“Magho! Magho!” The terrified scream of a young Neanderthal woman resounded through the bitter cold air and warned her neighbors that she had spotted a jaguar. It was a good distance away, at the edge of the forest, but like everyone else she knew all too well how fast they can run and how defenseless a Neanderthal is in a face-off with a hungry or angry jaguar. Racing full speed to the family’s limestone cave, she continually shouted the most feared word in their still-embryonic local language.
Once inside the cave, she again screamed “Magho!” Pointing to their two eldest children, Father immediately bellowed out “foba!” The family well understood from repeated experience what this meant. Mother, Father, and the two eldest surviving children sprang into action. Working together, the four of them quickly blocked the cave opening with the large rocks that they stored permanently in a pile just inside. Although the main function of this rock door was to insulate them from the cold air that the Ice Age had long ago ushered in, the ever-present threat of Magho lent the rocks a life-saving secondary function. They were safe now.
Since Mother’s birth, the seasons had completed only 24 full cycles – from bitter cold, to cold, to moderate, to cold, and back to bitter cold. But already she had borne eight children. Three had died during infancy. Four girls and one boy had survived. Like their neighbors, all the members of this family were short and stocky by today’s standards, with dark skin and angled cheekbones.
The moon had gone through only three of its cycles since the birth of the youngest child. The shouting roused her from her nap and frightened her. As she began to cry, Mother held her to her chest and nursed her.
The year was 52,486 BC. In their spacious cave, in what today is the southwestern corner of Kazakhstan, this family was able to weather the fierce winters of the time. During the coldest seasons, they endured relentless blizzards and powerful winds. Edible plants were scarce to nonexistent. Meat was plentiful but a challenge to procure. In this village it was mainly in the form of mammoths, bison, and wild boar. A group of adult males would lie in wait to ambush the helpless animals, encircling them and then killing them with multiple spears fashioned out of animal bones that the men had fitted with sharpened stone points. In addition, the nearby mountain stream was an abundant source of fish that the men would also catch cooperatively. The adult females would cook the meat and fish over a fire.
But by now the moon had completed five cycles since the darkest day of the sun’s mysterious path around the earth. The air was warming and the days were lengthening. Grasses, vegetables, fruits, berries, seeds, and nuts were starting to reappear. Father and the other adult males could now be gatherers as well as hunters. The plant food they harvested was a luxurious addition to the diets of all the families in the village.
The morning after Mother spotted the Magho, Father and his eldest son ventured out to survey the scene. The son spotted it first, only a short walk from the family’s cave. “Fei” he said, pointing to the remains of a freshly-killed deer. This meant the Magho had ventured close to their home.
Everyone in the village understood that the Magho were pana. There were other pana, like the pana who made the sun appear, disappear, and reappear; the pana who shrank and expanded the moon; the pana who brought rain; the pana who filled the forest with animals and the stream with fish; and so on. But the Magho were the pana of the pana, this Ice Age village’s precursor to Zeus.
Isolated in their tiny community and their caves, the inhabitants of this village had no idea that their relatives in distant places hunted and ate fei. Here, the villagers believed that fei were exclusively the food for Magho – “mei Magho,” as they called it. All the pana – not just Magho -- would react with fury if the villagers were ever to take the “mei Magho”. When a fei carcass was found, the villagers would leave it in place unless and until it had been scraped clean. Only then would they bury it.
They had learned their lesson the hard way. A group of men had once flouted the prohibition on killing fei and had hauled the carcass of a large stag back to the village to carve up and cook over a fire. They had feasted on the fei meat before retiring for the night. The next morning, after several preceding days of relative warmth and sun, a ferocious blizzard suddenly swept through the village. A father and one of his children were buried alive in an avalanche. The villagers sacrificed a wild boar in the hope that the pana would then forgive the transgression and halt the blizzard. Just hours after the sacrifice, the blizzard miraculously ended. The lesson was clear to all. Never again would they steal fei from Magho.
Soon, however, nomads from another place wandered into the village. Until then, the native villagers had never encountered strangers. Consequently, they had never had reason to be conscious of their own communal identity or to give themselves a distinguishing name. But when the newcomers arrived, the native villagers began to refer to them as “zanta.” And to distinguish themselves from the zanta, the natives began to call themselves “desu.”
The desu never affirmatively welcomed the zanta, but the latter were either tolerated or ignored. That changed, at the height of the dry season, on the day a group of zanta killed a fei at the edge of the forest. There was no immediate punishment from Magho or any of the lesser pana, and the desu wondered why. But after several weeks the dry season became a full-fledged drought. Not one drop of rain fell from the sky during this entire period. The grasses, vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, and seeds had all vanished. It was now quite apparent to the desu that the drought was not a coincidence. Magho had decided to administer the punishment over a lengthy period.
The desu were not happy. They gathered up their hunting spears. In the middle of the night, shouting “kipo,” they attacked and killed a zanta family of five. “Fei mei Magho. Zanta kipo fei. Kipo zanta!” they screamed out during the rampage.
They knew the zanta would retaliate, but they were not expecting the raid to happen so soon. The very next morning, a dozen young zanta males rampaged through the village, killing several desu.
The desu met to discuss what to do. “Zasu!” cried one of the villagers. This was a new concept and a new word, but everyone understood what he meant. The others joined in. Shouts of “Zasu” began resounding throughout the village.
And an all-out “zasu” it was. After each day’s battle, the survivors on both sides paused to bury their dead and pray to their respective pana for victory and safety. But each day, after prayers, the fighting resumed. In the end, the desu warriors were no match for the zanta newcomers. The desu fled their caves, in search of safer land.
They soon discovered an inviting spot on the opposite side of the forest. Grasses, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and berries were still the absent victims of the dry season, but there were plentiful caves, a stream full of fish, bison and mammoth to hunt, and plenty of fei for Magho.
Their new home was on the outskirts of another village, and for a period of time the two sets of neighbors coexisted peacefully. Each community found the other to be strange in its habits and its language. The desu, having learned from tragic experience that other groups were different enough from themselves to require a name, referred to their new neighbors as “sapa.” Each group pretty much kept within its own physical space, with only occasional innocuous interactions. Moreover, there were enough commonalities – physical appearance, cave-dwelling, diet, and cooperative hunting and fishing – that a certain comfort level took hold.
Sadly, peace did not endure. Several weeks after their arrival, the desu discovered that the sapa hunted fei. That discovery stretched their tolerance past its breaking point.
“Zasu!” the desu males shouted to one another in anger.
The sapa were unprepared. This war was swift and one-sided. The sapa had never before experienced zasu and were bewildered by it. Routed by the desu, they fled their village in panic.
Even while fleeing, one of the more enterprising sapa refugees had an inspiration. “Perhaps,” he mused silently, “we too should seize a village and drive out the natives.”
Steve Legomsky is a former mathematician, Washington University law professor, and Obama Administration official. He has published three scholarly books (Oxford University Press and West Academic); numerous academic articles (https://law.wustl.edu/faculty-staff-directory/profile/stephen-h-legomsky/); one novel, “The Picobe Dilemma”; and six short stories.