The End of the Dreamtime

on November 23, 2012

If the sketch of the dawning of human awareness that I gave in the previous entry is at all correct, that era would have been the authentic Dreamtime.

Back then, our ancestors possessed a single, unified vision of existence, which they considered to be a perfect reflection of the world around them. In those days, the map truly was the territory, and the map in each mind was identical to the map in every other. Even the world of their dreams was indistinguishable from the world of everyday, and they lived in both simultaneously.

Of course, this single world-vision was not fixed or static but was constantly being amended and enhanced. Much like the internet today, it was subject to a constant, ongoing process of discovery, collaboration, and mutual reinforcement. But the changes were collective ones and it remained a unified vision — until the point came when it was shattered beyond repair.

The source of the problem was the very success of this new experiment in being human, which inevitably led to population growth and an expansion into unfamiliar territories. What had once been a tiny, isolated group of a few hundred close relatives now consisted of thousands of people spread out across a wide area, with each sub-group encountering a slightly different geography and a unique distribution of plants and animals.

They naturally adapted by altering the maps in their minds to match the world outside. But once they did, instead of a single, indivisible vision there was now a multitude of slightly different visions. Instead of a single language, there were hints of distinct dialects with new words being invented to describe local conditions. And because they were no longer able to gather around a common campfire and iron out the differences, those variations took hold and intensified.

And when the diversity became too great to be denied, the Dreamtime was broken.

But although broken, it was not lost. Indeed, it has never been lost. There were still proto-shamans with access to higher knowledge — and the message of higher knowledge is always that true reality is single and undivided, no matter how fragmented it may appear to our limited perceptions.

That message, and the quest it sparked to recover the hidden unity behind all surface appearances, has powered the cycle of visions ever since. Throughout human history, they have followed on one another’s heels, each one aiming to reclaim the lost perfection of the Dreamtime and each succeeding for a time before fragmenting and collapsing in turn.

Of course, no one ever sets out deliberately to invent a new vision. The process always starts intuitively, with the search for a solution to what seems to be a practical problem. And the immediate challenge as the human family became increasingly diverse and scattered was to establish a more expansive basis for affiliation and mutual support.

Modern humans had a good basis for this, in the form of a highly inclusive sense of mutuality. This put them well ahead of their archaic predecessors, who were apparently not equipped to interact on a regular basis with more than a few dozen members of their own species.

According to an article which appeared last winter in New Scientist, “The size and distribution of archaeological sites shows that Neanderthals spent their lives mostly in small groups of five to 10 individuals. Several such groups would come together briefly after especially successful hunts, suggesting that Neanderthals also belonged to larger communities but that they seldom made contact with people outside those groupings.”

The piece further notes that Neanderthals “almost certainly lacked the cognitive abilities for dealing with strangers that evolved in modern humans, who lived in larger groups numbering in the scores and belonged to larger communities in the hundreds or more. They also established and maintained contacts with distant groups.”

Another article from earlier this year argues that “the superiority of Homo sapiens was in their social organization, which developed during the Middle Paleolithic period between 200,000 and 35,000 years ago. This ‘modern’ social organization is characterized by the maintenance of personal relations despite the absence of the persons involved, and over long distances.”

These two descriptions are intriguing for the hints they give of a map-making ability that was flexible enough to apply not only to the natural world but also to far-flung social relationships. However, they are also limited, in that they seem to take human social complexity for granted, as an automatic outcome of our superior “cognitive abilities,” rather than as something that had to be worked out one step at a time over an extended period.

They also overlook the fact that when our species first appeared, there would have been no strangers and no long-distance relationships — just one small group of true humans, all of them children of the same great-grandmother.

No doubt we already possessed the ability to number our acquaintances in the hundreds rather than the dozens, but there would have been no call yet for complex social organization. And once there were enough of us to need such organization, we would have been well beyond the point of making a further evolutionary leap. The basic human skill-set was already firmly in place, and everything that has come since has been built on those capacities.

That is why the problem of maintaining long-range social relationships was solved — for better or worse — by upgrading the map-making ability that we had originally developed to deal with our physical environment.

No one can know every single plant and animal in their environment on a first-name basis, so we categorize them and formulate rules to apply to those categories. And in much the same way, we developed methods for dealing with large numbers of people in terms of categories and rules, rather than as unique individuals.

In kinship systems of an archaic type that still survive today, many of those categories are designed to resolve problems of authority. For example, it may be laid down that any elderly man should be addressed as “grandfather” and respected as one would respect one’s own grandparent.

The most pressing issues, however, have to do with sexuality. On one hand, sexual tensions are a leading source of interpersonal conflict. On the other, stable marriage arrangements can not only reduce those tensions but also provide a basis for mutual support between families. For those reasons, control of sexuality underlies the greatest elaboration of rules and taboos.

Devising a system to override the unruly nature of human sexual attraction could not have been easy, but little by little — perhaps over many generations — it was accomplished. The ancestors of today’s computer hackers were eager to rise to the challenge of constructing an intricate set of abstract categories and the rules by which they operated. And an equally eager network of rowdy old grandfathers and grandmothers was ready to crack heads to enforce its use upon their wayward grandchildren.

But at the same time, all that invention would have been carried out under the guidance of higher knowledge.

Any kinship system embodies a set of formal, mathematical relationships, but the glue which holds it together is each individual’s implicit sense of oneness with the entire human community. Whenever we lose that sense of oneness, we become as isolated and fragmented as Neanderthals. But as long as we maintain it, we know ourselves as one people, no matter how far we have wandered or how altered we may be in appearance.

So the kinship vision would have been based from the start upon a perception of the human community as a single and undivided whole. This enabled it to counterbalance the fragmentation of the older vision based on the natural environment. People living in different locations might have different mind-maps of the world around them — but they could now share a single, unified map of a social order in which they all played a part.

Once again, it became possible to believe that the world of their minds was the same as the world around them and that the world of one mind was identical to that of another.

However, the new vision did not simply replace the older one. It also attempted to restore its wholeness by raising it to a higher level of abstraction.

All kinship systems, no matter how complex in practice, start off with a set of simple, gender-based dualities: Male vs. female. Father vs. mother. Father’s kin vs. mother’s kin. And so forth.

These same dualities are also used in archaic societies to make sense of the natural world, with all the great forces of nature being defined as male vs. female: Fire and water. Drought and rain. Sun and moon. Death and life.

The application of that kind of abstraction to the physical universe marked the birth of science. It meant that the fragmentation of the world of things no longer mattered, because people were now living in a world of universal laws, and all the varying mind-maps could be seen as local reflections of a more complete and perfect original.

At the same time, it marked the birth of philosophy — and of the peculiarly human tendency to regard the maps in our minds as realer and truer than the world around us.

It might seem strange to talk of science and philosophy as existing 300,000 years ago — but it shouldn’t. We may have fancier tech toys these days, and a larger knowledge base to draw upon, but our map-making capacity was fully present from the start, and with it the ability to meditate upon the riddles of existence. Compared to that, all the complex intellectual systems we have elaborated since then amount to no more than bells and whistles.

Read the Previous Entry: Map-Makers and Story-Tellers
Read the Next Entry: The Troublemakers

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