This has not been a kind year for the living, but the vanished human race has been appreciated as never before. The early hominid Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), discovered and explained by Berkeley researchers, was front page news. "Becoming Human" (PBS), the three-part Nova series last month, put Ardi (4.4 million years old) in the continuum of early man that ends with the last great Ice Age, 12 thousand years ago. DNA analysis, refined carbon dating, genetic shift and other new metrics are producing a new library on our ancestors. Nicholas Wade surveyed multiple migrations out of Africa in Before the Dawn(2006). This is a good place to go for the latest thinking about the demise of the Neanderthals and the rise of homo sapiens. It appears that we inherited none of the DNA of the vanished race, but that they may have followed some of our rituals.
An arc of human culture, from around 36,000 to 12,000 years ago, appears more glorious as we learn more about it. The cave painters of France and Spain left more than 20,000 images, exciting the art world during the past century as the charging horses, bison, and lions became common knowledge. The Cave Painters (2006) by Gregory Curtis and The Cave and the Cathedral (2009) by Amir Aczel sum up the latest discoveries and the long wars within the academy to make sense of the images. There is room to enlist if you wish to rely on ethnographic models from contemporary hunter-gatherers, or the wiring of the human nervous system, or New Age beliefs.
Cave painters and other ancient artists fashioned objects that remained powerful through cycles of civilizations. The caves were renewed with new images after gaps of thousands of years and the cultural tradition remained intact for twenty thousand years, as if nothing had happened. No library has kept a cultural tradition safe for even a thousand years, and the move of information from ink to bits makes it less likely that we will ever do as well in preservation as the first modern humans. The only certainty is that we will be reading more about them.