Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Stories of Prehistory


I watched a trailer for a new movie coming out called 10,000 B.C. Besides the CGI mammoths, the movie didn't seem to have much going for it, which is a shame, because there is so much wonderful fiction written about prehistoric people. I don't mean Jean M. Auel (ugh! no pun intended) but the fringe between science and psedoscience that grows up at the edges of our knowledge.

First off, there's the Proto-Indo-Europeans. These people only exist because of their language: in that way, they're a lot like Tolkein's elves. By comparing the early European languages with the early Indian languages, it is easy to see that there must have been some language that both of them grew out of, and to guess at the vocabulary of that language. The beautiful part is that because we only have words for things we know, we can infer what their culture might have been like, where they lived, what their religion was like (the names of Indian gods are cognates with a lot of the Greek pantheon) and so forth. The even more beautiful part is that no one knows if we're right or not, so we can wax poetic. For example (from Wikipedia):
"If there had been a separate class of warriors, then it would probably have consisted of single young men. They would have followed a separate warrior code unacceptable in the society outside their peer-group. Traces of initiation rites in several Indo-European societies suggest that this group identified itself with wolves or dogs"
"The king as the high priest would have been the central figure in establishing favourable relations with the other world."
"Judging by the vocabulary, techniques of weaving, plaiting, tying knots etc. were important and well-developed and used for textile production as well as for baskets, fences, walls etc. Weaving and binding also had a strong magical connotation, and magic is often expressed by such metaphors. The bodies of the deceased seem to have been literally tied to their graves to prevent their return."

Still, by comparison with some other theories, the PIE studies are hard science. Take, for example, the "Aquatic Ape" hypothesis. According to this, the lack of body hair, subcutaneous fat, small nostrils, upright posture and generally hydrodynamic curves of humans compared to other primates are best explained by a semi-aquatic existence. Never mind that this is almost completely unsubstantiated by science; the possibility that we have a symbiotic relationship with dolphins is too romantic a proposition to throw out entirely.

Another theory (which I am fond of, since I invented it independently) is that human speech arose not from grunts but from music: that the voice evolved to be an organ of singing, like in birds, and only later was turned to the generation of speech. This might explain the universal appeal of music and the way it seems to touch our emotions at a deeper level than the rational level of speech. It would explain why we express emotion in our language through varying pitch and volume. It also has a virtue of being completely untestable. If you want to read more about it, look up Hmmm theory. (Seriously.)

The first blue-eyed individual was born almost within historic time: about 7000 years ago. This was established through genetic testing. A related idea is that the appearance of Scandinavians-- pale skin, tall, fair haired-- is the result of a kind of artificial selection. If people can select for food crops within a few thousand years, it makes sense that their choices about who to marry would shape what people would come to look like. Except, why wouldn't this happen everywhere in the world? And if you believe in evolution in the first place, you believe that our preferences would also be shaped by evolution.

Stephen Jay Gould is a strong proponent of the idea of human neoteny. According to this theory, humans share a lot of features with immature chimpanzees: large foreheads, curiosity, fast learning rate, small eyebrow bones, adaptablitiy and so forth. Perhaps humans are the result of a mutation in which childhood is extended indefinately.

Then there is the Black Sea flood theory, which might even be testable if they send more subs down there.

The beautiful cave paintings and bone flutes (30,000 years old and still playable!) gives us a hint about how much like us many of these ancient people must have been. Life must have made more sense back then: fat, sweet things, and rest, which our bodies tell us are good, really were good. Adrenalin and the fight or flight response were entirely appropriate responses to the situation.

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