Way Back When

Photo by Kris Williams/Flickr

Use only… stones left by matri-descendant patri-tribalists

– Heid Erdrich, “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects

I’ve recently become fascinated by prehistoric people. I’m intrigued by how much of human history is in the 50,000-60,000 years between migrating out Africa and founding the first cities. Even taking a conservative view, and eliminating the human-like creatures that preceded homo sapiens in the two-odd million years after the proto-chimp swung that decisive bone tool and the whole process began, the vast part of human history is before we even had writing to record it.

In any of those untold centuries, all the way back to the beginning, ancestors of mine and of yours hunted and gathered, mastered fire, fought off predators, found faith and created art. It was a slow process. Entire centuries were apparently devoted to improvements in stone-flaking techniques, to developing pigments or stone circles. I don’t doubt that lives were more rich and interesting than can be conveyed by artifacts, but very little else is known, or can be learned by excavating the middens and mounds they left behind.

Their stories are usually told with allegorical compression that emphasizes technological advancement; the weapons were made like this until they were made like that, along came agriculture and notions of home. Upon their art, archaeologists seem over-eager to endow their ancestors with high brows. A busty statue must be a goddess and not a bawdy amusement or even stone-aged pornography. Cave paintings of men turning into animals must be evidence of shamanism and not a whimsy before bedtime. Celestial observatories were built to watch the Gods, not simply for the wonders of the stars.

I feel like the opposite of the usual history text prelude is the more interesting truth. These were people for whom time and the world were endless. They must have felt somewhat static, as a kind, and had little regard for haste or progress. Surely they wanted leisure and entertainment, even if it serves the grand narrative arc of human achievement less than, well, less than situating themselves in a grand narrative of human achievement. They were hardly queuing up the Stone store for Projectile Point 5 because it’s one step closer to their civilized destiny.

If I find a story to tell, that’s what it will be. Not savages wrestling with saber-toothed cats, staving off Neanderthals and long ice-age winters, culminating in the climactic invention of NEW TOOL or BIG IDEA that makes them the rightful heirs to the earth. I feel more narrative longing for lives led without much history or purpose, which is to say, gloriously.

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