Ari R. Hoffman
Law, Literature, and Jewish ideas

Jawbones and the Presence of the Past

The extent of our old age, an ongoing scandal to some and the most established of facts to others, has become breaking news. When, we would like to know, did we take the form we recognize as our own shape?

The discovery and subsequent painstaking authentication of the oldest remain of the homo sapiens found outside of Africa has forced scientists to reset our special clock and has upended “the whole concept of modern human evolution,” according to Professor Israel Hershkovitz, who led the study of this remarkable jawbone. Anyone who has had their teeth X-rayed or evinced a particular dedication to flossing will recognize the topography of this mouth, the slopes and dents and ridges that are surely not the least of our inheritance.

What does this mean, this confirmation that nearly 200,000 years ago someone who chewed like us lived and died in a cave in Norther Israel? It stretches back the timeline of our restlessness, adding thousands of years to our continents-spanning wanderings. We’ve known more of the world for longer than we thought, and seen and masticated more than we knew. Across an unfathomable chronological chasm, it is the hooks of familiarity that catch us; a tool whose use is legible long before writing, the trace of a seat because someone has always been tired, and the blunt concavity of a wound, because flesh has always been permeable and wreckable.

There is a special resonance to these remains being found in Israel, an old-new land and the site where so much of the events that matter to people and nations is supposed to have happened, right on the seam between myth and history, fable and fact. These events, of revelation and revenge and grace and greed are just long enough ago to feel palpable in our present. They are both too close and too far, which is why they vibrate and matter. This jawbone is before all of that, before anything that would command or rebuke or touch us with salvation. It is inscrutable, belonging to none of us and all of us. It makes no promises, and calls forth no armies. But we can trace its facsimile with our tongue, and the unfilled measure of our days fit snugly in the shallow depth of a cavity.

 

About the Author
Ari holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard University, and is a J.D. candidate at Stanford Law School. His first book, This Year in Jerusalem: The Israel Novel and Why it Matters, is forthcoming from S.U.N.Y. Press.
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