October 2005 edition
|Caverns of Ritual and Controversy|
Humans and Mother Nature from 100,000-Years-Ago to 10,000-Years-Ago
What you don't know about deep prehistory may shock you
|by Dean Adams Curtis|
Sophisticated Prehistoric People
Think of our modern minds, lulled into beta brainwave repose by our television fixations. Now ponder a moment the prehistoric mind, trained from birth by storytellers and storytelling, ritual after ritual, and constant day and night immersion in nature. What's the longest passage of a story you can recite? How are you at telling a successful story in a group? How savvy are you about the plants and creatures, earth and sky, surrounding you on the brief sojourns into nature most modern minds allow ourselves? How robust the minds of prehistoric folks must have been, patterned by stories that perhaps most often utilized analogies and anthromorphism to explain the history of humans (the individual's group and neighboring groups) as well as Mother Nature.
In Sigmund Freud's last book, "Civilization and Its Discontents," he noted that the further we have gotten away from this natural state, into increasingly complex civilization, the greater our discontents. Whether this is so or not, the allure of ancient wisdom lost compells our modern minds to glance back now and then.
Breathtaking cave images by brilliant prehistoric artists are at best unappreciated by the majority of modern humanity, who still cling to a cartoon view of prehistory. At worst, the modern human ambivalence toward earliest human experience, typified by the Hollywood notion that humans existed during the same age as the dinosaurs, signals our indifference to discoveries that could provide important mythological information appropriate for developing a more sensitive environmental ethic in our own time.
Cave painters often used the natural bends and protrusions of cave walls to accentuate the features of their animal figures. Life was shorter, and by our often cushy modern standards, tougher, but hey, let's not forget that it was also richly robust. There is a great deal of evidence that early humans used drugs. Even the black paint (manganese oxide) spit from the mouths of prehistoric cave artists, was an intoxicant causing hallucinations.
My intuition keeps flashing on thoughts I can't escape. We all know how effectively humans can domesticate a wide variety of animals, as long as we begin the process at an animal's birth. Thus I wonder whether humans as far back as 100,000 years ago, had more intimate relationships with now extinct large mammals than we have ever dared imagine? Did we domesticate certain of the giant deer, bison, cattle and bears that existed during prehistory before becoming extinct?
Intimate Bear Relationships
Certainly giant bears, for example, were fearsome creatures when encountered in the wild. But could humans have domesticated some of them?
There was a large Northern European mound that archaeologists assumed was the burial place of king or prince. When they carefully excavated the elaborate mound, they found at it's core not a human aristocrat, but a giant prehistoric mother bear.
Holy Clan of the Cave Bear, what could this mean! There is no doubting the sacred nature of the burial. This creature was special for so many humans to have labored so long to bury her. In my mind there is no doubt that this bear was a domesticated partner of the human group that buried her. Your mind is already racing to concoct the same story mind did. The group adopted the bear in its infancy and raised her, nurtured her, and slept with her. Yes, I can see them sleeping cuddled up with her for warmth.
Why would such measures be adopted? Consider that 25,000 years ago Europe was in the midst of the Ice Age, during which the average daily temperature was probably around freezing. A bit nippy? You bet. The bears would have had to be fed of course, but the people of this time had woven nets with which they could have caught an abundant supply of fish.
Consider that the caves in which the paintings are found show no evidence of year-round occupation. They were, in short, ritual sites. At the heart of the newly discovered Chauvet Cave near Avignon, France, depictions of prehistoric horses, bison, and wooly rhinos, enter and exit a vaginal formation in the cave wall. Carefully placed upon a stone altar in the cave was the skull of a bear, surrounded on the floor by broken pieces of many other bear skulls. Why? You be the judge. My notion? The best way for humans to understand the nature of early humans, is to carefully analyze what archaeologists have found, then allow your mind to invent creative, intuitive fantasies.
Stone Age Style
Is the term "Stone Age" appropriate? The term actually refers to three ages, the "Paleolithic" or Old Stone Age, "Mesolithic" or Middle Stone Age, and "Neolithic," which means New Stone Age.
The old stone was flint, namesake of the "Flintstones." Flint was used by humans for millions of years to fashion spearpoints, to create hammerstones to break open animal bones for their nutritious marrow, and for knocking together to create sparks of fire.
The new stone was copper, which could be found occuring naturally, could be pounded into sheets by flint stone hammers, and formed into objects for personal adornment. With these explanations out of the way, we return to the question, are these "Stone Age" terms apt shorthand descriptions for the times they identify, or do they contribute to stereotypical and inadaquate musings about our shared prehistory?
As a result of a number of discoveries, it has recently become clear that materials far more perishable than stone played a much larger role than previously understood.
The names archaeologists have given to periods of our prehistory may work well for scholars, but they put off all but the most dedicated of students. What sense can you make of the terms Aurignacian (Perigordian), Cro-Magnon, upper Solutrean, and Magdalenian? Maybe Magdalenian is a good place to start unearthing the meaning of these terms. Many will see in the term reference to the biblical name Mary Magdalen. The cave is where "Magdelenian" type artifacts were first found, is known as Magdalenian Cave. It is the thus the type site, or in other words the site typifying a culture, a collection of people practicing life a certain way.
Human presence dating back 100,000 years is evidenced in a cave on Mount Carmel in Israel. The cave has evidence that humans practiced tidyness. It also contains the burial of a woman and her child, laid to rest next to each other, each upon their right side, curled in the fetal position.
Copyright 2000 Dean Adams Curtis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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