This was an interesting glimpse into what life was like for primordial man. The story begins with a modern man who is having dreams and nightmares which are of a type so distressing and profound, that they are disabling to his waking life. In these dreams he is embodied in an early evolutive stage of humanity predating homo sapiens—basically a low-intelligence caveman—and through these dreams he relives an entire lifetime of intermittent images and experiences that he later puzzles together into a coherent narrative. These dreams turn out to be genetic or “racial” memories—snippets of real life that his progenitors experienced over 1 million years ago in the Mid-Pleistocene when hominids began to evolve into their current form but still coexisted with other contemporaneous hominid species.
London actually does a good job of establishing the possibility of genetic memories of bygone eras being transmitted to and through each of us as our biological heritage. It is in line with Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious, and is primarily how we define or describe what we know as instinct. London explains through the protagonist that one of the most familiar vestiges of this evolutive memory is the fear of heights, which is posited to be a leftover from our tree-dwelling ancestors. Why else would a newborn baby be sent into convulsions when it suddenly detects instability beneath it? London wiggles his finger into this hole and works it wide enough to accommodate the possibility of a person having concrete memories and dreams that conduct ungarbled sensory data from a past life to the present one. This, other than a strong imagination, could explain some people’s claim to reincarnation or what is referred to as ‘remote viewing’.
The main character describes his primitive experiences without allowing his modern viewpoint to internally vitiate, only retrospectively comment upon, the ancient perspective. His story follows the journeys of his ancestor Big Tooth, a hominid, from shortly after birth, wending through his entrances and exits of tree- and cave-dwelling communities, and finally culminating in his mating with Swift One. It was entertaining to witness the perpetually accidental discoveries which would advance a community or set them back, mostly without them ever realizing how much a small adjustment could have changed everything for better…or worse! It was accidental living at its best. Big Tooth and his friend Lop Ear accidentally discovered boating by falling into a river and catching onto a floating log. They accidentally discovered tools and language and music and even water storage…without remembering it from one minute to the next.
As you might imagine, the hominid community was no paradise. They were brutal towards each other, even towards their kin and friends. They had very short attention spans, laughed a lot, played a lot, tormented anything that moved, and were driven by desire for food and sex. And everything they did was colored by fear. In the collection of stories called “Love Of Life” London wrote, “Fear…lies twisted about life’s deepest roots.” This must have been one of London’s interests in writing this story, for it was the atavistic fear of falling from a height that London premised the tale upon.
I believe London uses this backdrop of prehistoric times to explore the nature of fear, survival, desire (‘hunger’), language (‘thought symbols’), self-awareness (self as ‘universe centers’), community, art, music, and science. Even the provenance of religion was alluded to in a passage about darkness: “We were afraid only of the dark…We knew only the real world, and the things we feared were the real things…the darkness was the time of the hunting animals…Possibly it was out of this fear of the real denizens of the dark that the fear of the unreal denizens was later to develop and to culminate in a whole and mighty unseen world.”
London has limned for us a picture of rudimentary humanity in a state of unreflective, sensual existence. Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of it feels contemporary. This is still the story of civilization—of all history—only stripped of the logic which we like to imagine can explain most of our actions. It is emotional humanity, which often seems to sum us up quite succinctly. The question London leaves unanswered is: have we as civilized men and women come as far as we like to think?