As homo sapiens adapted to the savannah landscape by adopting the upright posture, success in avoiding danger and efficient harnessing of the local bounties together led to population explosion. Increasing numbers made migration essential in order to mitigate internal competition. To the south and the west of the initial area of evolution of the early humanoids in the East African savannahs were thick forests where evolutionary changes pioneered by these humanoids were of no particular benefit, and in fact, may have made them unsuited to a forest habitat. To the east was the sea. The only direction open for expansion was the north. The Sahara desert to their north has not always been an insurmountable barrier. Weather changes in real time are fairly erratic. The desert shrank and expanded periodically. When it was narrow and in broken patches, small intrepid bands of the early ape-man could cross the northern desert and, further, passing through the Arab peninsula, colonise the wider world beyond.
Mainly Outward but also Back and Forth
Migration, in this context, must not be seen as an arrow shot from a bow – a one-way movement away from the source. Instead it must be seen as more like a highway – wherein it is possible to move, both, away from and, back towards the original ‘home’. The populations migrating in the reverse direction of this ‘highway’, because of the time lag, carried with it both, the modified genetic characteristics as well as the acquired experiences passed down through generations and referred to as ‘culture’. In this ‘highway’ concept, genes and culture do not move in one straightjacket uni-directional route but involve a large number of eddy currents that makes the influences on, and changes in, any particular community, a lot more complex and rich and, unfortunately, for our purposes, difficult to isolate and analyse.
The Coastal Highway
Let us come back to the movement out of Africa some 50,000 years ago. One aspect of this movement that may be pointed out is how tyrannical association of ideas can be. Such associations trap us. The moment we come across the fact that these early individuals were living and moving along the seacoast we jump to the conclusion that they were ‘fishermen’. But the requisite technology had not evolved. Besides the logical implausibility, we have confirmation from a living example of that population – the Andaman islanders. (All other remnants of that migration, including the Australian aborigines, have been polluted, both genetically and culturally, to varying degrees, by subsequent human population infusions.) Even today, none of the Andaman tribes have any degree of efficiency in fishing and remain essentially hunter-gatherers. This early movement was actually along the ‘coastal highway’ stretching from the east African coast, up along the Arabian Peninsula, down along the Indian coastline, across the Andaman Islands, south east Asia and on to Australia. These populations were technologically primitive. The coast with its flat sandy beaches was easy to move along. No physical act of clearing the undergrowth in their path, with the attendant appropriate tool requirements, was necessary. Hunting was, simply put, available towards the inland forested growth and gathering possible with the bounties thrown up on to the beach by the sea surf. They were, like all humans, opportunists. Trying to make use of whatever they came across, in their long journey, lasting many generations.
Coastal Highway Lost
Geography, ought to precede history, as I have mentioned earlier. If such a convenient pathway was available why was it used only in one major movement around 50,000 years ago, and never again ? The reason is that 50,000 years back an ice age was ending. During the ice age a huge amount of water was locked up in the icy glaciers and the sea level was consequently much lower. The coastline extended much further than at present – sometimes as much as 200 kilometres more than the present. Access to the Andamans, as also Australia, across the present day islands of south east Asia, was contiguous and, over land. Once the ice age receded, the snows melted, the sea levels rose and the continuous ‘coastal highway’ got broken up into a chain of isolated islands, which could not be crossed over to with the prevailing technology. The ‘highway’ no longer existed and therefore could obviously not be used any further.
The Super Highway
In contrast, the northern route out of Africa through the middle east with a small branch veering off towards the Mediterranean and the main branch continuing northwards towards Siberia were open highways as far back as our knowledge goes. It has never been out of use, right till today. The main branch leading to Siberia, again, followed geography by going alongside the western edge of the mighty Himalayas, which could not be penetrated. The eastward move into the Steppes of Mongolia happened only after the northern limits of the Himalayas. Gaps in the Caucuses permitted the westward movement into northern Europe. Just like the ‘coastal highway’ we have referred to earlier, the Bering Straits was also, at times, a continuous land bridge connecting Siberia and the American continent over which the populations, later called ‘Red Indians’, crossed over to the Americas.