The Spectre of the PastCory Panshin on March 1, 2011
After I’d finished my previous entry arguing for the existence of a global civilization 50,000 years ago, I recalled that I’d attempted to write something similar a few years back. So I pulled out my old notes and partial draft and found them offering many of the same conclusions, though in rougher form and without the benefit of the latest discoveries.
My primary focus in that earlier version, however, was on a point that I haven’t previously touched on here.
I believe there is a crucial message about the past that we’ve been trying to get across to ourselves for over a century. Ever since we started digging up ruins and translating old inscriptions in the 1830’s and 40’s, we’ve been haunted by a sense of something enormous and ancient and unexplained lying just underneath our feet.
Conventional accounts of prehistory seem designed to ward off that disquieting perception, but it stubbornly hangs on. The irreducible fact is that the last 5000 years of recorded history are like a small house built over an ancient and cavernous basement, whose true extent and contents we do not yet fully comprehend.
The realization that our own past is largely unknown crept up on the Victorians gradually, but by the end of the 19th century it had become undeniable. In 1890, for example, the young H.G. Wells wrote an essay titled “The Rediscovery of the Unique,” which emphasized the limits of scientific knowledge using a metaphor that appears to be drawn specifically from the study of prehistory:
“Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room — in moments of devotion, a temple — and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated — darkness still.”
By the 1890’s, there were two very different ways to fill in that darkness, at least as far as the human past was concerned. One was to depict prehistory as a long, slow process of ape-men and savages groping their way from one chance discovery to another until they stumbled over the threshold of civilization. Wells himself wrote a story of that sort in 1897, in which a smarter-than-your-average Neanderthal, living in a world ruled by the imperatives of sex and violence, accidentally invents the first club and kills his enemies to become master of his tribe.
The other possibility was to project the “philosophical systems” and “human comfort and beauty” that Wells had derided back into the depths of time. This highly romantic alternative gave rise to the lost race story, in which the remote past was populated with advanced civilizations, typically possessing technological knowledge and occult wisdom beyond anything known in the present day.
At the time, Wells’ version of the past appeared to be the more realistic — but it hasn’t worn altogether well. In light of the sophisticated glue-making technology needed to create the first hafted tools, for example, Wells’ picture of “Ugh the Thinker” idly poking a stick through a hole in a rock and finding himself with a functional weapon looks rather ludicrous. Our earliest ancestors almost certainly had more in common, both intellectually and morally, with the ladies and gentlemen of the lost race story than with Wells’ casually murderous and cannibalistic savages.
But there’s a more significant difference between these two images of prehistory than the simple question of which is truer to fact.
In the Wellsian scenario, the past is a era of subhuman brutes. “A Story of the Stone Age” is designed to offer readers a thrilling taste of primeval blood-lust while assuring them of both their own superiority and that of late Victorian society in general.
But the lost race genre provides a very different message. Under the guise of simple pulp adventure, it tells us that the world is much larger and human possibility greater than we commonly realize. It suggests that there were past civilizations whose achievements surpassed our own, and it warns that our contemporary civilization is not exempt from meeting the same fate as its predecessors if it fails to curb its arrogance and self-regard.
That is ultimately a far more subversive message than the notion that we are descended from club-wielding ape-men. It tells us that we are not the favored children of creation and that our current political order is not the highest form of social organization. It states clearly that change is not only desirable but inevitable, and that makes it dangerous.
Lost race stories flourished up until World War I, when the prospect of an imminent collapse of Western civilization made their message of change too unsettling to serve as light entertainment. The one author of the 1920’s who managed to draw effectively on the most negative aspects of the lost race story was H.P. Lovecraft, who took the form to its ultimate extension as cosmic horror. Here he is in 1926, offering a terrified riff on Wells’ evocations of darkness:
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
By the time “The Call of Cthulhu” was published, however, Western civilization was ready to step back from the abyss. Archaeology had gotten beyond its initial stage of wild speculation by then and had arrived at a highly compressed chronology that restricted all of human history to not much more than 40,000 years — a period brief enough to exclude the rise and fall of ancient lost civilizations.
And yet the lost race story refused to die. In the early 1930’s, it took up residence in two new genres, first sword and sorcery and then science fantasy — the more romantic cousin of science fiction, in which explorers from Earth regularly encountered the mysterious remnants of earlier space-faring civilizations.
During the 1940’s and 50s, these two genres came to be seen as pulpish and disreputable, but the 1960’s brought the first of several revivals of romantic sf. By now, lost civilizations, elder races, and ancient high tech are firmly entrenched in both galactic SF and heroic fantasy.
Meanwhile, genetic studies and new dating methods have extended the time span of our own species from 40,000 years to 200,000 years. This might seem to put us back in the Wellsian darkness, wondering how to fill in the blank spaces — except that our attitudes towards the past are now very different than they were in 1890.
Thanks in large part to the emergence of the multiculturalism vision, we no longer see ourselves as innately superior to either non-Western peoples or early modern humans. As a result, the challenge becomes one of figuring out what our brainy, curious, and highly experimental ancestors might have found worthy to occupy their attention through all those centuries.
The best answer I can offer is that they were engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. They spent the first 150,000 years inventing science and tinkering with magic, devising kinship systems of mind-numbing complexity, and exploring their own inner landscapes. By 50,000 years ago, they were developing sophisticated forms of art and music and turning language into a suitable vehicle for profound philosophical observations. And by perhaps 20,000 years ago, they had begun transforming the world around them in ways that ultimately made our own civilization possible.
It might be fair to say that this account blends the Wellsian narrative of gradual progress with the lost race concept of people much like ourselves exhibiting a sophisticated mastery of their environment. But such a synthesis still leaves out one crucial element — which is my sense that the achievements of the remote past have haunted not just the last century but all of recorded history.
I concluded that draft of a half dozen years ago by writing, “Since the Ice Age ended, there have been repeated attempts to get back to that original point of unified self-awareness and cultural mastery. The sea-traveling sun-worshipers and megalith-builders of the late Neolithic, whose enigmatic monuments overlay what must previously have been small, isolated cultural zones. The megalomaniacal empire-builders of the Bronze and Iron Ages, from Sargon the Great to Alexander the Great. The competing world-religions of the late classical era: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism.”
I then went on to condemn both imperial coercion and dogmatic indoctrination as clumsy attempts to replicate the original global civilization, poor imitations devised by people who had lost any real awareness of human oneness. And I expressed a hope that we are finally coming to “a recognition of the need for human reunification to be a process that starts at the grassroots and cuts across all the divisions and mutual antagonisms.”
If that hope is justified, than our preoccupation over the last century with rediscovering the remote past and establishing our true place in the long span of human history is no coincidence, but represents a rising into consciousness of materials that we have always known on a mythic level. And that would be the true meaning of the message that we keep trying to tell ourselves.
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