9. FIVE HISTORICAL EPOCHS
The Second Epoch: Shamanic Wisdom
By 25,000 BCE, human life has moved into a wider cultural ambit. We see the rudiments of a mythology and religion emerging. It seems to be built on a spiritual encounter with a “beyond”, expressing a primordial wisdom quest that surfaces in the shamanic journey form (previously described in # 66-68.)
We find the story of withdrawal-return painted on the walls of caves dating back 30,000 years.
Retreating to the deepest recesses of the caves, in total darkness, lit only by tallow lamps, the shaman and his or her apprentices (who perhaps sign with their red handprints) conduct a journey to the underworld, to “the happy hunting ground”, followed by a return to the group. The trek into the dark and depths of the cave symbolizes the journey. The cave paintings depict it.
The artists represent herds of animals galloping on the cave walls. Groups of crudely sketched hunters, along with departed souls and ghosts perhaps, circulate among them. The animal archetypes move in directions that follow the contours of the cave walls, overlapping each other. A continuous artistic effort lasting hundreds or even thousands of years is recorded on the same cave walls.
In many scenes, you see the shaman in their midst, a stick figure with a bird mask.
He seeks the “animal masters,” the prototypes of the hunted spe-cies. He appeals to them to come back to the world, to be born again, to reenter through the gate of life to assure the productivity of the hunt. (Attention to the birthing process of the prey animals may have been transitional to husbandry).
On other journeys, the shaman seeks special knowledge needed by the tribe. He goes down, and then he comes back up with it following the dynamics of the wisdom journey.
A crucial observation: These enormous cultural developments predate major changes in tool technology. We shall soon see why this is so important.
The Third Epoch: Expressive Human Nature
During the Epipaleolithic period, between the end of the last ice age and the dawn of the agricultural revolution, we reach a new threshold of cultural life. Under the influence of abrupt climate change, we transform tool technology and revolutionize resource exploitation and living styles. We rise further from the embedded expressions of human nature, over-leaping the emergent forms practiced in the feminine love/shamanic wisdom era. Human nature enters its third expressive stage.
Archeological evidence shows that a great variety of new lifestyles developed. Some people lived in permanent settlements set among oak and pistachio woodlands extending along a thousand miles long narrow arc from the Levant into Anatolia. Hunter-gatherer troops of the old Paleolithic culture lived among them, interacted, and traded with these revolutionary gardeners and husbandmen.7
From artifacts, tools, seeds, pollen grains and kitchen middens, researchers have pieced together a story of people living in many small permanent or semi-permanent hamlets as sedentary foragers and early planters. Ofer Bar Yosef has studied the Natufian culture in the Near East (13, 000-10,000 BCE) in detail. He concludes “Natufian culture played a major role in the emergence of the early Neolithic farming communities, or what is known as the Agricultural Revolution.”8
The people lived in small communities in circular stone-walled pit houses 3-9 meters in diameter, some smoothed over with plaster and roofed with wattle. They built the houses close to each other. Stone tools, microliths, arrow shaft straighteners, mortars and pestles and sickle blades have been unearthed in them, indicating an economy that harvested cereal grains (though they may not yet have planted them.) They gathered pistachios and wild grasses and apparently hunted gazelles, fallow deer and wild boar. They kept farmyard animals. The first evidence of man-dog bonding occurs at this time. In some graves, we find men buried with their arms around their dogs.9
In response to climate changes, “many communities in the forest belt had turned to cultivating wild grasses. Within a few generations, they had become full-time farmers… farming spread rapidly through the Levant and into the far corners of Anatolia.”10
We’re talking about major climate and geological shifts: a 350 foot rise in sea level, huge areas of dry desert now open to irrigation, warmer, wetter weather with longer growing seasons that provoked species migrations, some north to the retreating cold, some south, resulting in new ecological networks, new rhythms in them, new inter-species predation and new intra-species territorial and dominance conflicts. The world went from cold and dry to wet and warm.
Then the climate shifted again. The cold and dry weather returned for 1,500 years, a stretch called the Younger Dryas (11,000-10,300 BCE), triggered by a stalling of the Gulf Stream caused by ice jams in the arctic.
In the Younger Dryas, Brian Fagan writes in The Long Summer, “the landscape became drier and drier and the forests retreated far beyond walking distance…[it was] a time of intense competition for food. There are no signs of warfare, such as war casualties in local cemeteries, apparently just a quiet acceptance that food was scarce and a greater re-liance on kin to stave off hunger… A permanent settlement like Abu Hureya was no longer viable in the absence of the nut harvests and in the face of a severe drought… the village was abandoned….the ancient strategy of mobility was the only option, whatever the cost.”11
Under these climatic pressures, we again had to adapt or perish, though Ofer Bar Yosef reports from his field studies that, despite the changes, “several communities maintained social relations with their original hamlets and returned there to bury their dead.” He surmises, “The first experiments in systematic cultivation most likely occurred during the Younger Dryas”. In his view renewed migrations led to new settlements closer to more reliable water sources.
The succession of boom times and hard times provided the condi-tions for rapid evolution. As William Calvin put it, we had to be men for all seasons.
The archeological evidence suggests that during these geologically abrupt transitions social groups explored many new ways of life. Multiple, tentative starts were made. Hamlets were founded and abandoned. There is evidence of trade. People occupy new environmental niches.
One finds lakeside sites with fish industry, boating, the use of nets and weirs. There are sites with seed culture. Elsewhere the beginnings of metallurgy. Elsewhere fanciful jewelry and costuming.
In contrast to Paleolithic customs, there seems to have been no standardized burial practices. There were communal graveyards, but also family burials under the floors of houses. Ben Yosef thinks these differences “indicate the existence of distinct group entities.” Though nothing as grand or striking as the pyramids to come or as the Lascaux cave already painted was created, the artifacts do show evidence of great variety, signs that something new was stirring. The smallness itself, and the diversity within the smallness, tell of delicate, tentative explorations of human possibilities, with independent starts in many small settlements spread across wide swaths of territory. Groups could live in very original ways, developing their customs in relative isolation.
Where the Paleolithic culture had the hearth, the Epipaleolithic culture had the home, a settled life in a place of private belonging dug into the landscape, the ancestors buried under the floor, a building with a foundation, inhabited year round.
During transitional periods, change occurs first and more markedly in the psychosocial depths than on the material surface. The monuments, social institutions, tools and techniques come later. They culminate rather than begin transitions. The sine qua non is authentic turning points in love and wisdom. Under these conditions, human nature reaches new adaptive peaks in the freedom of its creative moments.
During the Epipaleolithic period, the swings in human nature seemed to get wider and come faster under resource and climate pressures. Approach-separation and withdrawal-return were repeatedly stressed and tested. Many different kinds of love and wisdom were likely to have flourished as isolated groups explored their possibilities. Solutions of unprecedented novelty appear.
I speculate that some settlements became more reliant on words, some more on tools, some more on weapons, some on cooperation, some on internal competition, some on dream wisdom, some on debate, some on dancing, some on narcotics, and some on sexual license. Groups taught and learned differently, staged the periods of their lives differently, esteemed each other differently. They had diverse belief systems, distinct brands of inwardness and outwardness, and the ethical and technical sensibilities that followed from them. They harnessed aggression differently and aimed it at different projects. Some troops used the increased cerebral processing power impulsively without periods of inward reflection. Some deliberated carefully. Some were slow and others were fast. People lived in different social worlds, perhaps even as different species, if the Neanderthal people survived into these times.
With a planetary population of under a million, groups rarely met. But when they did, what momentous occasions their gatherings must have been! Given human passions and curiosity, each word and glance and gesture observed, each social distance and border crossing experienced, must have reverberated with meaning. They experienced true intellectual curiosity. They touched the deepest unknowns: the souls of strangers. Aggression stayed close to the surface, but did not inevitably lead to open hostilities or violence. Rather, we can guess that trade and exchange, friendship, learning and intermarriage were the more frequent outcomes.
It’s doubtful the people could speak to each other. There must have been many local languages built on an inherent universal grammar. However, they could understand each other in other ways, through dance, and drama; they could share drawings, and religious rituals.
Put yourself there, and bring your mind with you, (because their brains were as good as ours were, though lacking some of our conceptual equipment and cultural history.) You were perhaps more fearful and more curious than you would be now, and your sensory acuity was probably better and your passions clearer. What would you have wanted to find out from the others? Where the food was? Yes, those things, but the more crucial questions on a planet of few human souls were probably not technical. “Who are you, how did you get here, where did you begin, what is your story? What is the world like, as you see it? Where have you been, who are your ancestors?” That’s what we would want to know.
But we could not speak to each other very well, so we had to act it all out.
Imagine playacting the story of your people’s origins. Your performance, to be comprehensible, would rest on the empathy generated in your audience by your actions and expressions. You would trust in their ability to read it from your dramatizations.
Imagine discussing these performances afterward among your fellows and families in your spoken language. You would compare the stranger’s stories with your own, finding similarities and differences.
Here mythology emerges from ritual enactments, pantomimes, theatre, dances, etc. It starts with human empathy, built on a foundation of the shared rhythms of nature and human life. What did you learn through empathy? That myths and rituals deal with common human predicaments, and that the creative power of the human experi-ence comes from turning points in the signal events of life.
This catalog of stories, values and patterns of life thenceforth forms the seed stock for world mythology (and all literature indirectly). That gift the Mesolithic period gave us. 12