Searching for the Dawn

on July 18, 2014

Much of what I’ve written at this blog has involved tracing out human history in terms of a succession of visions of the nature of reality.

Each of these visions begins as an attempt to account for an entire area of human existence using a limited set of premises and conclusions. Once a vision matures, it expands its scope to become a general philosophy of life, but at the cost of losing much of its inner coherence. The tensions and contradictions this sets up ultimately lead to the birth of a new vision, founded on very different premises, while the parent vision becomes increasingly rigid and intolerant and finally collapses.

At least, that’s the story as I’ve been telling it up to now. I’ve tended to treat the visions as a closed system, with each one being influenced by visions drawn from other areas of experience but not by anything outside the system. I’ve occasionally speculated that there must be an outside factor which launched the cycle of visions in the remote past and has since kept it in motion, but I haven’t ever managed to pin down just what that might be.

Since last winter, however, I’ve been examining what I’ve called the “underground stream” — a persistent current of occultism and magical thinking that is cruder and less intellectual than the visions but also more idealistic and romantic — and I’m coming to believe that could be my missing X factor.

But I’m also starting to feel in over my head. When I look at 1940s science fiction, I can see the underground stream coexisting with the more formal structures of the visions, but I haven’t been able to trace out any consistent pattern of cause and effect between the two. For that matter, I still have no idea whether the magical view of existence is in any sense objectively “true” or is just the way we humans react when we become dimly aware of spooky goings-on in obscure corners of our minds over which we are not the master.

So I’m going to do what I’ve done several times before and shift gears. I’m going to set the 1940s aside and turn back to our earliest ancestors and the question of how the system of visions might have begun and evolved to its current state.

I last wrestled with that question over a year ago, in a series of entries that began with How It All Got Started and concluded with Reconsiderations. By the end of that series, I’d gotten bogged down in an increasingly granular consideration of how older visions lose their mojo and new ones are born — which was why I switched over to the 20th century in hopes of finding greater clarity.

Now, for much the same reason, I’m switching back again. However, recent discoveries have opened up some radically new windows on the past, so my intention is to start by laying out a much broader context in space and time and relocating the materials of my earlier entries within it.

Much of the focus of those earlier entries was on trying to figure out a slow, incremental process that could have given rise to the current wildly elaborate system of interlocking visions. The solution I arrived at was one in which that complexity developed very gradually between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.

But this implied a preceding period when the initial visions were already developing but were comparatively simple and unadorned, in part because they had no predecessors to vie with for control of the intellectual space. And it struck me that this period — the authentic Dreamtime — could easily go back 350,000 years or more.

That seemed like an incredibly early date for our not-yet-fully-human ancestors to have been creating abstract models of the world around them, but I couldn’t see any way around it. And now various lines of evidence are converging to suggest that it may not be as ridiculous as I had feared.

For example, there are growing doubts about the calibration of the so-called “molecular clock,” which uses changes in our DNA to calculate when our species originated and the timing of our migrations. According to those calculations, we could not have left Africa much before 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. But archaeologists working on the Arabian peninsula have found 125,000 year old tools with clear African affinities and insist that the DNA dates cannot possibly be correct.

Another study recently concluded on the basis of a detailed study of early fossils that our own line must have separated from that of the Neanderthals at least a million years ago, rather than the mere 450,000 suggested by our DNA.

If these revisions are correct, it would mean that the date for the origin of our own species should also be adjusted, from the current figure of 200,000 years ago to 400,000 or 450,000. That would certainly provide ample time for the gradual development of the earliest visions. However, it also takes us back into a period of human evolution about which very little is known.

The oldest fossil evidence of early modern humans is a skull from Ethiopia, dated to 160,000 years ago, that is almost identical to our own except for its slightly greater robustness. Another Ethiopian skull, dated at 195,000 years, displays a mixture of modern and archaic features, and a similar skull fragment from South Africa has been dated to 260,000 years ago.

However, other early remains from Africa, such as the Kabwe skull (originally known as Broken Hill or Rhodesian man) are considerably more primitive. They could be our ancestors, but there’s no way to know for sure. And though the chronology can be pushed back a bit further by some spears found in Ethiopia that were recently determined to be at least 276,000 years old and which are technologically sophisticated enough to suggest they were made by members of our own species, beyond that the trail goes cold

On the other hand, it may be possible to pick up the scent at an earlier point in the Middle East. Scientists working at the Qesem Cave in Israel recently announced that the Acheulo-Yabrudian culture that flourished there between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago shows “signs of substantial changes in human behavior and biology that commenced with the appearance in the region of new forms of culture — and indeed a new human species — about 400,000 years ago.”

Their discoveries include an unprecedented and highly efficient system of tool production, as well as “evidence of a division of space within the cave.” They note that “the cave inhabitants used each space in a regular manner, conducting specific tasks in predetermined places. Hunted prey, for instance, was taken to an appointed area to be butchered, barbequed and later shared within the group, while the animal hide was processed elsewhere.” In addition, a 300,000 year old hearth surrounded by burnt animal bones demonstrates that the cave’s inhabitants had attained significant mastery over the use of fire.

All these factors are precisely what would be expected of the people who came up with the earliest of the visions. They display an impulse to regularize and categorize the natural world. They suggest a quantum leap in language, including a major expansion of vocabulary and perhaps the invention of verb tenses to to specify past and future events. They provide the basis for a belief in the transformative powers of fire, which I’ve repeatedly suggested was central to that initial vision.

If the Israeli claims prove to be correct, we might speculate that these archaic humans expanded from the Middle East into Africa, starting perhaps 340,000 years ago when an ice age was coming to an end. There are also tantalizing hints of an eastern migration in the form of certain Chinese fossils that have been securely dated to 80,000 to 100,000 years ago — and potentially even earlier — and that are described as showing a mixture of archaic and modern features.

Thiose archaic Chinese are unlikely to have been descendents of the early modern humans who reached Arabia about 125,000 years ago and India around 80,000 years ago. They would fit in much better with an earlier migration that left the Middle East more than 200,000 years ago, possibly interbreeding with Neanderthals or Denisovans along the way.

In any number of ways, this scenario of an initial phase of archaic culture between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago fits in extremely well with the ideas I’ve developed here about the earliest visions.

The transformation vision of the natural world, with its emphasis on categorization and regularization, matches up with those first signs of a cognitive leap.

The kinship vision, which extended the same organizational principles to human society, can be associated with the expansion of this archaic culture and the resulting need to maintain a sense of unity with distant kin.

And the spirit vision of the earliest shamans may conceivably have emerged in Africa around 250,000 years ago as a result of the greater availability there of psychedelic plants.

But whatever adventures these archaic modern humans may have been getting up to came to an end around 195,000 years ago when ice age conditions set in. The bearers of the Acheulo-Yabrudian vanished from the Middle East, replaced by more cold-adapted Neanderthals who brought their Mousterian culture with them from Europe. For the next 70,000 years, our own ancestors were confined to Africa, where they made the final evolutionary leap from archaic to early modern.

The precise nature of that leap is unknowable — but it appears to have profoundly affected the nature of the visions, which began to grow more practical and less visionary. My best guess is that the earliest visions had been intimately associated with the underground stream, but that in us fully modern humans the relationship was disrupted. And that has made us the paradoxical and often conflicted beings we are today.

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