Of Seas and Skies

on September 18, 2007

The standard twentieth century story would have us believe that very little happened between the development of agriculture and the rise of civilization — that it was a time of simple peasant villages, with few interests beyond securing the next harvest and few inventions besides ingenious domestic devices, like the technology of churning butter or spinning flax.

However, it is now becoming clear that the period from roughly 7000 to 4000 BC gave rise to one of humanity’s greatest intellectual breakthroughs — the first scientific cosmology. The movements of the sun and stars were closely tracked and were found to mark out an astonishingly precise four-fold partition of both space (the cardinal directions — north, south, east, and west) and time (the winter and summer solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes.)

This recognition of a profound cosmic order underlying the flux of everyday life completely revolutionized art and religion, transforming the domain of human consciousness from a world of whim and accident to one of order and predictability.

This electrifying discovery has generally been attributed to simple farmers seeking clues on when to plant their crops. It has been described as an inevitable insight once people had settled down to the land and could watch the rising point of the sun move back and forth along the same mountain year after year.

But for those who lived through it, this intellectual revolution was far from obvious. It took careful long-term observation and analysis, carried out over many lifetimes, and the radical alteration in perspective which resulted was as dramatic and unexpected in its own time as those resulting from the Copernican system in the 16th century or Einstein’s relativity in the 20th.

Moreover, it was most likely not farmers who came up with the idea of cosmic order, but a group which had greater need than any other to be aware of celestial movements — seafarers.

Ours is a civilization of landlubbers, and we are not accustomed to thinking of innovation and higher creativity as coming from the seas. Even when faced with evidence of major cultural advances that spread by water and not by land, we are more inclined to invent an unknown continent as their source — an Atlantis — than to admit that they might have originated in a seafaring civilization. But when dealing with the Neolithic, we clearly need to set our our land-bound assumptions aside.

The ending of the Ice Age by about 8000 BC had enabled forests to grow across much of what had previously been open steppe, greatly impeding land-based travel. As a result, the sea became the easiest conduit for the exchange of goods and ideas.

The seafarers of that time, even if nominally fishermen or traders, would have also been the exemplars of a bold new mode of human existence, free and unconstrained, standing in sharp contrast to the peasants onshore. We might even visualize them as the rock stars of their day, dazzling the locals and casually spreading exhilarating new fashions like sun-worship and megalith-building.

There appear to have been two primary networks of Neolithic seaborne civilization. One stretched the length of the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast of Europe from Spain to Ireland. The other was focused in Southeast Asia and Indonesia and extended up the coast of East Asia, particularly influencing the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan. Both may also have achieved some degree of contact with the Americas.

This is an enormous and controversial topic, and one that I cannot do justice to in this present brief post. However, here are some links suggesting both the surprising range of human creativity in this period and the importance of maritime cultures.

Early farmers reach Cyprus by sea (9000’s BC)
Domestic cats reach Cyprus (7500 BC)
‘Earliest writing’ found in China (6600 BC)
Stones that could be Britain’s pyramids (6000 BC)
Archaeologists Unearth German Stonehenge (5000 BC)
Korean Rockart Hints at Whaling Origins (4000 BC)


A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization 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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