There are personal and race memories: the past, woven into the present in language, in relationships, and in stories. Words and names have roots in history. Etymology, the study of the origins of words, can throw light on the history of humanity. With what we know already, with archeology, palentology, and old stories that predate writing, we can get a glimmer, a tiny vision, of our past.
There were once four rivers: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates.
‘A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon…’ Genesis 2: 10,11
In 1924 in the southern heart of Africa, limestone quarrymen in Taung in the Kalahari, found the skull of a female, early pre-human child, who lived and died there two and a half million years ago. Taung is some fifty miles from the African township of Bethlehem, but there was no Bethlehem then, no Taung, no Kalahari. We might not recognise the humanity in her family group with modern eyes, but it was there; tenacious, adaptable. They had survived for a million years and spread throughout Africa in the tropical rainforest through valleys and plains, following the provider of fertility: water. Today we have given these waterways names: the Orange River, the Limpopo, the Save, the Zambezi, and its tributary the Shire into which Lake Nyasa empties, falling, some fifty miles downstream, over the Kholombidzo Falls to the coast. As well as these great rivers there are lakes like seas. Lakes we call Tanganika, Rukwa, Jivu, Rwanda, Mobutu Kyoga, Turkana and many others. Greatest of all is Lake Victoria.
Somewhere here, in what is still among the most densely populated regions of Africa, early humans found their voice, language. We have few clues to the nature of their early speech: just a collection of root sounds common to later tongues, but home must have a name. Crows are said to have two main calls: kia! which signifies returning to their roost, and the deeper kaa! which signifies flying away from the roost to feed. These two cries can be heard in competition in any flock. They are voting. Whichever cry predominates determines the action of the flock.
One of the early root sounds in human language is pi, associated with drinking. Perhaps it came from the lapping sound. Another is a group of sounds all associated with water and beginning with s such as Spu: spit, sru: flow or stream and snu: to bathe, swim, float or flow. These sounds are not a language, they are roots from which language springs. Just possibly they had two sounds that joined meant home: pi-snu (drink-flow) or Pishon.
… the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellyium and onyx stone are there.’
Genesis 2: 10-12