Jul/Aug 2007  •   Fiction

The Postsapien

by Ada Mantine

Photography by Kawika Chetron

Photography by Kawika Chetron

A thing I've noticed about homo sapiens: they love to categorize. They trend toward absolutes. This observation struck me a few years ago when I was shooting an archaeological dig in the Rift Valley. A redheaded male grad student discovered the remains of a skull buried in the 3.5 million-year-old Pliocene layer. He shouted, "A. afarensis! No, boisei. No, robustus!" His female professor ran over and corrected him. She was a fox-eyed blonde with a broad brow and high Scandinavian cheekbones. She bent over, stared at the fragment, and turned to her student and said, "Sorry, you're wrong. It would be A. garhi. The specimen is much younger and finer-boned." The redheaded male student had stepped back. I caught him gaping at her from behind.

For the duration of the trip I had been tracking the scent of the redhead's pheromones: sharp, sheepy, lustful. They weren't for my benefit, alas. They were for the blonde professor. She seemed unaware of the student's lust for her. But I wasn't.

There wasn't enough room around the pit for me to take a proper photo; the light was poor. The sun was barely shining through the thinning haze. Five others had joined the redhead and the professor. Their shadows loomed over the specimen, submerging it in the darkness that was its fate. The paleontologists were standing spread-legged, a few with hands on hips. I was repulsed by their casual selfishness. In a maneuver that began with a running jump, I squeezed myself between two of the scientists and shot a few frames. The shadows were cast upwards, eastward. My short yet undeniably masculine shadow stood next to that of the redhead, and when I leaned toward him, our shadow bodies fused. I shot my entire roll and slipped into a post-coital trance.

The shadows were fading into the sunset. I rested on a canvas bag, sipped calvados from a flask, and observed the commotion at the pit. The shadows were very excited. Frenzied. They shouted, waved their fists, stuck out their jaws, stomped about on stiff legs. The specimen had been bipedal, but what was its genus and species? Was it our ancestor or was it a cousin? The old hominid skull was the cause of all these hoots and hollers and displays of dominance.

The problem with modern humans is they have discontinuous minds. By this I mean they are terrified of blurriness and vagueness, of intermediates and shades of shadow. Names and labels are the crude tools they use to make sense of the world, and they can't live without them. But the obsessive act of naming, sorting, and categorizing imposes absurd barriers. When does a kettle cease to be cold and become hot? When does a growing child cease to be short and become tall? When does an embryo become a fetus, and when does a fetus become a human being?

Here were these Ivy League homo sapiens fighting over whether or not their particular specimen was A. africanus or A. afarensis or A. garhi. Why couldn't these people learn to live with the possibility the specimen might be between two species? Or even be a 30th of the way between A and B, with the understanding A and B are completely arbitrary points? That's how evolution really happened, in the muck and muddle. Absolutist minds will end the human race.

The air grew suddenly dim, as if something had dirtied it. The shadows had kicked up ancient dust. My mood darkened. My brilliance was going to waste and it depressed me. As a young boy my slumps terrified my parents. I inherited my mother's laugh, her stinginess, and her sense of entitlement, but she, unlike me, hid her pain. My father was curiously passive, and so was the Y chromosome he passed on. Mother and I would throw glasses at the television as he watched it. The only time he reacted to something I did was when I told him I was gay. "Get out of my house, fag," he said, and I did.

I suspect I am a subtly different from other homo sapiens. I have school smarts, but what I mean is more than that. I am able to carry multiple conversations in my head at one time. My sense of smell is keener than anyone else's, perhaps an ancient trait resurfacing in my genome. I can be very kind or very wicked, and always very deliberately, never by accident. I am dangerously intuitive. Evolution has no design, no direction, so I can't say if my powers will ever coalesce in what will become another so-called species. But I suspect they could.

Back at the dig, the ruckus continued until nightfall. Eventually the blonde professor laid a plastic sheet over the site, leaving the specimen for yet another night in its 3.5 million-year-old-grave. After dinner I stayed outside and watched the lanterns illuminate the foolscap tents. The air had cleared. I gazed upward at starlight that had taken millions of years to reach the earth. It originated when our ancestors had tails and pointy snouts, and now it was processed by my newfangled retina and visual cortex. The thought was pleasing, but I was still unsettled by the day's events. There was only one thing that would calm me: the redheaded male.


I approached his tent around 2:00 AM. The bird-and-monkey chatter obscured my rustling. I planned to act moment-by-moment, beginning with a stolen grope. I lifted the flap and heard heavy breathing. Then, rather unexpectedly, my ears channeled two separate yet synchronous gasps. The blonde professor was in the sleeping bag with my redheaded male! I froze there, my two hands spreading apart the folds of the tent's entrance, and for a moment wondered if I should instead attack the blonde. Engage in fornication with her. It wouldn't be for me, of course, but for my postsapien genes. It would be a selfless act to benefit the human race.

In a light sweat I calculated the odds. Impregnating the blonde was possible, but not certain. I had maybe a ten percent chance. The problem was the redhead. He was two feet taller, fifty pounds heavier, and ten years younger than me. He would defend his mate. I would have to think about this carefully.

I walked away, and my headache raged on. The birds were maddening, ringing in my ears, mocking me. I stopped at the pit, kneeled, and directed my light on the bones that had received so much attention. My right hand snatched a fragment of skull. A simple brain had been there. Perhaps it had been the brain of a bad animal, a rapist or murderer. But when does good cease to be good and become bad? It's impossible to say. I squeezed, and it crunched pleasingly. With my left hand I picked out the rubble. Then, quickly and carefully, I slammed my flattened palm to my open mouth, transferring the contents. I delicately chewed.

The specimen tasted dull, but I savored it.