The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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January 3rd, 2008 · No Comments · culture, history

As part of my study of the development of religion and culture, there is a lot I’d like to know about how things got to be the way they are. Unfortunately, many of the most important decisions were made way back in the hidden mists of unrecorded, prehistoric times. We’ll never know exactly which tribes followed which totems, or when or how they converted to anthropomorphic deities (or even if such a model indicates the correct process). Consequently, I’ve had to make a lot of assumptions. What follows is an extremely abbreviated summary of human prehistory that highlights a few of my more outrageous speculations.

There is a lot of speculation in history, and even more in archeology. Real clues are few and far between in these arts, and many things must be assumed. Unless we know better, we tend to assume that things were as they are today. Much of the real work of history, then, is uncovering what helps us to “know better” the past. Sometimes, people uncover things that don’t fit with what other people have assumed, and this often causes conflict in academic circles. Other times, people see new patterns in unrelated digs and form controversial theories that point to new lines of research. In my studies, I have accumulated a number of these “unusual theories”, and a few of them have even survived the test of time.

Historians once believed that man evolved relatively recently, and had assigned most of his technology development to the most recent periods. Now, we understand that evolutionary and technology-building process went on for several million years. At least three (if not five) waves of hominids covered the inhabitable surface of the planet. Several viable variations were produced, but one — homo sapiens sapiens — came to dominate, subjugate, or kill off every remaining hominid who had come before him and cover the world in a few thousand years.

One unusual theory I have embraced is the “water monkey” theory. At some point in hominid development, between australopithecus afarensis and homo erectus, there was a variant that adapted to mostly living in water. I like this theory for a number of reasons. First, it explains many things regarding the differences between humans and the other Great Apes: hairlessness, speech, subcutaneous fat, and our erect posture, among others. Second, it’s a process we can see reflected in other species, and that process appears to be similar to the one our ancestors went through. Third: it’s clear that we have, as a species, adapted to the water in a way many other species have not. Unfortunately, locating exactly where and when such a conversion may have occurred is problematic.

It’s generally accepted that homo came out of Africa about two million years ago, and that modern sapiens sapiens developed about two hundred-thousand years ago. Some of the most radical theories about how homo spread from Africa turned out to be gold when genetic studies confirmed three primary routes out of Africa: north up the Nile, along the Littoral plain to the Euphrates; east, along the coasts of the Arabian and Indian peninsulas; or east on boats, along the currents to Indonesia and Australia.

By two-hundred-thousand years ago, we were already pretty clever and looked more or less as we do today. By forty-thousand years ago, it’s clear that we were regularly making textiles and carving wood and stone to our own devices. By twenty-thousand years ago, we see carvings of animals and people, jewelry, musical instruments, and carefully drafted cave paintings, so people probably already had a sense of culture: language, music, religion, trade, and art. Over the next ten-thousand years, the gradual process of involuntary agriculture allows for population expansion in partially sedentary communities along freshwater lakes and river valleys. As these populations expanded, agriculture became obligatory for the generations that expanded downstream.

We know of a few places where this process occurred: Along the Nile, the Euphrates, the Jordan, the Indus, and the Yellow. Another unusual theory I have embraced is that of the “Black Sea” culture. The theory is that around the glacial, freshwater lake located where the Black Sea is today, there was once an ancient and successful culture that was obliterated when the lake was flooded by the sea. One bit of evidence we have is the sudden appearance and domination of Europe and Western Asia by the Indo-Europeans — who appear to us in the historical record from either side of the Black Sea as Mycenaeans, Greeks, Hittites, and Sea Peoples, or as Sakas and Scyths, Iranians, Persians, and Medes.

We have no evidence for such a “Black Sea” culture because any settlements would now be far under water. We do have evidence of agricultural communities along the Danube and Dneiper Rivers — both of which flow into the Black Sea — and this is the generally accepted location of the homelands of the Indo-Europeans. Recent submarine investigations have discovered what appear to be the foundations of structures near the shoreline of the ancient fresh-water lake. There is also the possibility that the event that flooded the lake and displaced the neolithic inhabitants there was the basis for the flood stories of Gilgamesh and Noah.

One important impact of sedentary agriculture must be considered. For millions of years, the Nile and the African coasts had been highways of migration for homo erectus and homo sapiens. Once groups began to settle along these shores, travel along these “highways” became difficult — expensive if not dangerous. New inland and oversea routes were eventually found and migration continued. Where established agricultural communities claimed the lowlands, new groups took over the highlands and carved out mountain villages from mineral wealth. In short, geography and migration patterns determined how the eventual patterns of cultural conflict would emerge.

We once named the ones that blocked the Nile with their early settlements and agricultural prowess the Hamites, but this term today is abandoned in favor of the less racially charged “Egyptian”. The next ones along, who similarly blocked the Arabian coasts were named ‘Semites’. These Semites emerged onto the Chalcolithic cultures of Mesopotamia from the Arabian heartlands and soon dominated the entire region. The pastoral early peoples of that region were forced into the Zagros mountains by the Semites, but soon found themselves threatened by Indo-Europeans: Hittites from the West and Iranians from the East.

This is how the stage was set, so to speak, for the four-thousand years of written history that we do have. We know quite a bit about religious practices in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and the Levant from all of the written and physical evidence left to us. When the Greek and Persian influences come, they are recognizable as foreign. We can, in fact, trace fairly clearly the movements and developments of cult and faith through written documentation from Babylonia to today. Understanding how the stage was set gives us valuable insight into the hows and whys that remain after our written histories are exhausted.