Archive for September, 2007

The standard twentieth century story would have us believe that very little happened between the development of agriculture and the rise of civilization — that it was a time of simple peasant villages, with few interests beyond securing the next harvest and few inventions besides ingenious domestic devices, like the technology of churning butter or spinning flax.

However, it is now becoming clear that the period from roughly 7000 to 4000 BC gave rise to one of humanity’s greatest intellectual breakthroughs — the first scientific cosmology. The movements of the sun and stars were closely tracked and were found to mark out an astonishingly precise four-fold partition of both space (the cardinal directions — north, south, east, and west) and time (the winter and summer solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes.)

This recognition of a profound cosmic order underlying the flux of everyday life completely revolutionized art and religion, transforming the domain of human consciousness from a world of whim and accident to one of order and predictability.

This electrifying discovery has generally been attributed to simple farmers seeking clues on when to plant their crops. It has been described as an inevitable insight once people had settled down to the land and could watch the rising point of the sun move back and forth along the same mountain year after year.

But for those who lived through it, this intellectual revolution was far from obvious. It took careful long-term observation and analysis, carried out over many lifetimes, and the radical alteration in perspective which resulted was as dramatic and unexpected in its own time as those resulting from the Copernican system in the 16th century or Einstein’s relativity in the 20th.

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