Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Eye of the Beholder

A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation. ~Max Gluckman

Well, stop the presses. It seems that the great mammoth caper wasn't our fault after all. In case you haven't been paying attention, of late there's been a lot of discussion on science-type shows blaming Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons for the demise of the wooly mammoth, the mastodon, the sabre tooth cats, and early life on Mars. Well, maybe not that last one, but just about everything else that died out in the last 100,000 years has been laid at the skin-clad feet of early homo sapiens (with an occasional assist from neanderthalis).

I've never cared for that theory for a couple of simple reasons. First, there weren't very many people at the time these animals were going away. It wasn't like there was huge competition for the territory between mammoths and humans. Second, humans weren't very well armed. Even hunting in platoons, trying to down a mammoth with a long stick with a well-shaped pointy rock is dangerous stuff. I suspect the mammoths caused their share of human casualties. Doubtless there were times when it was debatable as to whom was going to send whom to extinction.

Early modern humans had ingenious throwing sticks for their spears, but even with this tool, getting a spear deep enough into a mammoth to actually kill it was a dicey proposition. More likely, the locals looked for the sick or young separated from the herd. They quite probably scavenged as well. Certainly there were times they could run some game over a cliff, but the relative handful of humans wasn't going to wipe out anything on its own.

No, it seems that the weather was a much bigger factor. The climate was changing, taking away habitat, changing the available forage foods, leaving the mammoths (and all those other guys, except the Martians) living a marginal existence. Hunting by humans may have been the final blow, but that's all it was.

It's intriguing how some theories come and go. it's almost as though a particular attitude is fashionable this year, so theorists start impressing it on everything in their field for which they don't have a better answer. Anthropology and ancient history seem especially prone to this sort of thing.

In the days of western European expansion and imperialism, it was standard to describe all non-white races as savages or backward. They were savages if they had no known great visible works, like Native Americans or Africans. They were backward if they had at some time created great buildings or civilizations but had declined. They declined, of course, because they did not know about Christianity. So, in the name of Jesus, these peoples, like the Aztecs, Mayans, and Inca were exploited and robbed.

As time passed (a lot of time), it became fashionable to think of these peoples as having lived harmoniously with nature, being one with the land and the cosmos, while modern civilization had lost its innocence. The trouble with this idea was that it didn't explain why some great ancient cities had been abandoned. It also didn't explain what seemed to be evidence of human sacrifice and endless warring that was evident in the glyphs that archaeologists were turning up.

At the moment, we seem to be going through a pretty good fashion. We've come to realize that supposedly “savage” peoples actually had sophisticated civilizations, like the Anasazi or the builders of Great Zimbabwe. We've also come to realize that these civilizations had the same kinds of problems we have. Rather than being one with the land, they were capable of using up the resources, over planting the land and wiping out large forest tracts. Because of this, large cities could no longer be supported, and the people, after going through the strife that lack of food causes, drifted away.

And, boy, did they kill each other. Losers in battle didn't get to go home and collect a pension. Most of them ended up getting their hearts torn out or being dismembered in variously imaginative ways. In other words, these people were, in many ways, as stupid and violent as we are.

But, there was brilliance, too. Great art, sophisticated inventions, trade networks, and more were in use thousands of years earlier than the intelligentsia used to be willing to admit. Thanks to this realization, people are beginning to realize that humans were a lot smarter earlier than we were normally prone to think.

Well, why not? Our brains are no bigger than the brains of those Cro-Magnons, and we come up with clever ideas all the time. Why would they not be able to come with great ideas? We now have a greater appreciation for the engineering work of early cultures. Even Greece and Rome are now recognized to have developed a level of sophistication far beyond what was thought many years ago.

A few years from now, some new variation on these themes will become fashionable. There is already an undercurrent of thought that civilization got started earlier than we think. Right now that line of though is the property of the kooky crowd, folks like Graham Hancock and the Bosnian Pyramid hunter. It's difficult to imagine a highly developed civilization appearing so soon after the ice age. But there may be evidence out there. I don't think it will be related to Bosnian pyramid or the Sphinx, but there are other places. China is a vast place and had some of the earliest organized human activities. The Middle East reveals surprises all the time as more ancient sites are discovered.

The thought of Graham Hancock becoming fashionable is a little scary, though.

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