The earliest clear evidence of our kind’s upright stance was found in the hardened ash of a volcano in east Africa dating a bit over three and a half million years ago. Three sets of footprints extended about seventy-five feet, going north, before being eradicated by erosion. The shape of the prints and pattern of pressures are typically human. These folk walked like men. The largest may have been male, about five feet tall, weighing perhaps a hundred pounds. The next may have been female, a little over three feet tall, perhaps fifty pounds. The third was a small child. These were made by folk called Australopithecus afarensis—never mind the pronunciation, which is changing from right to wrong—one of whom the anthropologists called Lucy. They have no names and no real language, just a collection of a few useful words. They may seem more like apes than men, at this stage, but that may be deceptive.
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They came near the fierce mountain and saw the mountain’s breath spread across the plain, turning it gray. It was safe to cross, because the mountain was not roaring today, but it was nevertheless a marvel.
The man walked straight ahead, intent on his mission: to find something to eat He was big and strong, and his fur was thick and even, showing his health. The woman followed just behind, keeping a wary eye on the child. Though she was much smaller than the man, her fur too was sleek and her body lithe. Her chest was flat, signaling her fertility, for she had weaned her son a year ago. She also gazed around, fascinated by the changed scene.
It was just at the end of the dry season. The creatures of the plain had grazed the grass down to the roots and moved on. Soon the big rains would come; already there were light showers. Meanwhile the mountain sent out its breath, which resembled the smoke of a great fire when it emerged, and the ash of that fire when it settled to the ground. She saw the tracks of animals in it: birds, rabbits, antelopes and even giraffes. A recent shower had made little holes in the powder wherever the drops struck. Some tracks had already been covered, and also some beetles. She saw a deserted bird’s egg, and the outline of animal dung dusted with gray.
The child took to the powder immediately. He stretched forth his little legs and stepped in the new prints made by the adults. Sometimes he went to the side, making his own little prints, then returned to the safety of his father’s tracks. He chortled. The woman smiled, taking pleasure in his pleasure.
She heard something. She turned to her left and paused, listening and looking. It was only guinea fowl, spooked by their approach.
The man grunted peremptorily, and the woman resumed her motion. They passed on beyond the ash-covered region, and the ground resumed its normal colors.
They were in luck; some distance farther along they found a patch of ripe gourds. The plant had been withered by the mountain’s breath, but the fruits remained firm. The man cried out, and others of their band came to gather the food. The man picked up several, and the woman took two more, and the child one. They carried these back to the band’s camp.
The woman and the child began to tire, so the woman employed a familiar device: she made a grunt of sexual suggestion. The man reacted as expected: he set down his burden, allowing her and the child to do the same, and drew her into him for a bout of copulation. The other members of the tribe paused, considering; then several others paired off, liking the notion. Sex was always a satisfactory interlude.
The woman relaxed, letting the man support her. He held her upright, facing him, her feet off the ground. He sniffed her genital region, excited by the odors there. Then he let her slide down to make contact with his erect penis. Most creatures approached their females from the rear, but the upright posture enabled these ones to be frontal if they wished, and often they did wish it, liking variety. The woman was like a doll in his embrace, allowing him any liberty he chose to take. It had been several hours since their last coupling, so he was quite amenable to her suggestion. He bounced her around, squeezed her, and kissed her fur as his member drove deep into her. This might have seemed like rough play, but she was tough and he was vigorous rather than violent.
By the time he was done, both the woman and the child were rested. They picked up their burdens and resumed their trek. The other couples were also breaking up, satisfied. Sex had no significance beyond the pleasure of the moment and the continuing association it signaled.
They came to the tree where the woman’s sister labored, watched by other women of the band. They reached her as the great brightness of the sun settled behind a distant hill, setting the clouds ablaze. The sister was of similar size, with smooth tight fur, but differed in two respects. Her breasts were prominent, their nipples poking out through the fur of her chest. And she was sexually nonreceptive, because she had already been fertilized. This was why the other woman was kept busier now: it was, in part, her job to protect the security of the family by making sure their man had no reason to respond to any outside woman. Had the family lived apart from others of their kind there would have been little problem, but in a band with several receptive females fidelity could be strained. Two women were enough, in this case, because their cycles of availability were complementary: while one was pregnant, birthing and nursing, the other was receptive. By the time her sister got a baby started, the original woman was ready again. In that manner the two kept the man to themselves, and benefited from his superior ability to forage and to protect them from both outsiders and other men in the tribe. They shared food, when necessary, with others, but not sex or child caring.
They were part of a band that traveled as a unit, but when children grew up the males went out to join other bands and mate with their women. A man was entitled to as many women as he could succeed in taking and keeping from other men. The women in turn preferred to have as much of a man to themselves as they could, and sisters or close friends cooperated in that design. It was almost impossible for a single woman to hold a single man, because of her infertile periods while nursing her small children, but two or three cooperating women could manage it.
Half the babies were lost in their first year, and some fell prey to accidents or illness thereafter, so it was necessary to sire several to be sure one would survive. On average, a woman was sexually receptive about half the time. She was less fertile than other female creatures, so that it could take her a year to conceive. That was what made it possible for only two women to keep one male, if they were correctly phased. If both conceived at the same time, they would lose him, because neither would be able to entice him with sex. Neither the man nor the woman thought of it exactly this way, but this was the mode that enabled the fledgling species to survive.
Indeed, the sister’s labor was complete; she held a furry baby boy. There was a red mark on his little forehead, but it did not matter, for he was healthy. Now the man had two sons, by two sister women. It was good.
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In this manner the tracks leading toward the full human species proceeded. Yes, they are our ancestors. Normally when the male is considerably larger than the female, he has more than one mate, so their social conventions were probably not the same as ours. Three million years can change things, however. Because he was born as the blazing sun set, and had a birthmark sharing this color, we shall call the new baby Blaze.
Copyright © 1993 by Piers Anthony Jacob