In reviewing the University’s ancient imagery archives, I was astounded and pleased to discover an interesting, albeit short, fragment of 20th-century photomechanical film. Apparently produced at some time in the late 1900’s, it depicts a brief but fascinating moment in the lives of three young humans of the time.

The footage lasts a mere thirty seconds; it begins with three young, primitive boys seated around a table, apparently in the early morning hours judging from the angle and color of the natural light filtering in through the window (image analysis corrected for United States’ average pollution levels of the era; this correction is necessarily approximate as the location and precise year of the filming are not indicated.)

In the first segment, two of the boys, older than the third, warily eye a ceramic bowl filled with a collection of grainy, fibrous carbohydrate squares and a milky substance (live cows were still thriving at the time, and I take the liberty of presuming that this fluid is genuine cow’s milk; I might go so far as to speculate that the milk had been captured by the boys’ family at significant risk, extracted from the large, roaming herds of feral cows believed to have dominated the American West during the 19th and 20th centuries.) The oldest speaks and pushes the bowl towards the other older boy, saying in an early but still recognizable dialect of Earth Standard:

“I’m not gonna try it. You try it.”

It is startling and strangely thrilling to see this human tendency towards caution when a novel situation is encountered, evidenced so directly and recognizably in this ancient world, so far removed from our own! The second boy considers the situation, the potential risk from this unfamiliar, oddly shaped food, and finally, indicating the youngest of the three, remarks:

“Hey, let’s get Mai Ki! He won’t eat it. He hates everything!”

Now we can formulate a question which may lead to a reasonable hypothesis: is this behavior beneficial to the species? On the one hand, the individuals initiating the assignment of this potentially hazardous task do so in order to preserve their own safety, a selfish (albeit entirely human) motivation. On the other, in the long term it matters little whether Mai Ki or one of the other boys is the first to sample the novel preparation presented to the group. If Mai Ki were to ingest the new food and die immediately or shortly thereafter, the incident would serve as ample warning to the other members of his tribe NOT to eat the new substance, at the expense of one unfortunate individual. But the same would apply if one of the other boys shouldered the risk. So the benefit to the species as a whole will be the same in the end. Also, if the food proves carcinogenic in nature, in keeping with the general character of the era’s processed comestibles, its ultimate detrimental effect on the individual may not be seen for many decades, at which time it will have little or no measurable impact on the species’ survival overall.

From a sociological perspective, it is interesting to note that the older boys carefully consider Mai Ki’s preferences when assigning him the task at hand. The stated, village-borne wisdom that “he hates everything” implies a cognitive grasp of the value of diversity and individual skillsets within the group. Mai Ki’s apparent dislike of most foods is perceived by the group as a significant qualification for the evaluation of the new food; in this light he may be considered a “sensitive,” a signal member of the group whose particular likes and dislikes are presumed to portend success or failure for the entire community. It is also possible that there is some evolutionary advantage to the older, wiser boys’ selection of the younger Mai Ki for the sampling, but as no data is provided regarding any of these individuals’ eventual reproductive success, this point cannot be further examined at the present time.

Returning to the evidence at hand, the subsequent footage captures the risk and its reward in short order. Mai Ki samples the bowl’s contents, grimaces in a fashion similar to the smile of our own time, and begins eating the food with apparent relish. The older boys exclaim:

“He likes it! Hey, Mai Ki!”

The challenge has been met, a calculated risk taken, and apparent success achieved. The film ends shortly afterwards, which leaves many unanswered questions concerning the nature of this new nutritional source and its potential impact on our species’ genotype as it exists today. But these simple creatures are us, recognizably so. And deep down inside, aren’t we all, in some sweet, simple way, Mai Ki’s ourselves?