The Old Ones

on November 8, 2010

As anybody who’s been following this blog will be aware, I’ve been gradually laying out a theory of human history as driven by a succession of differing visions of the nature and meaning of existence.

Each of these visions appears to arise out of a fusion of practical knowledge derived from one area of human experience with intimations of higher oneness underlying the flux and seeming randomness of everyday life. And every vision has its time of burgeoning, then enjoys a period of cultural dominance, and eventually becomes unable to respond to changing circumstances and is discarded.

The three most ancient visions that emerged before modern humans left Africa all drew upon millions of years of practical experience — enhanced by a new capacity for keeping track of fine details — but they were also inspired by a determination to penetrate the underlying structure and meaning of that experience.

In the scientifically-based transformative vision, a growing expertise in modifying stone and plant materials through the alchemical use of fire and water became the basis of a general theory of existence as an unending series of transformations. This philosophical understanding was then extended to encompass the great mysteries of birth and death, growth and decay.

In the socially-based kinship vision, the ability to keep track of not only immediate family members but also more distant cousins was elaborated into a complex set of social rules and relationships that eventually came to govern every aspect of life.

And in the inner experience-based spirit vision, the shamanistic use of trance and dream as a source of knowledge and healing was interpreted as reflecting a spiritual power that pervades all of existence.

These first three visions would eventually wear thin, lose touch with the changing facts of existence, spark disillusionment, and become rigid and repressive. And as they did, new visions would emerge to supersede them, based on more extensive scientific knowledge, new degrees of social complexity, and more sophisticated interpretations of inner experience.

But until that happened, those three visions would form an extremely stable configuration — with the transformative and kinship visions closely bound together in a dominant partnership that established the parameters of everyday life, while the shamans served as wild, countercultural trickster figures, inserting a necessary touch of disorder around the edges.

That configuration did not develop all at once, of course. My best guess is that the first three visions emerged one after the other, starting some 200,000 years ago, and that for a long while they each existed in their own distinct sphere.

But at some point, an audacious attempt was made to draw all three visions together into a single philosophical synthesis. And the example of aspiration which it set — along with the deformations it inevitably imposed on the formerly separate visions — triggered the ongoing series of adjustments, interactions, and replacements which I have labeled “the dance of the visions.”

The circumstances of that first grand synthesis are now almost unimaginable — but I do have a few guesses to offer.

For one thing, it must have occurred either before modern humans left Africa for the Middle East or at a time when they still had regular cultural interchange with the folks back home. That would suggest a time frame somewhere around 125,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Another clue is provided by the archaeological evidence that something important was going on throughout Africa and the Middle East about 80,000 to 70,000 years ago. The widespread technological and artistic innovations at that time, which indicate both the development of long-distance exchange networks and a leap in symbolic awareness, might be taken as representing the classical flowering of the new philosophical synthesis.

Beyond that limited amount of physical evidence, the story becomes more speculative — but based on my knowledge of the recent visions, I suspect the original synthesis was the work of either a single brilliant individual or a limited number of like-minded individuals.

Even in our contemporary world, where the human population is numbered in the billions, the task of moving the visions forward tends to be carried out by small handfuls of innovators who all move in the same circles. Back when the population amounted to no more than a few tens of thousands, that would have been even more the case.

I would also guess that the synthesizers were early shamans who were in the process of developing a far more focused awareness of their own inner experiences — possibly with the aid of psychedelic plants — and were eager to apply this understanding to the two previous visions as well.

Something similar has certainly been the standard pattern in recent times. It seems as though the formation of each new dominant partnership requires the catalytic influence of a third vision which is still in its emergent phase.

I have previously discussed, for example, how the formation of the science-and-democracy partnership in the 1930’s became possible only after the impact of the emerging chaos vision had forced those two more established visions to become less deterministic, less hierarchical, and generally looser and more flexible.

The emerging holism vision had a similar impact on the democracy and chaos visions in the early 70’s, infusing both of them with something of its own systems-based and participatory attitude.

And in much the same way, I can see the shamanistic adherents of the emerging spirit vision applying their new concept of an inner spiritual force to explain both the mysterious transformations undergone by rocks tossed in the fire and the invisible bonds of kinship connecting distant relatives.

That animistic outlook would initially have been almost incomprehensible to anyone who did not share its founders’ special perspective — but there were a number of ways in which it might have been expressed and transmitted.

One was the practice of initiation. The simple forms of shamanism found among the most ancient cultures — such as the Khoisan of South Africa or the pygmies — tend to be based on group participation in trance-inducing dances or other communal activities. But fully developed shamanism is transmitted from teacher to pupil through a long initiatory process involving induced experiences of higher consciousness together with education as to the meaning of those experiences.

A second means of transmission might have been through a specialized use of language. For the archaic Homo sapiens of 500,000 years ago, language had probably been confined to a few hundred words describing concrete objects and actions, strung together with only the barest minimum of grammatical structure. The early modern humans of 200,000 years ago may have been engaged in adding all those little words and grammatical rules that define the subtle relationships between things and events — relationships in time and space, personal relationship between the speaker and other people or objects, causal relationships among actions.

But there is yet another level of language, which has to do with the description of inner experience and is conveyed largely by metaphor. Think, for example, of the wide range of metaphors we use even now to express emotional states. At one moment, we may be feeling bright or bubbly or like we’re floating on air, while at another we’re down or in the dumps or we’ve got the blues.

Even emotional terms whose original meaning has long been forgotten turn out to have the same sort of metaphorical origin. “Sad” originally meant “sated, having eaten one’s full.” “Happy” at one time meant “lucky” and before that was “suitable, fitted for a purpose.”

My guess is that words of this sort, as well as others describing states of higher consciousness, were invented by shamans to talk among themselves and instruct their disciples and only gradually infiltrated the everyday vocabulary.

But perhaps the greatest invention of that time was myth. Myths are stories which provide a convenient formula for expressing certain insights about the world in a manner than is attractive enough to be repeated and passed along verbatim, even by those who do not understand their deeper content. In this way, myths may serve to transmit messages across thousands of miles and thousands of years until they encounter a suitable recipient.

The most ancient myths are essentially the same throughout the world, leaving no doubt that they were already established well before the people who had settled in the Middle East began to lose contact with the home folks back in Africa. These are the trickster stories that tell of the first people and of how things came to be the way they are now — of how birth and death came into the world, of the theft of fire, and of how men stole the implements of power from women.

The earliest versions of these stories appear to have focused on providing answers to scientific questions raised by the transformative vision. At a slightly later point, the kinship vision took the lead and the focus shifted to society — so that the people of the dreamtime, for example, came to be described as the ancestors of present-day clans, rather than as animal people who preceded true humans.

Of the spirit vision itself there is little direct sign in these stories. That would come much later, in the myths and fairy tales of the Neolithic. But the irreverent personalities and raucous humor of the ancient shamans are clearly reflected in the nature of their protagonists — the vulgar, greedy, and foolish trickster figures who are nonetheless creators of everything that exists and whose choices have set the pattern for human life ever since.

Related:

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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