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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: August 2014

2 - Human Emergence


In the long run from 60 million years ago to 60,000 years ago, the global super-cycle moved from Greenhouse to Icehouse, from a warm, carbon-rich world in which ferns grew and dinosaurs grazed at the earth’s polar extremes to a cold, carbon-depleted world, where a new humanity stood on dry equatorial African shores on the edge of a global colonization leading to our very recent past. For decades, it has been a central tenet of evolutionary studies that the human condition has its origins in this inexorable march into Icehouse conditions. Prehuman and human history over the past 15 million years has a fundamental relationship to specific tectonic events and the regular oscillations of glacial climates: as Steven Stanley has put it, we are “children of the ice age.” More precisely, we are the children of the ice age tropics, if over time venturing into the grasslands and tundra bordering the ice itself. And it is always a shock to realize that the entirety of agriculturally based human civilization has unfolded in a brief 10,000-year interval embedded within this long sequence of glaciations, which in turn lies at the bottom of a 60-million-year descent into an Icehouse epoch. The chapters following this look with some care at this brief 10,000-year history. This chapter charts the global transition from Greenhouse to Icehouse, and then examines the emergence of humanity through the worst of the current Icehouse, between the divergence of bipedal human forbears from the arboreal great apes roughly 6 million years ago and the colonization of the entire world by modern human societies in the last phase of the Pleistocene ice ages.

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