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The Long Hurt

A picture of a skull fossil from the front and the side

The Long Hurt

Here’s a joke I like: A caveman walks into a bar holding hands with a bear. The bartender asks, “What’s the deal here?” The caveman responds, “It’s a long story: bear with me.”

That’s pretty good. Here’s another one: Two cavemen walk into a bar. The bartender asks, “What’ll it be?” The first caveman says, “I’ll take an Old Fashioned, neat.” The second caveman says, “Holy cow, you speak English?”

I like that second one even better. These jokes work, in part, because cavemen, as simplified versions of our ancient ancestors, straddle the line between “like us” and “not us.” Our jokes and cartoons (and advertisements and failed sitcoms and SNL sketches) are premised on the idea that when we encounter these early hominins they won’t speak, or will only speak in a stilted, broken language. Then comes the punchline: turns out, they can speak! Not only that, but they are also surprisingly lucid, up-to-date, hip: surprisingly human.

Our jokes about cavemen [1] reveal, I think, our sense of some deep, foundational connection to them, despite the distance between us. They’re us, yes, but so clearly different. What of us is in them, and what of them is in us? They exist as a fuzzy reflection: at one moment deeply, impossibly alien; at the next, uncannily similar.

It’s no surprise that language is at the core of most of these cavemen jokes, as it’s at the core of what seems to separate us most fundamentally from our earliest ancestors: we have language and they didn’t. This basic fact, along with a few anatomical advantages, is the defining feature of who we are and why we’ve ascended to our role as Earth’s dominant species. That there was a period in our ancient history when we did not have this seems impossible to comprehend.

It’s so difficult to comprehend, in fact, that anything that existed both back then and now is often held up as a truly extraordinary thing. Many of the things we think of as being “fundamentally” human—morality, art, meaningfulness, freedom—are the products of our ability to use language. Which means that if anything is fundamentally human, if anything is truly transcendent beyond all cultural particulars and beyond all accidents of circumstance, we ought to be able to find it in our earliest ancestors. Death is the obvious example, as are many other bodily experiences. True, our ideas about these experiences—their meanings, for example, or their moral value, [2] or any of the concepts we pin on them—are conditioned by our languages and circumstances. But the sensations themselves? They might just qualify as fundamental.

One of the most famous theories of suffering, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, makes this exact point about the sensation of pain. It is an experience that assuredly existed before language and, even further, actively resists language. Pain, Scarry writes, brings about “an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned,” while efforts to represent that pain are moments in which someone “moves up out of that pre-language” and “projects the facts of sentience into speech” (4, 6). One way to read Scarry’s argument is that the experience of pain is an experience that unites us with our pre-language ancestors. It brings forth a sensation that was felt millions of years ago, is felt now, and will be felt in the future.

Scarry doesn’t just understand pain as a true human universal. She also understands it as a language negator, a destroyer of our capacity to express and create. This is why she calls the experience of pain as a “reversion.” What strikes me as ironic about this is that we recognize the destructive potential of pain only because we know how much language has otherwise accomplished: very little has ultimately resisted language’s power. We’ve risen to the proverbial top of the food chain on the back of our language. We store information, preserve knowledge, tinker with ideas, propose hypotheses and speculate about impossibilities. Perhaps this is why it hurts even more when it can’t help me make my pain coherent to myself or make it explicable to someone else. It makes a mockery of everything else we’ve been able to achieve through our evolutionary secret weapon.

Did early hominins feel this tragedy in the same way? Fossil records from over a million years ago—hundreds of thousands of years before the development of even the crudest form of modern human language—have been discovered with extant evidence of various cancers. And while the actual prevalence of cancer in early hominins is an ongoing scientific question, what is certain is that our ancient ancestors suffered from many of the same diseases as us. As a survivor of osteosarcoma, I’m particularly struck by early fossil records of femurs and jaws riddled with bone cancer. Long before we had names for these illnesses, long before our capacity for language (along with other anatomic and genetic serendipities) enabled unparalleled population growth and scientific development, we suffered from precisely the same painful, agonizing illnesses that we suffer from now. A being a million years ago felt what I felt: an unbearable pain in the leg caused by a wild growth of cells.

Thinking about this ancient ancestor of mine, their cancer spreading to their lungs, their daily struggle to drag themselves along while trying to cope with a leg that increasingly and inexplicably swells and hurts, I wonder how far apart I really was from their experience. They screamed, I screamed. Looking back, I wonder: did I ever really make sense of it beyond that? Our ancient forerunners could not write poems or invent complex metaphors. They couldn’t write dissertations on the stories we’ve told about cancer and suffering. But even given all those advantages, have we really come much farther? Does the agony of cancer make any more sense now than it did a million years ago? Does pain in a world filled with words hurt just the same as pain in a wordless world?

In The Cancer Chronicles George Johnson writes about viewing the Kanam Mandible, a controversial and important skeletal fossil containing possible evidence of bone cancer. As he looked at the ancient fossil, he found himself imagining the rest of the body: “I could almost picture the rest of the head, its vacant eyes pleading for relief from inexplicable pain” (45). For all that language has allowed us to do, that desperate pleading in the face of pain hasn’t gone away. We can treat pain more efficiently, diagnose it more rapidly, and identify its source more precisely. But has language made anything about the pain itself more coherent or less frightening? For everything that separates us from our early ancestors, it may be that pain still unites us to them in a way that will never change. As Johnson suggests, we might be inextricably bound to our ancestors by “the legacy of being multicellular creatures in an imperfect world” (55). And we may not be able to ever talk our way out of it.



[1] Like many of our popular cultural images, this stereotypical caveman is inaccurate and a composite of multiple incomplete ideas. There was never anything exactly like the common “caveman” figure. It’s really a synthesis of all our close and distant forerunners: homo neanderthalensis, homo erectus, australoipthecus.

[2] See, for example, C.S. Lewis’s arguments in The Problem of Pain. Since pain, according to Lewis, activates our sense of the limitations of this world and attunes us to our need for God’s mercy, “the full acting out of the self’s surrender to God therefore demands pain” (98). In Lewis and beyond there is a broad and, to me, troubling tradition of finding moral meaning not in our responses to pain but in the pain itself.

Works Cited:

Johnson, George. The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery. Knopf, 2013.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. 1940. HarperOne, 2015.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.

Image Credit: Longlin 1 partial skull found in Longlin Cave in the Guangxi Zhuang region of China. CC-BY-2.5.


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