Archive for November, 2012

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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