Living in Wiltshire it’s hard not to be inspired to think about human development. There are traces of human occupation here going back before the Neolithic. This part of the UK contains of one of our densest and richest ancient landscapes, from world-renowned sites like Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill through to lesser-known, but no less impressive, monuments like Durrington Walls.
In the Iron Age, hilltop fort-building reached its zenith, and there is hardly a hilltop in the county that isn’t moulded by the remains of one of these forts. The neighbouring counties of Dorset and Hampshire have equally superb examples of these huge engineering feats at sites such as Maiden Castle and Danebury Hill Fort.
Following the Roman invasion in 43 CE the south west of England remained a popular place to live. The Roman town of Bath is known the world over, and many remains of Romano-British villas and farmsteads can be found all over the area.
But my interests in human development go back much earlier than the last few thousand years. I’m also fascinated by how we became human in the first place. And that’s where the certainties begin to slip away. The traces of our distant ancestors are hard to find, and even harder to interpret. But now we can also see our history through our DNA, and this is beginning to reveal some fascinating clues to how we came to be who we are.
One of the theories of human development that has really caught my imagination is the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis”, which proposes that human development has been greatly influenced by water. There is a persuasive argument that water was one of the dominating elements in the environment to which human ancestors were exposed when we split from the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees around six to seven million years ago. Books on the subject by Elaine Morgan have certainly influenced and inspired me. “The Descent of Woman”, “The Scars of Evolution” and “The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis” are well-argued and thought-provoking, and even if you are left unsure of the extent to which water may have played a part in our evolution (and I must admit I am), there are still some interesting questions to answer. Like why are we so thirsty as a species? And why would we develop sweating as our main means of temperature regulation? If we really did evolve to run long distances across a hot African savannah, and sweat up to three litres of water a day doing it, where did the water come from? Our large bums are admittedly very good for running, but upright walking is also very useful if you spend a lot of time wading through water and large bottom and leg muscles are needed for that, too.
In the end, we will never know for certain. And that’s what I really like! Exploring ideas is one human trait that I thoroughly enjoy.