Friday, April 3, 2009

A Child Remembered

Every time a child dies, grief of the parents and even the grief of strangers leads us to ask: Why is such a young life wasted when they held so much possibility for the future? The death of a child causes people of faith to question the fairness of their god and it causes people of science to scramble for solutions to prevent this type of death in the future. The death of a child feels so senseless and painful.

I recently read an article about a little girl who died around the age of three. She died near the water, covered with pebbles and sand swiftly upon touching bottom. No person of science has scrambled to prevent any future such deaths. Likely, no person of faith raged at their god for the loss of this girl child still donning her mild teeth. Instead, scientists are marveling at her tiny fingers and teeth and, perhaps, a person of faith may question the origin story that they have always unquestioningly accepted- that of Adam and Eve 4300 years ago in the Garden of Eden. This little girl died around the age of three, and it took 3.3 million years for anyone to find her. She is known as the Dikika baby and I read about her online in a National Geographic article assigned by my anthropology professor. (To read the article yourself, go to: .)

As I read the article, I was fascinated and excited that such a fossil skeleton was found in such amazing condition, a very rare find and rarer still for being the fossilized bones of a child to be preserved so perfectly. Soft child bones usually decay before the minerals can be replaced by the surrounding minerals of the land and water around them. In that time, if they didn’t decay, they likely were eaten by predators. Her bones are preserved, encased in limestone as if preserved in the cement foundation of a human made building, delicate and expressive, right down to her tiny curled fingers, now made of stone. She is the same species of our ancestor as Lucy, the adult female partial skeleton that was found when I was a kid, only 3 years older than the estimated age of the Dikika baby.

As I read this article, in my head I was thinking of a sad mama Australopithecus afarensis, perhaps Lucy, or perhaps a relative of Lucy. (Not likely Lucy since she was 100,000 years younger than Dikika, as I call the girl.) I imagine this mama crying out as her not quite weaned daughter drew her last breath. I wondered if she fell into the water and died there. Or, did she fall into the water after death, displaced there due to a strong rain or earthquake rolling her downhill until she landed in the wet limestone-rich sand. Or, did her mama have some private burial ceremony by the edge of the water, digging a hole in the sand with her bare hands and lovingly placing her daughter in her sandy, rocky grave soon to be covered in water with the spring floods and rising waters of melting glaciers, and changing shorelines. (As an experiment, when I die you can bury me in sand near water and dig me up periodically to see how long it takes me to become fossilized into stone. No, really. I’m serious. Or not. Maybe I’ll blog one day about my after life wishes.)

As this vision of the unlikely possibility of the mama burying her dead daughter, I imagined the mama’s grief, her cry of anguish. Perhaps the first human word-like sound meant something like, simply, “why?”. Perhaps with that grief-filled desperation inspired hope that out there somewhere, maybe, possibly, there is “something” that knows the answer. “Something” that might respond.

Did I mention that Dikika baby gave anthropologists an extremely rare sample of a hyoid bone, a bone so soft that rarely does it complete the fossilization process. It is the bone that is necessary for human speech. It is the bone that allows grieving mothers across the globe scream out “WHY?” when their sons are killed by war or their daughters are maimed by assault. Dikika baby possessed the secret of language, the cornerstone upon which today’s human cultures depend. She possessed the secret of words, my words, my thoughts, the secret of my words that you now read.

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