Messrs. Lewis-Wallace and Pearce speculate on the most difficult aspect of archaeological explanation - a people's religious beliefs - in this book thMessrs. Lewis-Wallace and Pearce speculate on the most difficult aspect of archaeological explanation - a people's religious beliefs - in this book that takes a look at Neolithic art/architecture and its sources. Thankfully, unlike those who haunt shows like "Coast to Coast AM" or write books like Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization (Paperback) or construct New Age druidism, they don't claim to know what Neolithic faiths entailed but they do argue that common themes and symbols can be reconstructed based on both physical remains and (what is new) on neurological studies that reveal the common basis of human cognition.
They choose to focus on the opposite ends of the Neolithic period (both geographically and temporally). They explore the extraordinary megalithic complexes found at Catalhoyuk and elsewhere in the Middle East, built by pre- and/or very early agriculturists c. 10,000-8,000 BC, and burials and ritual sites of the European Atlantic seaboard, built c. 4,000-2,500 BC. The authors argue that common symbols and architectural features bespeak a common, human neurological origin.
One of the more startling and concept-shaking assertions Lewis-Wallace/Pearce make is that major changes in modes of thought preceded changes in subsistence. An example of this is their contention that domestication stemmed from religious motives. The traditional view holds that domestication proceeded from a need to increase production and security of food supplies. Yet, this is a view based on hindsight; how could early Neolithic hunters conceive, evaluate and carry out such a program? Animals were corralled and domesticated because they represented human control/influence over the environment and they ensured a steady supply of sacrifices. The more wide-reaching social and economic implications of herding grew out of and were capitalized upon by ruling elites but not purposed by them (explicitly stated, pp. 40-1, but implicit throughout their arguments).
In the first part of the book, the authors broadly define what they mean by "religion," and show the evidence for a common, neurological basis for religious experience and symbolism. As to "religion": They define it as three interacting dimensions. At its base is "experience," which leads to "belief" and "practice." Once established, the latter two dimensions act on experience, which further influences belief and practice in a never-ending dance. (Thus, Christians see Christ or a saint in visions while shamans see their totem animal, for example.)
Belief and practice are dependent on cultural milieux and change over time and space (the authors cite intriguing but speculative evidence for possible religious strife based on archaeological evidence). Experience, however, appears broadly similar. Visions common to altered states of consciousness or out-of-body experiences (OBEs) include:
- seeing bright, geometric patterns (spirals, vortices, dots) (see also pp. 261-2) - floating/flying - passage through something (tunnels, caves, birth canals) - transformations (human to bird) - ability to "see" hidden things or underlying patterns (p. 45)
Agriculture and pottery were not so much the revolutionary aspects of the Neolithic Revolution as was the insight that humans could actively construct their cosmos. Paleo- and Mesolithic societies were passive participants in nature but "Neolithic people eliminated the variable labyrinth and replaced it with more predictable and simpler structures of their own design. In doing so they gained greater control over their cosmos and were able to `adjust' beliefs about it to suit social and personal needs" (p. 85) and "[t]herein lies the real, innovative essence of the Neolithic; expression of religious cosmological concepts in material structures as well as in myths, rather than the passive acceptance of natural phenomena (such as caves), opened up new ways of constructing an intrinsically dynamic society." (p. 167) Which, if true, would help explain the accelerated pace of technical and social change that characterizes sedentary/agricultural societies vs. hunter/gatherers. If you can conceive of building your cosmos, you can conceive a better blueprint. As evidence of this, they point out that the dwellings at Catalhoyuk imitate caves (pp. 103ff)
Lewis-Wallace/Pearce also introduce the idea of two forms of shamanism that can broadly characterize the difference between Paleo- and Neolithic faith:
1. Horizontal shamanism: characterized by an individualized religious experience, undeveloped beliefs and practices, and a more "democratic" outlook.
2. Vertical shamanism: characterized by hierarchy (priests) and defined knowledge based on belief and practice. (pp. 86-7)
The cosmos conceived by the human brain is tiered - it moves from an underworld to our world to one above. Often, death is not the end of life but the beginning of another stage in life. Seers, shamans, however you name them, are intermediaries between worlds and hold both religious and political power in this world based on that relationship. The iconography and architecture of Neolithic complexes all reflect this and are evidence of a rich, sophisticated and probably contentious religious/political life whose details are lost (though that loss provides fodder for endless historical novels, happily).
The rest of the book is devoted by the authors to an admirable marshalling of the evidence. I'm not going to attempt to recapitulate that argument here; if you're interested in this topic, this is a must-read whether or not you're sympathetic to the authors' point of view. If you're not interested - why have you read this far?
No matter, I enjoyed reading this book. Lewis-Wallace/Pearce present a measured argument against accepting the impossibility of knowing how ancient humans perceived their universe, and offer plausible interpretations of that Weltanshauung (apologies: I get to use this word so little). I have far too many volumes on my To-Read and Wish lists as it is, but should I stumble upon their prequel about Paleolithic art and religion, The Mind in the Cave, I will not disdain to pick it up.
I can only gush that this is a "really cool" book about a select cast of predators, including the black widow, the mantids, the recluse spider and theI can only gush that this is a "really cool" book about a select cast of predators, including the black widow, the mantids, the recluse spider and the rattlesnake.
And it's not grossly graphic if you're particularly squeamish....more
Despite the title, Mithen is not arguing that bands of Neanderthal were roaming the tundras of Northern Europe 100,000 years ago breaking out in GilbeDespite the title, Mithen is not arguing that bands of Neanderthal were roaming the tundras of Northern Europe 100,000 years ago breaking out in Gilbert & Sullivan tunes. Rather, he's taking up the incredibly complex relationship between our physical evolution and our capacities for language and music. And, here, "music" is not just the structured compositions of a Bach or (even) a Brittney Spears but is, instead, the propensity among primates for rhythmic movement and pitch- and tone-based vocalizations.
I read After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC a couple of years ago. There Mithen took the reader on a tour of archaeological sites around the world, exploring how early humans coped with the vicious climate swings that accompanied the end of the last ice age and propelled the advent of agriculture and the world as we know it. He's an engaging author who can weave a multitude of threads together into a coherent argument.
In the present volume, he masterfully accomplishes the feat of bringing together the evidence of physical evolution with brain studies and archaeology to show how they all worked together to, first, evolve a capacity for music (as defined above) and then the related capacity for language. The first part of the book is taken up with research among modern humans and some of our primate cousins like the vervets that establishes the existence of separate but overlapping faculties for music and language. While necessary for his arguments in part two, I found this part the least interesting section (though only in a relative sense). Of far greater interest to me was part two, where Mithen begins to look at the evolutionary and archaeological evidence for music and language in the hominids (ranging as far back as 2 million years).
The following is a gross oversimplification of Mithen's argument; at best, a poor reproduction of his "tapestry." The hapless reader is strongly encouraged to go directly to the source.
Our earliest hominid ancestors, the australopithecines, probably had a limited capacity for tone- and pitch-based vocalizations, a faint echo of which is found in the "infant-directed speech" (IDS) of human mothers. A communication that is nonlinguistic (even though it may utilize words) and depends on rhythm, tone & pitch to convey meaning.
As australopithecines gave way to the more human-like homo strains like habilis and ergaster, the range and complexity of this nonlinguistic communication grew. Mithen calls this prelinguistic speech "Hmmmmm," which stands for holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, mimetic. The most important component of Hmmmmm is the "holistic" part. Mithen argues that prelanguage hominids communicated in whole, inalterable phrases composed not just of vocalizations but also gestures. For example, there may have been a meaning unit for "hunt," and then others for the various animals suitable for hunting. Or there might have been a phrase that meant "sabertooth tiger attacks camp," similar to the vervet monkey's unique call and posture signaling a snake is in the neighborhood. In the most advanced hominids (the Neanderthal, particularly), there may even have been a rudimentary grammar; i.e., you could say/gesture "hunt" + "moose" + "you" + "me" but you couldn't say/gesture "you" + "me" + "moose" + "hunt."
Approximately 170,000 years ago, however, a random mutation in some group of archaic, prelanguage homo sapiens gave them a capacity for what Mithen calls "cognitive fluidity" - the ability to combine one's natural intelligence with one's social and/or technical intelligences. For the first time (as far as we know), someone associated the phrase "gluk" with "deer" and "mama" with "mother"; words and language were born (and Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, more of that later). Language was a far more powerful tool than Hmmmmm for conveying information and manipulating the world, and it opened the possibility for rapid, technical advance and cultural change. Mithen points out that the spoken/gestural components of Hmmmmm were fiercely resistant to change over time because you couldn't explain to your neighbors what a new phrase meant (at least not easily). That, the physical isolation of hominid groups and (perhaps) the sheer physical inability of the brain to fully process compositional language, retarded technical and cultural innovation for hundreds of thousands of years. The Neanderthals, for all their otherwise human-like characteristics, used essentially the same tool kit from the time they appeared in the fossil record (450-500,000 ya) to their extinction c. 40,000 ya. The only evidence for innovation comes late and only in relation to proximity to modern human sites - Neanderthal was intelligent enough to imitate but not innovate.
One of the most interesting images Mithen invokes is that the first "mutants" with the language gene probably talked to no one but themselves. Because they could talk, however, these original soliloquists were more successful than their mute neighbors and passed on their genes. Eventually, a critical threshold was passed and all successful human groups carried it out of Africa, overwhelming and driving to extinction all of our cousin hominids.
Hmmmmm communications remained a part of our repertoire but the purely musical and manipulative aspects predominated. What resulted was the modern human's capacity for language and music - related but distinct forms of communication.
And I still haven't discussed the physical changes that promoted first Hmmmmm and then language such as bipedalism. I will leave those aspects of Mithen's argument alone and again invite the reader to check out the book.
Not directly related to Mithen's argument but of personal interest is the mental state that Mithen's Hmmmmm speakers must have enjoyed. It sounds remarkably like the state mystics of every religion describe when they meditate - timeless and wordless. It reminds me that (for Christians, anyway) human history didn't start until God uttered the Word, or the Taoist notion of the The Ten Thousand Things of human perception. Language ushered in self-awareness and moral quandaries, and it appears that we've always hankered for a return to the innocent, unknowing state of our prelanguage ancestors....more
This is a short monograph (50 pages) that synopsizes Colin Tudge's argument that pre-Neolithic Revolution humans (and, indeed, hominids in general) haThis is a short monograph (50 pages) that synopsizes Colin Tudge's argument that pre-Neolithic Revolution humans (and, indeed, hominids in general) have been modifying their environment for hundreds of millennia, and this includes "farming," of which Tudge identifies three types:
1. Horticulture: Or, more prosaically, "gardening." 2. Arable farming: The stereotypical image of the wheat or rice farmer toiling in a field. 3. Pastoral farming: Which mixes arable and/or horticultural farming with stock raising.
Arable farming is not the unmitigated blessing that mythology makes it out to be - it involves backbreaking labor, leads to malnutrition because it narrows the varieties of food in the diet, and it increases disease amongst both human and domesticated animal populations. Despite these, the advantages of increased population, an ensured food supply and greater return on investment made arablist cultures more successful than horticulturalists or pastoralists.
The last point about the return on investment refers to the fact that a hunter can invest ten hours or two to hunting and, in the long run, won't get any more food out of it. That's why predator species and hunter/gatherers look like no-good layabouts - there's no percentage in exerting themselves. Arablists, on the other hand, do get more for more effort. Their food supply increases when more labor is expended in its production.
Tudge characterizes arable farming as a vicious circle: Greater food supply means a greater population that can only be sustained with further arable farming. Once embarked on the arablist path, a culture is locked in - it can't affort to go back to the Edenic existence of its past. (Tudge makes this explicit with reference to the Cain/Abel myth in Genesis, where Cain - the arablist - murders Abel - the pastoralist - and is cursed. Further, God casts Adam and Eve out of Eden to specifically farm:
Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life.... In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground.... (Genesis 3:17-19, NKJV))
Tudge also ties proto-(arable) farming to the Pleistocene overkill, when large numbers of megafauna genera went extinct around the same time humans moved into the vicinity, and to the end of the Neanderthal, who simply couldn't adjust to the more efficient use of the environment modern humans were capable of.
As to the "why" of arable farming, Tudge believes the catalyst was climate change. With the end of the last Ice Age, food supplies were threatened in the Middle East and previously periodic arable farming became the norm, locking cultures into the arablist cycle and allowing the development of urban cultures like Sumer, Mohenjo-Daro and Shang China.
In 50 pages, of course, none of these propositions can be adequately argued but Tudge and others have written numerous works on the subject. A few recommendations from my own reading would include:
Tudge's own The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Ian Wilson's Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization Steve Mithen's After the Ice: A Global Human History 20 000-5000 BC
Another nail in the coffin of "Intelligent Design" since any engineer that put together a project as ill organized as the human brain would be sent baAnother nail in the coffin of "Intelligent Design" since any engineer that put together a project as ill organized as the human brain would be sent back to school.
It's a bit discouraging to discover how ill prepared the brain is to interpret and react to reality but the author does have 13 pointers in the final chapter that helps the hapless homo sapiens cope....more