Understanding Prehistorical Human Cultures of Knowledge

An interesting paper has recently been led by Martin Sweatman of the University of Edinburgh. Entitled: Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient Knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes, this work is as interesting as it is speculative.

The main problem with it as far as I can see, is a question of whether it is the product of the process of projection. The science included looks impressive and the conclusion drawn is highly attractive to the romantic in all of us but is this really enough to state: “These findings support a theory of multiple comet impacts over the course of human development, and will probably revolutionize how prehistoric populations are seen.”

Even with the standard caveat of employing the word ‘probably’, this is a bold claim. However, there is another critical perspective we can approach this paper from and that is of our cultural and historically enduring bias towards our own civilisations of the Indo-European cultural complex as being the sole progenitors of substantive knowledge and insight.

This bias places these civilisations as the birthplace of human intellectual appreciation and ability whilst displacing previous human populations to simple iterations of brutishness barely discernible from base animal nature. We may suggest that such a prejudice has long been dispelled, as exampled by the re-definition of Neanderthal as a ‘cultural being’, but there remains a persistent and determined demand to place ourselves in a superior position to those who lived in prehistory.

We see an indication of this in the common media portrayal of earlier human forms as being ‘black’ and modern humans as being ‘white’; a transcription of modern racism to the past. The old motif of the crouching ape becoming erect and then our modern, contemporary, upright walking selves is also a psychological prop for our own sense of superiority and now redundant in light of the fact that our bipedalism began in the trees not on the ground. In this context of our need to see ourselves as ‘more advanced’ we are often guilty of not recognising that we have been anatomically ‘modern human’ for 300,000 years.

This age of the human mind should be the real context in which we investigate, as Sweatman has, the art and culture of our prehistory. If the Antikythera mechanism, whilst at the edge of recorded history, teaches us one thing, it is that the received history of our cultural achievements is not an established and immutable timeline. As any good historian knows, history is more often a debate unresolved than an argument made. Why then is it so strange that we should find that our ancestors, who lived under the stars in a way city dwellers of today cannot comprehend, should construct their cultural and historical narratives with the fabric of their experience?

Indeed, if the indigenous culture of Australia, a 50,000 year old tradition, teaches us anything it has to be that they are us and we are they. Perhaps it is acceptable to simply create our own mythologies of supremacy but we do so at the devaluation of our disciplines of history and cultural knowledge. The human mind is what really distinguishes this animal from other animals and that mind has been looking at the stars for a lot longer than the last 6000 years since the Sumerian astrologers. In fact, 294,000 years longer.