梦想家从山上降下来 - dreamers down from the mountains - part one

The evidence that high elevation, marijuana, and our myths may hold the secrets to humanity's origins.

At some point in the neighborhood of seven-million years ago (7mya) our ancestors began to walk upright. So given how ubiquitous great ape populations were across much of Africa and Asia, and considering that at this point the Earth was in a Hothouse period without a single glacier to be found – odds are that it was a Planet of the Mostly Upright Apes.

Waving their hands in the air like they just didn’t care, and which were now able to hold and manipulate tools with great ease, these very ancient ancestors of ours were likely bipedal enough not to be mistaken for chimps – however everything we know about the genetic changes that indicate modernity tells us that becoming human was still several millions of years off.

Without glaciers even at the poles, and with vast stretches of lakes covering much of what is now Central Asia and modern-day Russia, abundant vegetation and the concomitant fauna likely made life fairly bucolic for our bipedal brethren.

As they meandered, at least a handful of our proto-hominid ancestors made their way onto the Roof of the World – the Tibetan Plateau. Far and away the most elevated part of the face of the earth, today it has an average elevation of 4,500 meters above sea-level – roughly half the actual elevation of cruising jetliners of about 9,000 meters.

Which is why jetliners are pressurized way down to the equivalent of about 2,400 meters above sea-level, to make long-distance flight bearable for the humans held inside. Bearable but still stressful, since at anywhere above about 2,100 meters, the human body immediately begins to have trouble maintaining enough oxygen saturation to operate optimally.

So although jet lag is awful but inevitable when you spend several hours hundreds of meters above where our bodies are meant to function smoothly, it would be far worse if plane cabins weren’t pressurized to a reasonable level. But oddly enough, “reasonable” turns out to mean an altitude about half as high as the highest constantly inhabited place on modern Earth.

However the Tibetan Plateau is a place of incredible flux, it’s one of the most geothermically active places on the planet, and so its height has changed significantly over the millennia, and it turns out that a little more than 2mya it was at roughly the elevation that the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is today.

Since humans, like all mammals, are extraordinarily finely-tuned organisms, the most complex Gaia has ever seen – as we encounter differences in elevation, our entire physiology is immediately challenged. And the human brain especially, since it’s an almost preposterously complex organ, as delicate as it is complex. For instance, a surprisingly small amount of force can cause someone to lose consciousness, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5psi, or roughly the same force required to crack an egg. Look at a toddler. Now look back to this screen. Now look at a toddler.

That’s all it takes to cause you to lose consciousness if contact occurs unexpectedly, or if you’re Ben Askren. Plenty of metaphors about trillions of stars and sand-grains have attempted to explain the genomic and physical complexity of the human brain, but perhaps the most salient reality to understand is that the same force that can crack and egg can kill us, and that simply having to go up a really tall hill begins to change absolutely everything about our brain’s metabolism as the oxygen concentration begins to lessen.

The principle underlying this observation, that genomic complexity and often physical fragility become increasingly fine-tuned and delicate the more advanced an organism becomes, is Maximum Genetic Diversity (MGD), which starts from the observation that regions of the genome mutate at different rates and goes on to challenge an enormous amount of assumed genetic dogma.

Regardless of how much of MGD makes sense to you though, the reality is that the changes in air pressure that come with increasing altitude is a very predictable stressor on all mammalian brains, and elicits a predictable set of metabolic responses and epigenetic adjustments. And it turns out, just about all of these changes are also regulated by the dive reflex, which is also known as the Master Switch of Life, which turns on the moment our faces are submerged in any water at all.    

Then as freedivers descend past just about a dozen meters, they go through the Doorway of the Deep, and reach a state of almost uterine stasis where their neutral buoyancy allows them to simply float without being pulled in either direction. Here the Master Switch will have been thrown all the way open, and decreasing oxygen concentrations and increasing carbon-dioxide accelerate the changes that were started as soon as your face was submerged.

Do this enough, and in time this Master Switch of Life will have proved its moniker by turning on the series of epigenetic changes that allows someone to handle continued deep-diving underwater – so with training, humans can acclimate to spend more and more time at the Doorway of the Deep.

Members of the Bajau, sea nomads who people the Asian seas, or anyone luckily enough to have their common mutation which grants them their diving-enhancing enlarged spleens, will do it faster than the rest of us – but in general any human can hold their breath for several minutes, once enough practice forces enough epigenetic adjustments.

And although the human brain didn’t evolve underwater, it will always be subject to the Master Switch of Life, as all vertebral animals are thought to be. So as our ancestors made their way onto the Tibetan Plateau starting about 7mya - this far back it barely would’ve been much of a plateau - however it was filled with geothermic lakes and hot springs, making it plenty inviting. Then over the next five-million years, the Roof of the World would begin to earn its name, unusually hot from the activity beneath it – it would steadily rise just a few millimeters a year. However five-million years is quite the hefty epoch, enough time for the Roof of the World to slowly rise to roughly 2,100 meters above sea level.

So the Mostly Upright Apes who had made their way onto the Roof of the World, drawn by the heated springs and vast sacred lakes, over the past five-million years of almost imperceptible rise would’ve had to acclimate to life at this eventual ceiling – 2,100 meters above sea-level. And so these hominids, our high-altitude most recent common ancestors (Hamrcas), would’ve been uniquely attuned to life at this elevation.

And so right about when the Roof of the World had risen to roughly 2,1000 meters above sea-level, it was about 2.1mya, and this bucolic dream would come to a sudden and cataclysmic end when the Yellowstone Caldera detonated somewhere in the neighborhood of a New Jersey’s worth of fiery molten debris into the atmosphere. This created a global winter that lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 years, and helping usher in the ongoing Icehouse era we’re technically still in - as it wasn’t until around 2mya that the icecaps would form around both our poles.

An event so cataclysmic that it didn’t just alter one locations environment for just a little bit - it helped set off the rhythmic cycle between Hothouse and Icehouse phases of global temperatures that either erases or replaces glaciers - would’ve blocked out the sun for literal decades at a time. And due to all this, it would’ve dropped temperatures by about four degrees Fahrenheit across the entire face of the Earth for around 20 years.

Our ancestors, the Hamrcas, would’ve watched astonished from the Roof of the World as from the east history was blooming ferociously across the skies - slowly stretching out to embrace all of our fates.    

Chinese mythology is chronicled in The Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经), a mythic compendium of beasts and legends thought to date back to the beginning of time. And like all legendary collections, a creation myth of the Chinese people features prominently among these pages, along with other stories such as the Golden Silkworm and a Great Flood.

And of course to fight back against the forces of heaven and earth, humanity has always needed some heroes. First among the Chinese pantheon are Nüwa, the Chinese mother-goddess who was both sister and wife to Fuxi, the Emperor-God. If that’s rolling tide a bit too hard for your taste, keep in mind that these were mythical beings with the faces of humans but the bodies of snakes. Another recounting of this origin story makes it a directly incestual Adam and Eve creation myth, and the lovers hide their kindred shame with a fan held up between them - a practice still alluded today and which is similar to how couples in Alabama often use cans of Miller Lite.

So keep in mind that this creation myth involved demigods, and so mores around incest don’t exactly have much of a place. And yet, also keep in mind that this myth also revolves around an era when Heaven and Earth were thrown entirely off-kilter since the pillars holding up the sky had collapsed:

Going back to more ancient times, the four pillars were broken; the nine provinces were in tatters. Heaven did not completely cover the ground; Earth did not hold up the sky all the way around its circumference.

Fires blazed out of control and could not be extinguished; water flooded in great expanses and would not recede. Ferocious animals ate blameless people; predatory birds snatched the elderly and the weak.

Thereupon, Nüwa smelted together five-colored stones in order to patch up the azure sky, cut off the legs of the great turtle to set them up as the four pillars, killed the black dragon to provide relief for Ji Province, and piled up reeds and cinders to stop the surging waters. The azure sky was patched; the four pillars were set up; the surging waters were drained; the province of Ji was tranquil; crafty vermin died off; blameless people preserved their lives.

Doesn’t seem too far off from how we’d expect the Hamrcas to report surviving the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, does it? Especially considering that prior to 2.1mya and Yellowstone popping-off, the Hamrcas population on top of the Roof of the World would’ve been relatively homogenous due to the lack of cold winters, abundant water, and eventually most importantly of all – nearly ubiquitous geothermal vents.

And luckily for us, some did in fact survive, however the population bottleneck created by a roughly 50-year winter would’ve been extreme, and certainly deleterious mutations due to incest would’ve been something a geneticist would’ve been worried about in the survivors, as most human populations have adopted the same stigma against step-bros, even on the Asian steppe, though. However it’s notable that cousin marriage is a far more flexible concept, especially if a bunch of your cousins are super hot, and genetically-speaking simply a matter of degree.

So let’s say for argument’s sake that perhaps this seminal Chinese creation myth has some bearing in reality. If its true, then there should be evidence somewhere. If the Hamrcas who became the East Asian population – today represented in the greatest numbers by the Chinese – then we’d expect to find some kind of ecological niche perhaps just a bit to the east of Tibetan Plateau which might have cradled this refugee population fleeing the Roof of the World, keeping it safe from the massive blackened serpent that seemed to be trying to consume the entire sky.  

It might be pretty hard to find though, so while you’re off finding a map. I’m gonna be right here with Snoop and Martha, taking care a little bidness.

Humans have a rather unique relationship with our languages, squiggles turn into letters that turn into concepts which turn into meanings which become intent and eventually we have a Constitution. Because when it’s all said and done, that is in fact all America is – a collection of words. No one takes an oath to preserve and protect any borders, or any one life - we take an oath to preserve and protect a set of ideals. After all, as Tyler Durden puts it:

“The unreal is more powerful than the real.

Because its only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.

But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on. If you can change the way people think. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. You can change the way people live their lives.

And that's the only lasting thing you can create.”

So our language is both nothing and everything all at once, collections of vibrating air and visible marks can be totally meaningless, or they can unlock the keys to everything that makes us Human. And so a shared relationship between words and peoples almost always reflects genetic descent, and oftentimes also hint at some kind of ancient shared historical reality.

However one that most of us take for granted, is that all across the entire globe, for the scoundrels who imbibe the Devil’s lettuce, no matter what language they’re speaking the sensation reportedly involves a feeling of lightness, or flying, or simply… getting high. And curiously, this scourge of modern civilizations and all decent, civilized, societies is thought to have originally emerged – you might wanna take a hit first here – on the Tibetan Plateau, the Roof of the World.

But to be fair to our most recent common ancestors (MRCAs), the protohominids who hadn’t yet acclimated to the altitude of the Roof of the World, the sticky-icky of 7mya would’ve been neither particularly sticky nor icky. As any old stoner will tell you, even the weed of just a few decades ago was far tamer than today’s bespoke hydroponic strains that can send you straight up a giraffe’s ass faster than you blink. Reportedly.

Plus the cannabis plant isn’t just a leaf, its fibers are still used today to make hemp – a fiber that’s superior to cotton and wool and many others when it comes to weathering and pliability. And it has extraordinarily nutritious seeds as well, as the raw cannabis plant is arguably a superfood that contains all of the carbs, fat, protein, fiber, and even omega-3s as well as minerals – everything the body needs.  

However of course it also contains THC, a relatively tame psychoactive compound that hijacks the body’s endocannabinoid system to create time distortions and sensory illusions, but mostly make you really tired and ready to fucking crush some Doritos. And the good news is that our bodies seem to be so well-acclimated to it that it’s literally impossible to lethally overdose on - but despite this it’s been one of the most controlled substances in modern human history, and America banned any scientific research with it at all until very recently.

Which is all the more preposterous when you consider how easy it is to die overdosing on alcohol, regardless of all the other social effects, and how horrifically damaging smoking tobacco is to everyone anywhere near it.

Luckily for us, our MRCAs didn’t need Seth Rogan to appreciate the relatively tame but very tasty and nutritious cannabis of 7mya. And when they found the Roof of the World way back then it would’ve been more of a gentle sloping hill than a roof in many places. Of course that average is a big deal, since all of its great peaks are as old as the entire Tibetan Plateau is, and its hard to imagine that our first MRCAs who first strolled up to it were able to just meander easily up the peaks we today call Mount Everest and K2, formed more due to geographic plates than geothermic push.

But as they attempted to ascend at all, and encountered higher altitudes and lower oxygen concentrations than they were used to, their bodies would’ve been challenged the same way modern humans are after we pass about 2,100 meters – roughly the height of the Roof of the World when Yellowstone boomed.

And it turns out, cannabis may well have helped aid in that adaptation, since its physiological effects appear to help humans adjust to higher altitudes. But whether or not you want to explore the idea that cannabis may have played a significant role in our very humanity, it’s at worth taking a moment to appreciate that the Hamrca Supposition’s assumption that high altitude-acclimation was a driving force of modernization makes far more sense than the prevailing theoretical framework.

Much of which is based on the idea of “persistence hunting,” the theory that roughly 2mya proto-hominids were actually so fucking bad at hunting that this could somehow loop around to create a positive evolutionary force: “Okay guys, looks like we threw our sharp stick at that deer and it got away, along with the rest of its herd. Might as well start walking, with any luck those gorgeous ethereally creatures effortlessly gliding away from us will get tired at some point, and like that one I nicked might get the most tired, and hopefully we’ll get there before any of those giant fucking cavebears, right?”

If early humans were capable of anything, it was noticing nature’s patterns. The seasonal movement of the stars, the regular motions of tides, and – going out on a limb here – probably the fact that large groups of animals return to the exact same areas very regularly, for access to water and salt and any number of reasons.

Do you usually see deer in the same place out in your community? If you wanted to kill one, if you missed would you start jogging after it… or just watch it run away, shrug, and come back a few hours later?

Or, even better… set a trap and wait in hiding? Every modern western anthropologist swallowing and regurgitating the persistence hunting dogma either hasn’t bothered to think this out or is too stupid to consider just how bass-ackwards persistence hunting is – the idea of burning calories to pursue an animal that might be drawing in formidable predators as it leaves a path of blood to you pursuing it as well. Instead of just waiting around the same general areas to catch the animals which you’ve already observed returning to the same place, over and over again, due to stable environmental features.

If there’s any doubt, take a few months watching nature survivalist shows, and that’ll give you all the evidence you need for how much sense persistence hunting makes, in light of strategies like trapping and ambushes.

And so with persistence hunting not really standing up to even a moment of rational scrutiny, luck would have it that literally every single one of the psychological acclimations that seems to have accompanied modernizing humans, which is now explained in the literature almost universally by persistence hunting, can also be explained by acclimating to high altitude.

Most recently and perhaps convincingly, was the observation that despite needing far more calories to fuel our energy-hungry brains, and despite having about 10-times as many sweat glands as chimpanzees - it turns out that humans only need to consume about half as much water as all of our closest furry brethren: bonobos, chimps, and gorillas.

And although sure, this would’ve allowed our ancestors to wander farther away from water sources… but what for? Animals need to come to water to drink anyways, it seems odd that there would be evolutionary pressure to be able to wander away from water for no particular reason, especially when access to fresh water is obviously central to all mammalian survival.

Certainly needing less water would allow for better drought survival, but there’s no mammalian parallel for evolving that kind of direct relationship with water due to access to water supplies. Humans always set up camp near water since without it, they die in a few days.

That kind of fundamental and profound difference would be much better explained by the steady but increasing ecological pressure of a slowly rising plateau. And it turns out one of the most unavoidable consequences of increased altitude is changes in fluid metabolism, as the altered pressures combine with changing physiological processes to profoundly alter mammalian metabolism. Soldiers likely to develop pulmonary edema at altitude have discrete changes in their urine, and cattle grazing at altitude are at risk of developing water retention disease.

Even more profoundly, babies born to ethnic Chinese at sea level and then taken up into Tibet at higher altitudes can die from subacute infantile mountain sickness. In adults the condition is much less likely to be lethal, however it still involves severe salt and water retention, without any of the expected changes in heart function. Given that water is the single most important substance for all life on earth, and that humans are no exception, dying if we go just a few days without it – humanity’s unique relationship with water alone provides incredibly strong support for the Hamrca Supposition since all mammals adapt to need much less water at higher altitudes.

However if you aren’t convinced, it turns out that every other physiological change associated with “persistence hunting” can also be explained by acclimating to high-altitude – all of the changes to cardiac function and oxygen metabolism thought to possibly be due to persistence hunting being a genuine evolutionary force are far more parsimoniously explained by high altitude acclimation, and in fact are found fairly consistently in other mammals as they’ve adapted to high altitude as well.

And it turns out that examining fossils from about 1.8mya in the Horn of Africa’s Olduvai Gorge, the butchered bones appeared to have once belonged to healthy young adult animals close to their prime, only about 20% seemed to be from very young or old animals – the likely targets of persistence hunters.

Granted all of this seems pretty speculative, and flies in the face of the accepted anthropological science - so if you still aren’t convinced yet, keep in mind that after an animal was killed our ancestors, whoever they were, the ability to cook it appears to further delineate our modernity.

It’s hard to capture the Harvard undergraduate experience with a better word than “disappointment,” since it turns out that what was promised as Elysian Fields of intellectual discourse, is mostly insecure nerds who have no idea how inapplicable their ideas are to the real world, and rich kids who bought their way in one way or another. But if you’re ever lucky enough to get to sign up to learn from Prof. Richard Wrangham, that’s probably gonna be about as close as you can get to the ideal you had in mind.

Since even before he shot to international fame with the theory he presented in Catching Fire, he was the only professor at Harvard who seemed to genuinely enjoy engaging with undergrads and being challenged by them, and stayed after to chat with anyone who was interested - no matter who they were.

And it turns out, he might know a thing or two about anthropology as well, since as his theory lays out mastering cooking allowed humanity to modernize, since cooked food provides far more nutrition and can be consumed far more quickly - not only are modern humans unable to bring a baby to term on a raw diet, but monkeys spend something like 8 to 12 hours a day just chewing, making the time to do anything else like create art or culture fundamentally limited.

And it turns out, this permanent turn towards cooked food - something no other ape or monkey consumes, although they do prefer cooked foods in captivity - also occurred somewhere in the neighborhood of 2mya. The dates are up for discussion, however Wrangham uses the assumed emergence of changes in brain volume and metabolism roughly 2mya.

It was starting back then that the brain of homo erectus - a different “species” outside our shared homo genus, whose necessity and separateness isn’t supported by any genetic evidence at all, and is only nominally assumed to be a discrete species from modern humans due to phylogenetic assumptions - began to double, appearing to max-out around 700,000ya. Supporting this drastic increase in brain volume would’ve been extraordinarily calorically-demanding, and so Wrangham postulates that it was mastering fire and cooking which allowed for early hominids to fulfill those demands.

There is, however, another explanation beyond open flames. However to completely understand its implications, first we’re gonna have to spend some time with a few sleepy little monkeys.

Continue on to part II here!!

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