Gate of Grief

The recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean is the latest in a series of catastrophic events in that part of the world, most of which have disappeared from human memory. One of the oldest in our experience is the Toba Explosion, a volcanic eruption in northern Sumatra circa 74,000 years ago. This was the largest event of its kind in the last two million years, causing a six year long nuclear winter and covering India, Pakistan and the Gulf in layers of ash up to five metres deep. A one thousand year long mini-ice age followed. At this time modern humans were already on their way south and east from Africa; many must have been wiped out by the event; the survivors may have numbered as few as ten thousand. In a book published a few years ago now, called Eden in the East: the Drowned Continent of South East Asia, British pediatrician Stephen Oppenheimer reconstructs another catastrophe, this one at the end of the last Ice Age perhaps 8ooo years ago, when melting ice caused a series of tsunami-type events which inundated most of the low-lying land areas in what is now the South China Sea. He traces myths of the Flood back to these tidal waves and speculates that refugees from a civilization flourishing in old Sundaland carried both knowledge and stories out of the east into the Indus Valley and the Fertile Crescent. Oppenheimer's latest book is called Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World; it reconstructs the movement of modern humans out of Africa and into the rest of the world, using genetic keys on the one hand and climatic evidence on the other. There were, he suggests, only two ways out of Africa, a northern route across the head of the Red Sea into the Levant, only available during the brief warmings known as interglacials; and a southern route at the other end of the same sea, crossing from Eritrea into Yemen at the Bab al-Mandab or Gate of Grief. It is this path, he concludes, which was not closed during glacials, that our ancestors took in a single migration some 85,000 years ago. One of the curious facts derived from his synthesis is that all modern humans with the exception of Africans are derived from those same intrepid ancestors who came through the Gate of Grief; and that, further, those populations we now know as European originated in South Asia, perhaps even as far south as Sri Lanka. Oppenheimer's work, which is well-informed, readable and highly civilized in itself, confirms Africa's place as the crucible of humanity as well as restoring Asia as our second home, as it were, the place from which we radiated out to populate the rest of the world. The Gate of Grief is so called because of the many shoals and reefs which exist in the narrows at that closest point between Africa and Arabia; but we can hardly fail to hear in the words the cries of all humans faced with the calamities of tectonics, climate and weather.

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