How It All Got Started

on September 8, 2012

In my two most recent entries, I discussed how the cycle of visions has operated over the last 150 years and then traced that same pattern back to the late Paleolithic. But the question that really preoccupies me is what happened before then — where the cycle of visions came from and how it got established in its present form.

The mechanisms that maintain the cycle are extraordinarily complex. I’ve previously compared them to a Rube Goldberg device, where one small shift in the relationship among the visions provokes another shift and then another, in a remarkably precise manner that keeps the the rise and fall of successive worldviews precisely on track. But how could that sort of complexity have arisen out of nowhere?

This question is essentially the same as the question of evolution in general — and our society offers two very different answers. The intelligent design folks argue that you can’t have watches without watchmakers and that the presence of design implies a Designer. The evolutionists counter that nature is self-organizing and that complex innovations can arise through a series of simple adaptations, each of which has its own immediate utility.

When it comes to the cycle of visions, I’m willing to admit a pinch of intelligent design — with the proviso that we humans are ourselves the designers. It is, after all, part of our endowment to have dreamed ourselves into being at every step of the way, starting when the first proto-shamans awakened to their own nature on the plains of Africa 200,000 years ago and began to reshape the world.

But although self-creation may be part of the story, the element of conscious control is not particularly apparent in early turns of the cycle. The worldviews of the Paleolithic, the Neolithic, and the Bronze Age all appear to have been toppled by an abrupt deterioration in the climate, and it is only in the latter days of the Roman Empire that we see a worldview crapping out just because it has become oppressive and stifling and people are thoroughly sick of it.

So I believe the origin of the cycles demands a more evolutionary model — one in which simple adaptations, added one step at a time, eventually come together to form a complete system.

When I initially worked out the succession of worldviews in the early 1970’s, there was no room for an evolutionary model because it was believed that modern humans had appeared only about 45,000 years ago. But since then, the origin of our species has been pushed further and further back in time.

The earliest known remains of anatomically modern humans have been dated to 115,000 years ago. Still earlier skulls found in Ethiopia and dated to 160,000 years ago are nearly modern in appearance, with only minor archaic features. Those remains, combined with signs of sophisticated tool-making technology in South Africa around 164,000 years ago, suggest that our ancestors had already passed through the major changes in brain organization that distinguish us from our cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

DNA studies have further pushed back our origins to some 200,000 years ago — meaning that over the last forty years, the apparent history of the human species has more than quadrupled. And yet there has never been any evidence that the combination of sophisticated art, music, and advanced technology which archaeologists describe as “behavioral modernity” was present before about 50,000 years ago.

It’s my own belief that the late Paleolithic worldview was constructed at precisely that time and was the cause of that sudden burst of symbolic behavior. I also believe this was the very first worldview and there were no others before it — in large part because the three visions which entered into it appear to have been the first of their respective types.

The two dominant visions of the late Paleolithic were the transformation vision — in which the fundamental metaphors of existence were drawn from food and sex, birth and growth, death and decay — and the kinship vision, while the spirit vision of the shamans played the outsider role. There are no hints, in even the oldest beliefs, customs, and stories, of anything earlier than these three.

But without the cyclical rise and fall of worldviews, what could have been going on during the first 150,000 years of our existence as a species? I would suggest that the initial visions themselves took just that long to emerge, mature, and start to generate their own successors.

Until recently, it was my working assumption that each vision gives rise to a successor of its own type around the time it enters its final phase of dominance and starts to lose its integrity. But I’ve come to recognize that although that may be when a new vision first takes on structure and cultural visibility, the roots of every vision go back much further — to the moment when its predecessor attains maturity and begins to give up transcendence in favor of worldly power.

To cite some present-day examples, this means that the earliest intimations of the holism vision can be traced not just to the 1930’s, when ecology and cybernetics emerged as formal disciplines, but to the nature-mystics of the early 1800’s. Similarly, the horizontalism vision did not spring up suddenly in the 1970’s but can be identified as early as the Wobblies of the 1910’s.

If this same pattern holds true for the ancient world, it would mean that the first mystical hints of the revelation vision must have developed not with the high civilizations of the Middle Bronze Age, but among the shaman-priests of the early Neolithic.

It would mean that the earliest glimmerings of the aristocracy vision should be associated not with the appearance of class societies in the late Neolithic but with the big-game hunters of some 75,000 years ago.

And it would throw the origins of the cosmic order vision back even further, perhaps to the days when those big-brained almost-modern humans of 160,000 years ago were gazing at the stars and wondering about that other world that seemed almost near enough to touch but was also eternally beyond reach.

This is a strange scenario. It implies there was an order of extreme intellectual inventiveness in the lives of our remotest ancestors that we today cannot equal. But certain tentative conclusions do present themselves.

One is that the first three visions developed at least 200,000 years ago, when the earliest true humans began to perceive reflections of higher reality in the world around them — initially in the natural world, then in their increasingly complex social structures, and finally in the workings of their own minds.

Those three visions — transformation, kinship, and spirit — guided our footsteps for a long time, but eventually they became too deeply embedded in ordinary life and fell out of touch with higher knowledge. That opened the way for successor visions to emerge.

The rebels and dreamers who stayed up late to watch the stars were seeking something vaster and more eternal than the narrow boundaries and limited lifespans of their everyday lives. The big-game hunters glorying in their own strength and courage — and perhaps also in the luck they hoped to gain through being on good terms with the spirits — chafed against a system in which destinies were sealed by accidents of birth.

But as soon as the first hints of these newer visions appeared, the established visions began to push back. Imagine it, if you like, as old-timers versus young punks. Or people who were still only proto-human being disconcerted by those who were striving to be fully human. But regardless of exactly where the lines were drawn, the upshot was that the original visions planted their feet and refused to budge.

For tens of thousands of years, the old grandmas who were the staunchest defenders of the transformation vision may have successfully ignored the midnight ravings of the stargazers. But then the aristocracy vision began to emerge as well, challenging the deeply rooted taboos of the kinship system.

Ultimately, the social fault lines may have intensified to a point that I imagine as being something like the final phase of the 1960’s counterculture — with a shifting alliance among shamans, geeks, and hunters on one side and the wise old women and men of the transformation and kinship visions on the other. And all of this taking place as a new ice age was setting in and posing a threat to the very survival of humankind.


But just when things look darkest, an extraordinary act of cultural improvisation brought about a solution that satisfied all parties and reconfirmed the bonds of human society.

On one hand, the transformation and kinship visions came together in the first dominant partnership, giving rise to such stabilizing institutions as tribal initiations and other rites of passage. On the other, a protected space was provided for the upstart younger visions by interpreting them as occult truths deeply hidden behind the facade of the dominant worldview and to be revealed fully only to a few.

Such, at least, is the impression given by the culture of Paleolithic Europe, where the Venus figurines associated with fertility and reproduction are found above ground, while the darkness of the caves conceals the secrets of the spirits, of the movements of the heavens, and of the hunt.

It was a brilliant solution, but not a stable one — since every worldview is an artificial construct that must eventually fall into disillusionment and collapse.

Every period of turmoil which follows replicates both the creativity and the escalating social tensions of the time before the first worldview was created. And every such period concludes with a new worldview that represents an attempt to recapture the perfect balance and harmony of that magical moment 50,000 years ago.

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One Response to “How It All Got Started”

  1. breck says:

    You also should look into the four great cycle Yugas from the Vedic tradition.

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