A Lost World

on January 16, 2011

One of the great mysteries of the past is that there seems to be a strange kind of event horizon at the end of the ice age. Every historical stage since then is still represented by one present-day culture or another, but there is no society to which we can point and say with confidence, “This is what the Late Paleolithic looked like.”

In my entries here, I’ve attempted to identify certain cultural elements as probable Paleolithic survivals — but that can only get you so far. The art of the European caves, for example, appears to have employed a consistent symbolic system which has never been deciphered.

But the greatest mystery isn’t what things were like back then so much as how and why they changed. Was there an abrupt phase-shift around 11,000 years ago or merely a gradual accumulation of small adjustments? And either way, should the end result be taken as a leap or a fall?

The version of the story that we were all taught in school presents the so-called “Neolithic Revolution” as a major advance that brought us from a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one involving a far greater degree of knowledge and control.

But there are also indications that the development of agriculture had less to do with “progress” than with a response to crisis which left us working harder just to keep up. And there’s even a persistent “Atlantean” strain in present-day thought which argues that important aspects of knowledge and self-awareness were lost in the transition.

I definitely have a leaning towards this second attitude. I don’t for a moment buy the idea that something resembling modern technology was present back in the Old Stone Age — but I do believe there was both a fall and a great forgetting.

So what might have been the nature of that fall? What was lost then and what has been forgotten?

One place to start looking for answers might be with the unprecedented degree of physical diversity that appeared as the ice was retreating. Until about 20,000 years ago, modern humans all looked pretty much alike, with features that are generally described as resembling those of present-day Ainu or Australian Aborigines. But at that point, we underwent a rapid process of specialization.

What in a cruder era used to be described as “racial” characteristics arose during that period, including all the subtle variations in skin and hair, noses and chins that distinguish the inhabitants of one region of our planet from those of another.

During the heyday of “scientific” racism, these variations were taken to be both ancient and highly significant. Now we have learned that they are not only literally skin-deep but also surprisingly recent in origin — and as a result, we seem to have put the whole matter out of mind as too trivial to be of any interest.

But in doing so, we’ve overlooked a far more intriguing question — which is why these superficial differences should have arisen at all, when we as a species had done perfectly well without them for tens of thousands of years.

The last time I wrote about this subject, I suggested that a certain refinement of appearance might have followed the development of a class system in which the most powerful men and the most beautiful women had the greatest number of children. I still think there’s something to that — but it doesn’t explain these other changes, which began much earlier.

In fact, the only answer I can suggest is that for a time our ancestors became so obsessed with looking different from their neighbors that it left a permanent mark on the gene pool.

One of the most closely-studied of these changes involves the gene for blond hair, which first popped up in Scandinavia about 11,000 years ago. The usual explanation is that blondism represents an adaptation to high northern latitudes, perhaps combined with sexual selection by men who preferred blonds — but neither of these theories is entirely convincing. They don’t explain why there should be seven variants of the gene, each producing a slightly different shade of blond — or, for that matter, why there is a further spectrum of brown, chestnut, and red hair throughout Europe.

It seems more likely that the evolutionary process was driven not by the superiority of any one hair color over another but by a general preference for variation over uniformity. And since equivalent changes were occurring elsewhere in the world, it may indicate there was a widespread motivation at that time for people to look recognizably different from their neighbors.

In nature, this kind of visual diversity is often found when related species occupy different ecological niches in the same environment — as with the variously-shaped horns of African antelopes. Under those circumstances, the distinctions provide a clear statement of “I am not your competitor,” which enables similar groups to co-exist peacefully.

Strange as it may seem, I believe the same impulse could have been behind the emergence of human diversity. The population was expanding rapidly at that time, due in part to a more intensive use of resources, and these physical differences might have marked the start of a proliferation of small, specialized groups, each exploiting a different aspect of the environment.

If that was the case, however, it didn’t last. The population quickly grew beyond the ability of ecological specialization to handle, and the only alternative was to find ways to use available resources even more intensively — a solution which eventually led in the direction of agriculture. At that point, there would have been no reason not to interbreed, and the most appealing of the new features would have diffused through the general population.

Even this alternative solution, however, was not without its own problems. We humans originally evolved as long-legged wanderers, and the need to stay in your own village, cultivate your garden, and maintain a respectful distance from the neighbors must have imposed a considerable strain.

The challenge would have first become acute in Southeast Asia, which was the one area that supported a significant human population even at the peak of the ice age. As the map indicates (key here), around 20,000 years ago most of Africa and the Middle East was desert, semi-desert, or at best grassland. Extensive tropical woodlands and rain forests were to be found only in a belt which stretched from Bangladesh, through Southeast Asia and Sunda, and as far as New Guinea.

That was the heartland of human civilization back then. It was where most of the people lived and was a center of proto-agricultural innovation. But as the climate warmed and Sunda gradually flooded — creating the present-day islands of Indonesia — the available land area kept shrinking, pushing the inhabitants into ever-closer proximity.

People in that part of the world did not undergo the kind of changes in appearance that occurred further north but stayed very close to the original human norm. Instead, they developed a set of extraordinary cultural adaptations which appear to have been designed both to discourage wandering and to maintain a rigid psychological distance between one village and the next.

Underlying these adaptations was the concept of group identity — a concept which one anthropologist a few years back suggested had not even existed prior to 20,000 years ago. Suddenly, people were not only thinking in terms of us vs. them but were modifying their ancient myths and rituals to reinforce the identification of the individual with the group and nurture a constant state of hostility and fear towards other groups.

The result was a highly stable social structure that enabled villages to be packed together as tightly as available resources allowed. But it came at the cost of a considerable loss of individual freedom, along with a high level of anxiety, obsession, and fear of the outside world.

The lifestyle of these tropical gardeners was considerably more sophisticated than that of the northern hunters, but there was also something very claustrophobic about it. The 19th century Europeans who recoiled from the “savages” they encountered in their explorations may have been indulging their own need to feel superior — but they weren’t altogether wrong in seeing these peoples as having surrendered much of their own potential for personal and cultural evolution.

That wasn’t all that was sacrificed, however, as people retreated into their own local groups. Whether you look at the incipient biological specialization of the north or the cultural fragmentation of the south, it’s clear that the original unity of the human population had been lost.

When we modern humans were few, we knew ourselves to be all one people. When we were still in contact with our more archaic cousins, we had a basis for identifying our own special nature. But when we became many and there was no one left to compare ourselves with, our awareness of our unity and singularity was lost — and with it our sense of purpose.

The narrow horizons and xenophobia of the tropical gardeners both grew out of and further reinforced the loss of a sense of unity. And as that extreme tunnel vision took hold, a certain kind of higher wisdom became unobtainable.

It may not be possible to say precisely what degree of self-knowledge was present before the great forgetting — but it’s clear that we have spent the millennia since trying to get it back. Religions and ideologies, empires and nation-states all represent attempts to reclaim that original sense of wholeness and purpose.

And even today, as we strive to create the first truly planetary culture in 20,000 years, it is that dream which drives us on.


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.

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3 Responses to “A Lost World”

  1. allynh says:

    I for one, welcome our slime Overlords.

    Slime Molds Are Earth’s Smallest, Oldest Farmers

    As above, so below.

  2. allynh says:

    This is a link to an article in the ForteanTimes.

    Ooze around the maze
    Intelligent slime moulds are now showing up in laboratory testing
    By David Hambling
    February 2011

    In the article there is a NewScientist pay link, but I found an alternate site with video.

    What a maze-solving oil drop tells us of intelligence

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