At the entrance to Villaval, the first village on the way to Burgos, we passed a dilapidated church with a collapsed roof. The rear walls were still intact, but the front was partially demolished and the beams of the collapsed structure were pointing upwards in all directions. I found it most astonishing that after centuries of destruction a fairly large brass bell was still hanging in the shell of what had once been the bell tower. I took some photos and just as I was about to leave, Eric appeared around the corner. He had no difficulties finding the way up the mountain; he had just followed my footsteps!
The bell in the tower is faintly visible
As so often during this winter walk, I could not find a shop to buy food. It was about 11 o’clock when I reached the first village and made a dash for the bar – only to find that they had nothing solid to sell. Coffee and the use of the servicio was all that was available. As I was leaving, however, the barman handed me a banana without charging for it, ‒ I must have looked starved and was very thankful. Later on I did find a tortilla in the third village, where I met Eric again, and from there on we walked together to Burgos – through the sprawling industrial outskirts and the just as extensive business and residential suburbs, until we finally arrived in the historic centre.
Earlier on, when passing Atapuerca and prior to the turnoff to the cruceiro, I was close to archaeological excavations where remarkable finds from our ancestors have been uncovered.
In the late 19th century a mining company, while digging a cutting for a railway line, had found human fossil deposits. Since 1978 the sites have been surveyed and archaeologists suggest that humans lived in these regions from 20,000 to 800,000 years ago and that Atapuerca might harbour the most significant finds of our ancient human past in Europe.
The prelude to our becoming humans – the initial branching off from our gorilla cousins when tentative signs of walking on two legs (bipedal behaviour) took place, started as early as six to seven million years ago. The first fossils that definitely confirmed this change in posture were found in Ethiopia and date back four million years.
Homo Habilis, around 2.3 to 1.4 million years ago, certainly had the genus Homo (our genus) as well as a brain with a volume of 600 cc– up from 450cc in apes. Apart from climbing trees with their long arms and strong upper bodies, they also developed the ability to walk semi-upright. The changes were in line with Darwin’s theory; it was an evolutionary change, a slow transformation, probably precipitated by the need to adapt to new environmental conditions ‒ or to perish.
Eventually our ancestors roamed the savannahs rather than swinging in trees. Their arms became shorter and chests and shoulders less muscular. Legs on the other hand grew longer, thighbones extended and muscle mass increased in order to cater for the additional forces required to articulate the elongated bones. Knee structures changed; joints became larger and more rigid to cater for the new conditions towards which upright man progressed.
When a few hundred thousand years later Homo erectus emerged, bodies converted in a more elegant way: thighbones angled inwards and knees and feet aligned with each other. Head, torso and legs became arranged in a vertical line. The centre of gravity dropped and the pelvis rotated forward, forming some sort of a bowl in which our guts, rather than being suspended loosely in front of our body and held together by muscles and skin, were securely carried.
Our posture grew fully upright, the sideways waddle of previous ancestors straightened out and our strides became longer. In reality these changes that formed the human body were seamless and gradual. It was not that Habilis did the one thing and Erectus, who was around for about 1.5 or so million years, did the next.
Once the upright posture was established and became the norm, our ancestors were better able to see over the high grass of the savannah and detect and hunt animals that provided protein for further growth and strength. Our living horizon extended and stimulated our brains, which enlarged and became more useful, albeit also more problematic, as demonstrated in this book.
Unfortunately, as a result of our pelvis twisting forward, other unforeseen circumstances arose. In order to develop a neat and tidy figure and to keep our legs together, (important for photo shoots,) the ilium and pubis bones moved closer together and in the process the birth canal narrowed. Furthermore, and especially since the Neanderthal period, which might have started as early as six hundred thousand years ago, our brain size grew substantially and so did the size of our babies’ heads, which further affected giving birth.
Whereas other primates with less sophisticated and smaller brains have no trouble delivering their offspring, the larger head of humans and the smaller birth canal resulted in our babies’ delivery being extremely laborious and painful.
Mammals, other than humans, have reached their full brain capacity almost at birth and can fulfil most survival functions right from the start. As a result the offspring of many species are mobile straight after delivery. They are able to stagger to their feet and without much difficulty find their food source.
If this was the criteria for human babies, they would have to possess a more intricately developed brain before birth, which in turn would require more skull space – too large for the new pelvis configuration. Nature solved this problem in a most ingenious way. By reducing the incubation period of our babies in the womb to nine months, the size of the head is still small enough and giving birth is possible, albeit with pain. However, because of the reduced incubation time, our babies are helpless after birth and need to be intensively cared for and looked after for another two years and more. This is where fathers are increasingly roped in to lend a hand!
It would take a gestation period of about twenty-one months for human babies to more or less manage on their own, like other new-born mammals do. Parents would, as a result, have more sleep during their babies’ first year on earth – but, over and above making the lives of mothers extremely difficult during the extended gestation period, it would require far wider hips and other changes to women’s body structure – so much for human development, with some indication of the way evolution functions.