Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chapter Zero

What is the newest way of communicating? Email? Texting? Voice recognition software? Naaah. The latest thing in message-sent-message-received is writing. Yep, plain old characters on a surface. Everything that has happened since is variations on a theme already established 10,000 years ago. Etymologically speaking it is but a tiny jump from ancient Chinese Oracle Bone Script to OMGZ!!1!!

How important is writing to us now? Well, check out any media claiming to be "The history of - " anything. The first chapter will start off all gauzy and dreamy for a minute or two but then as quickly as possible it will shunt you to the point at which there is writing available for review. Now the REAL History can begin. Whew! That was close. Almost got speculative there for a minute!

The assumption, sometimes subtle, often explicit is that there was no civilization before the written word appeared. Historic? Now that's real. But PREhistoric? Yikes! We have no record, no data, no facts: We have nothing to read!

The reason for this skewing in favor of the written record is that via lecture, book, TV show, CD-Rom, or whatever media, History is presented by Historians. And these are academic types in ivory towers who exist in a hothouse culture that is based on testing, logic and argumentation. Measurable. Quantifiable. Verifiable. Publish or Perish. So evidence, written evidence, is the earliest, best, cornerstone of History. Anything before is just the helicopter shot for the opening credits.

“The Dark Ages” conjure up images of Mankind sinking into some sort of throwback stage, like we regressed into proto-humans. Nothing could be further from the Truth. Cities were built. Life continued. All of the principal countries of Europe were founded during this time. But they did it without keeping written records. Historians can index only a smattering of written evidence, and so 500 years doesn’t count. Just ignore that Cathedral over there.

The irony is that once they had acquired it our Ancestors did not think much of the written word. Writing can be traced back for millenia, but for most of its history it was the redheaded step-child of the communications family.

As late as the Renaissance spoken testimony still trumped the written variety, because writing could be forged, but a live witness could be judged. Forgers were hard to catch, but testifiers were right there. And the punishments for Perjury could be extreme. What did you think the 'test' in 'testify' stands for, anyway? Your right hand is on the bible, but your left hand was on your……Honor.

After this we had movable type, and the printing explosion which quickly brought us to the downloadable upgrade that is today. (And tomorrow - where our children won't even be taught handwriting.)

Before Gutenberg we have only a scattering of documents, mostly concerning death. From the Domesday books in England to Egyptian hieroglyphics it was the big 'D' that always gets the last words in. This also skews history.

What if entire civilizations were judged solely by what we have dug up about their dead? Wouldn't that be a dreary example from which to extrapolate an entire society? But that is what is still measurable, and so thems the Facts.

And so, what do we know about the Incas? How they died. What do we know about the Assyrians? How they were buried. The Celts? Next to nothing, because mostly they cremated their beloveds. And so on. That's the record and so that's what we base our documentaries on.

Me, I always seem to be searching for Chapter Zero, the history before the History, the vast and wondrous civilizations that we can only imagine about now, and about how they lived and thrived, rather than simply how they died.

What sort of complex society built the gigantic serpent mounds in present day Ohio? What about the matrilineal horsemen of the Russian Steppe? The ones that gave rise to those wandering Celts? They didn't have permanent cities, or reams of bureaucratic redvellum, but they were formidable enough to have kept the Romans happily nesting in the Eternal City for about a thousand years.

What about those millennia before the written record? Gee, how did we survive prior to paperwork? I believe that in Neolithic times, when Avebury, Stonehenge III and the rest of the great stone circles and monoliths were erected, we humans were a fairly peaceful lot. This was just before Patriarchy rode in to town on an Iron Age and robbed the Universal Goddess Bank and Trust (renaming it the first National).

I believe that at that time we had no need of writing because we had many more ways of communicating than merely speaking and gesturing. At that time I believed we danced more, and with more purpose. Temple dances from Thailand, bellydancing from the Middle East and the polynesian hula: The oldest dance traditions on Earth are based around story telling.

Our modern sense of smell is a cruel joke compared to what it was not so long ago. (Yes, dogs are charmingly stupid but they possess a sophisticated means of communication that we can only vaguely imagine.) In addition I believe that our prehistoric selves sang like loons, drew practical pictograms, and had elaborate sign languages with travelers from distant lands.

Furthermore I believe that we communicated telepathically in those days. I mean, more people more skillfully than can be accomplished now.

Vestigial? Perhaps. I prefer 'dormant'. After all, we still enjoy drawing and dancing and singing - or we did until our modern teachers told us to stop because we weren't good enough. Quick, back to the real schooling: Back to Readin' and Writin' for us!

And smell? It's only the basis for the attraction that continues the species. Telepathy? No proof of that in the written record. Oh wait - let me get the phone; it's my mother calling....

Angus McMahan

P.S. How much would our view of Stonehenge change if there was a plaque on it from its builders? Think about it.

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