High above the hot Saharan grassland in an earlier time, a buzzard takes notice of a party of Homo sapiens led by their Homo naledi trackers — half stride in a wet gulch. Whenever humans were on the move, there will be blood. The buzzard found it was best to follow along and spent the extra energy to disengage from the easy thermal updraft.
Down below, a sapien named Iry was leading the party but after hours of steady pursuit, it was time for a break in the hot midday sun. Settling beside a shaded and pooled part of the stream bed, Iry knew they should be making the most of the height of the sun while the predators were least active but the heat was oppressive. Iry and the other sapiens could manage on but the smaller naledi, while impressive for their kind, were not suited for this type of marathon. They were talented trackers but couldn’t keep up with man’s build.
The sapien hunters rested their eyes after drinking their fill from the muddy pool and munching dried meat they brought along. The three naledi’s chirped and shuffled about some toadstools under a dead tree nearby. The naledi wasn’t as vocally apt as the sapiens and resorted to signing with each other and their other human counterparts. They signed and chirped among themselves as they picked the fungi, extra excitement was had at discovering a termite mound. Iry set watch as he set his spear at his side. Letting the others doze off in the shade, Iry rested his eyes but honed his hearing. Sight here could often deceive but acute hearing in a visual world gave opportunity. The area was alive with activity as birds of many kinds darted around, the air was bustling with squawks and calls. The deer they spooked upon entry into this space didn’t clear off too far as he could hear them just out of sight, back to grazing in the green tall grasses. The deer, much sharper of hearing, would serve as a good advanced warning should they take an interest in anything bigger than a honey badger.
In the early days, mankind wasn’t the only humans around. Our competitive advantage was our stamina and intelligence — complimentary to some, rivals to others. Hundreds of thousands of years before man’s best friend was canine, it was Homo. Being the newest on the scene, we learned that we could work with others like the Homo naledi — friendly, complementary, and naturally capable additions to a tribe. Others, like the ancient and primitive Homo erectus, were strong and fiercely independent. They had different sets of eyes, palettes, and societies. These apex man-apes have been on the scene for a long time and have been used to running the landscape. They didn’t respond to relationships, they hunted all, even fellow humans.
The cooperative party was originally double, on a rescue mission. But it quickly turned to a retribution mission upon coming across the quartered and butchered remains of their progeny at the hands and in the camp of the bloody erectus. After a clash that left half of the co-op’s original party dead or wounded, the erectus ape-men fled the scene into the wild where the hunt continued.
Thanks to the loyal naledi, erectus hadn’t been lost. At least three were being trailed from the camp. The co-op party didn’t know where they were headed. They had hoped to catch up to them before they met a larger troop. As Iry’s internal clock ticked he sat up to round the party to keep moving. Before he roused the crew, he took notice as the naledi sat in a circle among themselves eating quietly, even as fully mature they reminded him of his now late children, small and innocent looking. Iry drew his eyes down to his arm, to where his dark skin was interrupted by jagged pink scarring from the time he was there to protect his children in need. That one was feline. Now, he had to live with the time he wasn’t there. This time it was erectus.
Iry whistled and everyone was up and on trail again, naledi leading away by carefully watching and smelling the ground. The human co-op was quiet and efficient — master hunters and well-experienced together. Moving quickly and stealthily down the bank of the sunken stream bed —naledi tracking by scent and footprints, sapien watchful for other predators. Lesser seasoned parties would have lost the trace long ago in the soft mud of the active water source, animals have been crossing and mashing evidence throughout the day. Erectus was using choice spots to throw off the trail by showing false exit spots or intentionally using the water to conceal prints. However, these naledi were very good and motivated. The sapiens weren’t the only ones to suffer loss. Seventeen of them were carried off in the night, no survivors. These naledi mourned too in their own childlike way.
The day wore on, shadows grew longer and the sky hued orange and the party kept up their pace. As the sun began it’s final descent the naledi now committed to an off point, easily climbing out of the waterway to a slight trail of broken grass, single file. The mid-Saharan grasslands were characteristically flat, spotted with rocky formations. The trail led to a rare grouping of trees and a stark rock formation some distance behind it.
Upon climbing out of the sunken stream bed Iry exhaled sharply, seeing their mistake. While he couldn’t see them, he could feel eyes staring stealthily… ominously. They stood clear above the grass, even as they crouched following Iry’s lead, he knew they would have been seen from the tree cluster. This was a trap of design.
This prey was no ordinary prey. They were wittier than the rest of the kingdom, sly even. It wasn’t good enough to find them, you had to keep watch that they weren’t playing you. As Iry recalled the lessons of his father, his mind raced to undermine and reverse the ambush. The others stayed crouched, silent, waiting for their leader to move. If they stayed too long the assailants would know they’d been detected. As witty as erectus was, man too was clever.
Iry stood up and yawned and stretched. The others looked at him as he stood at ease, looked at each other, and followed suit. The naledi barely stood above the grass. They looked puzzled but did as the sapiens did. Iry casually wrapped his arms around one of the companions with a celebratory smile but started laying out the plan through his grin. The sapiens started laughing, naledi puzzled – looking to Iry but missing the subtlety. Iry gave them directions with hand signals and they hopped slightly in the grass with new excitement before they started foraging nearby.
The party would take a quick break here but the sun is heading to the last stretch of its stay. Shadows getting long and dark. Other predators will be hunting soon and being in the open is the last place any hominid would want to be. While feigning carelessness they need to wrap this up soon otherwise without setting camp they will be at the mercy of the wild.
The naledi led as before towards the grouping of trees, close together and low to the ground. Sapiens upright but watchful, shuffling their feet in the grass. The perimeter of trees was dense with brush and thistles but there was a small game trail opening they followed in. Watchful of the brush on the sides, they passed without incident into the interior where the dense brush eased into a rather cleared undergrowth. The trunks of the trees and light grass gave a rather clear optic of the area. It was a shelter for game — much of the soil overturned from many feet and the bark scuffed up from horns and tusks. While the center was clear, the edges were impermeable and dark, only some light escaped from the canopy above but the day was getting long.
The confident feint the party was leading had now transitioned to cautious progress inward. A few paces in, one of the naledi abruptly stopped, close fist in the air and face intently at the ground. The other two signed quickly and looked around and back. The first, without looking back at Iry, signed that there was only one set of their prey’s footprints here. It was easy to fake foot impact in grass but the soil made clear intentions.
Iry was right, they’ve been played. The lone set of footprints went straight, through the clearing, into where the game trail funneled into a tunnel of foliage. The kill zone. The trap was set.
It was already darkening. If they pulled away now, they wouldn’t find shelter for the night far enough to make distance from their opponents. It would be a long night if it was just the animals of lesser intellect but Iry knew erectus would be looking for the kill at this point. There was no turning back. An ambush triggered before maturation was a benefit to the defender, which they now were.
Iry knew well that success would require the team to save face. He gripped his spear forward and tightly, exhaled softly, and pressed ahead with bravado. The four sapiens formed a single file line while motioning the three naledi in step — two in front, two in back with naledi center.
It was quiet. The noise of the grassland birds now silent. A lone cricket on the left. Ten paces from the foliage tunnel now, no sign of erectus. The tunnel area darkened, dense on each side. Iry continues without hesitation. The soft padding of their feet is now the only noise. He’s the first to enter, while the tunnel is dark, he could make out the trampled dirt ahead. Ten paces in, the whole party is surrounded by dense thorns and foliage. While at first glance it seemed smaller, there was enough room to maneuver. The trail was made from larger game.
Fourteen paces, Iry closes his eyes and sharpens his hearing. The breathing of his compatriots was clear despite the attempts to muffle it. His heartbeat heavy. A number of mosquitoes buzzing nearby. He moved ahead blindly a bit more. Then, a shift.
On the right. So slight. Too easy to pass off. But it was unmistakable. An intentional yet subtle shift of a stance. No one else caught it. Time slowed.
Iry thought of his slain children, remembering their laughs and cries. He remembered his grandfather and father teaching him the very skill he now needed to unfurl. Iry the sapien repositioned his hands tighter and in an explosive pivot, hurled his spear left-handed to the right, into the dense plants.
The trap was sprung early. The proceeding moments brought the clash of hominids long pursued. Two naked erectus came out from more than twenty paces ahead on the trail in a fury, howling with vocals of ancient lineage that were part man, part ape. They hurled axes that critically injured one of the sapiens and caught a naledi in the head, behind the other sapien who dodged. The naledi was killed instantly. The sapiens had the edge with weapons and numbers but erectus was strong and fierce. One of the naledi was stout of heart and jumped into the fray but had four fingers taken in one bite which was then proceeded by a stiff forearm to the temple rendering an instant knockout. The other naledi held and mourned the now-dead individual who still held the axe head in his face.
An unforeseen erectus came in from behind but too late. This would be the fourth after Iry pulled his spear from the throat of the initial erectus slain to start the battle. The other two erectus had just fallen, the fourth comer engaged lightly but thought better of it and escaped further down the trail. Iry and another gave chase as the last erectus sprinted into the now dusk grassland. The last of them had made good ground before the sapiens entered the clearing but as primitive justice would have it, a big cat had taken notice of his hasty departure from the protection of the wood and ran him down. A high-pitched ape scream was quickly throated and that was that.
Iry and the other hadn’t come out far from the trail when they saw the pursuit. They looked at each other, stopped, and quietly and carefully crept back to the safety of the trees. Iry looked back over his shoulder toward the open — the last erectus was heading as the crow flies to the rock formation in the not-so-far distance. He could make out the evidence of an encampment, a slight glow off the rock at the base of the shadowed crag. As the duty of his forefathers, Iry would have to lead the advance to extinguish the flames of the next erectus camp. Iry exhaled as one does when he sets his mission. A motion from above caught his eye, a dark buzzard circling above.
For now, Iry would have to tend to his party to make it through the night. Wounds to be cauterized, their dead buried, and erectus dragged out in the open to keep the carnivores busy.
The sapiens may have been the newest hominid on the scene and would toil to subdue the wilds while competing with other beings for dominance ecologically, reproductively, and culturally. It’s clear to understand what it means to be called human today but that would have looked very different in the time when man ran with other man.
A shout out to the PBS Eons show for a great episode on the mysteries of the naledi, sparking the idea to tie them into this. Excellent series.