Archive for the ‘Deep Prehistory’ Category

Back at the start of the human adventure, the sole function of the visions was to enable people to engage directly with the universe, with one another, and with their own inner nature. That kind of engagement had definite practical results. It could make a small group of hunter-gatherers more efficient, more mutually supportive, and more able to tap into their shamanistic powers. But it was never intended as a method of mundane problem-solving.

Mature visions, in contrast, are intensely focused on problem-solving. This gives them the ability to change the world, but only at the cost of falling out of touch with their intuitive and experiential side. They lose their nearly magical ability to synchronize human efforts, and their mystical origins are either forgotten or reduced to rote formulas.

The first mature vision came into being shortly after 200,000 years ago, when the human community was faced with a prolonged ice age that posed a threat to their very survival. As everything they had previously relied upon failed them, they lost faith in the old, instinctual ways. They turned instead to their one remaining ace in the hole — the transformation vision — and began using it as a guide to reshape the world around them.

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If human cultures do alternate on a regular basis between states of mature stability and adolescent plasticity, as I suggested in the previous entry, it would certainly help explain the rise and fall of dominant partnerships. However, it doesn’t answer a more fundamental question: Why are aging visions always replaced by successors of the same general type rather than simply being updated and rejuvenated?

The answer to this question is crucial to understanding what happened nearly 200,000 years ago, when the original vision of the physical world took on the moral and practical authority to lead the human community through the great ice age. In the course of that transition, it surrendered its own claims to transcendence, but it gave birth to a successor — the cosmic order vision. This launched the cycle of replacement which has continued ever since.

But why? Why was the replacement necessary?

On one level, the sequence of thought seems obvious. As people developed a greater mastery of the world around them, they became less able to perceive it as a place of inexhaustible wonder. And so they began looking to the heavens for the mystery that was no longer to be found on earth.

But why did that shift require an entirely new vision of existence — starting from different premises and arriving at different conclusions — and not merely a minor tweaking of the old one?

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I initially came across the cycle of visions because I’d been trying to spot recurring patterns in cultural history — but I never expected to find a pattern that was so intricate or repeated in so exact a manner. Even after forty years, I’m still looking for answers to the question of how something that elaborate could have gotten started and been maintained.

I thought at first that the cycles might be driven by simple culture-wide alternations in mood — swings between idealism and cynicism or rationalism and romanticism of a kind that I was familiar with from the history of science fiction. But the more deeply I looked, the more complexity I encountered. The cycles represent a seamless blending of the emotional and the intellectual, the practical and the mystical, and no one of these components is sufficient to explain the extraordinary coordination among all of them.

That is why I’ve recently started exploring the idea that we humans have certain mental capacities that are hard-wired but also flexible enough to allow for a limitless number of different ways of dealing with reality.

A few entries back, I identified two such capacities that seem to go a long way towards explaining the nature of the visions. One is a mental map-making ability that enables us to construct virtual images of the world around us and share them with our fellows. The other is an openness to the sudden, intuitive flashes of higher knowledge that bring with them a certainty that we are part of a larger reality stretching beyond the boundaries of any map.

Taken in concert, these could account for the two most obvious aspects of the visions — their ability to structure our experiences within a multi-dimensional matrix of time, space, and causality, and also their persistent suggestions that there are vast areas of reality that remain outside our experience.

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This seems like a good time to pull the camera back and take in a broader field of view.

I’ve been speaking up to now as if the lives of our earliest ancestors were devoted entirely to constructing elaborate mind-maps of their experiences and then expanding them into visions of higher possibility. However, that isn’t how people live today, and it certainly wasn’t the case then.

For one thing, not all humans are equally imaginative. Some participate enthusiastically in bringing the latest visions into being, but a larger number couldn’t care less. And even the most creative among us spend much of their time caught up in the petty round of everyday routine.

So sharp is the division that we might be said to inhabit two different realities at once — call them the realm of understanding and the realm of instinct. And this split would have been even more profound at the start, when the life of the mind was still something new and limited and the greatest part of our existence was governed by deep, ancestral rhythms of sex and dominance.

Those rhythms apparently go back to the emergence of Homo erectus, some 1.8 million years ago. That was when we committed ourselves to a ground-dwelling way of live, lost our body hair and acquired our present set of secondary sexual characteristics, and gave up chimp-like mating patterns in favor of a system of permanent pair-bonding that enabled us to nurture our big-brained offspring through an extended period of infancy and childhood.

These same instincts are still hard-wired into us, but their expression has been greatly moderated by the moral teachings of a long succession of visions, each of which has done its part to make us a little less animal and a little more human.

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If the story I am telling is correct, a crucial point in human history would have been reached once there were visions of all three types in play. At that moment, it might have seemed that all aspects of human experience had been accounted for and that nothing remained to be added.

There was one vision that encompassed the physical world and its plants and animals. Another focused on human society and the kinship system that held it together. And a third proclaimed the reality of the magical dreamscapes of the early shamans.

In fact, there are some peoples that appear to have gotten along perfectly well with just these three in all the long years since — most notably, the Bushmen, or San, of southern Africa, who genetically, linguistically, and culturally are closer than any other group to the human root.

According to an online summary of their culture, “Their knowledge of both flora and fauna is vast. The San categorized thousands of plants and their uses, from nutritional to medicinal, mystical to recreational and lethal. … Kinship bonds provide the basic framework for political models.”

The site goes on to describe the medicine and rain dances during which “the dancers reached trance-like, altered, states of consciousness and were transported into the spirit realm where they could plead for the souls of the sick.” It also notes that “the most important spiritual being to the southern San was /Kaggen, the trickster-deity. He created many things, and appears in numerous myths where he can be foolish or wise, tiresome or helpful.”

Certain aspects of San culture — such as bows and arrows and representational art — appear to be relatively recent and are unlikely to go back more than some 50,000 years. But even those have been incorporated into a belief system which is clearly much older.

There is a mystery about the San — but the real question, I suspect, is not why they have stayed the same but why the rest of us have changed. All of us except the San have abandoned what would seem to be a simple and functional system in favor of one that is infinitely more complex and fraught with internal tensions.

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In the previous entry, I described how the first true shamans might have become conscious of their own unique view of the world and begun to find ways to communicate it to others.

That’s only half the story, though. The other half is about the larger community coming to recognize the lack of magic in its life, missing it, and longing for its return.

There is a pattern to the birth and development of each new vision which has held true throughout recorded history and almost certainly goes back to the very start. The similarities are particularly strong among visions of a common type, so I feel confident in asserting that the first inner experience-based vision came out of the same needs and desires as every one since.

Two factors appear to be crucial in leading up to the birth of an inner experience vision. One is that every such vision arises out of a period of intense skepticism, when belief in spirits and magic has come to seem primitive and childish, rationality is the highest goal, and even religion is devoted to philosophical speculation or maintaining social norms, rather than direct mystical experience.

The other is that this hyper-rationality stirs up an equally intense nostalgia for the old stories of supernatural beings and powers. That nostalgic revival opens the way for a flowering of new magical tales which attempt to restore plausibility to the old materials, thereby producing a set of fresh rationales for the old shamanistic beliefs. And that, in turn, makes possible a revival of genuine shamanistic practices.

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The story I have told so far about the emergence of the earliest visions has been as simple and straightforward as I know how to make it.

It relies on just a few basic assumptions: That the first true humans possessed a mental map-making ability that enabled them to construct structured visualizations of the world around them. That as the human population expanded, this same ability was applied to devising elaborate kinship systems that could regulate the interactions among individuals and groups. And that the resulting focus on abstract relationships brought with it a mastery of formal categories and rules that came to be applied to the physical world as well.

The first two visions to come out of this process were the prototypes of all the scientifically-based and socially-based visions that have followed over the long centuries since. But there are also visions of a third type — those based on inner experience — which operate very differently and cannot be explained as simply another form of map-making.

Inner experience is not susceptible of being pinned down like our experience of the physical world. It shifts and fluctuates and may differ radically from one individual to another. It cannot be reduced to categories and laws like the stuff of our social relationships, because it is wild and willful and defies expectations. Yet at the same time, it displays certain consistent themes, and shamans and wizards have always been able to swap stories, find common ground, and provide guidelines for their disciples.

There were proto-shamans among us from the start, and they must have played a crucial role in the development of the first two visions. Without their access to higher knowledge and the sense of the unity of all things that it brought with it, those initial visions would not have been possible. But their wisdom was embedded in the visions they helped formulate, and they did not yet have a vision of their own.

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If the sketch of the dawning of human awareness that I gave in the previous entry is at all correct, that era would have been the authentic Dreamtime.

Back then, our ancestors possessed a single, unified vision of existence, which they considered to be a perfect reflection of the world around them. In those days, the map truly was the territory, and the map in each mind was identical to the map in every other. Even the world of their dreams was indistinguishable from the world of everyday, and they lived in both simultaneously.

Of course, this single world-vision was not fixed or static but was constantly being amended and enhanced. Much like the internet today, it was subject to a constant, ongoing process of discovery, collaboration, and mutual reinforcement. But the changes were collective ones and it remained a unified vision — until the point came when it was shattered beyond repair.

The source of the problem was the very success of this new experiment in being human, which inevitably led to population growth and an expansion into unfamiliar territories. What had once been a tiny, isolated group of a few hundred close relatives now consisted of thousands of people spread out across a wide area, with each sub-group encountering a slightly different geography and a unique distribution of plants and animals.

They naturally adapted by altering the maps in their minds to match the world outside. But once they did, instead of a single, indivisible vision there was now a multitude of slightly different visions. Instead of a single language, there were hints of distinct dialects with new words being invented to describe local conditions. And because they were no longer able to gather around a common campfire and iron out the differences, those variations took hold and intensified.

And when the diversity became too great to be denied, the Dreamtime was broken.

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At the conclusion of the previous entry, I suggested that modern humans have a unique capacity to create mind-maps of their environment out of memory and imagination. I like that idea because it goes a long way towards explaining the nature of the visions — and yet it still doesn’t explain how the visions could have gotten started or the distinctive mixture of ordinary knowledge and higher knowledge that fuels them.

To address these questions, it’s necessary to take a step back and start with the purely anatomical changes that may have first separated us from our archaic ancestors.

When you compare the skeletons of modern humans to those of archaic humans such as Neanderthals, the most obvious difference is that we are significantly leaner and longer-legged, as well as being generally taller.

That change would have offered an evolutionary advantage, because it enabled us to get around faster and further and draw upon the resources of a much larger territory. However, we would have been unprepared to benefit from it without a simultaneous expansion in cognitive skills.

If you’re going to take lengthy excursions away from home, after all, you need to start off with a pretty good idea of where you’re going and why, along with the safest and most direct way to get there and back. You also want to be able to calculate your timing, so that you don’t show up a week before the berries ripen or a month after the annual antelope migration.

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In the previous entry, I laid out a scenario which carried human history back to the point when ancient geeks began gazing up at the stars and dreaming of a world more perfect and eternal than their earthly reality of hunger and sex, birth and death.

At that moment, which might have been as much as 150,000 years ago, the original harmony among the transformation, kinship, and spirit visions was broken and history as we know it began.

But what was going on before then? When and how did those three visions come into being, and what was life like when they ruled unchallenged?

That’s not an easy question to address, since even our most ancient stories are more recent than that. Those stories tell of the first ancestors, of the days when the world was filled with animal-people instead of people-people, and of a fall from grace and the disasters that followed. But even if they contain some nuggets of truth, they give little hint as to what actually happened at the start of all things back in the Dreamtime.

However, there is one human endowment even older than story, and that is language.

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