Xeras appeared, somewhat degraded by increasing interference from the comet’s ion tail. A delay of few seconds followed, due to the distance between the shuttle and the Realm, then radio crackled into life.


“Forget the honorifics, Xeras, it’s plain Falvar from now on. Theox has staged a revolution. The mission is aborted. Disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm.”

Another pause followed. Then:

“I regret, sir, that I am unable to comply.”

Falvar felt an irrational flash of anger. Was everybody going to mutiny today? “Dammit, Xeras, I’m giving you a direct order. Disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm!”

Falvar waited for a reply, but there was none. The display cluster blanked out. He stared at Cephella.

“Nothing to do with us, sir, she’s broken contact.” The voice was urgent, the “sir” probably a subconscious lapse. “But I’m still getting telemetry. She’s launched the device.”

“The bomb…” started Falvar. The words died on his lips. Obviously there was no bomb.

Theox shrugged. “You were correct, Falvar, it was a bluff. We considered it, but none of our supporters among the Crew wanted to know.”

Falvar ignored him. “Surely she’s not at the release point yet?”

“She isn’t… Astronomy now confirm detonation.”

“Where’s that damned comet going to end up if the device went off early?” said Theox nervously.

“We’ll know in a few minutes, Councillor,” said Cephella. “I’ll put the projections up on the screen.”

Once again, the display cluster came back to life, this time with a series of graphics representing the shifting trajectory of the comet and the orbit of the planet. The plot lines stabilised. Falvar was still trying to interpret the display when he heard Cephella gasp in horror…

“You do know that the probes on the planet were still returning data. Since nobody else was interested, I had it fed to me on the shuttle. Look at this.”

Falvar took the proffered palm-top from Xeras. “Mice?” he exclaimed, staring at the image of the small furry mammals displayed.

“No, sir,” said Xeras, “these creatures are primitive insectivores. Like the avisaurs, they are shy and nocturnal – and a lot smaller and even more elusive. Which is why they were missed at first. Like the avisaurs, they have evolved comparatively large brains, for basically the same reasons. But there is one important difference. These mammals will survive the impact winter – they will simply hibernate through it. The world they will wake up to won’t be pleasant – but they’ll be the largest living things in it.”

“Are you saying that a race of intelligent beings will arise from these creatures?” said Falvar.

Xeras took back the palmtop, tapped at its screen with a stylus and handed it over once more. In place of the insectivores was a computer-generated image of two bipeds standing side by side. The left-hand biped was far more passably human than the projection Xeras had shown Falvar down on the now-devastated planet, the one difference being that it had neither feathers nor scales. But the one on the right showed some differences. It was smaller, more rounded at the hips and two protuberances were present on the upper torso. These, combined with its smooth skin, gave it a weirdly sensual appearance.

“The one on the right is female,” Xeras said.

Falvar tried to suppress his almost sexual reaction to the female’s appearance. “The one on the right is smaller,” he said.

“Sexual dimorphism,” said Xeras, which left Falvar none the wiser. “The female is also wider around the hips to accommodate the birth canal – like all mammals, she gives birth to live offspring, rather than laying eggs. She also has two milk-producing organs on her upper torso. Other than that, these creatures, which will probably evolve in around sixty-five million years from now, are remarkably similar to humans. A classic example of convergent evolution, I would say.”

“But that still doesn’t alter the fact that you’ve violated the Articles – the impact’s left the way clear for these creatures rather than the avisaurs.”

“No sir. We were wrong about the avisaurs – the mammals would have supplanted both them and the archosaurs regardless. But without the impact it would have taken much longer. All I’ve done is speed things up by a few million years.”

Falvar looked at the graphical image again. “Give them scales like us and I’d be convinced they were human.”

“They are human, sir, or will be,” said Xeras.

“How so?” said Falvar. “They are, after all, alien beings. They are not of Earth. They aren’t even reptiles.”

“”Human”. “Earth”. Did you realize that both terms are derived from words meaning “topsoil”? That is so for every culture in our history, implying a harmony between the land and the people which I like to think we never entirely lost, despite the mess we eventually made of Earth.”


“As with different cultures on our homeworld, so with different races on different planets. We’ll never know, of course, but I’d be surprised if these creatures do not come to think of themselves as human, and that planet down there as Earth.”

© Christopher Seddon 2001, 2008