Did you read about the discovery of abalone shells with ocher pigments and bone marrow mixtures in a cave in South Africa? This hundred thousand year old art studio pushes back the earliest evidence of human symbolic thinking forty thousand years. Lascaux paintings are less than twenty thousand years old. The Chauvet cave paintings just over thirty thousand years old. There is evidence of Neanderthal jewelry and painting that is over fifty thousand years old.
The Great Leap Forward as put forward by Jared Diamond proposes that humanity as a species suddenly developed the capacity for symbolic thought and language after migrating out of Africa and settling in Eastern Europe, due to some combination of sociological pressures due to increased population density and a sudden evolutionary change in the human brain, which led to the development of more sophisticated tools, speech, and manipulation of the environment (leading from pastoral nomadism towards a nascent agricultural society).
In this view, the ascent of man follows a natural linear progression in which we, as modern humans, and the only remaining homo genus, are at the pinnacle of evolutionary growth.
But we know that evolution has no destination (well, I believe that consciousness, universal self-recognition, awareness of everything by everything else, may be, in fact, where everything could be headed, but I certainly don’t have any data to back up that supposition…). Thinking that evolution has a point is a continuation of the ancient human tendency to see ourselves as being at the center of everything, at the top of everything, where the all the men are strong, all the women good-looking, and all the children are above average….
If the evidence that humans were mixing paints in order to express symbolic thoughts a hundred thousand years ago shows that our “modern” brains are much older than we previously believed, it raises an interesting possibility about what we have become in the last ten thousand years. Now, we have to keep in mind that we have incredibly few data points to refer to, and there may have been vast cities and whole civilizations that we’re blind to, because nothing was left of them, or we haven’t looked yet in the right places, or we don’t recognize the remnants, etc. We have scant data, so it’s easy to draw conclusions that are completely unsupported and just plain wrong. But still, an interesting thought nags at me when I ponder this new information.
If modern human society did in fact arise relatively quickly after some genetic mutation that spawned our modern human brains, then it makes some sort of sense that our current society reflects in some way the structure of our brains, that it is in some sense inevitable that we develop agriculture, cities, trade, science, and fill up the available space, use up the available resources, and choke on our own pollution and starve to death in a horrifyingly overpopulated, decimated petri dish of a planet, victims of our own evolutionary “success” in out competing every other species on earth.
Definitely a potential outcome, given our current course.
But what if we’ve been hanging around for a hundred thousand years with most of our modern thinking tools intact? What if it’s been longer, say a hundred and fifty thousand? Two hundred thousand? Then a somewhat different picture emerges, one in which we can conceive of an almost timeless edenic realm where mankind lived in balance with his environment. Not in peace and harmony, I mean, lifetimes were short and death came early and violently for the vast majority of us. We killed each other. We killed other creatures to eat, and we were killed and eaten ourselves. So, it wasn’t some hand-holding, stand around the fire and sing with the lions and the lambs of the circle of life, but it wasn’t what we have now, either. We didn’t outstrip our resources on a planetary scale. I think it’s likely that we did on a local scale, but with the transient nature of pastoral nomadism we likely left a denuded area for a long enough time for it to replenish itself before our group or another one reoccupied it.
If you contemplate a society of small tribal groups of humans wandering around hunting and gathering and raiding outlying groups and singing and painting and falling in love and making babies and getting eaten by lions and falling off cliffs and getting crushed by giant sloths or mastadons in a endlessly repeating cycle of lifetime after lifetime, hundreds of years, thousands, tens of thousands, fifteen or twenty times longer than our own idea of our civilization, where each generation’s experience of life is exactly the same as the previous one’s, and the one which follows, you get this idea of a kind of a timeless experience of existence, an existence where time only expressed itself in a cyclical way, through the seasons and the movement of the stars, birth and death and rebirth, forever- there was no, there could have been no conception of time’s arrow, of movement through time. Time did not start over here and then end up over there. Time was like the sea, like the sky, always new and ancient at the same moment. It didn’t go anywhere.
Think about what that kind of existence, that kind of conception of time and your place in it might do to your world-view.
It changes everything.
It makes me wonder if our sudden explosion of growth and scientific quest for knowledge and our drive to dominate and exploit the world and the whole of the universe is merely a side-effect of a shift in our conception of time, of what it is and how it works. If we somehow stopped seeing life as something to be lived, our whole existence no longer just a single, uninterrupted present moment, but now suddenly only a way-station on a journey from where we were to where we are going. Time is moving, it has a destination. And we are moving through time, with time, it’s running out. We can’t stay here forever. We are going, and if we don’t we’ll be left behind, so let’s be first.
Let’s get them before they get us. Let’s kill more of them. Let’s plant more food. Let’s build bigger walls, and stouter spears, and let’s make engines and let’s go let’s go let’s go!
Maybe all of this is just a symptom of a new and sudden species-wide mental illness. Or a philosophical error. A malignancy of sorts.
Interesting to think about, for me anyway.
At any rate, I think that vast and nearly limitless history of small-group pastoral nomadism explains a lot to me about my experience of being human. Why I feel comfortable in a small group of people and jumpy and anxious in a crowd. Why I love walking in the woods or along the beach alone or with my wife and my dog and I could do it for hours and hours and hours every day. Why I love to gaze at the stars and cook meat over a fire. Why I love to fight. Why it feels good in my bones to protect my tribe and to make war against those who would harm them. Why it feels better to be outside than inside. Why paperwork and minutia and clock-watching and meetings are soul killing. Why cities baffle and assault. Why moving water sounds like music and why the thrash of the surf on the shore lights my heart on fire and soothes it at the same time.
We are ancient things lost in a modern world.
Our biology has not caught up with our environment, and I don’t think it ever will. This environment isn’t stable enough, it won’t last long enough for our slow churning evolutionary mechanisms to react to it.
Can’t go back, though.
Maybe the key is to try to recapture a more functional conception of time. Maybe we could do that. That seems possible.
In other news, last night I made hot and sour grilled fish salad and Pad Kee Mao for the woman and me.
Ruck me funning, it were good.
Hot and Sour Grilled Fish Salad
Grill, bake, or fry a couple of fillets of a good white-fleshed fish. Let them cool and break them up into bite-sized pieces and put them in a bowl. Add two stalks of finely sliced lemongrass, a couple of shallots, a cup of sliced mint leaves, a handful of sliced bird chilies or jalapenos, a few sliced kaffir lime leaves, an inch chunk of ginger, minced, six tablespoons of lime juice and one limes worth of zest, a generous tablespoon of fish sauce, a teaspoon of honey, salt and pepper to taste. Mix that shit together, let it sit in the fridge while you cook your Pad Kee Mao, then when it’s time to eat, lay out some lettuce leaves on a plate and mound the fish salad on the leaves, serve with lime wedges and sliced spring onions.
And an ice-cold beer.
SCOTT’S PAD KEE MAO
tablespoon of whole peppercorns
small napa cabbage, sliced thin.
can of bamboo shoots, rinsed and drained and chopped in half.
tablespoon of sambal olek
red onion, sliced thin