Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cavemen, Footprints, and Negative Space

Probably just me, but I found this discovery (of perfectly preserved H. erectus footprints in a Kenyan mudflat) rather moving. It's mostly the unexpected permanence, I think, and the consequent dislocation of historical perspective. Naturally it made me think of Sebald:

Certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence. [...] Three quarters of an hour later, not wanting to miss the landscape around Lake Geneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, I was just laying aside a Lausanne paper I'd bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.

Yes, and at times you come upon their footprints a million years after the fact, and find the deceptively fresh absence of an unknowable ancestor. Which, somehow, is more poignant than the scruffy and unappetizing hominid that presumably created it.

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