Mind on the Edge of Chaos

on August 15, 2009

In recent entries, I have sketched out two different ancient visions of the fundamental principles of existence, which together underlie the beliefs and practices of all archaic societies.

The first of these visions is likely to have grown out of the discovery that natural materials could be altered by means of fire to make them more useful. It emphasizes flux and change and metamorphosis and is closely tied to the mysteries of childbirth and the female body.

The second vision probably began with the elaboration of formal kinship systems that was necessary when humans began to live in social groupings larger than the biological family. In sharp contrast to the first, it emphasizes order, control, and the superseding of natural processes by socially-determined rules and rituals.

The roots of the transformative vision may go back at least 164,000 years, to a time when the earliest modern humans were already engaging in complex alchemical operations. The kinship vision probably began somewhat later, but it was well-established by 80,000 years ago, when archaeological remains first hint at social complexity and long-distance trading networks.

Despite their profound differences, these two visions operate jointly in all present-day archaic societies. Depending on circumstances, either one or the other may predominate. They may be viewed as mutually complementary, as antagonistic, or as some mixture of both. They are often compartmentalized, with the transformative vision being associated with the female sphere and the kinship vision with the male.

Further complicating matters, however, is a third vision which is also present in all archaic societies. That vision involves a belief in things unseen — in spirits, in a long-ago Dreamtime where spirit-people laid down norms for those who came after, and in the possibility of contacting the spirits for guidance through trance or other shamanistic practices.

This third vision appears to be significantly more recent than the other two, and its relationship to them is often disruptive. The shamans who seek contact with the spirits and the trickster figures who feature in narratives of the Dreamtime are marginal and often vulgar figures. Their anarchic and improvisational qualities contrast strongly with the well-established and socially conservative nature of the transformative and kinship visions.

The term “recent” is only relative, of course, since the shamanistic practices and Dreamtime stories associated with the spirit vision are present in archaic societies throughout the world. This means they must have already been familiar to the people who began the great migration out of Africa some 80,000 years ago.

There is no evidence, however, that they go back much further than that. Some recent speculation even raises the possibility that they appeared quite suddenly just before the great migration and may have helped to set it off.

One of the great mysteries in current studies of human origins is that even as archaeology and DNA studies have pushed the appearance of biologically-modern humans further and further back in time, evidence for culturally-modern humans has not kept pace.

It is starting to seem as though there was a period of some 100,000 years during which our ancestors were as smart as we are, as capable as we are, and yet still missing whatever crucial spark of imagination and self-awareness is necessary to produce art and religion and personal ornamentation.

As a result, some archaeologists have suggested that around 80,000 years ago there may have been a final evolutionary leap, perhaps involving a subtle change in brain organization, that brought us from the almost-human to the fully-human.

Here, for example, are some provocative suggestions from an article published last fall concerning the recent finds in southern Africa:

In a cave 70 000 years ago, something strange was beginning to happen. The occupants, who once lived in the cave, were behaving differently from their forefathers. They were producing some of the first examples of jewellery and developing new technologies that were to give them an edge in years to come. …

It was so dramatic that some believe it might originally have been caused by a sudden change in the structure of our ancestor’s brains. …

What they found in the cave were minute seashells that were likely strung together to make a necklace, bone arrowheads and the residues of what is possibly the earliest example of glue. Also present were finely-crafted stone tools never seen before in earlier deposits. …

To archaeology professor Lyn Wadley of Wits University this haul reveals the earliest workings of what she calls complex cognitive behaviour. …

These changes happened in the space of about 5 000 years, an extraordinary short period of time, in the span of evolution. …

What has come out of Sibubu cave could help explain what motivated the first modern humans to migrate out of Africa, about 80 000 years ago.

Even earlier evidence for this new sort of human activity has been found in northern Africa, pushing the time-frame back just a bit further:

Archaeologists from Oxford have discovered what are thought to be the oldest examples of human decorations in the world.

The international team of archaeologists, led by Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology, have found shell beads believed to be 82,000 years old from a limestone cave in Morocco. …

Institute director Prof Nick Barton said: “Bead-making in Africa was a widespread practice at the time, which was spread between cultures with different stone technology by exchange or by long-distance social networks. …

The beads themselves comprise 12 Nassarius shells – Nassarius are molluscs found in warm seas and coral reefs in America, Asia and the Pacific – which had holes in them and appeared to have been suspended or hung. They were covered in red ochre.

Similar beads have been found at sites in Algeria, Israel and South Africa which are thought to date back to around the same time or slightly after the finds from Taforalt.

These two articles suggest that this cultural leap might have been associated with “new technologies” or “long-distance social networks” — which would correspond to the transformative and kinship visions — but far more striking is the offhand suggestion that “some believe it might originally have been caused by a sudden change in the structure of our ancestor’s brains.”

This idea of a “sudden change” in brain structure becomes even more intriguing in the light of certain recent studies which suggest that creativity arises from the ability of the human brain to maintain a precarious balance between chaos and order.

A fascinating summary of this new research appeared in New Scientist just a few weeks ago under the title “Disorderly genius: How chaos drives the brain.” Although the entire article is well worth reading, here are the most relevant statements:

Have you ever experienced that eerie feeling of a thought popping into your head as if from nowhere, with no clue as to why you had that particular idea at that particular time? You may think that such fleeting thoughts, however random they seem, must be the product of predictable and rational processes. After all, the brain cannot be random, can it? Surely it processes information using ordered, logical operations, like a powerful computer?

Actually, no. In reality, your brain operates on the edge of chaos. Though much of the time it runs in an orderly and stable way, every now and again it suddenly and unpredictably lurches into a blizzard of noise. …

In technical terms, systems on the edge of chaos are said to be in a state of “self-organised criticality”. These systems are right on the boundary between stable, orderly behaviour – such as a swinging pendulum – and the unpredictable world of chaos, as exemplified by turbulence. …

The neuronal avalanches that Beggs investigated, for example, are perfect for transmitting information across the brain. If the brain was in a more stable state, these avalanches would die out before the message had been transmitted. If it was chaotic, each avalanche could swamp the brain. At the critical point, however, you get maximum transmission with minimum risk of descending into chaos. …

Self-organised criticality also appears to allow the brain to adapt to new situations, by quickly rearranging which neurons are synchronised to a particular frequency. “The closer we get to the boundary of instability, the more quickly a particular stimulus will send the brain into a new state,” says Liley. …

“They say it’s a fine line between genius and madness,” says Liley. “Maybe we’re finally beginning to understand the wisdom of this statement.”

There are many fruitful possibilities in this line of investigation — but what really jumps out for me is how precisely it corresponds with the traditional status of shamans as individuals who are able to walk the fine line between genius and madness on a sustained basis.

It also seems possible that if there was a point at which people suddenly started having strange notions pop into their heads out of nowhere — but had not yet built up procedures to determine which of those notions were worth putting into effect — it would have closely resembled the erratic and impulse-driven behavior of traditional trickster figures.

And finally, the experience of getting brilliant inspirations with no idea of where they had come from could also account for the universality of belief in some form of higher power. If we humans have a tendency to believe there are invisible forces whispering wise counsel into our ears, it may be nothing more than an attempt to rationalize the spooky, non-linear processes going on in our own brains.

And if that is so then religion, rather than being a mystery which science foolishly attempts to rationalize away, may itself be a rationalization overlaid upon an even deeper mystery.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here and a listing of my posts on higher knowledge 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.

Read the Previous Entry: Yet Another Example of Ancient Tech
Read the Next Entry: The Bottleneck and the Great Migration

3 Responses to “Mind on the Edge of Chaos”

  1. allynh says:

    Different link:

    Clues to why modern humans migrated…
    November 21 2008 at 10:51am
    By Shaun Smillie

  2. allynh says:

    Disorderly genius: How chaos drives the brain

    Disorderly genius: How chaos drives the brain
    29 June 2009 by David Robson

  3. allynh says:

    Beyond bones & stones
    82,000 Year Old Jewelry Found

    Results and findings
    Environmental Factors in the Chronology of Human Evolution and Dispersal, 2002-2006.

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