The World Turns Cold

on January 15, 2013

If the story I am telling is correct, a crucial point in human history would have been reached once there were visions of all three types in play. At that moment, it might have seemed that all aspects of human experience had been accounted for and that nothing remained to be added.

There was one vision that encompassed the physical world and its plants and animals. Another focused on human society and the kinship system that held it together. And a third proclaimed the reality of the magical dreamscapes of the early shamans.

In fact, there are some peoples that appear to have gotten along perfectly well with just these three in all the long years since — most notably, the Bushmen, or San, of southern Africa, who genetically, linguistically, and culturally are closer than any other group to the human root.

According to an online summary of their culture, “Their knowledge of both flora and fauna is vast. The San categorized thousands of plants and their uses, from nutritional to medicinal, mystical to recreational and lethal. … Kinship bonds provide the basic framework for political models.”

The site goes on to describe the medicine and rain dances during which “the dancers reached trance-like, altered, states of consciousness and were transported into the spirit realm where they could plead for the souls of the sick.” It also notes that “the most important spiritual being to the southern San was /Kaggen, the trickster-deity. He created many things, and appears in numerous myths where he can be foolish or wise, tiresome or helpful.”

Certain aspects of San culture — such as bows and arrows and representational art — appear to be relatively recent and are unlikely to go back more than some 50,000 years. But even those have been incorporated into a belief system which is clearly much older.

There is a mystery about the San — but the real question, I suspect, is not why they have stayed the same but why the rest of us have changed. All of us except the San have abandoned what would seem to be a simple and functional system in favor of one that is infinitely more complex and fraught with internal tensions.

Not only have we long since set aside those earliest visions, but at some point we launched ourselves into a recurring cycle of visions of the three basic types, with each new vision being designed to address the inadequacies of its predecessor and each one faltering in turn and being discredited and discarded.

This cycle of change was already under way while we were still simple hunter-gatherers, so it can’t have begun as a reaction to new knowledge and new experiences. It appears to be more a cycle of disillusionment, in which we are not satisfied to accept our visions simply as a path to higher knowledge but demand that they solve our worldly problems as well. In so doing, we wear them out, trivialize them, subordinate them to power relationships, and drain them of transcendence. And then we toss them aside and move on.

As far as what might have prompted the initial step in that direction, I can see two likely factors — one internal and the other external.

The first factor is that there’s an inherent instability to any set of three visions. They are drawn from different areas of human experience and reach very different conclusions about the ultimate locus of transcendence. And though it appears possible to reconcile any two successive visions, the first and third in the sequence can never be made perfectly compatible — at least not without stretching one of them badly out of shape.

I suggested a few entries back that when the kinship vision arose, it was reconciled with the existing vision of the physical world by interpreting natural phenomena as manifestations of the same male-female dichotomy that is the central organizing principle for kinship. The San, for example, recognize a series of such dualities, including sun and moon, fire and water, and drought and rain.

And then, when the shamans developed their own vision of existence, it was reconciled with the kinship vision through the concept of the Dreamtime, which was conceived both as an era of animal people and magic and also as the time of the ancestors and of the creation of human society.

But there was no obvious way to make these two reconciliations come out even. Was the present world a perfect and unchanging manifestation of an implicit higher order? Or did the true locus of transcendence lie in the remote past, when everything had been the opposite of what it was now? It could be one or the other, but it surely couldn’t be both.

This wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem at first. The example of recent history shows that it’s perfectly possible for rationalism and romanticism to co-exist within the same society, or even within a single individual. But it was a potential weak spot — a crack in the eternal order of things. And when the world itself began to change in ways that could not be ignored, that crack turned into a chasm.

According to the recent revision of the genetic clock that I am following, the first modern humans appeared perhaps some 350,000 years ago. This was just about the same time as a major ice age came to an end — and for the next 150,000 years, there were only a few relatively brief and modest downturns in the climate. As a result, the childhood of our species was truly an endless summer.

But soon after 200,000 years ago, a new ice age set in, and the long summer came to an end.

There are no glaciers in Africa during an ice age, but the climate turns significantly colder and drier. The deserts and grasslands expand at the expense of the rainforests, which contract and almost vanish. Under the most extreme conditions, only a narrow strip along the coast may remain hospitable to human life.

That was the case during the coldest phases of the most recent ice age, the one which began about 75,000 years ago. And the ice age before that, which lasted from roughly 200,000 to 130,00 years ago, was, if anything, deeper and more extended. That would have posed a brutal threat to a human community that had until then been steadily expanding and growing more secure.

Some researchers believe that our species became all but extinct during that time, barely hanging on along the coasts of southern Africa, where there was a unique abundance of resources.

This has been criticized as an overly extreme scenario, and it does seem more probable that humans would have survived in a number of separate refuges. For one thing, there is DNA evidence of a prolonged split between the ancestors of the San in southern Africa and the ancestors of all other modern humans — a split which is likely to turn out when the dates are more securely pinned down to have coincided with the ice age.

What strikes me most strongly, however, is that a combination of both these lines of argument could provide a satisfactory explanation for the puzzling origin of the cycle of visions.

Let us suppose that the proto-San, with the good fortune to inhabit the last really hospitable corner of the continent, were able to preserve their ancient way of life — and with it, the original system of the first three visions.

And let us also suppose that at least one other human community, probably located further north along the East African coast, also managed to survive the great cold — but with more difficulty and only by undergoing a number of changes.

Some of those changes were probably biological, since most present-day people are larger-bodied and more robust than the San. But we were already fully human and able to react as humans always do to crisis, which means that the majority of adaptations would have been technological — probably involving greater mastery of fire, the use of cooking to extract more nutrients from available resources, and the invention of clothing.

And that would have had a profound effect on the system of visions.

In recent times all scientifically-based visions have undergone a narrowing of focus as they mature and take on responsibility for the preservation of society. They give up their claims to transcendence and become both more theoretical and more practical.

That is what happened to the scientific materialism vision in the early 1800s, when the practice of science became professionalized and closely tied to the ongoing Industrial Revolution. It’s about to happen to the holism vision, just as soon as the world gets serious about climate change. And I believe it must have happened for the first time some 200,000 years ago, when people discovered they were no longer living in a world that supplied all their material needs and realized they would have to get inventive and show some hustle in order to survive.

As part of that change in emphasis, the original scientifically-based vision would have shifted from an image of static perfection to one of constant change and malleability. It would have become what I was calling it in entries a few years back — the transformation vision — and it would have focused both on natural processes of growth and decay and on the human ability to bring about useful changes for our own purposes.

That original image of perfection would not simply have evaporated, however, since it was a reflection of higher knowledge. Instead, visionaries and dreamers would have turned their attention in a new direction — away from the earth and towards the heavens, where the sun, moon, and stars maintained their unvarying courses, even as the world below changed out of all recognition. And as one vision gave up its transcendent aspirations, a new one would have been born.

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