Times of Great Fear

on February 4, 2011

In writing about the remote past, I’ve had two primary objectives. One is to use the cycle of historical visions that I’ve developed based on events of the last few centuries to shed light on the vast blank spaces of prehistory. And the other is to use the known facts of prehistory to better understand the cycle of visions.

In previous entries, I’ve suggested that the first three visions were formed as much as 200,000 years ago, when the earliest modern humans began to shape their knowledge of the world into coherent theories: the transformative vision to structure their observations of the natural world, the kinship vision to codify their social relationships, and the spirit vision to explain the powerful inner experiences of the early shamans.

I’ve further suggested that the transformative and kinship visions came together in the first dominant partnership around 100,000 years ago, following a complex intellectual process that may initially have been catalyzed by the spirit vision but which ultimately subordinated that vision’s more disruptive, trickster-like aspects to a need for social stability and order.

And I’ve speculated that a vast disillusionment resulting from the return of ice age conditions 75,000 years ago could have prompted the first “romantic break,” when people lost faith in the ability of the transformative-and-kinship partnership to explain an increasingly hostile world and turned instead to the spirit vision for guidance.

If that was so, then the lost of faith would have been most far-reaching in the Middle East, where modern humans were nearly wiped out by the extreme cold and drought. And the people of that area who moved further north after the cold moderated 50,000 years ago would have carried with them a growing dedication to both the spirit vision and the newly-emergent cosmic order vision — a dedication reflected in the great cave art of Europe.

But there is always more going on during a romantic break than simply an idealistic search for alternatives. The loss of faith also generates a variety of negative reactions, ranging from bizarre extremes of thought and action to profound cynicism and self-doubt. Eventually the dominant partnership is able to regroup and make a comeback by offering a return to stability and certainty.

Any attempt to restore the dominance of the transformative-and-kinship partnership would presumably have been most effective in the tropics, where the impact of the romantic break had been weaker from the start. And the culture of the village gardeners, which I discussed in the previous two entries, suggests that such a revival was in full swing between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago.

But what really intrigues me is the question of what happened before then — between, say, 50,000 and 20,000 years ago. The ultimate payoff for shutting down a romantic break is improved social cohesion, but this typically comes at a terrible price in the form of forcible repression of dissident elements. So what might such a repression have looked like in the context of the late ice age?

The most recent case of a partnership reasserting its dominance occurred in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, when the US government cracked down on environmental activists and computer hackers. Both these groups were dedicated to the emerging holism vision and saw themselves as rebelling against an establishment that had no interest in protecting either the natural world or the free flow of information. But from the perspective of the democracy-and-chaos partnership, they were willful troublemakers who deserved only to be treated as criminals.

As repressions go, however, that one was fairly mild. The McCarthyite witch-hunts which gripped the United States from 1947 to 1954 provide a far more dramatic example of panic and paranoia temporarily taking over an entire culture.

The great underlying fear in the years immediately following World War II was the threat of nuclear annihilation. In retrospect, that threat was clearly the product of the science-and-democracy partnership, which had fostered both the physical science that created the atomic bomb and the democratic exceptionalism that made it seem acceptable to use it. But the moral responsibility of the dominant partnership was a truth that could not be uttered.

Instead the fear was projected outward — most often onto some expression of the emerging chaos vision. For the intellectually inclined, that projection might involve a fatalistic belief that human irrationality and aggression would make World War III inevitable. But for the population at large, it was far more satisfactory to find external enemies to demonize.

The nominal topic of the investigations carried on by Senator Joe McCarthy was communist subversion, but in more general terms it was “un-Americanism” — which is to say, the inability to conform to ordinary social norms. And its most prominent targets were creative figures who in some way reflected the individualism and unorthodoxy of the chaos vision, ranging from atomic scientists to Hollywood screenwriters.

Could there have been a similar outbreak of existential terror, denial, projection, unrestrained paranoia, and scapegoating in the late ice age? I believe that there was, and that the key to its nature lies in the word which we still use to describe these episodes: witch-hunts. But where the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era were metaphorical, those of the late ice age were literal.

It is an extraordinary fact that among the two most ancient peoples of Africa — the Bushmen and the Pygmies — there is little or no belief in malevolent sorcery. Their shamans operate through communal rituals and form an integral part of the social fabric.

But those archaic cultures are the exception. In most of Africa, as well as in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, and Australia, attitudes towards shamanism are governed by a sharp dichotomy. On one hand, there are the sorcerers or witches whose supposed malevolence is blamed for every kind of illness and misfortune. On the other, there are the “medicine men” or “witch doctors” whose job it is to dispel curses and offer protection against black magic.

How could such a paranoid and unfounded system of beliefs ever have come into being? The condescending 19th century dismissal of these attitudes as “primitive superstition” is undercut by the fact that they are not present among the Bushmen and Pygmies. This suggests that the fear of witchcraft arose at a particular moment in human history — no doubt based on what seemed at the time like irrefutable scientific evidence.

I believe that the nature of that evidence can be found in the fear of disease, which appears to have been a central preoccupation for most of human history — but which may have become particularly acute in the late ice age.

Recent genetic studies have concluded that the rate of human evolution accelerated significantly beginning 50,000 years ago — and that the need to develop resistance to diseases was probably a major cause. This suggests to me that when the human population began to increase, the incidence of mystifying new diseases increased as well.

As people lived closer together, epidemics became able to spread rapidly from village to village. As they began to cultivate wild plants and animals, they became more susceptible to picking up some novel infection. And in a cruel paradox, this vulnerability would have been greatest among the cultures that were by every other standard the most advanced.

The transformative-and-kinship partnership was no doubt glad to take credit for the scientific and social advances of the day, but not for the corruption, disease, and death that went along with them. So that fear was projected outward — onto strangers, onto people of other villages, and particularly onto the shamanistic representatives of the spirit vision.

And the eventual conclusion would have been that malevolent sorcery was the cause of every kind of misfortune.

To some extent, the shamans may have brought that suspicion upon themselves. The monkey-wrenchers of the 1980’s, after all, were eager to defy the law in the name of preserving the environment. Early computer hackers (including a then-teenaged Julian Assange) saw nothing wrong with breaking into government computers just to look around. And it seems quite possible that the shamans of the ice age may have been an equally rowdy bunch of non-conformists and outright troublemakers.

Even in recent times, the shamans of the far north — of Siberia and of the Inuit cultures of North America — appear to have maintained that kind of rowdiness. The accounts of explorers and anthropologists from a century ago frequently portray them as violent, self-willed, a bit mad, and more than slightly anti-social. They do as they like, terrorize others into acquiescence, and may even accuse one another of using their occult powers to injure or kill.

These outlaw stances are tolerated because the shamans’ knowledge and personal flexibility are essential to the survival of the group under harsh conditions. But among the more settled and regular cultures further south, there is no need to put up with such antics. Shamans in those societies are forced to toe the line and limit themselves to healing and other socially responsible activities.

But even after the outlaw shamans had been cleaned up and turned into proper medicine men, the template of the evil sorcerer remained. And the fear of sorcery is still as potent in many of these cultures as it ever was — even those that seem otherwise to have made their peace with the modern world.

In much the same way, the fear of communism still lingers in the United States, even though any actual communists were terrorized out of existence in the early 50’s. As a result, the label has been pinned on more and more ludicrous targets, becoming a serious impediment to the formulation of social policy. Like the fear of sorcery, it is something we will have to set aside in order to move 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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