Thursday, May 01, 2008

Remnant Populations

Did you read about the new hypothesis that the entire human species, about 70,000 years ago, declined to no more than 2000 people? Genetic studies suggest that severe climate conditions caused the near extinction of Stone Age humanity. At first I wondered whether this discovery meant only one small group of people survived. The researchers think, however, that “humans separated into small populations prior to the Stone Age” and later “came back together and began to increase in numbers and spread to other areas.” Depending on how many tens of thousands of years they were separated, though, I wondered why genetic drift didn’t make it impossible for them to produce fertile offspring when they reunited.

This theory brings to mind numerous SF and fantasy post-apocalyptic scenarios. (It also makes me think of Noah’s flood and the dispersion of the people who built the Tower of Babel. I’m not a biblical literalist, but these do make exciting stories.) Another similar situation appears in novels that chronicle the ordeal of an abandoned colony (e.g., C. J. Cherryh’s shared-world Merovingen series) or a starship’s crew stranded on a seemingly uninhabited world (e.g., Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series) trying to establish a society and build up their population to a viable size. I imagine a small band of Cro-Magnons believing they are the last surviving people in the world. What would they think when they finally ran into another group with wildly different language and customs that have developed during the long divide? Would the two tribes even recognize each other as human? Come to think of it, even today, would an alien biologist at first glance identify Scandinavians and Australian aborigines (for example) as members of the same species?

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