“The Incredible Human Journey”

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New scientific discoveries have often lead to paradigm shifts, wholesale changes in how we look at ourselves and the world. The discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe and that it went around the sun, was one which had such an impact. Another was Darwin’s theory of evolution.“The Incredible Human Journey”, is about one such discovery.

According to the “Recently Out of Africa” theory, which has been proved through fossil and genetic evidence, modern human beings evolved in Africa alone and spread to all the continents from there. Not only that, but only a single tribe successfully left Africa around 70,000 years ago and the lineage of all non-Africans today can be traced back to that single tribe. This has been verified through genetic tests. Africans actually belong to a more varied family tree, which branched off much earlier.

Daniel Quinn says that historians often relegate what happened before the advent of agriculture and civilization, into something lesser called “pre-history”. We believe that we were made to be civilization builders and what had preceded it was something of the past, a relic, of no use to us now.

But recent research in evolutionary biology and anthropology reveals astonishing stories about our ancestors, the challenges they faced and how they adapted themselves to overcome them. Each episode of the documentary describes how humans could have reached and colonized each continent.

To briefly sum up, a small group of modern humans, people like you and me, left East Africa roughly 70,000 years ago, by crossing the Red Sea, which was much narrower then owing to the Ice Age and sea levels 110 metres lower than today. Their population gradually grew and spread to Persia and from there branched- One to Central Asia and Siberia, India – and another to Europe.

By 40,000 years ago, people were living in Siberia, Europe, Australia. We are usually told that the invention of agriculture and civilization was the greatest event in our history, and that civilization led to progress and improvement in technology. And here we are, 30,000 years before civilization- people crossing a hundred miles of open ocean to Australia. Not only that people survived in the Ice Age Siberia, much colder than today, 40,000 years ago. They made coats from reindeer skin to protect themselves from the cold, which meant that they had invented the needle and sewing, back then.

At the time when the first humans reached Europe, 40,000 years ago, it was not virgin country. There were another human-like species, the Neanderthals- whom you might not even notice if you passed by on the street- which was already settled there for a quarter of a million years. To think that our ancestors and the Neanderthals co-existed for nearly 20,000 years until they finally became extinct around 24,000 years ago, is intriguing to say the least! What would they have thought of each other?! What would we have thought if there were Neanderthals living with us today?!

These are amazing stories, which reveal so many amazing things about the places we inhabit and how we came to occupy them. They are definitely fascinating and have the potential to turn entire world views upside down, make us stop and think about what we really are, and how stupid and short-sighted some of the things we do are, and what it means to be human. And, we are all Africans!

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The Colourful World of Children

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I recently read two awesome books centered around children.The first was the Malayalam novel Unnikkuttante Lokam (Unnikkuttan’s world) by Nandanar, about a little village boy of five years. The story is set in a pre-independence Malabar village, and beautifully depicts the village life in those times. Written from the view point of Unnikkuttan, it gives you an idea of how colourful and full of mystery the world of a child is, which a grown-up needs a lot of patience, love and imagination to even begin to understand. Also how the village provides a child with endless opportunities for amusement and a diverse environment that nurtures the child’s sense of wonder.

The second book was a Malayalm translation of the Japanese novel- Tottochan- the Little Girl at the Window written by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi as her childhood memoir. It’s about a small unconventional primary school in pre-war Japan, run by Mr. Kobayashi where she attended for a few years. Totto-chan(as she was affectionately called), a naughty little girl, was expelled from her first school as they couldn’t handle her mischiefs. Her mother then took her to Tomo-gakuen, the school run by Mr. Kobayashi.

There Tottochan finds herself in an exciting and magical new world, and a teacher who understood her and treated her as a friend. The book describes many incidents which happened at Tomo, the friends she had there, lessons she learnt, and her relationship with her teacher. Narrated from Tottochan’s point of view, it reveals many intricate aspects of the world of children. Not only that, it also tells us the role that the headmaster plays in making the children feel secure and happy, and how he “lets them be” instead of constantly telling them what they “should” be (which is what you often experience in schools).

Active Listening

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Ever since I started learning how to play the flute a couple of months ago, I’ve been slowly returning to the musical world which I’ve been missing for quite a while. The last time my mind was so completely immersed in music was back when I was in the Twelfth standard. The flute is indeed a wonderful instrument. You can carry it anywhere you want, and playing even a single note on it is so gratifying. Needless to state, I’m still a novice at playing it, but to be honest, I’m amazed by my own progress. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could get a consistent tone so quickly, let alone play melodies on it.

Well, this post is not about my flute playing. My thoughts have been wandering about in the realms of listening and music appreciation. How do we perceive and interpret music? Why is classical music so sparsely appreciated? And why is popular music (some of it very poor in terms of musical content) so popular? Is knowledge of music really required to appreciate and savour good music?

I don’t mean to say that each and every person in the world should listen to classical music, but at least those who learn music should be able to appreciate it. Jimmy master, my music teacher, always says that you don’t have to learn music to be able to enjoy its blessings. For that you just have to be an active listener and learn to love music. It is a challenging task, which demands our total attention and devotion, but its rewards are just as rich. Perhaps its the effort involved in the beginning, that makes many people shy away from music with some content. They just want something nice playing in the background, which gives them a “kick”.

While I was browsing, I found a very good online course on music appreciation on the Rice University’s open course material website. It is aimed especially at people with little or no musical knowledge, who would like to be more active listeners. It adopts a top down approach, and illustrates the basic aspects of listening through listening exercises, without going into theoretical details. In fact, it’s just what one needs to learn to appreciate music without learning music. It’s not based on any single style of music, and is universally applicable to all genres. Even if you are not interested in classical music, it could help you to listen to popular music more intelligently.