The shocks of early human history

Siddharth Mehrotra
4 min readJun 30, 2021

The shocks of early human history, as discussed by the leads of my novella Philosophy & College Life:

The students went, not quite extracurricularly, to an exhibit of extinct megafauna; — mammoths, giant ground sloths, saber-tooth cats, American camels, six-tusked elephants, giant bison, woolly rhinoceri, gigantopithecines, great auks, aurochs, aullays (Indricotherium/Baluchitherium), unicorns (Elasmotherium), glyptodonts, and more; — in which the guide tried and failed not to persuade her audience that most of their extinctions were the work of reckless human expansionists.

After that, Seymour remarked: ‘The truth is, we’ve already had the Sixth Extinction, or the Anthropocene Extinction, or whatever we call it: so long ago, it’s not even remembered in the earliest myths on record, except for half-addled references to Monster Slayers (Marduk, Indra, Gilgamesh, Hercules, Hunahpu and Xbanlique; — you name it), and the only thing left for us, is to make sure it isn’t total’.

Said Jessex: ‘Put in perspective like that, nothing about civilization as we know it seems important, ancient, or fundamental at all’.

Ramesh added: ‘And it makes me wonder, too, why and how our ancestors destroyed so much, so easily? We had nothing but stone knives and bows-and-arrows then, and we killed off half the life in the world; and nowadays when we have guns and bombs and rockets, and computer-guided missiles circling the globe in a few hours, we destroy so much less. What happened?!’.

Said Maria: ‘Well, we were a new species, then, and caught every other unprepared; — I mean unprepared not only to resist, but even to survive a new enemy. By the look of things, we were just one menace too many’.

Joshua added: ‘Mare’s right. I mean, think of the 1918 flu, Rum, or the smallpox before it, or the Black Death in Europe: all any of those did was live and breed and multiply, and yet each killed millions, without meaning to. We must’ve done the same to the other animals in the Ice Age, without meaning it either; — just like a bank in the ’30s putting thousands of farmers out a’ business, just because once it started, the bankers didn’t know how to stop’.

Said Jessex: ‘It’s both a weight off our minds, and a weight on: weight on, because now we know our ancestors did all these terrible things, and we have to inherit the shame, like Prince Caspian in the story; — “honour enough to lift the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow down the greatest emperor”; — and weight off, because now we know the Anthropocene Extinction’s already happened, and so we don’t have to be afraid of such a big one. I mean, we still have to make sure we don’t annihilate any more; but the worst is apparently over’.

Said Seymour: ‘“Apparently” is the operative word. But that’s what I was getting at too’.

Said Jessex: ‘While we’re at it: d’you suppose these Elasmotheria were what Marco Polo had in mind, when he mentioned unicorns in his book?’.

Said Seymour: ‘Well, Polo was working according to Pliny’s Natural History, in which the word Monoceros meant what we would call a Rhinoceros to-day. If he’d really looked closer for something more like the unicorns in the tapestry, he might’ve found the K’i-lin or Ki-rin, which most English-speaking Chinese now-a-days would call a Unicorn. It’s essentially a sort of mountain antelope, like the chamois in the Alps. The mokele-membe in Africa is a river-monster; and there were plenty of those in the Mesozoic, so anyone could’ve seen the fossils in the riverbed and taken them for recently dead creatures. I expect, in the long run, every mythical creature, however grotesque, can be found in the fossil-record’.

Jessex asked: ‘Does that mean, All the legends were invented to explain fossils? Sort of a primitive hypothesis?’.

Seymour answered: ‘Maybe not all, and almost certainly not those in which some hero faces the monster, unless he’s a hero-god of some long-past time, ancient even to the ancients; in which case, he’s likely nothing but a name and face grafted on some revolution in the climate’.

Said Ismail: ‘While we’re at it, what about the strange creatures reported by Ibn Fadlan? The giant from Yajuj-Majuj, and the oversized rhinos?’.

Seymour answered: ‘You tell me. What’s oversized about them?’.

Ismail said: ‘The Yajuj-Majuj skeleton was almost human, but much larger; and the rhino-horns and hide were bigger than those of any rhinoceros now alive. So there you are’.

Said Jessex: ‘Woolly rhinos were bigger than their modern hairless cousins, and I guess the skeleton might’ve belonged to the Abominable Snowman, or something like that’.

Said Rachel: ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head, Jess. The original of the Abominable Snowman was almost certainly the Gigantopithecus, of which we do have fossil specimens, and the same for the giant rhinos, or Polo’s unicorn; probably the Elasmotherium’.

Said Joshua: ‘Plus, there’s giraffids: okapies, sivatheria, and other species like that. When Admiral Zheng He brought a giraffe to China, the Chinese historians called it a K’i-lin; so that means, the original K’i-lin was something like a giraffe, or one of the related species, which used to live in China’.

Seymour answered: ‘Josh, you’re brilliant. I think you’re exactly right!’.