The Gate of Grief

How 6.4 billion of us come from the same tribe and how brutish E.T’s can help us appreciate it


hether or not it’s facile for a westerner in 2021 to describe themself as a ‘citizen of the world’ – we do, interestingly enough, those of us outside of Africa – actually come from the same single tribe.

Glimpsing through the prism of prehistory shows the many dispersions of our stock taper to one very old African tribe, roughly 70,000 years ago. Convergent genetic analysis from around the world shows that all Europeans, Asians, North Americans, South Americans and Australian Aboriginals, owe their lives to this group of just 200 or so people.

Courtesy of climate change at around this time, sea levels dropped to such an extent that the tribe were able to cross at the mouth of the Red Sea, a strait known as Bab-el-Mandeb, or The Gate of Grief. This 20-mile gap located between what is now Djbouti and Yemen would have shortened to around 8 miles. Why they left the Horn of Africa and journeyed to the Arabian Peninsula is still unclear – it may have been that Neanderthals drove them out, or possibly others from our own species.

But what we can confidently assume is that they, or more pertinently, we, got very lucky – there are 14 ancestral populations in Africa and only one endured beyond the continent. It’s understood that this survival had little to do with our hunting shrewdness or our gathering prudence and more to do with luck, as the same climate change that trimmed a few miles of the strait and enabled the out-of-Africa exodus, also produced grasslands and freshwater springs in the unknown lands of Arabia.

It doesn’t quite bring about that same tingly feeling of glocalised togetherness that perhaps being a ‘citizen of the world’ offers, but it does impose and possibly recover a grand deference for humanity and its non-rescindable covenant with nature. The idea of the 6.4 billion non-Africans today, descending from the precarious lives of 200 hunter and gatherers, all bargaining with the elements and grisly infant mortality rates, should surely instil one pensive moment of life-affirming tunnel vision.

Or maybe not, maybe the idea of our non-office dwelling ancestors makes you feel a bit dreary or lacking in some way, as if you’re not really living out an ‘authentic’ human experience, with risk, autonomy and a deep sense of community-caused meaning. Or worse, maybe it makes you feel nothing.

But in this era of diametrical persuasions, neo-national exceptionalism and talks of an imminent wave of climate refugees, a historical indifference to our gruelling origins is collectively unhelpful – to appreciate history is to appreciate today.

So in a bromidic bid for further appreciation of how we all got here fussing about how best to conduct ourselves and how best to co-exist with each other without stirring up a patience-induced lesion on the brain, let’s roll it back another 150,000 years from the Gate of Grief trip to the ‘cradle of humankind’ when we all emanated from the first ‘modern’ sapiens in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia. It’s possible to source a sort of cosmic oneness from that alone – we’re all in the same boat, insofar as we’re all thrown into being without invitation and saddled with consciousness – we’re a way for the universe to know itself, as Sagan said.

The idea of the 6.4 billion non-Africans today, descending from the precarious lives of 200 hunter and gatherers, all bargaining with the elements and grisly infant mortality rates, should surely instil one pensive moment of life-affirming tunnel vision.

You could even go back a million years to Homo erectus first controlling fire, a picture that exemplifies the eerie edicts of our DNA and embodies the full horizon of human existence. Or another million years back to Homo habilis in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania where we first started using tools. Then back another million to our great10 grandmother Lucy (Australopithecus). Then Ida (Darwinius masillae), an early opposable-thumbed primate nearly 50 million years ago. Then there’s this, like, shrew thing we share a common ancestor with. Even the tiny sea creature Saccorhytus coronarius half a billion years ago is a fellow deuterostome – it’s all part of this glorious and irrepressibly weird tapestry that’s somehow led to where we are now; bewildered by the global village.

Citizen of the world or not, if we can’t rid ourselves of the same tribal tendencies that got us here, I doubt we’ll ever get the opportunity to cross an interstellar version of The Gate of Grief.

Speaking of interstellar, Ronald Reagan of all people probably got it right in his UN address in 1987 – “In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”

Maybe that’s as good as it can get, like when rival football teams unite to support their national team. Humanism for most will never be sexy until there’s a load of insectoids beating their thoraxes, slavering and spoiling for a fight on a televised message transmitted from their Manhattan-sized mothership.

Is a threat like that the only way to get 7.8 billion people to cooperate and form communities based on shared values?

You would’ve thought that climate change would have unified us, given that the Earth is everyone’s home – but it hasn’t – it’s still too politicised apparently. It certainly helped us out 70,000 years ago though.