To those who believe that most of Earth’s secrets have been unveiled by science, it should come as some surprise that the evolutionary history of birds is still mired in debate and shrouded in doubt.
Did the ancestors of the 9,000 avian species that dominate our skies use the now extinct, feathered Archaeopteryx as a conduit for survival? Or was it the ancient, blunt faced, eggstealing Oviraptor to whom this credit should go?
Neither, if the claims of a group of scientists working in China’s Liaoning Province are to be believed. They suggest instead that a feathered, four-winged dinosaur, whose 125 million-year-old fossil was discovered in 2003, might be the missing link between birds and dinosaurs. Called Microraptor qui this creature was a metre long and spent its time gliding between trees – a habit that peafowl still practice.
Peafowl take a breath every five wing beats and quickly run out of oxygen. So they prefer to scurry about on the forest floor. Here males risk predation because of the long tail feathers they must lug around. The evolutionary ‘decision’ to trade style for clumsiness must have been a long time in the making. Whatever the churnings of evolution, the trade between muscular legs in place of stronger wings and lungs certainly worked to the advantage of the peafowl, which managed to stay ahead of the survival game, unlike the less fortunate Dodos and Moas.
What a complex gauntlet the genetic codes belonging to creatures of yore had to negotiate. But what picture perfect conclusions nature ultimately fashioned out of them, including Homo sapiens.
Tools, and the artistry of early humans whose awe and respect for nature inspired them to paint on ancient walls and caves, represent the most visible sign of the ascent of thinking man. By the same token, I would imagine our penchant for meddling with nature must surely be a sign of our rapid descent.
Edward B. Taylor, a 19th century thinker coined the word ‘animism’. Influenced by theologians of the age who were grappling with ideas and counter ideas centered on evolution and god, Taylor honed in on ‘animism’ (derived from the Latin ‘anima’ or soul) to suggest that dreams, hallucinations and premonitions of death were construed by primitive humans to be the language of gods, ancestors and spirits.
It was believed by primitive societies that spirits that lived on long after the body had wasted away put out such visions. Around now Herbert Spencer wrote that religion was founded on the faith that visions revealed messages from the souls of the dead. But no one could really ‘prove’ anything because humans of the day had not learned to document abstract ideas in a tangible way that would survive the passage of millennia.
Be that as it may, anyone who has visited Paleolithic sites, such as the ones at Bori and Churna in the Satpura National Park surrounds of Madhya Pradesh, must conclude that humans would have gathered in these ancient cathedrals to venerate the most visible symbols of nature.
Sir James G. Frazer was one such visitor and he wrote in his Worship of Nature that ‘every tree and flower, every brook and river, every breeze that blew and every cloud that flecked with silvery white the blue expanse of heaven”, were conceived as departmental gods.’
In days gone by people were connected with nature. They hunted animals and ate them, but were grateful for the source that sustained them.
And today? The source seems to be recognised as the nearest cash register or bank. Taylor grappled with gods of the past and tried to unravel the mysteries of religion. He had no way of knowing that the most omnipresent, powerful and monotheistic god of future would turn out to be… money.