The Etiquette of Early Humans

There was a time, many years ago, when humans knew little about etiquette – they didn’t have to follow any social codes of conduct. They could cough without covering their mouths, visit a friend’s home without calling first, whistle at pretty women on the street without wearing a tool belt and hardhat.

Fortunately for the human race, one man started to change it all. His name was Mongah and he was a caveman. He had been watching the other cavemen closely and realized that while everyone did things differently, some of their habits were more appealing than others.

Oongah, for example, used the nail of his little finger to pick his teeth after his meals, slurping up any morsel of food he dislodged. Dongah, on the other hand, seemed much more civilized: he carried a twig around with him, using it to not only pick his teeth, but also his nose and ears. Now and then, he would also scratch his back with it, not to mention other hard-to-reach places. As if that wasn’t enough, Dongah would often draw pictures in the mud with his twig – he was a pioneer in the emerging field of stick art.

How efficient it seemed – one twig for so many tasks. But it wasn’t just the twig that set Dongah apart. Unlike Oongah, when Dongah dislodged a piece of food from his teeth, he didn’t eat it — he flicked it off the twig, usually in the direction of whichever cavewoman he desired. Seeing this, Oongah’s lady friend, Bupha, would give Oongah a glare, as if to say, “Why can’t you be so romantic?”

Oongah smirked. He didn’t care for such public displays of affection. His brute strength was enough to attract women. It was he, after all, who had pulled Dongah from the river when the clumsy man had slipped off a fallen tree branch. Oongah believed that he hadn’t just saved Dongah from the river – he had saved the river from Dongah.

But Mongah had more respect for Dongah, who seemed to be more than just a stick-in-the-mud. Mongah decided to put together a set of rules of social behavior. He borrowed Dongah’s twig and started drawing pictures in the mud, while a dozen cavemen, as well as Bupha, gathered around to see what he was doing. He first drew a picture of a man sitting on a rock, while a woman stood next to him. Then he drew a picture of the man getting off the rock and the woman sitting on it. He pointed at the second picture, drew a circle around it and smiled, as if to say, “Always give your rock to a woman.”

But the cavemen jeered. They thought he was saying that men shouldn’t sit around the cave. They should always be hunting and gathering. Dongah, trying to avert a riot, erased the second drawing with his foot, not realizing he had introduced something he and other artists would forever detest: censorship.

Undeterred, Mongah moved to another spot in the mud to illustrate his second rule. He drew a picture of a man and a woman inside a cave, and another man outside, with his mouth wide open. He used squiggly lines to indicate that something was coming out of the man’s mouth. He pointed at the picture, circled it and smiled, as if to say, “Always call out before visiting.”

But the cavemen jeered again. They had misunderstood Mongah’s picture and thought he was telling them that they should always go outside to belch. To show his disdain, Oongah belched as loudly as he could. Bupha put her arms around him, as if to say, “That’s my man!”

Mongah shook his head. Teaching etiquette to cavemen was harder than he had thought. But he was determined to keep trying. He drew a picture of a river and a man standing beside it. Then he drew a picture of a man in the river. He pointed at the second picture, drew a circle around it and smiled, as if to say, “Bathing good.” But Mongah had forgotten that Dongah had fallen into the river a week ago. It had been very embarrassing for Dongah. Thankfully only a few cavemen saw him. But now Mongah appeared to be spreading the news.

It was then that Dongah, unable to control his anger, ran toward Mongah, grabbed the twig from him and poked him in the eye with it. As Mongah writhed in pain, all the cavemen cheered: They believed that Dongah had taught them an important lesson in social behavior: gossiping can hurt.

Dongah raised his arms in exultation. He had found yet another use for his twig.

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through Amazon.com and McNallyRobinson.com You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.

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