Balti faces

Before we got to our wonderful Balti (बल्ति) lunch in Turtuk village, close to the Line of Control, we met the people who have this kind of food every day. A recent genetic study indicated that the Balti people are a mixture of Central Asian Dardic and Tibetan gene groups, but in these lands where humans were settled before the end of the ice age, each of these “parent” groups must have resulted from forgotten mixings of human genes. The story of modern humanity is such a wonderful complex tapestry that one despairs at the easy classification of hurriedly thrown together videos and magazine articles. But look at some of the faces we saw on our brief walk, and you see the whole complexity of humanity.

The village is traditional. I mean that men present a social face to strangers and women have a separate place. So it turned out to be most fruitful for The Family and me to divide the job of photographing people. She took photos of the women and girls, and I took photos of the men and boys. Even so, women are diffident about a camera. This mother carried a child on her back in a manner which we have seen across the Himalayas. In the eastern Himalayas mothers look at the camera and smile. Here women look down and away, effectively sending the message “I’m not here.”

This old lady was selling bags of apricot nuts. This is an industry in the village. Apricot kernels are dried and then cracked to extract the edible nuts (they taste a bit like almonds). The remainder of the kernel yields apricot oil, which serves as a wonderful moisturizer in the extremely dry air of this altitude. She was highly voluble and a fount of knowledge about the village. But when she saw a camera she protested, “Why do you want a picture of an old woman?” Because you have been a teacher to us was an answer that dimmed her protests, but did not stop them altogether.

I’ve shown you this face in an earlier post. Abdul Rashid is a large farmer, as holdings here go, and an entrepreneur. He owns The Balti Kitchen where we had lunch, and runs a shop with preserves and jams from his farm and orchard. His own chosen role now is to chat with passers by. He is a natural conversationalist and reminded me of the carpet salesmen in Istanbul: happy to invite you in for a chai and a conversation, and if it leads to business, even better. But if it doesn’t, then you have still had a good time. Most of the men here do not mind being photographed.

Women’s work is no less strenuous than men’s in this extreme environment. While The Family and I slowly walked up and down the sloping paths of the village, this middle aged lady steadily walked uphill with a fairly heavy load of fodder on her back. Again, she wouldn’t meet The Family’s eyes. This was such a difference from the women she’d met east of this region, The Family told me later. Even later, I thought this difference was superficial. But during the years of the pandemic past, I found that women across the whole of south east Asia, between the ages of menarche and menopause, access health facilities at half the rate at which men do. Men and women access health facilities equally outside that range of ages. All societies have this difference, it is only more visible here. Travel can open your eyes to your own surroundings.

The gender difference has an interesting effect on young boys. In a mixed group of under-10s, I saw boys who were happy to be photographed, asking me repeatedly to take photos of their antics, and others who would hide their faces. The process of differential socialization has started at this age. While young boys learn to be outgoing, young girls have started learning to quickly turn away from a camera. Interestingly, one of the boys who turned his face from the camera later came up to do a high five with me! I passed a torrent of faces on the street: the long noses of central Asia, the high cheekbones of the hills, the round eyes of the tourists, the different skin colours from different parts of India. What a wonderful mosaic, I thought as I walked towards our lunch.

Lucy and diamonds in the mud

The ancestors of humans may have lived in rain-forests or grasslands, deserts or river valleys, but much of our knowledge of our own deep history comes from a relatively few fossils, a large fraction of which are on display in the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. This was one place that The Family and I were determined not to miss. We’d left it till the last day of our stay, but we kept aside the whole morning for it. There’s a lot to see, and it does take a while.

Our understanding of human evolution can change when new fossils are found. But what we do know now is that about 7 million years ago the climate became drier, and the dense forests of Africa broke into a patchwork of grassland and forest. In this new and cooler earth, East African primates diverged from their ancestors and became bipedal. Early hominins included the genus Australopithecus. The near-complete skeleton of a specimen called Lucy stands in the outer hall of human evolution. This is a little older than 3 million years. It is amazing to see that they are small, just over a meter in height. At half the height of modern humans, it is not hard to believe the explanatory material which says that they were “prey as much as hunter”.

About 2.3 to 2 million years ago genus Homo seems to have become common, at least if one is to go by the fossils found in and around Lake Turkana. The skull of Homo rudolfensis (photo above) was found by Richard Leaky. It has a largish skull, with a brain volume of 750 milliliters. I thought the face looked a little primitive, so I was surprised to find that the brain was among the largest of its time.

In a case next to it was a skull of Homo habilis (photo above). This looked more like a human’s I thought, but its brain was smaller (about 650 milliliters). The skull was found by Louis Leaky in the 1960s, roughly ten years before Richard Leaky’s find. There was quite a crowd in this side gallery where these more modern pre-human remains are on display. Both these species were tool users; it seems that the technology of stone tools in older than Homo sapiens.

The star of the show is the near-complete skeleton of the Turkana Boy (aka “Nariokotome Boy”, photo above) found in 1984 by Richard Leaky. This is a skeleton of an 11 year old boy of the species Homo erectus, which had died 1.4 million years ago. To my untrained eye the spine looked like it belonged to something that walked on two feet, but apparently it is not so clear at all. There were years of controversy before experts began to agree. Homo erectus, with a brain of about 900 millilitres (a photo of a skull is below) , seems to have evolved about 1.8 million years ago, and could walk, run, and throw accurately.

Another thing that experts seem to agree on today is that H. erectus created the technology of the symmetrical and well-shaped “hand-axes” that you see in the featured photo (these are called Acheulian tools, and have been recovered from across East Africa and Asia) and traveled out of Africa into Asia, A million years later, the African population evolved into Homo sapiens, built better tools, and migrated out of Africa again to eventually take over the world. Many details remain unsettled, but this big outline has lasted for about 30 years as more fossils are discovered across Asia and Africa.