Saturday, January 9, 2010

283. Babel 5

We're in a better position than the authors of the Bible to figure out what happened, because we know more. But give them credit, because they had the right idea a very long time ago. In this sense the Bible was -- uh -- prophetic. (Is there a word for a double oxymoron?)

In order to explain why there are so many differences among so many people distributed in such large regions, completely separated from one another, you either have to be a multiregionalist (they were too smart to fall for that one) or you have to concoct some very dramatic event that could only have occurred early enough in human history to have just the right effect. Babel is exactly that. It's wrong, for sure, not just because there is no God (maybe there is) but because Babylon is at the wrong spot -- and LSD or whatever God used wouldn't have really done the trick. But they were on the right track, because they were thinking like the great physicist Alan Guth thinks. They realized they needed to insert a fudge factor into the equations to make them come out right (Richard Feynman did it too, and for equally good reasons.)

So where was the right place? And when? This is where the gap comes in. Because the gap does more than simply explain the strange distribution of the "African signature" I've been ranting about, or the very similar distribution of African style carving and mask making traditions, or the distribution of tone language (which may or may not be relevant, I haven't decided) or the “sharp genetic break between India and the Far East” noted by Oppenheimer.

It also looks to be the exact right spot for Cosmic Inflation -- or the Out of Africa equivalent (call it Terrestrial Differentiation) -- to have taken place. A major disaster centered on the gap, i.e., somewhere in India, could have produced a set of population bottlenecks all at the same time -- one for each of the major non-African morphological types ("races" to you) and sowing the seeds that would blossom into each of the non-African major language families. Actually this is an oversimplification, but you get the idea. The time and place would have been exactly right, because the migrants, who would have looked and acted like Africans, because they were African, would not have had time to do much differentiating through the normal, gradual, adaptational evolutionary process -- and India is exactly the right spot to be if you want to branch off to every other part of Asia (Europe is another story, I'll get to that -- so is Australia).

Let's take a closer look. Here, according to Oppenheimer's Journey of Man website, is how the world would have looked circa 75,000 years ago:

The red line stands for the path of the migrating Out of Africans. He calls them the "beachcombers" because they would most likely have been hugging the coast.

Here's how he thinks things looked just 1000 years later, ca 74,000 years ago. The grey puff you see is the fallout from the explosion of Mount Toba, in northwest Sumatra:

One of the many things that makes Toba extremely useful as a fudge is that we have a pretty good idea when it erupted, thanks to the considerable amount of volcanic ash it dumped, which can be identified and dated. So if Toba is our "Cosmic Inflator," we have a very good idea of when the inflation took place. And one of the things that makes Toba particularly convincing is the fact that it seems to fit the gap so well. In fact the plume of ash perfectly covers the gap. And the regions to the northeast, east and south, which would have been downwind from the direction of the plume, would have been largely, though not completely, spared. Which fits beautifully with the distribution of the African musical signature, both vocal and instrumental, scattered among so many indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, southern China, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Melanesia (NOT Australia, no no no). Those largely spared would have managed to preserve a significant part of their African traditions (including wood carving and mask making and many types of ritual as well), while those caught in the gap would have lost all or most of them -- or simply been killed.

I'm not saying it had to be Toba, because there are other candidates that work almost as well -- but if it turns out to have been Toba that would be great, because Toba explains a great deal and provides a lot of useful information.

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