How Do You Know? Ancient Man and the Trash Pile
Today’s stream of consciousness: what can we learn about someone by digging through their midden pit—a.k.a trash pile? I’d guess less than half the story. Spoke this morning to someone at my usual café, and the topic of ancient peoples came up.
He mentioned the difference between us today—Modern Man—and our predecessors. You know, before things like art and abstract thought, right? And I got to thinking…
Do we really know as much as we think we do about our predecessors? How many papers and articles have you read that imply in polite, flowery terms that Ancient Man was kind of a moron?
Sure, they knew enough to hunt. They knew what would poison them and what wouldn’t. But ART? Nah, they didn’t make ART. They didn’t understand the value of abstraction, because they couldn’t.
Perhaps they did understand abstract thought, and simply had no time to indulge. Hunting and gathering and ensuring survival for the clan or tribe likely took precedence over creating a Sistine Chapel.
I know, I know. I’m not a scientist, I’m a writer. I build worlds on the basics of what I know. I create societies and cultures and insulting gestures and characters. I don’t dig through 15,000 year old trash piles and try to piece together the inner minds and workings of entire societies from that.
The process of creating a world got me wondering why we do. Science has wonderful applications, don’t get me wrong. Modern sanitation, indoor plumbing, vaccines, and all manner of marvelous creations have come to us because of science.
We also got the ALIENS meme guy…
Yes, more…astute?…scientists reject his conclusions out of hand. After all, building the pyramids was the feat of slave labor and pharaohs, right? Or was it the feat of humans who desired to build something incredible and found a way to do it.
Again, how do we KNOW?
From the Pharaohs we have the hieroglyphs and the Rosetta Stone. From Greece we have the plays that survived the ages. From our truly ancient ancestors, we have building foundations and crumbled pottery, if that.
Even the leaps of modern science are, in many ways, partial conclusions. We can observe a lot more than we used to. Electron microscopes and the Hubble telescope. Space probes. What do they teach us? 90% of the lesson is that we don’t know everything. Not even close. In a century or two, we will be subject to the same scorn we give pre-Civil War physicians for not cleaning their instruments between surgeries and Regency mothers for believing that lancing their teething baby’s gums was a good idea.
Even the hard sciences are an ever evolving set of partial conclusions based on exceedingly narrow questions. So how can we believe we truly know as much as we think we know about ancient peoples?
What if the people of the Stone Age actually had metal, but it was so rare and precious that they turned it into exceedingly high quality tools. And when one of them owned a tool like that, they kept careful care of it. They used it for its intended purpose, and ensured that when it finally wore out, they’d have gotten an entire lifetime of use out of it.
I doubt a tool like that would be left in a refuse pile. The most we would find would be fragments of the broken wooden handle.
What do you think? Were ancient peoples truly so much less intelligent than we are? Or did they apply their intelligence differently? Drop your thoughts in the comment section below, or shoot me a comment on Facebook!