A Matter of Depth

on October 19, 2010

I’ve been trying to figure out why the idea of a flourishing human community in the Middle East some 125,000-80,000 years ago strikes me as such a big deal. And I’ve realized that it has to do with the emerging multiculturalism and creative imagination visions that I’ve been discussing in recent entries.

When I studied archaeology in college in the middle 60’s, Eurocentric attitudes were still taken for granted, and it was assumed almost without question that modern humans had evolved in Europe from Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago and had set out from there to conquer the world.

The only alternative theory — based on the new technique of carbon-14 dating — was that the point of origin might lie in Israel, where skeletons had been found that were too old to date using C14 and which must therefore go back more than 45,000 years. But even that argument was accompanied by a disclaimer that those early Middle Easterners had still been using the same Middle Paleolithic tools as their Neanderthal neighbors and didn’t arrive at the full glory of Upper Paleolithic culture until they reached Europe.

Along with this tendency to put western Europe at the center of the human story went an unfailingly contemptuous attitude towards the rest of the world. Grahame Clarke’s World Prehistory (1961), which was our chief text for the course, states without hesitation that “The Advanced Palaeolithic cultures … were confined to the more northerly parts of the Old World. … Most of Africa, India and southeast Asia were henceforward by-passed by the main currents of creative change throughout the remainder of prehistoric times.”

In the early 70’s, however, new discoveries and improved dating methods began to chip away at the old paradigm. One important step was the recognition that Upper Paleolithic tools had first appeared in the Zagros Mountains of Iran about 45,000 years ago and were brought to Europe by the earliest modern arrivals. Another was the discovery that modern humans had been living at Border Cave in southern Africa at least 50,000 and possibly 100,000 years ago.

But the most revolutionary change involved the realization that certain African examples of archaic Homo sapiens, which had previously been estimated as going back no more than 30,000 to 40,000 years, were actually more than 100,000 — and perhaps as much as 300,000 — years old. As a result, individuals that had previously been dismissed as the last pitiful survivors of an unsuccessful side branch of the human family tree were suddenly promoted to an exalted status as the immediate ancestors of our own kind.

It took a while for the changes to settle in, but in the 1980’s genetics largely confirmed the new picture, with the mitochondrial DNA that is handed down from mother to daughter being used to trace all of humanity back to a single “genetic Eve.”

By 1990, books like Brian M. Fagan’s The Journey from Eden were confidently presenting a revised paradigm in which fully modern humans had appeared in Africa more than 150,000 years ago, had pioneered a number of technological innovations (such as the drying of meat and the grinding of plants for food), and had then spread into the Middle East during an interglacial period which began about 125,000 years ago.

And yet despite all this, in many ways the dominant narrative remains the same one I was taught back in college — which is that almost nothing of real importance occurred until about 50,000 years ago, with Europe taking a leading role once the action got going.

We are still being told by some geneticists, for example, that “genetic Adam” — the single ancestor whose Y-chromosome was ancestral to that carried by every human male — lived in Africa no more than 60,000 years ago.

That was the message in 2003 of a National Geographic documentary and book which argued that “the exodus [from Africa] began between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago. … The early travelers followed the southern coastline of Asia, crossed about 250 kilometers … of sea, and colonized Australia by around 50,000 years ago.”

More generous estimates place genetic Adam as far back as 90,000-100,000 years ago, but even that forces us to believe that the pioneers who arrived in the Middle East about 125,000 years ago died out when cold weather returned and that it was a only second set of arrivals who survived to colonize the world.

I have several problems with this narrative, even aside from the implausibility of its “wait around forever and then bust your ass” timetable. One is that it serves to perpetuate the old Eurocentric perspective. Another is that, in a surprising way, it’s intensely sexist. By focusing obsessively on the Y chromosome, which is handed down from father to son, rather than on the mitochondrial DNA that is passed down by the mother, it imposes an inappropriately macho element on the human story.

Here’s the thing: Men are weird. Or to be more precise, the trails of their DNA are weird. It seems as though throughout history, whenever times got tight the young rowdies would be packed up and sent off on a thousand-mile trek in search of greener pastures. And if they happened upon a local village along the way, they would swagger into town, talk tough, and then run off with half the local girls.

The present-day inhabitants of Iceland, for example, are predominantly descended from Norse fathers but from Scottish or Irish mothers. And DNA studies suggest equally asymmetrical patterns of migration in even the most ancient times.

What this means is that the the story of human expansion has two very different components. On the women’s side, it has been a slow, steady wave, always looking for a safe place to settle down and raise a bunch of children. But on the men’s side it has been dominated by a small number of ambitious ancestors — presumably including “genetic Adam” and his sons and grandsons — whose heroic journeys enabled them to father a vastly disproportionate number of offspring.

The most serious issue I have with the short chronology, however, is neither its lingering racism nor its sexism, but the fact that it provides a severely flattened view of human history.

At the same time as I was taking that college course in archaeology, I was madly reading and re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I loved Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, in large part because of its intense sense of historical depth. Every period of his invented history was chock-full of romantic figures and dramatic events which continued to exert an active impact on the world of the Hobbits.

In contrast, the history I was being taught in school consisted of tens of thousands of years of “nothing much,” followed by thousands more of “very little” and “what does it matter to us?”

But it can’t have actually been that way — and this is where the more expansive vision of human nature that I’ve been describing as “creative imagination” comes in.

For one thing, the people who lived between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago invented the very languages we speak and built into their underlying structure all the subtle philosophical concepts about relationships and emotions, causality and intention, the past and the future that we take for granted every time we open our mouths.

If it is true that language defines our reality, then the people who invented language and made the initial decisions about what it would and would not be possible to express must have been masters of reality in a way that we who live within the box of linguistic convention cannot even begin to imagine.

Those same people or their immediate descendents also invented art and literature, science and technology. They came up with the domestic arts of cooking and clothing, working out techniques to transform both their food and themselves. And they developed all the cultural conventions that we still follow in our everyday interactions.

And yet we have been taught to ignore these contributions and believe that those master creators were living lives that were bland, boring, and tedious — and that the only interesting and important stuff in history is the silly war-making and empire-building that has preoccupied us during the last 5000 or so years.

I’ve been trying to challenge that conventional narrative in one way and another for several years. In a piece that I put up at my website in 2004, I wrote, “One of the claims commonly made by twentieth century realists was that it was fruitless to look in the past for the state of wonder reflected in ancient myths and fairy tales. They insisted that the lives of prehistoric peoples were far more limited than our own. … But what if the realists’ claim was false? … Let us suppose, if only for the sake of argument, that ancient peoples inhabited a world vastly more expansive and filled with possibilities than the imaginally cramped quarters we tolerate today. Would that change our view of our own lives?”

At the time, I was focusing on the implications of wonder and magic presented by the cave paintings of the late Ice Age. But over the last year or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that the remote past is of crucial importance on a harder and more practical level, as well.

On one hand, our earliest ancestors established the human enterprise and laid out all its most important themes. We live in the house they built for us and never notice that fact or think to express our gratitude.

But on the other, we also never consider whether there might be certain undesirable attitudes and institutions we take as “human nature” that are actually no more than ancient improvisations and long overdue for an upgrade. On both grounds, we need to start questioning in a serious way who we are and where we came from.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory 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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