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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 4: The Basques

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 1 of 3

It was about forty thousand years ago, or so we are told by those who have better memories than we, that the last great ice age entered its death throes.

The landscape looked different then - for one thing, there was more of it. So much oceanic water was held in sombreros of polar ice that sea level was some three hundred feet lower than it now is.

The British Isles were not isles, they were just the farthest extension of the European landmass. A fellow with good determination and better legs could walk round the entire Bay of Biscay. He could stroll along the Cantabrian shoreline past the Pyrenees’ edge, saunter up the pleasant strands of southwest France and rest in the future coves of the Pirates of Penzance. Of course, he couldn’t do this in a fortnight. He’d have to be in for the long haul. An excursion... a tour... a pilgrimage comes to mind.

But the Bay of Biscay was in Europe’s more temperate bottom. Above and beyond, things were different. From left to right and head to waist, the continent was hidebound in stiff and noncompliant snow. It was then, forty thousand years ago, that the temperature began to rise.


During the Ice Age oceanic water levels were so low that it was possible to walk from Africa to Ireland.

Water, released from its frozen prison, ran off in rivers to the sea; and, as the weight of ice slipped away, the earth’s thawing lungs heaved, and the land resuscitated.

It did not happen all at once: glacial fingers, in a rhythmic massage, would slide down to knead and hold the land in epochal suspension until the resolute sun could prod the fingers, relax their grip and force them to withdraw. Then the land would sigh again and grow verdant - teasing flora and fauna and the people who fed upon them to move northwards - until the next advancing press of ice came to push them back. But gradually the ice-masseur grew weary of having his hands sun-slapped. The glaciers retreated to the mountains to make themselves available for the rigors of winter sport.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that scores of millennia earlier some descendants of Eve - that erstwhile progenitor of the House of Homo sapiens - journeyed up the western coast of tropical Africa and, encountering no barrier in the as yet unconstructed Pillars of Hercules, passed Gibraltar to enter Spain and France, England and Ireland.

If in fact the travelers had been suitably dark-skinned when their northward trek began, the increasing cold required them to cover their bodies, and such protective melanin as their skins possessed, pigment which previously had shielded them from overexposure to harmful solar radiation, now became an obstacle to their survival.

Having to learn the hard way, they soon determined that if the human body wishes to form healthy bones, it requires specific amounts of exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Sunlight activates vitamin D, gained through various foodstuffs, which then initiates the transformation of mineral into bone. Conditions of diet aside, when a body absorbs too much ultraviolet radiation, troublesome calcium deposits form, causing death from such conditions as hardening of the arteries. When a body absorbs too little ultraviolet radiation and cannot therefore manufacture sufficient bone tissue, rickets and osteomalacia are the sorry result.

As more and more body surface was routinely covered and unavailable for the absorption of sunlight, survival mandated that the limited available skin surface bleach itself of melanin with natural selection’s Clorox. (As every photographer knows, blue eyes are not so much blue as they simply are not brown.) There were other changes: pug noses evolved into aquiline noses, the longer nasal bridges helping to warm air on its way to the lungs; and hair, thicker, insulating masses of it, also evolved as an adaptation to the changing climate.

And so, the skimpy body coverings that were the fashion of former days, became decidedly declasse. Sartorial splendor was now defined in sheepskins; and deep tans were not the livery of the upwardly-mobile young, as fair-skinned, blue-eyed blondes dove into society’s gene pool.

Eve’s other descendants, as they fanned out of Africa, also adapted according to the changing conditions of their respective environments; but because the skeletal remains of this new "race" of people were first discovered (in l868) in the Cro-Magnon cave of the Dordogne region of southern France, modern man is usually called Cro-Magnon.

Were these people of forty thousand years ago primitive? Hardly. It is true that in their middens we find no discarded Wang computers, Henry Js, cans of Billy Beer, crack pipes or any of those implements of applied science that distinguish us from our technological inferiors; but surely they had a high level of culture. Millennia before Abu Simbel was the delight of Egyptian astro-architects, the builders of Newgrange, Ireland, constructed one of the world’s first roofed structures, one that was so astronomically oriented that its interior chamber was illuminated by a pin-point shaft of light, precisely on the winter solstice. The Newgrange observatory dates to 30,000 BC.

Entrance to the Newgrange Observatory, Newgrange, Ireland.
No, we don’t know much about the spectrum of their culture - their religious beliefs, social customs, architecture, crafts, music and literature, but we do have some of their fine arts and this we can judge.

Among the people who inhabited the Pyrenees mountains and alluvial fans were consummate artists who used, among other nameless canvasses and palettes, the walls of caves to record glorious animal images. They mixed natural mineral pigments with saliva and by the mouthfuls blew out the paint with air-brush finesse to create stunningly beautiful murals.

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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