The Discovery of Origins – as told to B.R.Taub by Craig Neal
A group of thirteen all white American men, all over the age of 55, travel together in East Africa on an "inventure.” The goal of the trip is to meet with male tribal elders from three separate African traditions - a pastoral, an agricultural, and a hunting and gathering society - to ask the elder men what they "do" and what their role is in their society. The trip grows out of travel and anthropological curiosity, as well as an explicit effort on the part of the American men to make this adventure a part of their experience of transition into elderhood, to find meaningful ritual, to acknowledge and honor the psychological, sexual, and societal transformations that mark becoming an elder male in America, the equivalent of a tribal elder.
While visit with the Hadza, a hunting and gathering people who live in the Lake Eyasi basin area of Tanzania in Paleolithic hunting and gathering bands, as we all did 15,000 years ago, the Americans and the Hadza sit around a campfire on the second night of their gathering. They are drumming, chanting, singing, and chatting. The Hadza songs are spirited, rhythmic, and harmonic. The Americans find songs they all know but are not as spirited, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” for example, and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” They are aware of their limitations, how song and chant do not play the same role in their lives as it does in the lives of the Hadza. Still, the Hadza quickly pick up and join in singing “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”
"So, what do the male elders do here," the Americans in their brash direct manner ask the Hadza. And after huddling together to discuss how best to respond to such a question, when the Hadza do answer, it is to share their creation/origin story, how in the beginning was the Darkness. Then the Great Elephant stepped on the serpent and the valleys were formed. Then the elephant took a piss and the rivers were formed, that sort of stuff. Only the story goes on for about three full hours and contains its fair share of begats. And as they’re listening the Americans recognize that at least one function of male elders in Hadza society is that of oral historians who store, share, and perpetuate the legendary and historical origins of the Hadza people.
"And where do you originally come from," the Hadza ask the Americans, "what are your origins?"
So the 13 American men over 55 huddle together to discuss what story they can tell, because, truth be told, no one has ever before asked them this question in such a way. And there are only two origin stories they know. One is called "Genesis," where the earth was without form until the spirit of their God – the Great God - moved within His kingdom of heavenly emptiness to form on one day the darkness and the light, and on the next the firmament, and on still another day the sky and oceans, and on the fifth, or is it the sixth, all fowl, cattle, great whales, humans, and a woman, the great mother, from the rib of man. And on the seventh day He rested, whereafter all human knowledge of death derives from the biting of an apple, brothers slay brothers, there is a great flood, first kings as children kill giants with pebbles, people wander the desert, bushes burn, commandments are handed down from mountains on tablets, and some poor kid dies on a cross to expiate everyone’s original sin, leaving us free to come to terms with God on our own.
The American male elders decide the Genesis story is just too "unscientific," not truly representative of their beliefs, and probably a story the Hadza have heard in some form from missionaries anyway. The only other “origin story” they know is called the "Big Bang," and they begin to tell this tale, which surprisingly also takes hours, a story where in the far, far distant past, so long ago it was before Time, there existed the great and infinite Nothingness. And from this Great Nothingness there arose a faint and unexplainable vibration that acted inside the perfect vacuum, so that a very Dense Singularity was formed, something about the size of a pebble, only extremely, extremely, extra extremely dense, so dense in fact that the pebble explodes (or implodes, a fine semantic and scientific point they don’t argue before the Hadza). And from that first explosion of the tiny Dense Pebble the entire mass and emptiness of space, the entire universe, every star, mountain, zebra, ocean, and planet is formed.
This, the Americans say, is much more "scientific.” This, the Americans say, really happened. This, the Americans say is “true,” because, although they don’t say this, they know that rivers don’t come from elephant piss, although they accept that something came from nothing to form the first pebble, made of invisible teeny, teeny little atoms that have teenier, teenier electrodes spinning around their nucleus, and from this very small pebble, came a very big bang, out of which sprang the hottest fire and the fastest moving expanding “energy” ever known, more powerful than a million suns, that then cooled over the course of billions of years so that all matter, all planets, the stars, the mountains and the oceans of earth were formed.
And then, the American elders say - this part being essential to their narrative - some of the inert matter on at least one small planet in this vast and expanding universe of billions and billions of stars, a universe which may in fact be only one exhale to be followed by a massive redensifying inhale or contraction to form a new Dense Pebble, to be followed by another big bang, in an endless series of fourteen billion year long cycles of godly eternal inhalation and exhalation, creation and destruction - some of this inert matter on one lonely planet becomes “alive,” by which we mean it can reproduce itself.
The Americans tell the Hadza that this is much more "scientific” than the Genesis story. They say they know it to be true because their "scientists" have proven it with things called waves, pulses, and radiation, and that over another billion years or so - that’s one thousand millions the Americans tell the Hadza - tiny one celled organism arose, organisms that could divide and reproduce themselves, which over billions of years then become multi-celled organisms that emerge onto land from the warm sweet sea. Which brings us, the Americans say, to about a billion years ago, where organisms have gotten so complex that the ancestors of worms and shellfish, of antelope and cattle and humans arise, a time where terrible beasts ruled the earth, dinosaurs, and pterodactyls, and tyrannosaurus rex, and anyhow, rushing ahead about a billion or so years, about one million years ago on this very spot in East Africa the ancestors of humans, one of whom was an Australopithecus named Lucy, who were themselves hunting and gathering people, much as the Hadza are today, were running around making stone axes and arrowheads and becoming men and women..
And as the Americans relate this story they realize they are indeed very near Oldivai Gorge, in the great rift valley, where the Leakeys first found Lucy, the common ancestor mother, and that these Hadza people may well be direct descendants of Lucy, as are we all, only they live here, here where Lucy lived, on this very spot, on this very planet, under these very stars. And the Americans tell this to the Hadza, but before they can get into more evolution, into fire, and cave drawings, and the domestication of plants and animals, to the invention of airplanes, and George Washington the father of their country, and rock and roll music, and nuclear weapons which mirror the powers of the sun and the great exploding pebble, the Hadza elders begin to stir and beg the Americans stop.
"Stop," they say. "This is too incredible, you are saying that we Hadza are the descendants of the first people, living here, where the first people walked, hunted, gathered and reproduced, we, the Hadza. It is all too much to take in,” they say, “too much to integrate into our origin story. We must share this news with our people. We will have to think about what this means, about our ancestors, about ourselves, about our obligations and the future. You have shocked us,” they say, “and we must think about it together.” And they leave us to do so while we Americans are left at the dimming fire, thirteen men over 55, in the immense darkness, inside the vast emptiness, under the same very stars as Lucy.