Last and First Men

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2. the second dark age

We must now pass rapidly over the Second Dark Age, observing merely those influences which were to affect the future of humanity.

Century by century the pent energy of the vast explosion dispersed itself; but not till many hundred thousand years had passed did the swarms of upstart volcanoes begin to die, and not till after millions of years did the bulk of the planet become once more a possible home for life.

During this period many changes took place. The atmosphere became clearer, purer and less turbulent. With the fall of temperature, frost and snow appeared occasionally in the Arctic regions, and in due course the Polar caps were formed again. Meanwhile, ordinary geological processes, augmented by the strains to which the planet was subjected by increased internal pressure, began to change the continents. South America mostly collapsed into the hollows blasted beneath it, but a new land rose to join Brazil with West Africa. The East Indies and Australia became a continuous continent. The huge mass of Thibet sank deeply into its disturbed foundations, lunged West, and buckled Afghanistan into a range of peaks nearly forty thousand feet above the sea. Europe sank under the Atlantic. Rivers writhed shiftingly hither and thither upon the continents, like tortured worms. New alluvial areas were formed. New strata were laid upon one another under new oceans. New animals and plants developed from the few surviving Arctic species, and spread south through Asia and America. In the new forests and grass-lands appeared various specialized descendants of the reindeer, and swarms of rodents. Upon these preyed the large and small descendants of the Arctic fox, of which one species, a gigantic wolflike creature, rapidly became the "King of Beasts" in the new order, and remained so, until it was ousted by the more slowly modified offspring of the polar bears. A certain genus of seals, reverting to the ancient terrestrial habit, had developed a slender snake-like body and an almost swift, and very serpentine, mode of locomotion among the coastal sand-dunes. There it was wont to stalk its rodent prey, and even follow them into their burrows. Everywhere there were birds. Many of the places left vacant by the destruction of the ancient fauna were now filled by birds which had discarded flight and developed pedestrian habits. Insects, almost exterminated by the great conflagration, had afterwards increased so rapidly, and had refashioned their types with such versatility, that they soon reached almost to their ancient profusion. Even more rapid was the establishment of the new micro-organisms. In general, among all the beasts and plants of the earth there was a great change of habit, and a consequent overlaying of old body-forms with new forms adapted to a new way of life.

The two human settlements had fared very differently. That of Labrador, oppressed by a more sweltering climate, and unsupported by the Siberian will to preserve human culture, sank into animality; but ultimately it peopled the whole West with swarming tribes. The human beings in Asia remained a mere handful throughout the ten million years of the Second Dark Age. An incursion of the sea cut them off from the south. The old Taimyr Peninsula, where their settlements clustered, became the northern promontory of an island whose coasts were the ancient valley-edges of the Yenessi, the Lower Tunguska and the Lena. As the climate became less oppressive, the families spread toward the southern coast of the island, but the sea checked them. Temperate conditions enabled them to regain a certain degree of culture. But they had no longer the capacity to profit much from the new clemency of nature, for the previous ages of tropical conditions had undermined them. Moreover, toward the end of the ten million years of the Second Dark Age, the Arctic climate spread south into their island. Their crops failed, the rodents that formed their chief cattle dwindled, their few herds of deer faded out through lack of food. Little by little this scanty human race degenerated into a mere remnant of Arctic savages. And so they remained for a million years. Psychologically they were so crippled that they had almost completely lost the power of innovation. When their sacred quarries in the hills were covered with ice, they had not the wit to use stone from the valleys, but were reduced to making implements of bone. Their language degenerated into a few grunts to signify important acts, and a more complex system of emotional expressions. For emotionally these creatures still preserved a certain refinement. Moreover, though they had almost wholly lost the power of intelligent innovation, their instinctive responses were often such as a more enlightened intelligence would justify. They were strongly social, deeply respectful of the individual human life, deeply parental, and often terribly earnest in their religion.

Not till long after the rest of the planet was once more covered with life, not till nearly ten million years after the Patagonian disaster, did a group of these savages, adrift on an iceberg, get blown southward across the sea to the mainland of Asia. Luckily, for Arctic conditions were increasing, and in time the islanders were extinguished.

The survivors settled in the new land and spread, century by century, into the heart of Asia. Their increase was very slow, for they were an infertile and inflexible race. But conditions were now extremely favourable. The climate was temperate; for Russia and Europe were now a shallow sea warmed by currents from the Atlantic. There were no dangerous animals save the small grey bears, an offshoot from the polar species, and the large wolf-like foxes. Various kinds of rodents and deer provided meat in plenty. There were birds of all sizes and habits. Timber, fruit, wild grains and other nourishing plants throve on the well-watered volcanic soil. The prolonged eruptions, moreover, had once more enriched the upper layers of the rocky crust with metals.

A few hundred thousand years in this new world sufficed for the human species to increase from a handful of individuals to a swarm of races. It was in the conflict and interfusion of these races, and also through the absorption of certain chemicals from the new volcanic soil, that humanity at last recovered its vitality.

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