Archive for June, 2009

It occurred to me after doing the previous entry that someone with a skeptical eye might object that I seem to be cherry-picking my examples in order to make a case for the prehistoric origins of mystical beliefs and practices.

In fact, from my point of view, it’s quite the opposite. Until recently, I shared the prevailing assumption that sophisticated intellectual and philosophical systems go back to not much earlier than 500 BC and that human knowledge before then was relatively unsystematic, intuitive, or “mythopoeic.”

It’s been only with the emergence of geek culture over the last couple of years that I’ve become convinced that geeks as a personality type have existed since the origins of modern humanity. (I doubt there were Neanderthal geeks — there’s certainly no sign of them in the archeological record — which may be why we’re still here, for all our flaws, and they’re not.)

And it’s in the nature of geeks to mess around with stuff, try to make sense of it, create intellectual systems of dizzying complexity to explain it, exchange wild metaphysical speculations with their fellow geeks, and generally geek out to the max at any opportunity.

See, for example, the Mayan calendar as an example of geekitude run amok. Or the I Ching. Or the pyramids. Geeks just can’t help themselves. Intellectual complexity mated to metaphysical subtlety is what they do. It’s the water in which they swim.

So, no, I’m not cherry-picking my examples. I’m just being struck by the fact that there are signs saying “Geeks at Work” in big flashing letters all over the archaeological record.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

It was announced earlier this week that a Paleolithic flute, carved some 35,000 years ago from the hollow bone of a vulture’s forearm, has been discovered in Germany.

The discovery is being heralded as demonstrating the “high-level of musical and technological sophistication” present at that time. It is also being suggested that such flutes might have contributed to their makers’ evolutionary fitness by enhancing social bonding.

All of that may be perfectly true — but it may also fall far short of explaining the real intentions of the flutes’ makers.

Flutes have ancient mystical connotations. It is not the physical body of the flute that produces the musical sound, but the nothingness within it. A flute is of no value as an instrument until it is hollowed out and becomes receptive to the breath and will of the musician.

Because of these qualities, flutes provide a ready analogy for the subtle relationship between body and soul, as well as for the mystical directive to empty oneself of ego in order to be filled from outside.

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Over the last few centuries, entrenched aristocracies have increasingly become a drag — inbred, arrogant, and generally useless. But there was a time when having aristocrats around was a good thing, because they were the major drivers of cultural innovation.

The reasons for this have to do with the interplay among leisure, disposable income, and the desire for novelty. Aristocrats tend to have way more than their share of the first two, which makes them extremely receptive to new games and toys, diversions and amusements, fads and fashions.

Up until the 18th century, most great art and music were produced either at the direction of or to curry favor with wealthy patrons. Even technological advances — like the steam engine or electricity — started out as gadgets to provide bored aristocrats with entertainment.

Ever since the French Revolution demonstrated that it was possible to do without them, aristocrats — and their corporate CEO successors — have become increasingly conservative and set in their ways. They worry that any sort of innovation will make their uselessness all the more apparent and fear that great art and music will stir up the lower orders and put notions in their heads. But once upon a time, things were very different.

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After writing a few days ago about how fairy tales may reflect the actual culture of roughly 4500 to 2500 BC, I got inspired to dig out my files on that period — and particularly on the times and places that don’t normally get into the history books.

When I was in school — and I doubt things have changed much since then — the beginnings of civilization were always pegged at around 3000 BC, with the emergence in Egypt and Sumeria of complex societies characterized by organized religion, monumental architecture, and writing.

The Harappan culture of the Indus Valley was also given an honorable mention in this story, though it was generally thought to have appeared several centuries later and to have been in some vaguely-defined way less innovative and influential than Egypt or Sumeria. But everyplace else was dismissed as crude and backwards — at most reflecting glimmers of influence from the three great river-valley civilizations — until some time after 2000 BC.

This picture of three major civilizations serving as lonely beacons of light in a sea of darkness was utter fantasy, of course. It grew out of late 19th and early 20th century prejudices, which regarded colonialism and monumental architecture as signs of evolutionary superiority, and was perpetuated into the second half of the 20th century by errors in carbon-14 dating.

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It always seem to be assumed that fairy tales are attached to no particular time and place — that they exist in an ideal land of make-believe that was invented for story purposes and never actually existed.

In fact, when I took a folklore course in college, the professor rather severely informed us that most fairy tales were written only a few hundred years ago, so they could not possibly retain any actual ancient elements.

I found that disappointing — but I also eventually found it unconvincing.

A story like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” after all, seems to have very little to do with the late medieval / early modern world of chivalry and tournaments, of grand cathedrals and fanatical witch-hunters, of feudal loyalties and dynastic marriages, of royal bureaucracies and emerging nation-states, of printing presses and merchant bankers.

Instead, they appear to reflect an older and simpler organization of society — and they do so far too consistently to be the result of mere happenstance.

For example, there’s the multitude of independent petty kingdoms with which the fairy tale landscape seems to be littered, along with the extended stretches of savage wilderness which separate them. That’s not at all medieval — but it does seem to be the way things worked back when kingdoms were first invented.

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