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Grubby Campers and Human Evolution


It is important to go camping once in a while, just to put into proper perspective such salutary modern concepts as "personal hygiene."

The speed at which filth can envelop a camper is breathtaking. Dirt is underrated as a predatory agent. People think of dirt as inert, as enervated and unimaginative and fundamentally lazy -- as something that just lies there on the ground, doing nothing. That's absurd. Dirt has startling vigor, and can strike like a jungle cat.

Thus you will show up at the campground as a fastidious, fully scrubbed member of a technological civilization -- perky and squeaky in your laundered, lemon-scented clothes -- but three hours later you'll look like something retrieved by archeologists from an ancient fire pit. You'll be eight ways grubby, not counting the soot layer and the grease layer and the barbecue sauce layer that collectively provide irrefutable evidence of a carnivorous diet.

Most of human evolution occurred in pre-technological times, which is why the Pleistocene is also known among paleoanthropologists as the Camping Era. Scientists are able to distinguish the middens of Neanderthals from Cro-Magnons in part by the different preferences in folding camp chairs. The most telling difference, of course, was in the category of beverages. Cro-Magnons always drank wine, mostly red, while Neanderthals stuck to beer, primarily PBR.

Returning to work yesterday after two nights camping, I realized with a flash of insight that literally frizzed my hair that the newsroom needs a campfire. A campfire is both practical and spiritually evocative. We were meant to stare at fires; it's deep in our DNA at this point, just like the need for Half-and-half in our coffee. Clearly I need to find a way to get a fire ring in the newsroom. I can't quite picture it at the National Desk area, but I bet they'd go for it in Sports.

We could routinely take breaks from work to sing some songs around the campfire. Why should a Kumbaya moment be merely metaphorical? Let's make it happen for real. That's how we evolved. Singing campfire songs is surely one of the innovations that turned cavemen into modern human beings -- along with, of course, the invention of soap, shampoo and what people of my generation used to call cream rinse.

By Joel Achenbach  |  October 9, 2007; 9:56 AM ET
 
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