The First Family

The First Family

It was during August of 1964 that a team of government geologists encountered one of the furies of nature that could have been a prelude to disaster. The senior geologist, recognizing the inexperience of his two assistants in dealing with hazards of the Arizona desert, took special pains to educate them. He recognized, however, that some things are learned most effectively through experience.

The mission of the group was to map some of the unexplored canyons. Late one morning they were driving their jeep in a narrow V—shaped gully. The senior geologist stopped the vehicle and looked toward the east, where he observed a violent cloudburst in progress, while overhead the sky was clear and blue and the sun was shining. His warning of a possible flash flood in this gully fell on deaf ears, so he herded his crew into the jeep and drove down the streambed. He then stopped abruptly; although the storm in the east has ended, he heard sounds that resembled the echo of thunder, and they were growing louder and louder.

Realizing what he was hearing, he yelled to the men to abandon the jeep and climb out of the gully. The men just sat and stared at their leader, doubtless convinced that he had been in the desert too long and had finally flipped. But they were becoming apprehensive, for the roaring sounds were getting nearer and louder.

The senior geologist leaped out of the jeep and climbed the steep gully walls. The two assistants, having no better plan of action, followed him somewhat blindly. They had barely reached the top when, around a bend in the gully, a wall of water at least fifteen feet high erupted into view. In an instant the jeep was gone. It was found the next day nearly a mile away, a complete casualty.

Desert people worldwide avoid arroyos, or narrow valleys, as campsites. In fact many a Bedouin has a well—defined phobia about being caught in a deep gorge. They have learned through bitter experience that stony landscapes with little vegetation will concentrate rainwater in ravines and gullies. When this happens, a deep ditch can become a death trap, with flash flood hitting even hours after the rain has stopped and miles away from the original downpour. In such floods the water can rise ten or twenty feet in a few minutes, drowning everything in its path.

Recently in the northern Sahara four tourists, along with their Arab guide, observed a violent cloudburst occurring about twenty miles east of them. Their point of observation was, of course, from a deep narrow ravine. Their guide became agitated, and when he heard thunderous noises coming from a distance, he ordered the group to abandon their vehicles and climb out of the gully. Naturally they refused, thinking he had been in the sun too long. But as the thunder got louder and closer, he drew his pistol and ordered them to climb the steep walls, emphasizing the urgency of his command by firing the gun at the ground in front of their feet. They had barely reached the top when a huge wall of water swept into view and carried away their vehicles and abandoned supplies.

The fee the grateful people paid their Arab guide at the conclusion of their tour was far above the amount originally agreed on. They realized that the guide, by resisting their objections, had saved their lives!

The threat of flash foods in the deep ravines of arid lands has always been a menace to man. Such was the fate of the first family. They were involved in an incident not unlike those described above in modern times, but they were to pay with their lives.

Between 1973 and 1977, Dr. Donald C. Johanson, a leading paleoanthropologist, was codirector of several international expeditions in search of early man in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia. About 250 hominid (early man) fossils were found in the ravines and tributary valleys of the Hadar River. More fossils would doubtless have been found if expeditions could have continued, but internal strife in Ethiopia curtailed further exploration indefinitely.

Radiometric dating has shown that the Afar fossils are well over three million years old. They represent an extraordinary variety of teeth and bones of about sixty—five individuals; the most famous is called "Lucy."

She was found during the 1974 expedition when, on a November afternoon while exploring with a colleague, Johanson noticed a fragment of an arm bone protruding from a slope. A three—week intensive sieving job on the slope uncovered the remains of the oldest known hominid. About 40 percent of the skeleton was recovered — a new high in paleoanthropology because hominid remains from a single individual this ancient have never been found in such abundance. The pelvic bones showed the specimen was female, and erupted wisdom teeth suggested she was about twenty years old when she died. Her height, estimated from the thigh bone, was about three feet six inches. Later finds of this hominid species indicate some males may have reached four feet in height. Although theses creatures generally measured less than four feet and had a relatively tiny brain for a hominid, they all walked erect. From this it can be inferred that man achieved bipedialism before time and genetics had authorized the enlargement of the brain.

When this early hominid was first discovered, the realization of its importance set the camp into intense excitement. Nobody slept that night; the scientists talked, and the beer flowed. The camp tape recorder incessantly played the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." As the song played at full volume over and over again, it seemed inevitable that sometime during the night this most ancient female would become known as "Lucy," and so Lucy she was and still is.

She was later assigned the scientific name of Australopithecus afarensis, a name steeped in controversy because some scientists do not believe Lucy represents a new species.

Now the stage was set for the first family. In the fall of 1975 another startling find was made in the same area — on a slope virtually littered with the bones of some of Lucy's relatives. The scientists spent weeks on intensive excavation of that particular slope, systematically combing the entire hillside. Tons of the gravel surface were carried down the slope to be sifted, load by load, through coarse sieves. Ultimately the hillside yielded more than 200 teeth and pieces of bone. It was impossible to reconstruct the skeletons because of the way the remains were jumbled and scattered down the slope, but all agreed that duplication of specific parts made it clear that at least thirteen individuals were represented, including men, women, and four children.

These hominid fossils came from a common source in the stratigraphic horizon near the top of the slope. Those found on the slope had been washed out through erosion and scattered on the incline. The source horizon contained nearly twenty more fossil pieces, all at the same stratigraphic level and still in place. The implication was clear: before erosion had scattered their remains, all had lain in close proximity and therefore presumably had died together.

But what killed them — an epidemic, a fight, perhaps an accident? No, because had this been the case, the remains would have been gnawed by scavengers or the bones cracked open for their marrow. None of this was evident. An examination of the horizon containing the remains gave the answer. The relative thinness of the stratigraphic layer, which consisted almost entirely of fine clay, suggested a single even such as a sudden flood. However, one must consider that a sedimentary deposit originating from rushing water would have carried a mixture of sediments larger than clay size. Evidently this is not where they died but where they came to their final rest.

Everything — stones, mud, sand, and humans — must have been carried down in a rush to a lake edge or some other more level open area where the velocity of the water was controlled. The bodies were immediately deposited, possibly in a heap. As the remainder of the floodwater flowed and ebbed, the fine material it was carrying settled over the bodies and buried them from sight for the next 3.4 million years!

Since they evidently lived together, they surely must have been members of the same family, so Johanson dubbed them "The First Family."
Now let's go back to the time of Lucy. Nearly three and a half million years ago a small group of primitive hominids were encamped in a deep ravine, probably at the start of the rainy season. Some were sleeping, some were feeding, and others were grooming their neighbors. They were aware of an intense cloudburst occurring in the distance, followed by thunderous noises that kept getting louder and louder.

It is a common belief that humans living in a natural state are wise in the ways of the wild. This is doubtless true for modern Homo sapiens, but during the time of the first family hominid reasoning was rather embryonic. So, unable to understand what the noises implied, they doubtless shifted about uneasily, trying to decide what to do. They all turned and starred in disbelief and horror as a wall of water swept into view. The waters quickly inundated the entire group, and they became part of the rushing torrent. Mercifully they all drowned almost immediately and their agony was ended.

As the water flowed out of the confinement of the deep gully, it spread across the open plains and entered a lake. The bodies were dropped in close proximity as the water's velocity decreased. The flowing muddy water, representing the tail end of the flood, quickly covered the bodies with fine—grained silt and mud, and this impromptu grave protected them from scavenging animals. Their ordeal for survival in a hostile world was over, and they were at peace.

As the wise ones have often said, "Families that play together stay together" — in this case forever.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth