Archive for the ‘Deep Prehistory’ Category

I continue to have trouble moving my account of the cycle of visions along, and that usually means I’m overlooking something important. I suspect the underlying problem is that I keep trying to cast the visions as an automatic consequence of the facts of human nature and brain function — and that just isn’t the way creative processes work.

The history of innovation makes it clear that radical departures from the existing order of things are never inevitable. In the beginning, all is flux and uncertainty and decision points that lead to alternative paths. It’s only when one preferred solution takes hold that the wave function collapses and the rest follows a predetermined course.

This is true of art and science and politics and religion — and it would have been supremely true of the visions, since those were the first and greatest expression of human creativity upon which everything since has been built.

At the onset of our long experiment in being human, when everything was new and surprising, there were many choices to be made. There were choices about things we now take for granted, like how language works and the pattern that stories follow. There were even deeper choices involving the way we define ourselves and our relationship to one another and the world around us.

Our most ancient stories tell of a Dreamtime when nothing was yet determined and everything was a matter of choice. And though those stories surely date from a time much later than when the fundamental choices were made, they reflect an ancestral memory that everything we now accept as given is the result of decisions made in the distant past.

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I’ve been reviewing the previous entry and I think the way is finally clear to move forward.

As I suggested there, the transformation vision appears to have gone through a very rudimentary form of the cycle. It was born at a time of crisis when mastery of fire and other basic technologies became essential to human survival. It helped resolve that crisis but then subsided back into supporting the existing order.

The kinship vision was born during a succeeding crisis — say around 400,000 years ago — when our survival was enhanced by peaceful interactions among scattered human groups. But before it too subsided, it formed a strong philosophical bond with the transformation vision. This led to the older vision’s observations of the natural world being organized according to a schema modeled on the male-female dualities of the kinship vision: fire-water, drought-rain, day-night, and so forth.

Around the same time, the human brain was undergoing a final expansion and reconfiguration to meet the cognitive demands of remembering and categorizing large amounts of information. And as it did, it became wired in a radically new way that involved cross-connections and long-distance associations of a sort that were not present in any other member of our family tree.

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I’ve been stuck for the past several months and haven’t done any new entries, but I’ve finally realized that I took a left turn at Albuquerque last summer and it’s been throwing me off ever since.

For anyone who’s just now dropping in on the discussion, my chief focus at this blog has been to lay out a theory of human history as driven by a sequence of differing visions of the nature of existence. Some aspects of that sequence are easy to identify. I can point to the visions currently at work in our society, and I can trace earlier visions back through history. But it’s never been clear to me just how the sequence would have first gotten started or how the intricate dynamic that keeps it going could have been set in motion.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve made some progress on that question. I’ve discovered that the dynamic behind the visions operates on two distinct levels. The visions themselves are intellectual constructs that combine the best knowledge of the time with a mystical sense of ultimate oneness. And because our best knowledge changes from era to era, new visions are born, gain cultural influence, then decay and lose coherence, and are finally discarded as unworthy.

But there is also a deeper instinctual rhythm that regulates the timing of this rise and fall, and that rhythm barely changes from one era to the next. It repeats over and over in a cyclical manner, with almost identical moods and attitudes recurring at the same point in every cycle, regardless of the specific visions involved.

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Here There be Dragons.

That’s an acceptable slogan if all you need is something to decorate the empty corners of your map, but it doesn’t answer the question of what lies beyond. And I’ve got a few dragons in my account of the cycle of visions that I’ve never managed to either work past or confront head on.

One of those involves what happens in the second half of every “romantic break,” when what started off as an opening to fresh possibilities collapses into paranoid hysteria and draconian repression. I’ve always skirted around the weirder aspects of that transition or treated it as a momentary aberration. But in fact it’s a crucial episode in every cycle — and there’s no way to get from the experiences of the first proto-shamans to the birth of the spirit vision without passing through it.

What makes it so hard to describe is that the shamans weren’t just visionaries and storytellers. They were also magicians with the power to alter the reality of those around them. They told stories that combined the stuff of everyday life with the wild, hallucinatory experiences of the mythic realm. They invented new words to describe beings and concepts that had never before been named. And they began to work magic.

Like all magicians since, they often relied on trickery to convince their fellows that they had supernatural powers. That was essential to arts such as healing that were based on suggestion. But sometimes they started to believe in their own tricks. And there were other occasions when their efforts were rewarded with genuinely anomalous events that they themselves could not foresee or control.

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I’ve spent the almost two months since I last posted trying to figure out the birth of the spirit vision — and it’s been slow going.

It’s easy to see how the kinship vision would have been a useful supplement to the original “vision of everything.” If the impulse “to explore strange new worlds” was a defining characteristic of our own species from the very start — as opposed to the more stay-at-home Neanderthals — those early explorers would have needed a framework within which they could interact peacefully with any strangers they encountered. And the simplest way to accomplish that would have been a mutual understanding that we are all ultimately kin, descended from the same long-ago ancestors.

This extension of kinship beyond the limits of motherhood and grandmotherhood would also have proven useful back home. It would have given fathers more of a stake in raising their children. It would have provided the basis for the complex networks of reciprocal obligations among in-laws that typify fully-developed kinship systems. It would have enabled humans to interact more productively with other humans in both good times and bad.

But what would have been the utility of the spirit vision that arose out of the hallucinatory experiences of the first proto-shamans? That’s where I got stuck until I realized that I was looking at things backwards.

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I’ve been rereading my previous entry and finding it not quite to my liking — so I’m going to start over with a clearer version of what I wrote before and work my way forward from there.

For millions of years after our ancestors started walking upright, they remained apelike in their bodies, brains, and behavior. It was not until around 1.8 million years ago, when they left the trees for good and became full-time ground-dwellers, that they took on more recognizably human characteristics.

That was probably when they shifted from an apelike reproductive pattern — in which the dominant males have preferential access to sexually responsive females but take no responsibility for the offspring — to a system of male-female pair-bonding that was more effective at raising slow-maturing, big-brained children.

However, the newer pattern of behavior has never fully supplanted our more primitive instincts. Even today, we put a lot of our energy into dealing with outbreaks of jealousy and violence, and we’re capable of reverting entirely to ape-mode at times of social breakdown. That may be why our most popular forms of entertainment are action movies and soap operas.

But we also have a more sophisticated way of regulating our social interactions, and that is by appealing to higher moral values. The roots of human morality probably go back at least half a million years, since that is when we see the earliest signs of a willingness to care for the old and infirm, a dawning sense of beauty, and a rudimentary capacity for language.

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My last regular entry was something of a proof of concept — an attempt to see if I could deconstruct the cycle of visions as it exists today and retell the story in terms of only the youngest and most transcendent visions.

I wanted to test an idea that’s been growing on me lately — that the youngest visions are what really drive the cycle, while the mature visions play only a secondary role. I also expected to get hints as to what the cycle might have looked like at the outset, when there were no mature visions, and how it might have evolved from there to the complexity we see today.

The experiment was successful enough that I’ve spent the last several weeks pushing my focus further back in time. I’ve been trying to work out what kind of instinctual and emotional apparatus must have been in place even before the cycle of visions began in order to make the cycle possible.

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I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been trying to pull together all my recent thoughts on the origin of the cycle of visions in a way that holds together and makes sense. But meanwhile, here’s something of interest that Alexei brought to my attention yesterday.

The blogger, Phil Paine, begins by considering the fact that the earliest hominins appear to have lived along riverbanks and lakesides. He notes that these are extremely dangerous environments because they’re where predators come to attack game animals — but also that this offers unique advantages for a clever opportunist.

The oppor­tu­nity I had in mind was theft. What if you could take advan­tage of the fact that game ani­mals will come to the river­side or lake­side, and that preda­tors would follow them and kill them? What would be needed would be some way of dri­ving the preda­tors away after they made their kills, then steal­ing the fresh kills. There had been, even back then, some spec­u­la­tion about early hominins being scav­engers rather than hunters, but I think those who were advanc­ing this idea were think­ing more of the kind of scav­eng­ing that is done by minor car­ni­vores that “clean up” the kills of major preda­tors, who usu­ally leave sig­nif­i­cant amounts of left­overs after they have gorged them­selves on the best bits. This is not what I had in mind. I was think­ing, rather, of hominins divid­ing their atten­tion between gath­er­ing the numerous tid­bits that can be found on river­banks — birds’ eggs, cray­fish, nuts, tubers, small bur­row­ing ani­mals, fruit, berries, frogs, fish — and the theft of fresh kills from preda­tors. How do you steal from a big cat? You let it make its kill, then you drive it away. But, how do you drive it away?

You throw rocks.

The more I looked at the phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes that dis­tin­guished early hominins from their simian rel­a­tives, the more they seemed to me to line up with throw­ing rocks. Chim­panzees reg­u­larly throw things (usu­ally excre­ment, which they fling as a sign of hos­til­ity), but they are not very good at it. Their wrists are not well-shaped for it, their fin­gers are too long, and their arms and shoul­ders don’t have the right con­fig­u­ra­tion for pitch­ing things accu­rately. But it is pre­cisely these fea­tures that are dra­mat­i­cally mod­i­fied in early hominins, and the changes are as dra­matic as those in the lower body and spine that favour bipedal­ism. Human beings, the inher­i­tors of these changes, may not be able to run like a chee­tah, or out­per­form other ani­mals in many tasks, but they are spec­tac­u­larly good at throw­ing things. One has only to look at children play­ing base­ball or cricket to see that humans have evolved phenomenal throwing skills. Early hominins had all these fea­tures — they have remained remarkably sta­ble ever since. They prob­a­bly were as good at throw­ing rocks and hitting the mark as we are.

That was intriguing, but it seemed to refer to a much earlier stage of human evolution than the one I’ve been examining, so I simply filed it away. But just now I was sorting through some old notes and came on a few points I’d jotted down from a book by William H. Calvin titled The Ascent of Mind that was published in 1990.

According to my notes, Calvin hypothesized that throwing things was central to human evolution because it led to the development of sequential skills that required the harmonization of masses of neurons. He further suggested that this was the basis of narrative awareness.

In other words, language, story, and the visions themselves may all have grown out of the throwing ability that we developed long before we started making tools. Now, that’s fascinating — and completely relevant to the scenario I’ve been trying to develop.

Calvin’s book is available online at the above link. The main link for his website is, and I plan to explore it for clues. He looks like a pretty cool dude.

Since last summer, and particularly over the past two months, I’ve been coming to the conclusion that the story I’ve been telling about how the cycle of visions might have gotten started has been essentially back-to-front

I’ve assumed there was a crucial turning point some 200,000 years ago, when the first true humans underwent a shift in brain organization that enabled them to see the world in terms of structured relationships. That ability was then applied to various areas of experience, producing the initial set of visions.

However, this scenario never struck me as dynamic enough. It implied that the intellectual aspect of the visions came first and that the deep emotional currents which even now drive the periodic rise and fall of successive visions were tacked on later. But that makes no sense in evolutionary terms.

So I’ve turned things around and begun to envision an extended phase of proto-development during which our ancestors related to the world emotionally rather than intellectually.

My thought now is that the real starting point was what I’ve taken to calling the Vision of Everything, which was not rational and analytical in nature but magical and occult. That primordial vision might go back over a million years, to the common ancestor of ourselves and the Neanderthals — or at the very least 700,000, to the time when the first truly elegant handaxes appeared.

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This article showed up today, nicely confirming one of the suggestions I made in my post two days ago.

“Scientists have found compelling evidence for the co-evolution of early Stone Age slaughtering tools and our ability to communicate and teach, shedding new light on the power of human culture to shape evolution. . . .

“In testing five different ways to convey Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students, the researchers found that the demonstration that used spoken communication – versus imitation, non-verbal presentations or gestures – yielded the highest volume and quality of flakes in the least amount of time and with the least waste. . . .

“‘If someone is trying to learn a skill that has lots of subtlety to it, it helps to engage with a teacher and have them correct you,” Morgan said. “You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do.’ . . .

“‘At some point they reached a threshold level of communication that allowed Acheulean hand axes to start being taught and spread around successfully and that almost certainly involved some sort of teaching and proto-type language,’ Morgan said.”