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Did the Denisovans Walk to North America?

Did the Denisovans Walk to North America?

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For a people from whom one 41,000 year old finger bone fossil from a nine year old girl, along with a bracelet she wore, were (until recently) the only authenticated known artifacts, the mysterious Denisovans sure received lots of publicity. Both scholarly journals and popularly oriented science magazines were quick to pick up on any academic or speculative news from the fields of anthropology and archaeology tied to them in some way or other. These artifacts were discovered in the 1970’s by Soviet paleontologist Nicolai Ovodov.

Even the name assigned to the group has its origin in a somewhat spiritual, rather than more conventional way. Denis the Hermit was a Russian Orthodox religious contemplative who lived in the cave named for him during the 18 th Century. The cave is located in the Altai Mountains of Central Siberia, not far from where borders of Russia, Mongolia, and China meet. Long before Denis, various early humans made the cave home, and more recently, sheep herders sporadically occupied it.

Origin of the Denisovans

However, first speculation about the Denisovans came long before they were given their name, and many miles to the east, as scholars decided they belonged in the Balkans, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Why? It seems anthropologists had noticed that Neanderthal fossils and artifacts had always been found in Western Europe and the Middle East.

Some reasoned that either Neanderthals or some counterpart peoples also logically belonged east and northeast of these places too, and now, with the Denisovan finding, this might be the case. In fact, to some scientists and prehistoric-interested laymen, Neanderthals and Denisovans became ‘cousins’.
Their origins were dated to around 300,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens and Neanderthals both emerged from Africa during a pluvial period caused by a continental glacier occupying much of Europe. This wetter climate had given most of North Africa a livable environment. With much of the world’s water locked up in European, Siberian, North American, and Antarctic ice sheets, the lowered water levels of the Mediterranean and Red Seas allowed first Neanderthals, then Homo sapiens , also known as Cro Magnon Man, to walk across at dry points.

Neanderthals, since discovery of their fossils in the late 19 th Century, were characterized as brutish, more primitive than Homo sapiens, some scholars even claiming sub-human status and lack of linguistic abilities for them.

Prominent brow ridges on their skulls contributed to this view, as bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas also have them. Early textbooks theorized that as subsequent waves of Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, the two species clashed, gradually wiping out the unfortunate Neanderthals.

Then as the 21 st Century dawned, researchers discovered that former authorities had been mistaken. Hybrid fossils from interbreeding of the two species were discovered and geneticists declared that many modern Homo sapiens possess small levels of Neanderthal genes . Those earlier arrivers to Europe hadn’t been wiped out after all but assimilated.

Hybrid fossils reveal interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. (Abuk SABUK / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Farther to the East, scientific speculation was focusing as well. In the 1980’s on the Tibetan Plateau, a Buddhist monk investigating a karstic cave found an adult human jaw bone with similarities to Neanderthal fossils. The relic was turned over to researchers at Northern China University, who sequenced its protein to determine an age of 160,000 years ago. These scholars pronounced it to be Denisovan.

This placed it at the height of the last glacial, or Wisconsin epoch, making it much more ancient than the little girl’s finger bone, which was dated to when the continental glaciers were starting to recede.

Denisovan Migration

By now, various scientists were speculating about Denisovan migration routes, hypothesizing that they moved southeasterly, passing from mainland Asia into Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Melanesian Island chains, and possibly even Australia. Migration routes like these would have been realistic, because since the continental glaciers were at their height, sea levels would have been low enough to facilitate dry land journeys.

  • Ancient Human Fossil Finger Discovery Points to Earlier Eurasian Migration
  • Evidence of Unknown Extinct Human Relative Found in DNA Study of Melanesians
  • First Ever Skull Fragments of Denisovans Have Been Confirmed Found in Russia

The evolution and geographic spread of Denisovans as compared with Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo erectus. (Cmglee / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When glaciers were largest, covering vast expanses of continental land masses, and even many parts of high mountain ranges in lower latitude regions, human migrations become easier. People could now walk between what were islands during warmer times. Scientists were able to calculate where shorelines would have been located at various times during past history, both by estimating former glacial sizes and finding evidence of shoreline erosion and deposition.

This data, when applied to places now separated by water from each other, like Morocco from Spain/Gibraltar, Tunisia from Sicily and Italy, or Southeastern Asia from the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia, reveals where ancient migrations occurred and roughly when.

A special case arises when this sea level change calculating is applied to northeastern Siberia and northwestern North America. Here we have glaciers sometimes blocking migration routes, definitely not the case with North Africa/Southern Europe or southeast Asia/Pacific archipelagos or Australia. These migration routes were located in relatively warm climatic areas where ice sheets didn’t form.

Enter Beringia, the landmass that once existed during glacial times when large portions of the northeast Asian and Alaskan continental shelves, now under the Arctic Ocean, was dry land. To their south, so was most of the Bering Sea, including the island arc stretching from the Kodiak Peninsula of Alaska through the Aleutian and Komandorski Islands, all the way to the northern Kamchatka Coast.

Beringia, the landmass that existed during glacial times was dry land. ( Lukas Gojda / Adobe)

When Beringia wasn’t blocked by ice (during the times the glaciers were either forming or melting) Beringia was the land bridge for people and animals to enter North America from Asia. It would become a bridge for back migrations also, a little later during geologic time.

When the glaciers were gone, except in Greenland and Antarctica, as they are today, one tiny remaining piece of Beringia was still a bridge for people, as the two Diomede Islands, one in the United States, one in Russia, are visible from each country. In more recent ancient times, when early man had mastered boat-making and ocean-going navigational technology, his vision of land on the horizon spurred migration across water.

Today, Native American tribal and scholarly historians cite ancient tribal legends of crossing water from an old land to a new one. By then, however, the Denisovans were long gone.

Just how long ago were the great continental glaciers at just the right size and sea levels just the right height for persons to cross into Beringia on foot?

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  • Hints of Ancient Symbolic Culture are Revealed in Indonesian Ice Age Art and Jewelry

Beringia coverage at the time of the Denisovan. (Roblespepe)

Glaciologists, geologists, climatologists, and anthropologists have all had a hand in estimating the age, number, and magnitude of so-called glacial epochs and the warmer interludes between them. Current thinking is that dating way back to before life of any kind existed, there have been nine so-called glacial ages. We are still experiencing the present one, often called the Pleistocene Epoch, which began about 2,600,000 years ago. In it there have been eleven interglacial or warmer periods, lasting for about ten to thirty thousand years each.

The next-to-last one, sometimes called Eemian Interglacial, lasted roughly from 130,000 to 115,000 years ago. It was a little warmer than the present warmer period, usually called Late Cenozoic Interglacial or Holocene, which is still going on. During the height of the Eemian, palm trees grew as far north as the Alaskan Panhandle. The Late Cenozoic period began around 15,000 years ago and as everyone conversant with political discussions and debates knows, is continually still getting warmer.

During the Eemian period palm trees grew in the Alaskan Panhandle. ( freedom_wanted / Adobe)

When both Eemian and Late Cenozoic dates are applied to human migrations, several speculative observations suggest themselves. In tropical and sub-tropical latitudes only sea levels are relevant because glacial blockage isn’t a major factor, whereas in Beringia, both harsh subarctic climate and glacial blockage present obstacles as well. However, in the Late Cenozoic only, human cultural evolution brought use of boats onto the scene thus partially negating the obstacles created by rising sea levels. This factor largely applied to areas where early man could view land on the horizon thus risking pushing onward.

Denisovan DNA in America

While both scientists and hobbyists who like early human lore were speculating about who, when, and how humans crossed Beringia from Asia into North America, others of like ilk were pursuing hard answers. Geneticists were busy pushing the boundaries of DNA and protein analysis further and further, whereas earlier radio carbon, strontium, and oxygen-18 dating technologies had been useable only in limited situations. Linguistic anthropologists started to compare languages using computer techniques and to take tribal legends more seriously.

Aerial photography and satellite imagery was finding its way into archaeology. Now it was time to ask an almost sacrilegious question for some, “Did the Denisovans make it into North America?” Or if not, would traces of their DNA turn up among New World peoples, just as Neanderthal DNA had been found in genes of some modern Europeans?

Initially, scholars and hobbyists alike assumed human migration through Beringa occurred only during the Late Cenozoic, during which three distinct migration waves had been identified. Then two additional factors emerged suggesting that Eemian times must have seen some activity too. (1) The scrub vegetation growing in Beringia during the colder Late Cenozoic wouldn’t have supported the large grazing animals like mammoths, mastodons, horses, and camels that once thrived in the Americas.

Researchers like David Reich of the Harvard Medical School and his colleagues suggested that a 40,000 year negative selection Neanderthal and Denisovan genes existed among many Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders . Would there be time for DNA influences to be carried far and wide in the Western Hemisphere from Late Cenozoic arrivers who had crossed Beringa? These same scientists also found Denisovan genes in the Americas and far north-east Asia.

Pleistocene Tools discovered at the Calico Early Man Site. (Travis / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Other scientists, while not as concerned with Denisovans or DNA evidence, found evidence far to the south of Beringia in both North and South America that suggested human presence dated earlier than the Late Cenozoic. While still not fully authenticated, the Calico site in California was alleged to date as early as 200,000 ago. If this proves to be accurate, it would strongly suggest some humans crossed Beringia during a third-last interglacial warming period. While not citing specific dates, eminent archaeologist Louis Leakey was one of the scientists claiming Calico is a bona fide early man site.

Chile, of all places, has several purported early man sites. Monte Verde in central Chile containing fossils and a human footprint, has been dated to 18,500 BC, placing it about 2,500 years before Beringia became useable for Late Cenozoic migrants. Other Chilean investigators have made claims for fossil remains of agricultural-type planted crop rows.

Many Denisovans scholars have long been making a case for the fact that if early Late Cenozoic had made it across Beringia, it would take longer for their descendants to travel to southern South America to occupy sites there, given the verified dates for those sites. In other words, their ancestors must have arrived during the Eemian.

Examining the migrants that crossed Beringia during the Late Cenozoic, we find they are divided into three distinct, somewhat dissimilar groups. More genetic research is needed before who had and who hasn’t had some Denisovan genes is known. The last of the three, the Athabascans, also sometimes called Na Dene, were still migrating southward when the first European colonists were arriving on North and South American east coasts. While some Athabascans remained in Alaska or Yukon, others pushed on to Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico, where they are today, known as the Navajo and Apache tribes. All New World Athabascans have close cultural and genetic affinities with the Chukchi of far northeastern Siberia.

If any Denisovans were among the groups who crossed Beringia, it had to be during the Eemian. The Late Cenozoic appears to be too late and the third-last interglacial period is probably too early, or if not, too nebulous to make any determinations. Whether their DNA crossed the bridge, as part of the living bodies of people whose ancestors mated with Denisovans , that answer has to be “yes.” What is yet unknown, are the specifics - who mated with whom, where, and when.

Only partially known is the fascinating story of folks who almost became ‘ape men’ and ‘ape women’, and only now are emerging as one more valuable piece in the puzzle that constitutes the story of human civilization.

Out of Africa?

Researchers led by Prof. Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have placed a very large question mark over the currently fashionable “out-of-Africa” theory of the origins of modern man. They have done this by producing a partial genome from three fossil bones belonging to female Neanderthals from Vindija Cave in Croatia, and comparing it with the genomes of modern humans.

Their initial results show that Neanderthals interbred with anatomically modern humans, mainly with the ancestors of peoples now found in Europe and Asia. This discovery both underlines the genetic differences between African and non-African populations and contradicts the pure, “out-of-Africa” version of human evolution, according to which all non-Africans living today are descended exclusively from migrants that left Africa less than 100,000 years ago. These migrants are said to have out-competed and eventually driven to extinction all other forms of homo and to have done so without interbreeding.

The authors of the Max Planck study note that Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and western Asia, were the closest evolutionary relatives of current humans, but went extinct about 30,000 years ago. They go on to note:

Comparisons of the Neanderthal genome to the genomes of five present-day humans from different parts of the world identify a number of genomic regions that may have been affected by positive selection in ancestral modern humans, including genes involved in metabolism and in cognitive and skeletal development. We show that Neanderthals shared more genetic variants with present-day humans in Eurasia than with present-day humans in sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting that gene flow from Neanderthals into the ancestors of non-Africans occurred before the divergence of Eurasian groups from each other. (Richard E. Green, Johannes Krause, et. al., A Draft Sequence of the Neanderthal Genome, Science, May 7, 2010).

In other words, Neanderthal genes remained in the human genome because they were beneficial, and are mainly found in non-African groups.

The traditional alternative to the “out-of-Africa” theory has been that different races evolved from earlier forms of homo in different parts of the world. That theory allows for a far longer period for the evolution of races. The great obstacle to this multi-regional theory has been genetic evidence taken from modern humans that points to a common ancestor who left Africa about 100,000 years ago. However, this judgment is based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) — the DNA outside the nucleus — which shows no evidence of interbreeding. The Max Planck team, however, was the first to do a large-scale comparative study of nuclear DNA which, as they point out, “is composed of tens of thousands of recombining, and hence independently evolving, DNA segments that provide an opportunity to obtain a clearer picture of the relationship between Neanderthals and present-day humans.”

Neanderthal researcher Svante Pääbo. For his revolutionary insights into the origins of mankind, Pääbo has received the European Science Prize of the Hamburg Küerber Foundation, endowed with 750,000 euros. The physician and biologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig has revolutionized the understanding of the evolutionary history of modern man. (Credit Image: © Christian Charisius / DPA via ZUMA Press)

The researchers note that their conclusions are tentative because they were able to reconstruct only about 60 percent of the Neanderthal genome. Much of this had to be carefully sifted because of contamination, especially by bacterial DNA. Nonetheless, where the Neanderthal genome could be compared to that of modern humans, the researchers found an estimated 99.7 percent match. They also found that the Neanderthal and modern genomes shared exactly the same degree of genetic similarity — 98.8 percent — with chimpanzees.

Of particular significance, however, is the result of comparing the Neanderthal genome with representatives of different modern races: “one San from Southern Africa, one Yoruba from West Africa, one Papua New Guinean, one Han Chinese, and one French from Western Europe.”

Non-Africans got a far larger genetic contribution from Neanderthals than Africans did:

[I]ndividuals in Eurasia today carry regions in their genome that are closely related to those in Neanderthals and distant from other present-day humans. The data suggest that between 1 and 4 percent of the genomes of people in Eurasia are derived from Neanderthals. Thus, while the Neanderthal genome presents a challenge to the simplest version of an ‘out-of-Africa’ model for modern human origins, it continues to support the view that the vast majority of genetic variants that exist at appreciable frequencies outside Africa came from Africa with the spread of anatomically modern humans.

Although the Neanderthal contribution is small, the fact that it survived at all suggests that it conferred an evolutionary advantage. The Max Planck team notes that those contributions were “involved in cognitive abilities and cranial morphology.” Neanderthals passed on to non-Africans whatever genetic advantages they had in these important areas.

It is possible that Neanderthals contributed more than the 1 to 4 percent calculated by the Max Planck researchers. Their Neanderthal genome was incomplete and the missing 40 percent may contain more genes present in modern humans. Even if Neanderthal genes form only a very small part of the modern non-African genome, small genetic differences can have important consequences. We share almost all of our DNA with chimps, yet are very different from them. It has become clear since the mapping of the human genome that the central importance of genes lies not in their quantity but in the way they interact. Many scientists expected that sequencing or decoding the human genome would lead to an understanding of how it works, but that has not been the case. Many mysteries remain, but it is clear that small differences can have profound effects.

If modern humans bred with Neanderthals could there have been other mixtures of the varieties of homo throughout evolution? There was ample opportunity. Homo habilis is estimated to have existed from 2.3 to 1.4 million years ago, homo erectus to have lived between 1.9 million and 300,000 years ago (and possibly much later in isolated areas), Neanderthals from 400,000 years until 30,000 years ago, and homo sapiens from 250,000-150,000 years ago to the present. One promising candidate for interbreeding with modern humans is homo erectus. As the online encyclopedia science.jrank.org explains:

Fossils of the species have been collected from South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Germany, Georgia, India, China, and Indonesia. The oldest specimens come from Africa, the Caucasus, and Java and are dated at about 1.8 million years. These very early dates outside of Africa indicate that H. erectus dispersed across the Old World almost instantaneously, as soon as the species arose in Africa . . . Homo erectus persisted very late in the Pleistocene epoch in Indonesia to possibly as late as 30,000 years ago, which suggests that the species survived in isolation while modern humans spread everywhere in the Old World.

Just as this article was going to press, there were reports on the analysis of 30,000-year-old bones found by the Russians in a cave in Denisova in Siberia in 2008. The DNA, whose state of preservation has been called “miraculous,” proved to be distinct from both Neanderthals and modern humans, and researchers called the newly discovered hominids Denisovans. Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute studied this DNA as well, and determined that Denisovans also bred with modern humans — though not with those that remained in Africa.

The Denisovans were related to Neanderthals, and their common ancestors are thought to have left Africa some 400,000 or more years ago. One branch became Neanderthal in Western Eurasia and another became Denisovan in the East. Modern man appears to have encountered and bred with both groups, but only after leaving Africa. Specialists greeted the news about Denisovans with the expectation that yet more missing members of the human family tree could be rediscovered.

Indeed, the complexity and variety of the fossil record hints at what could have been considerable interbreeding. There has been a huge number of discoveries during the last century, but hominid remains are still very scarce and are often only a small fragment of a skeleton. Complete skeletons are like hens’ teeth. Moreover, when new fossils turn up, rather than clarify the record by filling in missing branches on the evolutionary tree, they tend to complicate matters. For example, they may show that a variety of homo was much older than previously thought or appeared in an unexpected place. Variability of fossils can also suggest intermediate forms that had not been anticipated, such as a specimen with traits characteristic of both homo erectus and Neanderthals. The difficulty in classifying human fossils and especially the existence of intermediate forms suggest interbreeding.

We are only now beginning to learn of some variants of homo that could have contributed genes to modern humans. In 2004, fossils of a dwarf species of homo — “Flores man,” who has been nicknamed “hobbit” — were found on the Indonesian island of Flores. Flores man is thought to have gone extinct about 12,000 years ago, so he certainly coexisted with modern humans.

Interbreeding between related varieties of homo would be more likely than that between related animals because even primitive homo had a large brain, which suggests self-consciousness, and, most probably, language. Animals mate in a largely automatic process prompted by various triggers: aural, chemical, condition of feathers and so on. Man, although not entirely without such triggers, adds conscious thought to mate selection. This allows humans to overcome the barriers of behavior and biology, and mate outside their subspecies or even species.

Even today, tribal peoples may take women by force from other groups, often by organized raiding. Prehistoric man may have done the same, raising the possibility that interbreeding took place without the willing participation of the females.

At some point, of course, separate evolution would have produced separate species that were not mutually fertile. However, the social nature of homo and his probable ability to speak would tend to counteract the tendency to remain isolated from others for so long that breeding became impossible. It is worth adding that judging from the rapid spread of homo throughout Eurasia, man has been a very mobile animal. Such mobility would also make isolation difficult because even in a very sparsely populated world, the likelihood of encountering other bands of homo would be reasonably high.

How would different varieties of archaic humans have appeared to one another? Probably not so strange. There are certainly combinations of current-day racial types that appear more alien to each other than that would have Neanderthals and modern men.

In 2008, National Geographic released a likeness of a Neanderthal woman based on DNA from 43,000-year-old bones. The findings suggested that at least some Neanderthals had red hair, pale skin, and possibly freckles. These are particularly interesting traits because these were commonly noted by Romans who wrote about the inhabitants of Northern Europe. Today, many scientists would argue that if a Neanderthal were dressed in modern clothes he could walk down a busy street without attracting much attention.

If interbreeding did occur within the homo genus over several million years or even over hundreds of thousands of years, it would help explain the evolution of the group differences that now distinguish the different races. The purest “out-of-Africa” theory has always been implausible to those who think it does not allow enough time for races to emerge. There are differences of opinion among experts about time scales but the consensus is that modern man emerged from Africa at most 200,000 years ago. At 20 years per generation, this allows for only 10,000 generations to produce the enormous human variety that includes everything from Pygmies to Danes. Is that enough? Whites are supposed to have begun evolving independently for only 2,000 generations. Again, is that enough?

Realistic depictions of human beings go back to at least 3000 BC, and mummies, created deliberately or naturally, are often preserved well enough to determine racial type. The oldest North American mummy, for example, is of a 45-year-old male found in Churchill County, Nevada, and estimated to date from 7420 BC. These artifacts show that racial types have been stable for 5,000 to 10,000 years. If they have not changed in this time, it is reasonable to doubt that evolution could have changed migrants from Africa rapidly enough to produce today’s races.

The “Spirit Cave Mummy” found in Nevada. (Credit Image: Chip Clark, Smithsonian via Wikimedia)

The Max Planck Institute’s findings clearly show that the “out of Africa with no interbreeding” theory is incorrect. However, that does not necessarily mean that the ultimate origins of man do not lie in Africa or that the modern humans whose origins lie outside of Africa do not have a predominantly African heritage. What the Neanderthal and Denisovan genome research does confirm is that the human story is complicated.

The distribution of hominid fossil finds to date, the paleontological evidence, and the growing knowledge acquired through DNA analysis suggest that a plausible scenario for evolution is this: The story probably began in Africa, because this is the continent with the largest number of the most ancient fossils. Africans also show the greatest genetic variety, which suggests human evolution has been taking place there longer than anywhere else. However, early versions of homo moved out of Africa, perhaps as much as several million years ago. Some of these early versions evolved into creatures that approximated modern man, while at the same time evolution among African populations also brought them closer to modern man. At various points, African migrants emerged into Eurasia and interbred with forms of homo already there. There was no equivalent migration of Eurasians into Africa, or at least none that resulted in known interbreeding. The fossil record of mixtures of features from different hominids also suggests interbreeding.

Why was the rigid “out-of-Africa” theory so widely believed? Probably because it gave rise to the claim that “we are all Africans,” and because it suggested there were few biological differences between races. At the same time, the emphasis until recently on mtDNA rather than nuclear DNA, gave rise to dogmatic statements about distinct lineages and leant scientific backing to the idea.

“Out of Africa” supported the modern liberal view that race is a social construct and that the physical differences between races are trivial. In fact, racial differences are more dramatic than the differences between many closely related species of animals. There are objective racial differences in physiology, such as testosterone level, as well as differences in behavior and in average IQ. When we add to these differences the mix of genetic contributions from extinct or absorbed forms of homo, the liberal argument becomes even weaker. If homo sapiens were viewed as any other organism is viewed, it would no doubt be classified as several species rather than as a single species.

The group at the Max Planck Institute hopes to have decoded the entire Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes soon, and similar work is being done on other forms of ancient homo such as the “hobbits” from Flores. Decoding ancient DNA is difficult, but it is probable that the genomes of other early hominids, particularly that of homo erectus — the longest surviving and most widely dispersed ancient form of homo — will be decoded in the foreseeable future.

If such research shows that interbreeding was present throughout hominid evolution, or at least for substantial periods, then the multiregional theory is true to the extent that different races received genetic contributions from populations that developed outside of Africa for immense periods of time. If the genotypes of such ancient varieties such as homo erectus and homo heidelbergensis are mapped successfully, it may be found that Eurasians have a substantial selection of genes that are distant from those of Africans.

Even if that is not the case, a better understanding of genetics increasingly shows that small genetic differences cause significant physical differences. Whatever the case, the claim that “we are all Africans” has been significantly weakened, and a potent propaganda tool has been taken from the hands of the politically correct.

Watch 5,000 Central American Migrants Walk to the United States

Edwin Rios

Central American migrants head for the United States. Ivan Sanchez/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

On Sunday, thousands of Central American migrants left Mexico’s southern border and marched north as they made their way to the United States to seek asylum. The caravan, which has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump, began in Honduras on October 13 when roughly 3,000 migrants left the town of San Pedro Sula. By Sunday morning, their numbers had reached at least 5,000.

Thousands used rafts to illegally cross the Suchiate River that borders Guatemala and Mexico on their trek before eventually re-forming with the mass migration. At one point on Saturday, Mexican officials blocked a group of 1,000 migrants trying to enter the country’s southern border.

This spring, a caravan organized by the migrant advocacy and support group Pueblos Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), made a similar trek.

Trump has seized on the caravan in campaign rallies this week, calling the migrants “very bad people,” blaming Democrats for the migration, requesting Mexican officials stop the migrants in their tracks, and threatening to shut down the US-Mexico border.

These are some bad people coming through. These aren’t babies, these aren’t little angels coming into our country,” Trump said on Friday at the White House.

In fact, many of the migrants are small children. Here’s a look at the group’s journey.

Thousands upon thousand of people in migrant caravan making first steps through Mexico , en route to US pic.twitter.com/yz9mQRgTsg

&mdash Emily Green (@emilytgreen) October 21, 2018

BORDER CRISIS: A caravan carrying more than 3,000 migrants was halted at the Mexico-Guatemala border. Hundreds have managed to cross, but hundreds more are still stuck https://t.co/M9XIWQFxfw pic.twitter.com/SzCKtXRXUy

&mdash CBS News (@CBSNews) October 20, 2018

WATCH: Migrants traveling in a mass caravan break through a Guatemalan border fence, streaming toward Mexican territory Friday pic.twitter.com/BYWeEFyrXC

&mdash TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) October 19, 2018

Tonight stragglers from the migrant caravan who’ve smuggled themselves into Mexico from Guatemala, are bedding down in the town square. Tomorrow many will begin trek northwards pic.twitter.com/eSeYWGNy60

&mdash Matt Gutman (@mattgutmanABC) October 21, 2018

The migrant caravan marching in Mexico this evening. pic.twitter.com/kw2JC41p1X

&mdash Kate Linthicum (@katelinthicum) October 20, 2018

Incredible scenes in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, as migrant caravan marches to urge others stuck on bridge to cross. pic.twitter.com/h4DwaxC1Ss

&mdash Ioan Grillo (@ioangrillo) October 20, 2018

Members of the migrant caravan in Mexico calling those stuck on the border bridge to come over the river. pic.twitter.com/XRfkHxYmK8

&mdash Ioan Grillo (@ioangrillo) October 20, 2018

MIGRANT CARAVAN: They’ve started walking up on the highway in Chiapas, southern Mexico. Officials say it’s more than 7,200 people. pic.twitter.com/1ddlQCgCwZ

&mdash KarlaZabs (@karlazabs) October 21, 2018

Thousands on the migrant caravan marching further into Mexico. Federal police around and in helicopter but so far letting them advance… pic.twitter.com/SpXLv1iBI6

&mdash Ioan Grillo (@ioangrillo) October 21, 2018

MIGRANT CARAVAN: They’ve arrived in Tapachula after walking 8+ hrs. Many have taken off their shoes and are limping. pic.twitter.com/3TWKuVwhFv

&mdash KarlaZabs (@karlazabs) October 21, 2018

People from the migrant caravan filling up the central square in Tapachula. It's going to get very crowded with the thousands more arriving but spirits are good now. pic.twitter.com/0jiyCrM7Ar

&mdash Ioan Grillo (@ioangrillo) October 21, 2018

The migrant caravan has arrived in Tapachula, Mexico. pic.twitter.com/q2bSaECuWP

&mdash Kate Linthicum (@katelinthicum) October 21, 2018

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"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones : You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

  • Archaeologists discovered the fossilised mastodon bone fragments in 1992
  • The bones have several marks and cracks that suggest they were modified
  • Nature of modifications suggest they were made by humans using stone tools
  • Carbon dating shows that the bones are around 130,000 years old
  • Suggests early human species reached America 115,000 years earlier than thought
  • However experts not involved say there are 'questions about everything'

Published: 18:00 BST, 26 April 2017 | Updated: 20:25 BST, 26 April 2017

A controversial find could rewrite the history of humans in North America.

Archaeologists claim to have found evidence an unknown species of human was living on the continent as early as 130,000 years ago - 1115,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Researchers discovered the butchered remains of an enormous mastodon in San Diego, with evidence of chips and fractures made by early humans - but they admit they don't know if they were Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, or something else.

The findings could dramatically revise the timeline for when humans first reached North America, although many researchers are sceptical of the find, claiming there are issues with the dating technique used and 'many questions' over the research.

In 1992, archaeologists discovered the fossilised remains of an enormous mastodon in San Diego – a mammoth-like creature that roamed North America 130,000 years ago


The earlier date means the bone-smashers were not necessarily members of our own species, Homo sapiens.

The researchers speculate that these early Californians could have instead been species known only from fossils in Europe, Africa and Asia: Neanderthals, a little-known group called Denisovans, or another human forerunner named Homo erectus.

'The very honest answer is, we don't know,' said Steven Holen, lead author of the paper and director of the nonprofit Center for American Paleolithic Research in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

No remains of any individuals were found.

The mastodon remains were discovered at the Cerutti Mastodon site in San Diego by palaeontologists from the San Diego Natural History Museum during routine work in 1992.

Bones, tusks and molars – many of which had signs that they were deliberately damaged - were found deeply buried alongside large stones that appeared to have been used as hammers and anvils.

Ms Judy Gradwohl, CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum, said: 'This discovery is rewriting our understanding of when humans reached the New World.

'The evidence we found at this site indicates that some hominin species was living in North America 115,000 years earlier than previously thought.

'This raises intriguing questions about how these early humans arrived here and who they were.'

The earlier date means the bone-smashers were not necessarily members of our own species, Homo sapiens.

The researchers speculate that these early Californians could have instead been species known only from fossils in Europe, Africa and Asia: Neanderthals, a little-known group called Denisovans, or another human forerunner named Homo erectus.

'The very honest answer is, we don't know,' said Steven Holen, lead author of the paper and director of the nonprofit Center for American Paleolithic Research in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Retracing Slavery’s Trail of Tears

When Delores McQuinn was growing up, her father told her a story about a search for the family’s roots.

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He said his own father knew the name of the people who had enslaved their family in Virginia, knew where they lived—in the same house and on the same land—in Hanover County, among the rumpled hills north of Richmond.

“My grandfather went to the folks who had owned our family and asked, ‘Do you have any documentation about our history during the slave days? We would like to see it, if possible.’ The man at the door, who I have to assume was from the slaveholding side, said, ‘Sure, we’ll give it to you.’

“The man went into his house and came back out with some papers in his hands. Now, whether the papers were trivial or actual plantation records, who knows? But he stood in the door, in front of my grandfather, and lit a match to the papers. ‘You want your history?’ he said. ‘Here it is.’ Watching the things burn. ‘Take the ashes and get off my land.’

“The intent was to keep that history buried,” McQuinn says today. “And I think something like that has happened over and again, symbolically.”

McQuinn was raised in Richmond, the capital of Virginia and the former capital of the Confederacy—a city crowded with monuments to the Old South. She is a politician now, elected to the city council in the late 1990s and to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2009. One of her proudest accomplishments in politics, she says, has been to throw new light on an alternate history.

For example, she persuaded the city to fund a tourist walk about slavery, a kind of mirror image of the Freedom Trail in Boston. She has helped raise money for a heritage site incorporating the excavated remains of the infamous slave holding cell known as Lumpkin’s Jail.

“You see, our history is often buried,” she says. “You have to unearth it.”

Virginia Delegate Delores McQuinn has helped raise funds for a heritage site that will show the excavated remains of Lumpkin’s slave jail. (Wayne Lawrence)

Not long ago I was reading some old letters at the library of the University of North Carolina, doing a little unearthing of my own. Among the hundreds of hard-to-read and yellowing papers, I found one note dated April 16, 1834, from a man named James Franklin in Natchez, Mississippi, to the home office of his company in Virginia. He worked for a partnership of slave dealers called Franklin & Armfield, run by his uncle.

“We have about ten thousand dollars to pay yet. Should you purchase a good lot for walking I will bring them out by land this summer,” Franklin had written. Ten thousand dollars was a considerable sum in 1834—the equivalent of nearly $300,000 today. “A good lot for walking” was a gang of enslaved men, women and children, possibly numbering in the hundreds, who could tolerate three months afoot in the summer heat.

Scholars of slavery are quite familiar with the firm of Franklin & Armfield, which Isaac Franklin and John Armfield established in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1828. Over the next decade, with Armfield based in Alexandria and Isaac Franklin in New Orleans, the two became the undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade, with an economic impact that is hard to overstate. In 1832, for example, 5 percent of all the commercial credit available through the Second Bank of the United States had been extended to their firm.

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This story is a selection from the November issue of Smithsonian magazine.

This letter from 1834 held riches, and “I will bring them out by land” was, for me, the invaluable line: It referred to a forced march overland from the fields of Virginia to the slave auctions in Natchez and New Orleans. The letter was the first sign that I might be able to trace the route of one of the Franklin & Armfield caravans.

With that signal from Natchez, Armfield began vacuuming up people from the Virginia countryside. The partners employed stringers—headhunters who worked on commission—collecting enslaved people up and down the East Coast, knocking on doors, asking tobacco and rice planters whether they would sell. Many slaveholders were inclined to do so, as their plantations made smaller fortunes than many princeling sons would have liked.

It took four months to assemble the big “coffle,” to use a once-common word that, like so much of the vocabulary of slavery, has been effaced from the language. The company’s agents sent people down to Franklin & Armfield’s slavepens (another word that has disappeared) in Alexandria, just nine miles south of the U.S. Capitol: seamstresses, nurses, valets, field hands, hostlers, carpenters, cooks, houseboys, coachmen, laundresses, boatmen. There were so-called fancy girls, young women who would work mainly as concubines. And, always, children.

Bill Keeling, male, age 11, height 4𔃿” | Elisabeth, female, age 10, height 4𔃻” | Monroe, male, age 12, height 4𔄁” | Lovey, female, age 10, height 3󈧎” | Robert, male, age 12, height 4𔃾” | Mary Fitchett, female, age 11, height 4󈧏”

By August, Armfield had more than 300 ready for the march. Around the 20th of that month the caravan began to assemble in front of the company’s offices in Alexandria, at 1315 Duke Street.

In the library at Yale I did a bit more unearthing and found a travelogue by a man named Ethan Andrews, who happened to pass through Alexandria a year later and witness the organizing of an Armfield coffle. His book was not much read—it had a due-date notice from 50 years ago—but in it Andrews described the scene as Armfield directed the loading for an enormous journey.

“Four or five tents were spread, and the large wagons, which were to accompany the expedition, were stationed” where they could be piled high with “provisions and other necessaries.” New clothes were loaded in bundles. “Each negro is furnished with two entire suits from the shop,” Andrews noted, “which he does not wear upon the road.” Instead, these clothes were saved for the end of the trip so each slave could dress well for sale. There was a pair of carriages for the whites.

In 1834, Armfield sat on his horse in front of the procession, armed with a gun and a whip. Other white men, similarly armed, were arrayed behind him. They were guarding 200 men and boys lined up in twos, their wrists handcuffed together, a chain running the length of 100 pairs of hands. Behind the men were the women and girls, another hundred. They were not handcuffed, although they may have been tied with rope. Some carried small children. After the women came the big wagons—six or seven in all. These carried food, plus children too small to walk ten hours a day. Later the same wagons hauled those who had collapsed and could not be roused with a whip.

Then the coffle, like a giant serpent, uncoiled onto Duke Street and marched west, out of town and into a momentous event, a blanked-out saga, an unremembered epic. I think of it as the Slave Trail of Tears.

The Slave Trail of Tears is the great missing migration—a thousand-mile-long river of people, all of them black, reaching from Virginia to Louisiana. During the 50 years before the Civil War, about a million enslaved people moved from the Upper South—Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky—to the Deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. They were made to go, deported, you could say, having been sold.

This forced resettlement was 20 times larger than Andrew Jackson’s “Indian removal” campaigns of the 1830s, which gave rise to the original Trail of Tears as it drove tribes of Native Americans out of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. It was bigger than the immigration of Jews into the United States during the 19th century, when some 500,000 arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was bigger than the wagon-train migration to the West, beloved of American lore. This movement lasted longer and grabbed up more people than any other migration in North America before 1900.

The drama of a million individuals going so far from their homes changed the country. It gave the Deep South a character it retains to this day and it changed the slaves themselves, traumatizing uncountable families.

But until recently, the Slave Trail was buried in memory. The story of the masses who trekked a thousand miles, from the tobacco South to the cotton South, sometimes vanished in an economic tale, one about the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of “King Cotton.” It sometimes sank into a political story, something to do with the Louisiana Purchase and the “first Southwest”—the young states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Historians know about the Slave Trail. During the last ten years, a number of them—Edward Baptist, Steven Deyle, Robert Gudmestad, Walter Johnson, Joshua Rothman, Calvin Schermerhorn, Michael Tadman and others—have been writing the million-person-migration back into view.

Some museum curators know about it, too. Last fall and this past spring, the Library of Virginia, in Richmond, and the Historic New Orleans Collection, in Louisiana, working separately, put together large exhibitions about the domestic slave trade. Both institutions broke attendance records.

Richmond was a hub for exporting slaves southward. In 1857 alone, says historian Maurie McInnis, sales came to more than $440 million in today’s dollars. (Wayne Lawrence)

Maurie McInnis, a historian and vice provost at the University of Virginia, who curated the Richmond exhibit, stood in front of a slave dealer’s red flag that she tracked down in Charleston, South Carolina, where it had lain unseen in a box for more than 50 years. It sat under a piece of glass and measured about 2 by 4 feet. If you squinted, you could see pinholes in it. “Red flags fluttered down the streets in Richmond, on Wall Street in Shockoe Bottom,” she said. “All the dealers pinned little scraps of paper on their flags to describe the people for sale.”

Virginia was the source for the biggest deportation. Nearly 450,000 people were uprooted and sent south from the state between 1810 and 1860. “In 1857 alone, the sale of people in Richmond amounted to $4 million,” McInnis said. “That would be more than $440 million today.”

Outside universities and museums, the story of the Slave Trail lives in shards, broken and scattered.

The phrase “sold down the river,” for instance. During the move to the Deep South, many slaves found themselves on steamboats winding down the Mississippi to New Orleans. There they were sold to new bosses and dispersed in a 300-mile radius to the sugar and cotton plantations. Many went without their parents, or spouses, or siblings—and some without their children—whom they were made to leave behind. “Sold down the river” labels a raft of loss.

The “chain gang” also has roots in the Slave Trail. “We were handcuffed in pairs, with iron staples and bolts,” recalled Charles Ball, who marched in several coffles before he escaped from slavery. Ball was bought by a slave trader on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and later wrote a memoir. “My purchaser. told me that we must set out that very day for the South,” he wrote. “I joined fifty-one other slaves whom he had bought in Maryland.” A padlock was added to the handcuffs, and the hasp of each padlock closed on a link in a chain 100 feet long. Sometimes, as in Ball’s case, the chain ran through an iron neck collar. “I could not shake off my chains, nor move a yard without the consent of my master.”

(My own ancestors held slaves in South Carolina for six generations. I have studied Charles Ball and found no family link to him. But names and history contain shadows.)

Franklin & Armfield put more people on the market than anyone—perhaps 25,000—broke up the most families and made the most money. About half of those people boarded ships in Washington or Norfolk, bound for Louisiana, where Franklin sold them. The other half walked from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi River, 1,100 miles, with riverboat steerage for short distances along the way. Franklin & Armfield’s marches began in the late summer, sometimes the fall, and they took two to four months. The Armfield coffle of 1834 is better documented than most slave marches. I started following its footsteps, hoping to find traces of the Slave Trail of Tears.

The coffle headed west out of Alexandria. Today the road leaving town becomes U.S. Route 50, a big-shouldered highway. Part of Virginia’s section of that highway is known as the Lee-Jackson Highway, a love note to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the two Confederate generals. But when the slaves marched, it was known as Little River Turnpike. The coffle moved along at three miles an hour. Caravans like Armfield’s covered about 20 miles a day.

People sang. Sometimes they were forced to. Slave traders brought a banjo or two and demanded music. A clergyman who saw a march toward Shenandoah remembered that the gang members, “having left their wives, children, or other near connections and never likely to meet them again in this world,” sang to “drown the suffering of mind they were brought into.” Witnesses said “Old Virginia Never Tire” was one song all the coffles sang.

After 40 miles, the Little River Turnpike met the town of Aldie and became the Aldie and Ashby’s Gap Turnpike, a toll road. The turnpike ran farther west󈟸 miles to Winchester, and then to the brow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every few miles, Armfield and his chained-up gang came to a toll station. He would stop the group in its tracks, pull out his purse and pay the man. The tollkeeper would lift the bar, and the coffle would march under it.

About August 25, they reached Winchester and turned south, entering the Shenandoah Valley. Among the people who lived in these parts was John Randolph, a congressman and a cousin of Thomas Jefferson. Randolph once wrote a friend to complain that the road was “thronged with droves of these wretches & the human carcass-butchers, who drive them on the hoof to market.” Comparing Virginia to a stop on the West African slave trade, Randolph sighed, “One might almost fancy oneself on the road to Calabar.”

The gang headed down the Great Wagon Road, a route that came from Pennsylvania, already some centuries old—“made by the Indians,” in the euphemism. Along the way, the coffle met other slave gangs, construction crews rebuilding the Wagon Road, widening it to 22 feet and putting down gravel. They were turning out the new Valley Turnpike, a macadam surface with ditches at the sides. The marchers and the roadwork gangs, slaves all, traded long looks.

Today the Great Wagon Road, or Valley Turnpike, is known as U.S. Route 11, a two-lane that runs between soft and misty mountains, with pretty byways. Long stretches of U.S. 11 look much like the Valley Turnpike did during the 1830s—rolling fields, horses and cattle on hills. Northern Shenandoah was wheat country then, with one in five people enslaved and hoeing in the fields. Today a few of the plantations survive. I stop at one of the oldest, Belle Grove. The Valley Turnpike once ran on its edge, and the coffle of 300 saw the place from the road.

(Illustrated map by Laszlo Kubinyi. Map sources: Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond Edward Ball Guilbert Gates Dacus Thompson Sonya Maynard)

Relatives of President James Madison put up the stone mansion at Belle Grove during the 1790s, and it lives on as a fine house museum run by a historian, Kristen Laise. A walk through the house, a look at the kitchen where all the work was done, a walk through the slave cemetery, a rundown of the people who lived and died here, white and black—thanks to Laise, Belle Grove is not a house museum that shorts the stories of slaves.

Recently, Laise tells me, she stumbled on evidence that in the 1820s a large number of people went up for sale at Belle Grove. She pulls out an October 1824 newspaper ad, placed by Isaac Hite, master of Belle Grove (and brother-in-law to President Madison). “I shall proceed to sell sixty slaves, of various ages, in families,” Hite said. Hite expressed regret that he had to charge interest if buyers insisted on using credit. The nicest families in the Shenandoah tipped people into the pipeline south.

I pull in at various towns and ask around. In Winchester, the Winchester-

Frederick County Visitor Center. In Edinburg, a history bookshop. In Staunton, the Visitor Center. In Roanoke, at a tourist information outlet called Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

Do you know anything about the chain gangs that streamed southwest through these parts?

No. Never heard of it. You say it was 150 years ago?

Don’t know what you’re talking about.

People do know, however, about Civil War battles. The bloodletting here has a kind of glamour. A few people launch into stories about the brave Confederates. A few bring up their own ethnic lore.

Well, Germans and Scots-Irish settled the Shenandoah, that’s who was here.

A woman at a tourist store clarified. My oh my, the Scots-Irish—they were like made of brass.

One night in September 1834, a traveler stumbled into the Armfield coffle’s camp. “Numerous fires were gleaming through the forest: it was the bivouac of the gang,” wrote the traveler, George Featherstonhaugh. “The female slaves were warming themselves. The children were asleep in some tents and the males, in chains, were lying on the ground, in groups of about a dozen each.” Meanwhile, “the white men. were standing about with whips in their hands.”

Featherstonhaugh, a geologist on a surveying tour for the federal government, described the slave trader as a raw man in nice clothes. John Armfield wore a big white hat and striped pants. He had a long dark coat and wore a mustache-less beard. The surveyor talked to him for a few hours and saw him as “sordid, illiterate and vulgar.” Armfield, it seems, had overpowering bad breath, because he loved raw onions.

Early the next morning, the gang readied again for the march. “A singular spectacle,” Featherstonhaugh wrote. He counted nine wagons and carriages and some 200 men “manacled and chained to each other,” lining up in double file. “I had never seen so revolting a sight before,” he said. As the gang fell in, Armfield and his men made jokes, “standing near, laughing and smoking cigars.”

On September 6, the gang was marching 50 miles southwest of Roanoke. They came to the New River, a big flow about 400 feet across, and to a dock known as Ingles Ferry. Armfield did not want to pay for passage, not with his hundreds. So one of his men picked a shallow place and tested it by sending over a wagon and four horses. Armfield then ordered the men in irons to get in the water.

This was dangerous. If any man lost his footing, everyone could be washed downstream, yanked one after another by the chain. Armfield watched and smoked. Men and boys sold, on average, for about $700. Multiply that by 200. That comes to $140,000, or about $3.5 million today. Slaves were routinely insured—plenty of companies did that sort of business, with policies guarding against “damage.” But collecting on such “damage” would be inconvenient.

The men made it across. Next came wagons with the young children and those who could no longer walk. Last came the women and girls. Armfield crossed them on flatboats.

As owners in the Upper South liquidated their assets, traders assembled groups of slaves in pens, pictured here, and then shipped or marched them southwest. (Library of Congress) Many of those journeys ended in New Orleans, on the auction block at the St. Louis Hotel. (Maurie McInnes Collection) Owners took to newspapers to advertise slaves for sale. (Historic New Orleans Collection) A wood engraving depicts a slave coffle passing the Capitol around 1815. (Library of Congress) A broadside published in 1836 by the American Anti-Slavery Society condemns the sale of slaves in the District of Columbia. (Library of Congress) An 1858 advertisement for the sale of slaves in the Natchez Daily Courier mentions the “Louisiana guarantee,” a nod to the state’s more generous slave buyer-protection laws. (Mississippi Department of Archives and History) The receipt for the purchase of a slave named Moses, who was sold for $500 in Richmond, Virginia, in 1847. (Library of Congress) An illustration from the 1840 American Anti-Slavery Almanac, a publication of the American Anti-Slavery Society. (Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections) In Slaves Waiting for Sale, English painter Eyre Crowe illustrates a scene from a slave auction in Richmond. (Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library) Eyre Crowe painted this scene after observing slave owners in Richmond marching recently purchased slaves to the train station to move south. (Chicago History Museum) This building at Franklin and Wall streets in Richmond was used for many years as an auction site. (Virginia Historical Society) A page in The Slave’s Friend, a children’s book published by the American Anti-Slavery Society, explains the mechanism used to chain enslaved people together for transportation. (The New York Public Library)

Today, on the same spot, a six-lane bridge crosses the New River, and there is a town called Radford, population 16,000. I walk First Street next to the river and stop in front of a shop, “Memories Past and Present—Antiques and Collectibles.” A man named Daniel starts a conversation.

Local. Born 50 miles that way, Radford for 20 years. On the dark slope after 40, since you ask.

Daniel is pleasant, happy to talk about his hardscrabble days. He is white, a face etched by too much sun.

Trailer-park childhood. Life looking up since the divorce.

It is an easy chat between strangers, until I bring up the slave days. Daniel’s expression empties. He shakes his head. His face acquires a look that suggests the memory of slavery is like a vampire visiting from a shallow grave.

Armfield and his caravan came to the Shenandoah from Alexandria. Other coffles came from the direction of Richmond. One of them was led by a man named William Waller, who walked from Virginia to Louisiana in 1847 with 20 or more slaves.

In the deep archive of the Virginia Historical Society I discovered an extraordinary batch of letters that Waller wrote about the experience of selling people he had known and lived with for much of his life. Waller’s testimony, to my knowledge, has never been examined in detail. He was an amateur slave trader, not a pro like Armfield, and his journey, though from another year, is even better documented.

Waller was 58, not young but still fit. Thin and erect, a crease of a smile, vigorous dark eyes. He wore “my old Virginia cloth coat and pantaloons” on his march, as he told his wife, Sarah Garland—the daughter of a congressman and a granddaughter of Patrick Henry, the orator and patriot. She was fancier than he.

The Wallers lived outside Amherst, Virginia, and owned some 25 black people and a plantation called Forest Grove. They were in debt. They had seen the money others were making by selling out and decided to do the same. Their plan was to leave a few slaves behind with Sarah as house servants and for William to march nearly all the rest to Natchez and New Orleans.

Waller and his gang reached the Valley Turnpike in October. “This morning finds us six miles west of Abingdon,” Waller wrote home from one of the richer towns. “The negroes are above all well—they continue in fine spirits and life and appear all happy.”

The sound of Waller’s letters home—he wrote some 20 of them on the Slave Trail—is upbeat, a businessman sending word that there’s nothing to worry about. “The negroes are happy,” he says repeatedly.

But something happened early on, although it is not clear just what. Waller had been on the trail for two weeks when he wrote home to say, “I have seen and felt enough to make me loathe the vocation of slave trading.” He did not give details.

It is rare to have a glimpse of slaves enchained in a coffle, because the documentary evidence is thin, but Waller’s march is an exception. The people who accompanied him included a boy of 8 or 9 called Pleasant Mitchell, who was 10 or 11 a teenage boy named Samson three teenage sisters, Sarah Ann, Louisa and Lucy Henry, about 17 a man named Nelson and his wife a man in his 20s called Foster and a young mother named Sarah, with her daughter Indian, about age 2. There were others. The three sisters had been taken from their parents, as had Pleasant, Mitchell and Samson. Most of the others were under 20. As for Sarah and Indian, they had been taken from Sarah’s husband and her mother. Waller planned to sell all of them.

As he pushed his “hands” down the pike, Waller felt guilty about Sarah and Indian, he told his wife. “My heart grieves over Sarah and I do wish it could be different,” he wrote. “But Sarah seems happy.”

Days and nights down the Valley Turnpike, the spine of the Blue Ridge, destination Tennessee, where Armfield would hand over his coffle and board a stagecoach back to Alexandria.

As U.S. 11 steps into Tennessee, the road finds the Holston River and runs parallel to it. Here the mountains thicken into the Appalachian South of deep hollows and secret hills. In the old days, there were few black people here, a lot of Quakers and the beginning of an antislavery movement. The Quakers have largely gone, and there are still many fewer black people than back in Virginia, 100 miles east.

I take the old route to Knoxville, but then get onto the freeway, Interstate 40. The path of I-40 west roughly matches a turnpike that once ran 200 miles across the Cumberland Plateau. The coffles followed the same route—through Kingston, Crab Orchard, Monterey, Cookeville, Gordonsville, Lebanon and, finally, Nashville.

At this point in the journey, other spurs, from Louisville and Lexington to the north, joined the main path of the Slave Trail. The migration swelled to a widening stream.

Armfield and his gang of 300 had marched for a month and covered more than 600 miles. When they reached Nashville, they would be halfway.

Isaac Franklin, Armfield’s partner, kept house in Louisiana, but his thoughts were often in Tennessee. He had grown up near Gallatin, 30 miles northeast of Nashville, and he went there during off months. In 1832, at age 43, supremely rich from 20 years as a “long-distance trader,” Franklin built a big house on 2,000 acres outside Gallatin. He called it Fairvue. Columned, brick and symmetrical, it was just about the finest house in the state, people said, second only to the Hermitage, the estate of President Andrew Jackson. Fairvue was a working plantation, but it was also an announcement that the boy from Gallatin had returned to his humble roots in majesty.

When Armfield turned up with his gang in Gallatin, he seems to have handed the group not to Isaac Franklin, but to Franklin’s nephew James Franklin.

In Gallatin, I drive out to look at the old Franklin estate. After the Civil War, it held on as a cotton plantation, and then became a horse farm. But in the 2000s, a developer began building a golf course on the fields where the colts ran. The Club at Fairvue Plantation opened in 2004, and hundreds of houses sprang up on half-acre plots.

Approaching the former Franklin house, I pass the golf course and clubhouse. A thicket of McMansions follows, in every ersatz style. Palladian manse, Empire français, Tudor grand, and a form that might be called Tuscan bland. People still come to show their money at Fairvue, like Franklin himself.

I ring the doorbell at the house the Slave Trail built. It has a double portico, with four Ionic columns on the first level and four on the second. No answer, despite several cars in the drive. More than one preservationist had told me that the current owners of Fairvue are hostile to anyone who shows curiosity about the slave dealer who built their lovely home.

The man may be gone, but generations later, some of his people are still around. I ask a Nashville museum director, Mark Brown, for help in finding a member of the family in the here and now. Two phone calls later, one of the living Franklins answers.

Kenneth Thomson opens the door to his house, which is clapboard and painted a pretty cottage yellow—quaint, not grand. Thomson says he is 74, but he looks 60. Short white hair, short white beard, khakis, cotton short-sleeve with flap pockets and epaulets. Shoes with crepe soles. A reedy voice, gentle manners. Thomson is an antiques dealer, mostly retired, and an amateur historian, mostly active.

“I am president of the Sumner County Hysterical Society,” he cracks, “the only place you get respect for knowing a lot of dead people.”

The first thing that meets the eye in Thomson’s house is a large portrait of Isaac Franklin. It hangs in the living room, above the sofa. The house bursts with 19th-century chairs, rugs, settees, tables and pictures. Reading lights look like converted oil lamps. He takes a seat at his melodeon, a portable organ that dates from the 1850s, and plays a few bars of period-appropriate music. It is plain that in this branch of the Franklin family, the past cannot be unremembered.

Kenneth Thomson, at home in Gallatin, Tennessee, is an indirect descendant of slave trader Isaac Franklin. (Wayne Lawrence)

“Isaac Franklin had no children who survived,” Thomson had told me on the phone. “His four children all died before they grew up. But he had three brothers, and there are hundreds of their descendants living all around the country. My direct ancestor is Isaac’s brother James. Which means that Isaac Franklin was my great-great-great-great-uncle.”

It is an important gloss, as it turns out: “You see,” Thomson said, “my forebear James Franklin was the family member who introduced Isaac Franklin to the slave business.”

Taking a seat in an armchair upholstered in wine-colored brocade, he picks up the story. It was at the beginning of the 1800s. When the brothers were growing up in Gallatin, James Franklin, eight years older than Isaac, took his sibling under his wing. “They packed flatboats with whiskey, tobacco, cotton and hogs, floated them down to New Orleans, sold the goods on the levee, and then sold the boat,” Thomson says. “My ancestor James was dabbling in some slave dealing on these trips—small amount, nothing big. He showed young Isaac how it was done, apprenticed him. Now, I heard this more than 50 years ago from my great-grandfather, who was born in 1874, or two generations closer than me to the time in question. So it must be true. The family story is that after Uncle Isaac came back from service during the War of 1812, which sort of interrupted his career path, if you call it that, he was all for the slave business. I mean, just gung-ho.”

Thomson gets up and walks through the house, pointing out the ample Franklin memorabilia. A painting of the mansion at Fairvue. A sofa and chair that belonged to Isaac Franklin’s parents. A Bible from the family of John Armfield. “After Isaac died, in 1846, they published the succession, an inventory of his belongings,” he says. “It ran to 900 pages. He had six plantations and 650 slaves.”

What was it like to be in the room with Isaac Franklin?

“He knew what manners and culture were,” Thomson says. “He knew how to be a gentleman. Most slave traders at that time were considered common and uncouth, with no social graces. Uncle Isaac was different. He had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education. He was not ignorant. He could write a letter.”

At the same time, “that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have bad habits,” Thomson clarifies. “He had some of those. But bad habits concerning sex were rampant among some of those men. You know they took advantage of the black women, and there were no repercussions there. Before he married, Isaac had companions, some willing, some unwilling. That was just part of life.” I read, in many places, that slave traders had sex with the women they bought and sold. And here, someone close to the memory of it says much the same.

“Isaac had a child by a black woman before he married,” Thomson says. In 1839, at age 50, he married a woman named Adelicia Hayes, age 22, the daughter of a Nashville attorney. White. “So Isaac had at least one black child, but this daughter of his left the state of Tennessee, and nobody knows what happened to her. Actually, Uncle Isaac sent her off because he didn’t want her around after he married.”

It is possible, of course, that Isaac Franklin sold his daughter. It would have been the easiest thing to do.

An album identifies two members of another branch of Thomson's family. (Wayne Lawrence)

Thomson brings out an article that he wrote some years ago for the Gallatin Examiner. The headline reads, “Isaac Franklin was a Well-liked Slave Trader.” The thousand-word piece is the only thing Thomson has published on the subject of his family.

How does a person inside the family measure the inheritance of slave trading? Thomson takes a half-second. “You can’t judge those people by today’s standards—you can’t judge anybody by our standards. It was a part of life in those days. Take the Bible. Many things in the Old Testament are pretty barbaric, but they are part of our evolution.”

Thomson warms up, shifts in his seat. “I do not approve of revisionist historians. I mean, people who do not understand the old lifestyles—their standpoint on life, and their education, are what today we consider limited. That applies to Southern history, to slave history.

“You know, I have been around blacks all my life. They are great people. When I grew up, we were servanted. All the servants were black. We had a nurse, a woman who used to be called a mammy. We had a cook, a black man. We had a maid, and we had a yard man. We had a guy that doubled as a driver and supervised the warehouse. And we had all these servants till they died. I wasn’t taught to be prejudiced. And I’ll tell you what nobody ever talks about. There were free blacks in the South that owned slaves. And there were lots of them. They didn’t buy slaves in order to free them, but to make money.”

Thomson emphasizes these last sentences. It is a refrain among Southern whites who remain emotionally attached to the plantation days—that one in 1,000 slaveholders who were black vindicates in some fashion 999 who were not.

Are we responsible for what the slave traders did?

“No. We cannot be responsible, should not feel like we’re responsible. We weren’t there.” Are we accountable? “No. We are not accountable for what happened then. We are only accountable if it is repeated.”

Thomson is sensitive to the suggestion that the family took benefit from the industrial-scale cruelty of Franklin & Armfield.

“In my family, people looked after their slaves,” he said. “They bought shoes for them, blankets for them, brought in doctors to treat them. I never heard of any mistreatment. On the whole, things weren’t that bad. You see, blacks were better off coming to this country. It is a fact that the ones over here are far ahead of the ones over there in Africa. And you know that the first legal slaveholder in the United States was a black man? That’s on the Internet. You need to look that up. I think that’s interesting. Human bondage began I don’t know when, but early, thousands of years ago. I think slavery developed here primarily because of the ignorance of the blacks. They first came over here as indentured servants, as did the whites. But because of their background and lack of education, they just sort of slid into slavery. No, I don’t believe in revisionist history.”

I grew up in the Deep South, and I am familiar with such ideas, shared by many whites in Mr. Thomson’s generation. I do not believe that black people were responsible for their own enslavement, or that African-Americans should be grateful for slavery because they are better off than West Africans, or that a black man was author of the slave system. But I recognize the melody, and let the song pass.

Kenneth Thomson brings out some daguerreotypes of the Franklins and others in his family tree. The pictures are beautiful. The people in them are well-dressed. They give the impression of perfect manners.

“The way I see it,” he says, “there are a lot of people you have to bury to get rid of. To get rid of their attitudes.”

Ben Key was a slave to Isaac Franklin at Fairvue. He was born in 1812 in Virginia. Franklin probably bought him there and brought him to Tennessee in the early 1830s. For reasons unknown, Franklin did not send Key through the burning gates of the Slave Trail, but made him stay in Tennessee.

At Fairvue, Key found a partner in a woman named Hannah. Their children included a son named Jack Key, who was freed at the end of the Civil War, at age 21. Jack Key’s children at Fairvue included Lucien Key, whose children included a woman named Ruby Key Hall—

“Who was my mother,” says Florence Blair.

Florence Hall Blair, born and raised in Nashville, is 73, a retired nurse. She lives 25 miles from Gallatin, in a pretty brick, ranch-style house with white shutters. After 15 years at various Tennessee hospitals, and after 15 years selling makeup for Mary Kay Cosmetics (and driving a pink Cadillac, because she moved a ton of mascara), she now occupies herself with family history.

Florence Hall Blair, at home in Nashville, is a descendant of a slave who worked on Isaac Franklin’s estate. “If you carry hatred or strong dislike for people,” she says, “all you are doing is hurting yourself.” (Wayne Lawrence)

A lot of black people, she said, do not want to know about their ancestry. “They don’t do family history, because they think, ‘Oh, it was too cruel, and so brutal, and why should I look at it up close?’ I am not one of those people.”

Her research “is like a poke salad,” she says, dropping a Tennessee-ism. A plate of pokeweed yanked up from the field and put on the table is one way of saying “a mess.” Blair shifts metaphors. “Researching people who were slaves is like a mystery tale. You see the names. You don’t know what they did. Some names in the lists are familiar. You find them repeatedly. But you don’t know who the old ones are.

“So Ben Key’s son Hilery Key, who was a slave born in 1833, and brother to Jack Key, my great-grandfather, was one of the 22 men who founded the Methodist Episcopal Church in this area. He was a minister. It must be in the genes, because I have a brother who is a minister, and a cousin who is a minister, and another relative. And in Gallatin there is a church named after one of the Key family preachers. Mystery solved,” she says.

What do you think about Isaac Franklin? I wonder aloud.

“I don’t feel anything per se,” she says, benignly. “It’s been a long time. And that’s what the times were.” She deflects the subject politely.

“I feel a certain detachment from it, I suppose. And that includes about Isaac Franklin. I think Franklin was a cruel individual, but he was human. His humanity was not always visible, but it was there. So as far as hating him, I don’t have a strong dislike for him. Time kind of mellows you out. The older I get, the more tolerant I become. It was like that. He did it, but it is what it is. If you carry hatred or strong dislike for people, all you are doing is hurting yourself.”

She laughs, surprisingly. “I wouldn’t have made it too well in slavery days, because I am the kind of person who just could not imagine you would treat me the way they treated people. ‘You going to treat me less than a dog? Oh, no.’ They probably would have had to kill me, with my temperament.” She laughs again.

“You know, we carried on. Now I have five adult children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. I am married to a man with four children. Put them all together, we are like a big sports team. On holidays it is something, we have to rent a community center.

As autumn gathered in 1834, the caravan that John Armfield handed over left Tennessee, bound for Natchez. Records of that part of the journey do not survive, nor do records about the individual slaves in the coffle.

Like other Franklin gangs, the 300 probably got on flatboats in the Cumberland River and floated three days down to the Ohio River, and then drifted down another day to reach the Mississippi. A flatboat could float down the Mississippi to Natchez in two weeks.

The previous year, Franklin & Armfield had moved their jail and slave market in Natchez to a site on the edge of town called Forks of the Road. There—and this is conjecture, based on what happened to other gangs—half of the big gang might have been sold. As for the other half, they were probably herded onto steamboats and churned 260 miles south to New Orleans, where Isaac Franklin or one of his agents sold them, one or three or five at a time. And then they were gone—out to plantations in northern Louisiana, or central Mississippi, or southern Alabama.

Although the Armfield gang vanishes from the record, it is possible to follow in detail a coffle of people on the journey from Tennessee to New Orleans, thanks to William Waller’s letters.

In Knoxville, in October 1847, Waller readied his gang of 20 or more for the second half of their journey. He expected another month on the road. It would turn out to be four.

On Tuesday, October 19, the troop headed southwest, Waller leading from his horse and his friend James Taliaferro bringing up the rear, both men armed. No steamboats for this group. Waller was pinching pennies.

In Virginia, the coffles marched from town to town. But here, they were marching through wilderness. Waller’s letters are imprecise on his route, and by 1847 there were a few roads from Tennessee into Mississippi. But during the 50 years coffles were sent on the Slave Trail, the road most taken was the Natchez Trace.

The trace was a 450-mile road—“trace” being the colonial word for a native trail through forest—and the only overland route from the plateau west of the Appalachian Range leading to the Gulf of Mexico. The Natchez people first carved the footpath some 500 years before and used it until about 1800, when they were massacred and dispersed, at which point white travelers took possession of their highway.

The Natchez Trace Parkway, with asphalt flat like silk, now follows the old route. Remnants of the original Trace remain out in the woods, 100 yards from the breakdown lane, mostly untouched.

Starting in Nashville I drive down the parkway. Overland coffles would have used the road that molders off in the trees. In place of towns were “stands” every 10 or 15 miles. These were stores and taverns with places to sleep in the back. Gangs of slaves were welcome if they slept in the field, far from business. Their drivers paid good money for food.

After Duck River, in Tennessee, came the Keg Springs Stand. After Swan Creek, McLish’s Stand. After the Tennessee River, where the Trace dips into Alabama for 50 miles, Buzzard Roost Stand. Swinging back into Mississippi, Old Factor’s Stand, LeFleur’s Stand, Crowder’s Stand, others.

Waller reached Mississippi by that November. “This is one of the richest portions of the state and perhaps one of the most healthy,” he wrote home. “It is a fine country for the slave to live in and for the master to make money in.” And by the way, “The negroes are not only well, but appear happy and pleased with the country and prospect before them.”

At the village of Benton a week before Christmas 1847, Waller huddled with his gang in a ferocious storm. “Exceedingly heavy and continued rains have stopped our progress,” he told his wife. “We have been stopped for two days by the breaking up of turnpikes and bridges. Although today is Sunday my hands are engaged in repairing the road to enable us to pass on.”

I put the car on the shoulder and walk into the woods to find the real Natchez Trace. It is easily stumbled into. And it really is a trace, the faint line of what used to be a wagon road. The cut is about 12 feet wide, with shallow ditches on each side. Spindly pine and oaks away off the roadbed, a third-growth woods. Cobwebs to the face, bugs buzzing, overhanging branches to duck. On the ground, a carpet of mud, and leaves beneath it, and dirt under the leaves.

The path the slaves took is beautiful. Nearly enclosed by green curtains of limbs, it feels like a tunnel. I squish through the mud, sweating, pulling off spiders, slapping mosquitoes and horseflies. It is 8 p.m., and the sun is failing. The fireflies come out in the dwindling dusk. And as night closes, the crickets start their scraping in the trees. A sudden, loud drone from every direction, the natural music of Mississippi.

It was typical on the Slave Trail: People like Waller marched a coffle and sold one or two people along the way to pay the travel bills. Sarah and Indian, the mother and daughter, wanted to be sold together. The three sisters, Sarah Ann, Louisa and Lucy, also wanted to be sold together, which was not likely to happen, and they knew it.

But as Waller drifted through Mississippi, he couldn’t sell anyone.

“The great fall in cotton has so alarmed the people that there is not the slightest prospect of our selling our negroes at almost any price,” he wrote home.

When cotton retailed high in New York, slaveholders in Mississippi bought people. When cotton went low, they did not. In winter 1848, cotton was down. “Not a single offer,” Waller wrote.

His trip on the Slave Trail, like most others’, would end in Natchez and New Orleans. Buyers by the hundreds crammed the viewing rooms of dealers in Natchez and the auction halls of brokers in New Orleans.

There was one place en route, however, with a small slave market—Aberdeen, Mississippi. Waller decided to try to sell one or two people there. At Tupelo, he made a daylong detour to Aberdeen but soon despaired over his prospects there: The market was crowded “with nearly 200 negroes held by those who have relations & friends, who of course aid them in selling.”

Waller dragged his gang northwest, four days and 80 miles, to Oxford, but found no buyers. “What to do or where to go I know not—I am surrounded by difficulty,” he brooded. “I am enveloped in darkness but still, strange to say, I live upon hope, the friend of man.”

It is peculiar that a man can pity himself for being unable to sell a roomful of teenagers he has known since their birth, but as Florence Blair says, that’s what it was.

“My plan is, take my negroes to Raymond about 150 miles from here and put them with Mr. Dabney and look out for purchasers,” Waller told his wife. Thomas Dabney was an acquaintance from Virginia who had moved to Raymond, on the Natchez Trace, 12 years earlier and doubled his already thick riches as a cotton planter. “He writes me word that a neighbor of his will take six if we can agree upon price.”

Today as then, Raymond, Mississippi, is a crossroads, population 2,000. At the central square are the contradictions of a Deep South village, both of Waller’s time and the present. A magnificent Greek Revival courthouse stands next to a one-room barbershop with a corrugated metal front. Pretense and bluster rub shoulders with the plain and dejected. The old railroad station, a wooden building with deep eaves, is a used-record store.

Near a school playground in the middle of Raymond, I find the Dabney family graveyard, surrounded by an iron fence. Several of Thomas Dabney’s children lie beneath granite stones. His plantation is gone, but this is where he arranged for a married couple, neighbors, to see Waller’s Virginia gang. “They came to look at my negroes & wanted to buy seven or eight, but they objected to the price,” Waller said. Dabney told him that “I must not take less than my price—they were worth it.”

Waller was touched. “Is not this kind?”

He later wrote home, “I have sold! Sarah & child $800. Henry $800. Sarah Ann $675, Louisa $650. Lucy $550. Col. Dabney has taken Henry and is security for the balance—the three sisters to one man.” He was relieved. “All to as kind masters as can be found.”

Sarah Waller wrote in return, “I was much pleased to learn by your letter that you had sold at such fine prices.” Then she added, “I wish you could have sold more of them.”

Waller himself was a little defensive about this people-selling business. He complained that his wife’s brother Samuel had condescended to him a few months before. “Samuel Garland said something about negro trading that makes me infer the Church is displeased with me. As far as I am concerned I have had pain enough on the subject without being censured in this quarter.”

The remainder of the gang pushed on to Natchez.

Natchez, pearl of the state, stands on a bluff above the Mississippi. Beautiful houses, an antique village, a large tourist trade. But the tourist money is fairly recent. “There is no branch of trade, in this part of the country, more brisk and profitable than that of buying and selling negroes,” a traveler named Estwick Evans wrote about Natchez in the early 19th century.

Just outside town, the Trace comes to an end at a shabby intersection. This is Forks of the Road, the Y-shaped junction formed by St. Catherine Street and Old Courthouse Road, where Isaac Franklin presided. His slave pen appears on old maps, labeled “negro mart.”

A sign marks the site of the market just outside Natchez where slaves were bargained over rather than auctioned. (AP Photo/The Natchez Democrat, Ben Hillyer)

Franklin once ran the biggest operation at Forks of the Road, moving hundreds of people every month. But by the time Waller arrived, Franklin was gone. After he died, in 1846, his body was shipped from Louisiana to Fairvue in a whiskey barrel.

Today at the Forks there is a muffler shop and, next to it, a gutter-and-awn-ing business. Across the street, five historical markers stand on a naked lawn. No buildings on that half-acre. But if New Orleans was the Kennedy Airport of the Slave Trail, the grass at Forks of the Road was its O’Hare.

In Raymond, thanks to Thomas Dabney, Waller had gotten in touch with a slave seller named James Ware, a 42-year-old with Virginia roots. Waller knew his family. “By the polite invitation of Mr. Ware,” as he put it, “I passed over a hundred miles with no white persons visible and got here to Natchez in four days.” He trotted into town in early 1848, the dwindling gang behind him. “This is the oldest settled portion of the state and bears the appearance of great comfort, refinement and elegance,” Waller wrote.

He was not describing the Forks, a mile east of the “nice” part of town. At the Forks, Waller found a poke salad of low wooden buildings, long and narrow, each housing a dealer, each with a porch and a dirt yard in front. The yards were parade grounds that worked like showrooms. In the morning during winter, the high selling season, black people were marched in circles in front of the dealers’ shacks.

Slaves for sale wore a uniform of sorts. “The men dressed in navy blue suits with shiny brass buttons. as they marched singly and by twos and threes in a circle,” wrote Felix Hadsell, a local man. “The women wore calico dresses and white aprons” and a pink ribbon at the neck with hair carefully braided. The display was weirdly silent. “No commands given by anyone, no noise about it, no talking in the ranks, no laughter or merriment,” just marching, round and round.

After an hour of this, the showing of the “lively” stock, the enslaved stood in rows on long overhanging porches.

They were sorted by sex and size and made to stand in sequence. Men on one side, in order of height and weight, women on the other. A typical display placed an 8-year-old girl on the left end of a line, and then ten people like stair steps up to the right end, ending with a 30-year-old woman, who might be the first girl’s mother. This sorting arrangement meant that it was more likely children would be sold from their parents.

At the Forks, there were no auctions, only haggling. Buyers looked at the people, took them inside, made them undress, studied their teeth, told them to dance, asked them about their work, and, most important, looked at their backs. The inspection of the back made or broke the deal. Many people had scars from whipping. For buyers, these were interpreted not as signs of a master’s cruelty, but of a worker’s defiance. A “clean back” was a rarity, and it raised the price.

After examining the people on display, a buyer would talk to a seller and negotiate. It was like buying a car today.

“Call me Ser Boxley,” he says. “It is an abbreviation, to accommodate people.”

The man in the South who has done the most to call attention to the Slave Trail was born in Natchez in 1940. His parents named him Clifton M. Boxley. During the black power years of the 1960s he renamed himself Ser Seshsh Ab Heter. “That’s the type of name I should have had if traditional African cultures had stayed intact, compared to Clifton Boxley, which is the plantation name, or slave name,” he says.

Ser Boxley was a big young man during the 1950s, raised in the straitjacket of Jim Crow.

“I tried picking cotton right here, outside Natchez, and I never could pick 100 pounds,” he says. Machines did not replace human hands until the 1960s. “You would get paid $3 for 100 pounds of picking cotton—that is, if you were lucky to find a farmer who would employ you.”

Boxley is 75. He is bearded white and gray, and half bald. He is direct, assertive and arresting, with a full baritone voice. He does not make small talk.

“I am drafted by the inactivity of others to do history work,” he tells me. “I want to resurrect the history of the enslavement trade, and for 20 years, that is where I’ve focused.”

He carries a poster, 4 by 6 feet, in the back of his red Nissan truck. It reads, in uppercase Helvetica, “STAND UP HELP SAVE FORKS OF THE ROAD ‘SLAVE’ MARKET SITES NATCHEZ MS.” He often holds the sign while standing next to the patch of grass that is the only visible remnant of Forks of the Road.

When I meet Boxley he wears red pants, brown slip-ons and a blue T-shirt that says, “Juneteenth�th Anniversary.” Since 1995, he has annoyed the state of Mississippi and worried tourist managers with his singular obsession to mark the lives of those who passed down the Slave Trail through Forks of the Road.

He lives alone in a five-room cottage in a black section of town, away from the camera-ready center of Natchez. The tan clapboard house—folding chairs and a hammock in the front yard, cinder blocks and planks for front steps—overflows inside with books, LPs, folk art, old newspapers, knickknacks, clothes in piles and unidentifiable hoards of objects.

“Watch out for my Jim Crow kitchen,” he says from the other room.

In the kitchen are mammy salt shakers, black lawn jockeys, Uncle Tom figurines and memorabilia of other irritating kinds—lithographs of pickaninnies eating watermelon, an “African” figure in a grass skirt, a poster for Country Style Corn Meal featuring a bandanna-wearing, 200-pound black woman.

In a front room, a parallel—dozens of photos of the slave factories of Ghana and Sierra Leone, where captives were held before being sent to the Americas.

Boxley left Natchez in 1960, at age 20. He spent 35 years in California as an activist, as a teacher, as a foot soldier in anti-poverty programs. He came home to Natchez in 1995 and discovered Forks of the Road.

The site is empty but for the five markers, paid for by the City of Natchez. The current names of the streets that form the Forks—Liberty Road and D’Evereaux Drive—differ from the old ones.

“I wrote the text for four of the markers,” he says, sitting on a bench and looking over the grass. “You feel something here? That’s good. They say there were no feelings here.”

Guardian of the Forks: Ser Boxley returned to his hometown of Natchez at age 55. “Nowhere in this chattel-slavery museum town could I find. stories that reflected the African-American presence.” (Wayne Lawrence)

He tells the back story. “In 1833, John Armfield shipped a gang of people to Natchez, where Isaac Franklin received them. Some had cholera, and these enslaved people died. Franklin disposed of their bodies in a bayou down the road. They were discovered, and it caused a panic. The city government passed an ordinance that banned all long-distance dealers selling people within the city limits. So they relocated here, at this junction, a few feet outside the city line.

“Isaac Franklin put a building right where that muffler shop is—see the peach-colored shed, across the street? Theophilus Freeman, who sold Solomon Northup, of Twelve Years a Slave, operated over there. Across the street was another set of buildings and dealers. You have Robert H. Elam operating in the site over there. By 1835 this place was abuzz with long-distance traders.

“When I got back to Natchez, at age 55, I saw the large tourism industry, and I noticed that nowhere in this chattel-slavery museum town could I find, readily and visibly, stories that reflected the African-American presence.” So he started advocating for the Forks.

He waves to a passing Ford.

“Ten years ago there was an old beer garden standing on this site, where whites watched football and drank, and there was a gravel lot where trucks were parked.” The city bought the half-acre lot in 1999, thanks largely to his agitation. Since 2007, a proposal to incorporate the site into the National Park Service has been creeping toward approval. An act of Congress is needed.

“My aim is to preserve every inch of dirt in this area,” Boxley says. “I am fighting for our enslaved ancestors. And this site speaks to their denied humanity, and to their contributions, and to America’s domestic slave traffickers. The public recognition for Forks of the Road is for the ancestors who cannot speak for themselves.”

I ask him to play a debating game. Imagine a white woman asks a question: This story is hard for me to listen to and to understand. Can you tell it in a way that is not going to injure my sensitivity?

“You got the wrong person to ask about sparing your feelings,” Boxley replies. “I don’t spare anything. It is the humanity of our ancestors denied that I am interested in. This story is your story as well as an African-American story. In fact, it is more your story than it is mine.”

A black man asks: I am a middle-class father. I work for the government, I go to church, have two kids, and I say this story is too painful. Can you put it aside?

Boxley lets less than a second pass. “I say, your great-great-grandparents were enslaved persons. The only reason your black behind is here at all is because somebody survived that deal. The only reason why we are in America is because our ancestors were force-brought in chains to help build the country. The way you transcend the hurt and pain is to face the situation, experience it and cleanse yourself, to allow the humanity of our ancestors and their suffering to wash through you and settle into your spirit.”

A hundred yards from Forks of the Road, there is a low brick bridge across a narrow creek. It is 12 feet wide, 25 feet long and covered with kudzu, buried beneath mud and brush.

“A month ago the bridge was uncovered with a backhoe by a developer,” Boxley says. “Hundreds of thousands crossed this way—migrants, enslaved people, whites, Indians.” He turns.

“Peace out,” he says, and he is gone.

William Waller left for New Orleans during the second week of January 1848, taking an 18-hour steamboat ride. James Ware, Waller’s broker, was having no luck selling the truncated coffle in Mississippi. Among them were the field hand Nelson, plus his wife a man called Piney Woods Dick and another nicknamed Runaway Boots. There was also Mitchell, a boy of 10 or 11, and Foster, 20-ish and strong, his “prize hand.” In Louisiana the top prices could be had for a “buck,” a muscled man bound for the hell of the sugar fields.

Waller had never been to such a big city. “You cannot imagine it,” he wrote home. As the steamboat churned to dock, it passed ships berthed five or six deep, “miles of them, from all nations of the earth, bringing in their products and carrying away ours.” The arrival, gangplank on the levee, cargo everywhere. “You then have to squeeze through a countless multitude of men, women, and children of all ages, tongues, and colors of the earth until you get into the city proper.”

He had heard bad things about New Orleans, expected to be frightened by it, and was. The people “are made in part of the worst portion of the human race,” he wrote. “No wonder that there should be robberies and assassinations in such a population.”

During the 50 years of the Slave Trail, perhaps half a million people born in the United States were sold in New Orleans, more than all the Africans brought to the country during two centuries of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic.

New Orleans, the biggest slave market in the country, had about 50 people-selling companies in the 1840s. Some whites went to the slave auctions for entertainment. Especially for travelers, the markets were a rival to the French Opera House and the Théâtre d’Orléans.

Today in New Orleans, the number of monuments, markers and historic sites that refer in some way to the domestic slave trade is quite small. I make a first estimate: zero.

“No, that’s not true,” says Erin Greenwald, a curator at the Historic New Orleans Collection. “There is one marker on a wall outside a restaurant called Maspero’s. But what it says is wrong. The slave-trade site it mentions, Maspero’s Exchange, was diagonally across the street from the sandwich place.”

Greenwald stands in front of two beige livery coats hanging behind a pane of glass. The labels in the coats once read, “Brooks Brothers.” She is in the French Quarter, in a gallery of the archive where she works, and all around her are artifacts about the slave trade. The two livery coats, big-buttoned and long-tailed, were worn by an enslaved carriage driver and a doorman.

“Brooks Brothers was top-of-the-line slave clothing,” Greenwald says. “Slave traders would issue new clothes for people they had to sell, but they were usually cheaper.” She is petite, talkative, knowledgeable and precise. This year, she curated an exhibition at the Historic New Orleans Collection, “Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808-1865.”

As she talks and points out objects, I notice something I had never seen during many visits to this archive: black people. Although the Historic New Orleans Collection is the city’s most serious and extensive history center, it attracted few blacks until this year.

“We in New Orleans have come a long way since Hurricane Katrina in terms of the comfort level of addressing certain subjects. Katrina was cataclysmic, and it changed the way people thought about our collective history,” Greenwald says. “We had never done a dedicated exhibition on the slave trade, on slavery. And it was really past time.”

She points to a document from the steamer Hibernia, which arrived from Louisville in 1831. The paper lists people’s names, their color and place of origin. “All these people came from Virginia,” she says. “So it is likely they were force-marched from Albemarle County, Virginia, to Louisville, and then boarded a steamer downriver to here.” She waves a hand toward the Mississippi levee two blocks away.

She points to a beautiful piece of silk printed with the sentence, “Slaves must be cleared at the Customs House.” “It’s a sign that probably hung in staterooms on steamships.” A kind of check-your-luggage announcement.

“Now those,” gesturing at some more yellowed papers, “are the worst for me,” she says. “They are a manifest, or list, of one group of 110 people moved by Isaac Franklin in 1829. They record the names, heights, ages, sex and coloration as determined by the person looking at them. And there are many children on the list alone.

“You have this understanding that children were involved. But here is a group with dozens, aged 10 to 12. Louisiana had a law that said children under 10 could not be separated from their mothers. And you see a lot of records in which there are an unusual number of 10-year-olds alone. These children were not 10. They were probably younger, but nobody was checking.”

New Orleans was the biggest slave market in the country. Curator Erin Greenwald says the city’s total number of slavery-related monuments, markers or historic sites is precisely one. (Wayne Lawrence)

Developing the exhibit, Greenwald and her team created a database of names of the enslaved who were shipped from the Eastern states to New Orleans. William Waller and his gang, and other hundreds of thousands arriving by foot, did not leave traces in government records. But people who arrived by ship did.

“We studied hundreds of shipping manifests and compiled data on 70,000 individuals. Of course, that is only some.”

In 1820, the number of ships carrying slaves from Eastern ports into New Orleans was 604. In 1827, it was 1,359. In 1835, it was 4,723. Each carried 5 to 50 slaves.

The auction advertisements at the end of the Slave Trail always said, “Virginia and Maryland Negroes.”

“The words ‘Virginia Negroes’ signaled a kind of brand,” Greenwald says. “It meant compliant, gentle and not broken by overwork.

“One thing that is hard to document but impossible to ignore is the ‘fancy trade.’ New Orleans had a niche market. The ‘fancy trade’ meant women sold as forcible sex partners. They were women of mixed race, invariably. So-called mulatresses.”

Isaac Franklin was all over this market. In 1833, he wrote the office back in Virginia about “fancy girls” he had on hand, and about one in particular whom he wanted. “I sold your fancy girl Alice for $800,” Franklin wrote to Rice Ballard, a partner then in Richmond. “There is great demand for fancy maids, [but] I was disappointed in not finding your Charlottes­ville maid that you promised me.” Franklin told the Virginia office to send the “Charlottesville maid” right away by ship. “Will you send her out or shall I charge you $1,100 for her?”

To maximize her price, Franklin might have sold the “Charlottesville maid” at one of the public auctions in the city. “And the auction setting of choice was a place called the St. Louis Hotel,” Greenwald says, “a block from here.”

The St. Louis Hotel is one of several places that can be identified as once-upon-a-time slave-trading sites. Next door to it was another, the New Orleans Exchange. The exchange’s granite facade can be still found on Chartres Street near the corner of St. Louis Street. On the lintel above the door you can see in faded paint its old sign, which reads, “___ CHANGE.” The St. Louis Hotel was razed in 1916, but it was in the hotel that the Slave Trail ended in the most spectacular scenes.

At the center of the hotel was a rotunda 100 feet in diameter—“over which rises a dome as lofty as a church spire,” a reporter for the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel wrote. “The floor is a marble mosaic. One half the circumference of the rotunda is occupied by the bar of the hotel,” and the other half by entrances to the vaulted room. There were two auction stands, each five feet above the floor, on either side of the rotunda. And beneath the dome, with sunlight shafting down through windows in the apse, both auction stands did business simultaneously, in French and in English.

“The auctioneer was a handsome young man, devoting himself exclusively to the sale of young mulatto women,” the reporter wrote of a sale in 1855. “On the block was one of the most beautiful young women I ever saw. She was about sixteen, dressed in a cheap striped woolen gown, and bareheaded.”

Her name was Hermina. “She was sold for $1250 to one of the most lecherous-looking old brutes I ever set eyes on,” the reporter noted. That is the equivalent of $35,000 today.

Here, too, in the St. Louis Hotel’s beautiful vaulted room, families at the end of the Slave Trail were divided. The same reporter described “a noble-looking woman with a bright-eyed seven-year-old.” When mother and boy stepped onto the platform, however, no bids came for them, and the auctioneer decided on the spur of the moment to put the boy on sale separately. He was sold to a man from Mississippi, his mother to a man from Texas. The mother begged her new master to “buy little Jimmie too,” but he refused, and the child was dragged away. “She burst forth in the most frantic wails that ever despair gave utterance to.”

William Waller’s depression lifted after he left New Orleans and returned to Mississippi. “I have sold out all my negroes to one man for eight thousand dollars!” he told his wife. Then came second thoughts, and more self-pity: “I have not obtained as much as I expected, but I try and be satisfied.”

James Ware, the slave dealer Waller had met in Natchez, had come through on the sales, and he offered Waller an itemized statement. “The whole amount of sales for the twenty”—the entire group that had come with him from Virginia—“is $12,675.” (About $400,000 now.) The journey ended, the business done, Waller headed home. It was March 13, 1848.

“I am now waiting for a safe boat to set out for you,” he wrote. “Perhaps in an hour I may be on the river.”

On April 1, Waller reached home. His wife and children greeted him. Also, an elderly black woman named Charity, whom he and Sarah had kept at home, knowing that no one would offer money for her. The slave cabins were vacant.

The first polite questions appeared in newspapers in the summer of 1865, right after the Civil War and Emancipation. Former slaves—there were four million—asked by word of mouth, but that went nowhere, and so they put announcements in the papers, trying to find mothers and sisters, children and husbands swept away from them by the Slave Trail.

Hannah Cole was one of them, maybe the first. On June 24, 1865, two months after the truce at Appomattox, in a Philadelphia newspaper called the Christian Recorder, she posted this:

Information Wanted. Can anyone inform me of the whereabouts of John Person, the son of Hannah Person, of Alexandria, Va., who belonged to Alexander Sancter? I have not seen him for ten years. I was sold to Joseph Bruin, who took me to New Orleans. My name was then Hannah Person, it is now Hannah Cole. This is the only child I have and I desire to find him much.

It was not an easy matter to place an ad. It took two days’ wages if you earned 50 cents a day, what “freedpeople”—a new word—were starting to get for work. It meant hiring someone who could write. Literacy had been against the law for slaves, so few of the four million knew how to write.

The editors of the Southwestern Christian Advocate published their paper in New Orleans, but it went out to Methodist preachers in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana. The paper started a column called “Lost Friends,” a page on which people called out for family that had disappeared on the Slave Trail. One lost friend wrote:

Mr. Editor—I was bred and born in Virginia, but am unable to name the county, for I was so young that I don’t recollect it but I remember I lived twelve miles from a town called Danville. I was sold to a speculator whose name was Wm. Ferrill and was brought to Mobile, Alabama at the age of 10 years. To my recollection my father’s name was Joseph, and my mother’s Milly, my brother’s Anthony, and my sister’s Maria. My name was Annie Ferrill, but my owners changed my name.

The black churches picked it up. Every Sunday, preachers around the South looked out at congregations and read announcements from “Lost Friends” and columns like it. A message from a woman who had been snatched from her mother when she was a girl might reach hundreds of thousands.

I wish to inquire for my relatives, whom I left in Virginia about 25 years ago. My mother’s name was Matilda she lived near Wilton, Va., and belonged to a Mr. Percifield. I was sold with a younger sister—Bettie. My name was Mary, and I was nine years old when sold to a trader named Walker, who carried us to North Carolina. Bettie was sold to a man named Reed, and I was sold and carried to New Orleans and from there to Texas. I had a brother, Sam, and a sister, Annie, who were left with mother. If they are alive, I will be glad to hear from them. Address me at Morales, Jackson Co., Texas.—Mary Haynes.”

Year after year the notices spread—hundreds, and then thousands. They continued in black newspapers until World War I, fully 50 years after Emancipation.

For almost everyone, the break was permanent, the grief everlasting. But the historian Heather Williams has unearthed a handful of reunions. One in particular gives the flavor.

Robert Glenn was sold at age 8 from his mother and father in North Carolina and spent the rest of his childhood in Kentucky. After Emancipation, now a “freedman” of about 20, Glenn remembered the name of his hometown—Roxboro. He knew how rare this was, so he decided to go back to his birthplace and look for his parents.

“I made a vow that I was going to North Carolina and see my mother if she was still living. I had plenty of money for the trip,” he said. After a few days Glenn turned up in Roxboro. And there, in an accident hardly repeated by any of the million on the Slave Trail of Tears, he found his mother.

“I shook my mother’s hand and held it a little too long, and she suspicioned something,” Glenn said. She had seen him last when he was 8, and did not recognize him. The expectation of so many slaves was that their families would be annihilated, and so it became important to be able to forget.

“Then she came to me and said, ‘Ain’t you my child?’” Glenn recalled. “‘Tell me, ain’t you my child whom I left on the road near Mr. Moore’s before the war?’ I broke down and began to cry. I did not know before I came home whether my parents were dead or alive.” And now, “mother nor father did not know me.”

About Edward Ball

Edward Ball is the author of five books of nonfiction and a lecturer in English at Yale University. His book, Slaves in the Family (1998) won the National Book Award and was a New York Times bestseller.


Human evolution from its first separation from the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees is characterized by a number of morphological, developmental, physiological, and behavioral changes. The most significant of these adaptations are bipedalism, increased brain size, lengthened ontogeny (gestation and infancy), and decreased sexual dimorphism. The relationship between these changes is the subject of ongoing debate. [9] [ page needed ] Other significant morphological changes included the evolution of a power and precision grip, a change first occurring in H. erectus. [10]

Bipedalism Edit

Bipedalism is the basic adaptation of the hominid and is considered the main cause behind a suite of skeletal changes shared by all bipedal hominids. The earliest hominin, of presumably primitive bipedalism, is considered to be either Sahelanthropus [11] or Orrorin, both of which arose some 6 to 7 million years ago. The non-bipedal knuckle-walkers, the gorillas and chimpanzees, diverged from the hominin line over a period covering the same time, so either Sahelanthropus or Orrorin may be our last shared ancestor. Ardipithecus, a full biped, arose approximately 5.6 million years ago. [12]

The early bipeds eventually evolved into the australopithecines and still later into the genus Homo. There are several theories of the adaptation value of bipedalism. It is possible that bipedalism was favored because it freed the hands for reaching and carrying food, saved energy during locomotion, [13] enabled long-distance running and hunting, provided an enhanced field of vision, and helped avoid hyperthermia by reducing the surface area exposed to direct sun features all advantageous for thriving in the new savanna and woodland environment created as a result of the East African Rift Valley uplift versus the previous closed forest habitat. [14] [13] [15] A 2007 study provides support for the hypothesis that walking on two legs, or bipedalism, evolved because it used less energy than quadrupedal knuckle-walking. [16] [17] However, recent studies suggest that bipedality without the ability to use fire would not have allowed global dispersal. [18] This change in gait saw a lengthening of the legs proportionately when compared to the length of the arms, which were shortened through the removal of the need for brachiation. Another change is the shape of the big toe. Recent studies suggest that australopithecines still lived part of the time in trees as a result of maintaining a grasping big toe. This was progressively lost in habilines.

Anatomically, the evolution of bipedalism has been accompanied by a large number of skeletal changes, not just to the legs and pelvis, but also to the vertebral column, feet and ankles, and skull. [19] The femur evolved into a slightly more angular position to move the center of gravity toward the geometric center of the body. The knee and ankle joints became increasingly robust to better support increased weight. To support the increased weight on each vertebra in the upright position, the human vertebral column became S-shaped and the lumbar vertebrae became shorter and wider. In the feet the big toe moved into alignment with the other toes to help in forward locomotion. The arms and forearms shortened relative to the legs making it easier to run. The foramen magnum migrated under the skull and more anterior. [20]

The most significant changes occurred in the pelvic region, where the long downward facing iliac blade was shortened and widened as a requirement for keeping the center of gravity stable while walking [21] bipedal hominids have a shorter but broader, bowl-like pelvis due to this. A drawback is that the birth canal of bipedal apes is smaller than in knuckle-walking apes, though there has been a widening of it in comparison to that of australopithecine and modern humans, permitting the passage of newborns due to the increase in cranial size but this is limited to the upper portion, since further increase can hinder normal bipedal movement. [22]

The shortening of the pelvis and smaller birth canal evolved as a requirement for bipedalism and had significant effects on the process of human birth which is much more difficult in modern humans than in other primates. During human birth, because of the variation in size of the pelvic region, the fetal head must be in a transverse position (compared to the mother) during entry into the birth canal and rotate about 90 degrees upon exit. [23] The smaller birth canal became a limiting factor to brain size increases in early humans and prompted a shorter gestation period leading to the relative immaturity of human offspring, who are unable to walk much before 12 months and have greater neoteny, compared to other primates, who are mobile at a much earlier age. [15] The increased brain growth after birth and the increased dependency of children on mothers had a major effect upon the female reproductive cycle, [24] and the more frequent appearance of alloparenting in humans when compared with other hominids. [25] Delayed human sexual maturity also led to the evolution of menopause with one explanation providing that elderly women could better pass on their genes by taking care of their daughter's offspring, as compared to having more children of their own. [26]

Encephalization Edit

The human species eventually developed a much larger brain than that of other primates—typically 1,330 cm 3 (81 cu in) in modern humans, nearly three times the size of a chimpanzee or gorilla brain. [27] After a period of stasis with Australopithecus anamensis and Ardipithecus, species which had smaller brains as a result of their bipedal locomotion, [28] the pattern of encephalization started with Homo habilis, whose 600 cm 3 (37 cu in) brain was slightly larger than that of chimpanzees. This evolution continued in Homo erectus with 800–1,100 cm 3 (49–67 cu in), and reached a maximum in Neanderthals with 1,200–1,900 cm 3 (73–116 cu in), larger even than modern Homo sapiens. This brain increase manifested during postnatal brain growth, far exceeding that of other apes (heterochrony). It also allowed for extended periods of social learning and language acquisition in juvenile humans, beginning as much as 2 million years ago.

Furthermore, the changes in the structure of human brains may be even more significant than the increase in size. [29] [30] [31] [32]

The temporal lobes, which contain centers for language processing, have increased disproportionately, as has the prefrontal cortex, which has been related to complex decision-making and moderating social behavior. [27] Encephalization has been tied to increased meat and starches in the diet, [33] [34] [35] and the development of cooking, [36] and it has been proposed that intelligence increased as a response to an increased necessity for solving social problems as human society became more complex. [37] Changes in skull morphology, such as smaller mandibles and mandible muscle attachments, allowed more room for the brain to grow. [38]

The increase in volume of the neocortex also included a rapid increase in size of the cerebellum. Its function has traditionally been associated with balance and fine motor control, but more recently with speech and cognition. The great apes, including hominids, had a more pronounced cerebellum relative to the neocortex than other primates. It has been suggested that because of its function of sensory-motor control and learning complex muscular actions, the cerebellum may have underpinned human technological adaptations, including the preconditions of speech. [39] [40] [41] [42]

The immediate survival advantage of encephalization is difficult to discern, as the major brain changes from Homo erectus to Homo heidelbergensis were not accompanied by major changes in technology. It has been suggested that the changes were mainly social and behavioural, including increased empathic abilities, [43] [44] increases in size of social groups, [45] [46] [47] and increased behavioural plasticity. [48] Encephalization may be due to a dependency on calorie-dense, difficult-to-acquire food. [49]

Sexual dimorphism Edit

The reduced degree of sexual dimorphism in humans is visible primarily in the reduction of the male canine tooth relative to other ape species (except gibbons) and reduced brow ridges and general robustness of males. Another important physiological change related to sexuality in humans was the evolution of hidden estrus. Humans are the only hominoids in which the female is fertile year round and in which no special signals of fertility are produced by the body (such as genital swelling or overt changes in proceptivity during estrus). [50]

Nonetheless, humans retain a degree of sexual dimorphism in the distribution of body hair and subcutaneous fat, and in the overall size, males being around 15% larger than females. [51] These changes taken together have been interpreted as a result of an increased emphasis on pair bonding as a possible solution to the requirement for increased parental investment due to the prolonged infancy of offspring. [52]

Ulnar opposition Edit

The ulnar opposition—the contact between the thumb and the tip of the little finger of the same hand—is unique to the genus Homo, [53] including Neanderthals, the Sima de los Huesos hominins and anatomically modern humans. [54] [55] In other primates, the thumb is short and unable to touch the little finger. [54] The ulnar opposition facilitates the precision grip and power grip of the human hand, underlying all the skilled manipulations.

Other changes Edit

A number of other changes have also characterized the evolution of humans, among them an increased importance on vision rather than smell a longer juvenile developmental period and higher infant dependency a smaller gut faster basal metabolism [56] loss of body hair evolution of sweat glands a change in the shape of the dental arcade from being u-shaped to being parabolic development of a chin (found in Homo sapiens alone) development of styloid processes and the development of a descended larynx.

John Muir’s Thousand-Mile Journey

September 18. Up the mountain on the state line. The scenery is far grander than any I ever before beheld. The view extends from the Cumberland Mountains on the north far into Georgia and North Carolina to the south, an area of about five thousand square miles. Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty and grandeur is not to be described. Countless forest-clad hills, side by side in rows and groups, seemed to be enjoying the rich sunshine and remaining motionless only because they were so eagerly absorbing it. All were united by curves and slopes of inimitable softness and beauty. Oh, these forest gardens of our Father! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail! Who shall read the teaching of these sylvan pages, the glad brotherhood of rills that sing in the valleys, and all the happy creatures that dwell in them under the tender keeping of a Father’s care?

September 19. Received another solemn warning of dangers on my way through the mountains. Was told by my worthy entertainer of a wondrous gap in the mountains which he advised me to see. “It is called Track Gap [now Track Rock Gap State Archaeological Area in north Georgia],” said he, “from the great number of tracks in the rocks—bird tracks, bar tracks, hoss tracks, men tracks, all in the solid rock as if it had been mud.” Bidding farewell to my worthy mountaineer and all his comfortable wonders, I pursued my way to the South.

As I was leaving, he repeated the warnings of danger ahead, saying that there were agood many people living like wild beasts on whatever they could steal, and that murders were sometimes committed for four or five dollars, and even less. While stopping with him I noticed that a man came regularly after dark to the house for his supper. He was armed with a gun, a pistol, and a long knife. My host told me that this man was at feud with one of his neighbors, and that they were prepared to shoot one another at sight. That neither of them could do anyregular work or sleep in the same place two nights in succession. That they visited houses only for food, and as soon as the one that I saw had got his supper he went out and slept in the woods, without of course making a fire. His enemy did the same.

My entertainer told me that he was trying to make peace between these two men, because they both were good men, and if they would agree to stop their quarrel, they could then both go to work. Most of the food in this house was coffee without sugar, corn bread, and sometimes bacon. But the coffee was the greatest luxury which these people knew. The only way of obtaining it was by selling skins, or, in particular, “sang,” that is ginseng, which found a market in far-off China.

My path all to-day led me along the leafy banks of the Hiwassee, a most impressive mountain river. Its channel is very rough, as it crosses the edges of upturned rock strata, some of them standing at right angles, or glancing off obliquely to right and left. Thus a multitude of short, resounding cataracts are produced, and the river is restrained from the headlong speed due to its volume and the inclination of its bed.

All the larger streams of uncultivated countries are mysteriously charming and beautiful, whether flowing in mountains or through swamps and plains. Their channels are interestingly sculptured, far more so than the grandest architectural works of man. The finest of the forests are usually found along their banks, and in the multitude of falls and rapids the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiwassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine the songs it sings!

In Murphy I was hailed by the sheriff who could not determine by my colors and rigging to what country or craft I belonged. Since the war, every other stranger in these lonely parts is supposed to be a criminal, and all are objects of curiosity or apprehensive concern. After a few minutes’ conversation with this chief man of Murphy I was pronounced harmless, and invited to his house, where for the first time since leaving home I found a house decked with flowers and vines, clean within and without, and stamped with the comforts of culture and refinement in all its arrangements. Striking contrast to the uncouth transitionist establishments from the wigwams of savages to the clumsy but clean log castle of the thrifty pioneer.

September 20. All day among the groves and gorges of Murphy with Mr. Beale. Was shown the site of Camp Butler where General Scott had his headquarters when he removed the Cherokee Indians [in 1838] to a new home in the West. Found a number of rare and strange plants on the rocky banks of the river Hiwassee. In the afternoon, from the summit of a commanding ridge, I obtained a magnificent view of blue, softly curved mountain scenery. Among the trees I saw Ilex [holly] for the first time.

Ordinance of the Amorites/Americans

And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them and they shall afflict them four hundred years And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. (15) And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace thou shalt be buried in a good old age. (16) But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.


I have made references to the “Ordinances of the Amorites” when I write about the Holy God of Israel judging America for promoting the homosexual agenda. It is very important that everyone understand this principle as America has crossed a threshold with the LORD and now faces His wrath. The President is advocating “homosexual marriage” long with sodomizing the military. Both of these issues, but especially homosexual marriage, creates what the Bible calls an “ordinance”. According to the Bible, this is very serious and brings God’s judgment directly on America. The following is the section about the Ordinance of the Amorites from my teaching Homosexuality verses God’s Holiness. I suggest that you read this entire article.

The Ordinances of the Amorites.

God told Abraham that his descendants were going to leave the land of Canaan for 400 years because the iniquity of the people living in the land was not complete. There is a process for a society to be taken over by iniquity. In the case of the Canaanites, God gave these people 400 years to stop iniquity. God knew that after 400 years the iniquity of the people would reach its peak. The people would not turn from sin, but they would completely embrace it.

When studying Genesis 15:16, there is a key word in this verse. It is the Hebrew word translated full. This word is directly connected with the idea of friendly or friendship. The concept of this word is that when a society is friendly with iniquity at that point it is subject to judgment from God. Iniquity is no longer shameful or a disgraceful. It is not hidden or done in the dark. The people are friendly with it. They are accustomed to it. In Genesis 15:16, the Bible does not define iniquity: it simply states that there is a time for it to mature in a society and become full.

After the 400 years, the Jews left Egypt and came back to the land of Canaan. Today it is called the land of Israel. At this time, the Bible identifies what is iniquity. In Leviticus 18, God warned the Jews not to follow the ordinances of the Canaanites who lived in the land. The Canaanites and Amorites blended into one people therefore it is also the ordinances of the Amorites that are mentioned in Genesis 15:16.

Leviticus 18:3 After the doings of the land of Egypt , wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan , whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances.

In the above verse, the key word is ordinances. The Hebrew word means an enactment and is also translated custom, manner, and statute. By using the word “ordinance”, the Bible is describing a society that is “friendly” with iniquity. Iniquity has become ingrained in the Canaanites by both customs and laws which makes it a way of life. For this reason, God is about to judge the Canaanites and drive them off the land. The judgment comes because iniquity is an ordinance of the society and not because individuals are committing iniquity. When a society makes iniquity an ordinance, this is extremely serious with God. This society becomes a target for judgment.

Later in chapter 18, the Bible defines iniquity. It includes such acts as: adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality and bestiality. Homosexuality is singled out from this group and described as an abomination. Without any doubt, God strongly condemns the homosexual act as iniquity. There is no section in the Old Testament where God approves or condones homosexuality. The homosexual act is a very serious offense to God. It is linked with child sacrifice and bestiality. The Scriptures to show this follow:

Leviticus 18:20 Moreover thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbour’s wife, to defile thyself with her. (Adultery)

(21) And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD. (Child sacrifice)

(22) Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. (Homosexuality)

(23) Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion. (Bestiality)

The Bible warns that when homosexuality becomes an ordinance, social custom or norm, it will bring God’s judgment on that nation. When the Bible defines iniquity, the homosexual act would automatically fall under the description of this word. In the strongest language possible, the Bible says because of iniquity the land will vomit out its inhabitants. The Scriptures to show this follows:

Leviticus 18:24 Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you:

(25) And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.

(26) Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you:

(27) (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled)

The United States now is enacting, by both custom and law, the Ordinances of the Amorites therefore the nation is defiled before the holy God of Israel and faces His judgment. By promoting homosexuality, America has become like the ancient pagan Amorites and has now come under the judgment of God.

America promotes homosexuality by custom and law with events such as “Gay Pride Day,” sodomizing the military, Presidential Proclamation: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, Gay day at Disney land, Gay Day at sporting events and events like Southern Decadence in New Orleans. There are gay clubs in high school and colleges. The political parties are pandering to the homosexuals for their votes. By custom and law, homosexuality has woven into the fabric of America therefore, it has become an ordinance.

The following is a quote from a proclamation that President Obama made on June 1, 2012, outlining all the Ordinances of the Amorites he created. He is proud of this! and right in God’s face with this. No nation can go this far down this road and not expect judgment. It has to come because God is holy. and in the Bible the judgments are decreed on a people who do this.

“Since I took office, my Administration has worked to broaden opportunity, advance equality, and level the playing field for LGBT people and communities. We have fought to secure justice for all under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and we have taken action to end housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We expanded hospital visitation rights for LGBT patients and their loved ones, and under the Affordable Care Act, we ensured that insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage to someone just because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Because we understand that LGBT rights are human rights, we continue to engage with the international community in promoting and protecting the rights of LGBT persons around the world. Because we repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans can serve their country openly, honestly, and without fear of losing their jobs because of whom they love. And because we must treat others the way we want to be treated, I personally believe in marriage equality for same-sex couples.”

Obama promoting the Ordinance of the Amorites

Notice in the next quote from Obama’s proclamation as he is promoting homosexuality, it ends with “in the year of our Lord”.

By using the term “ our Lord” he connects the Holy God of Israel with sodomy, and the LORD will have none of it. He will not allow His holy name to be associated with the Ordinances of the Amorites! This action by America demands judgment.

“NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2012 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. I call upon the people of the United States to eliminate prejudice everywhere it exists, and to celebrate the great diversity of the American people.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this first day of June, in the year of our Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-sixth”

America is continually making ordinances to advance the homosexual agenda. Sodomites can legally marry in California and Massachusetts while many states recognize civil unions. Homosexuals are now able to adopt children and gain custody of children during a divorce. There are now numerous hate speech laws which are being used to silence opposition to the homosexual agenda. America is a long way down the road to enacting all the Ordinances of the Amorites.

The Bible warns of the Holy God of Israel judging a nation that walks in these ordinances. When the corporate attitude of a nation is friendly toward homosexuality then at this point the iniquity is full. It is apparent that “the cup” of America’s sin is rapidly filling up and overflowing. Americans hardly blush anymore at fornication and adultery. The nation kills over one million babies a year with up to 50 million killed since 1973. The legalizing of abortion was an additional Ordinance of the Amorites. Homosexuality is fast becoming a constitutional right. The only ordinance left to fulfill Leviticus 18 is bestiality. This is probably next on line to become an ordinance!

The ultimate weapon

But cave paintings, carvings, and musical instruments hint at something far more dangerous: a sophisticated capacity for abstract thought and communication. The ability to cooperate, plan, strategise, manipulate and deceive may have been our ultimate weapon.

The incompleteness of the fossil record makes it hard to test these ideas. But in Europe, the only place with a relatively complete archaeological record, fossils show that within a few thousand years of our arrival, Neanderthals vanished.

Traces of Neanderthal DNA in some Eurasian people prove we didn't just replace them after they went extinct. We met, and we mated.

Elsewhere, DNA tells of other encounters with archaic humans. East Asian, Polynesian and Australian groups have DNA from Denisovans. DNA from another species, possibly Homo erectus, occurs in many Asian people. African genomes show traces of DNA from yet another archaic species. The fact that we interbred with these other species proves that they disappeared only after encountering us.

But why would our ancestors wipe out their relatives, causing a mass extinction – or, perhaps more accurately, a mass genocide?

The answer lies in population growth. Humans reproduce exponentially, like all species. Unchecked, we historically doubled our numbers every 25 years. And once humans became cooperative hunters, we had no predators.

Without predation controlling our numbers, and little family planning beyond delayed marriage and infanticide, populations grew to exploit the available resources.

Further growth, or food shortages caused by drought, harsh winters or overharvesting resources would inevitably lead tribes into conflict over food and foraging territory. Warfare became a check on population growth, perhaps the most important one.

Our elimination of other species probably wasn't a planned, coordinated effort of the sort practised by civilisations, but a war of attrition. The end result, however, was just as final. Raid by raid, ambush by ambush, valley by valley, modern humans would have worn down their enemies and taken their land.

Yet the extinction of Neanderthals, at least, took a long time – thousands of years. This was partly because early Homo sapiens lacked the advantages of later conquering civilisations: large numbers, supported by farming, and epidemic diseases like smallpox, flu, and measles that devastated their opponents.

But while Neanderthals lost the war, to hold on so long they must have fought and won many battles against us, suggesting a level of intelligence close to our own.

Today we look up at the stars and wonder if we're alone in the universe. In fantasy and science fiction, we wonder what it might be like to meet other intelligent species, like us, but not us. It's profoundly sad to think that we once did, and now, because of it, they're gone.

Nick Longrich, Senior Lecturer, Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Bath.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Homo sapiens (“wise man”, or “modern humans”)

Named by scientists: 1758.
When and where did they live: The species first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago – began to move out of Africa at least 100,000 years ago and spread across the rest of the world.
Significance: The importance of our modern human species is obvious. For all the ingenuity of earlier human species, none seems to have been able to compete with the technological and artistic sophistication of our species.

At a physical level, our species might not have looked very different from ancient human species like the Neanderthals – the two species even interbred. But the emotional and intellectual differences might go a long way to explain why all other ancient human species that survived to see modern humans went extinct within a few thousand years of first contact. By about 40,000 years ago, ours was the last human species surviving on Earth.


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