Some twenty years ago a leading and respected psychologist, the late M.L. Kellmer Pringle – we were currently writing a book together – confided in me that in her view in only a few years' time we would know everything there was to know about human psychology and human society. This comment, which left me completely stunned for several days, was among the reasons why I felt I had to leave the psychological establishment.
It was, however, by no means the first such comment I had heard, either before or since, not just from psychologists, but from leading biologists, anthropologists, doctors, historians – the pillars of the academic establishment – the view that, really, we were well on the way to knowing everything about mankind. In all fields relating to human evolution, to the human psyche, it was pretty much a question only of tying up the loose ends, of a few details here, a few details there. And that would be that.
My own position was a very different one. Not only did I find myself each day learning more and more about less and less, as Murray Butler put it – but in considering the currently accepted theories in the fields of study relating to mankind, I saw only more and more inadequacy in, more and more objections to, the confident explanations on offer. Obviously I was suffering from some terminal deficiency that was going to (and indeed did) shunt me out of my then career and into the arms of the other heretics.
So to the topic of the present book. The question it puts is simply this. Is the story of the origins and development of modern mankind, that is, of ourselves, really that which we find in our present-day school books and encyclopedias? Or is it the case that these accepted accounts are in fact quite hopelessly biased and inadequate?
There is the two-part question. By the end of the book I hope the reader will feel able to give an emphatic no to the first part, and an emphatic yes to the second.
Long before the arrival of the first European in the New World, the resident North American Indians there had evolved an in many ways advanced culture and civilisation. They had, after all, been in residence for some 20,000 years. Already by 10,000 BC the anthropologists record large-scale, continuous communities.
Prior to 2000 BC, these varied peoples of North America knew weaving, tent and weapon making, medicine, music and many other skills of civilisation – though, as it happens, not the art of pottery. They also had by then a complex political life, alongside rich cultural and religious traditions, and great bodies of ancient folklore reaching back to the time when their distant ancestors came first across the 'stepping stones' to the virgin continent. Some of the tribes spent much of each day, every day, in complex religious ritual, not unlike orthodox Jews and Moslems of our present time. Others, of course, were equally dedicated to hunting or warfare. Yet, we must emphasise, these same complex Indians had no written language: nor did they build any permanent dwellings.
Consider now the following hypothetical situation. Suppose this long-lasting and widespread North American civilisation had never been contacted by any other human group. And suppose, further, that some sudden catastrophe overtook this family of nations – an unstoppable disease perhaps, or decades of severe drought, followed then by disease, we have enough such scenarios in our world today – so that all perished. And suppose then that 25,000 years pass, or even 50,000.
What trace would any later explorer then find of those myriad peoples and their complex cultural life? Why, none. Effectively, none. Just a few stone or bone weapons and implements. No tents, no dancing, no stories. Only a few, silent skulls – one here in a dry, desert gully, another trampled in fragments along some former river, and look, three skulls together even in this icy northern cave. Nothing more.
Or consider, now, a slightly different scenario. In this case the Indians are overrun by an invading and very different ethnic type. Still more, even, than the Europeans who, in historical reality, actually did overrun the Indian peoples, this hypothetical invader hates and despises all that the Indian stands for – hates even their physical appearance, their very existence. At the hands of this invader the Indians are therefore relentlessly hunted down, butchered, and erased en masse, along with all their culture and beliefs. (This very scenario of course actually took place when the Europeans arrived in Tasmania – we do not even need to make an effort of imagination here.)
During the relatively short period of the overrunning, however, there occurs widespread rape of the Indian women, some few of whom then live to escape back to their own people. In addition, some natives are kept alive deliberately by the conquerors for general amusement, both as slaves and concubines. (Precisely these events, once again, actually occurred in Tasmania.) From these various circumstances there arises, over time, a small half-breed population, a group having very confused and uneasy social status. (One simply doesn't know quite what to do with them, or about them.) Yet some of these half-breeds do nevertheless find some sort of social acceptance, and are absorbed into the invading stock. Others, perhaps, band together, and take off on their own account.
Now, however, in our hypothetical scenario (but how hypothetical is it really, so far?) disaster overtakes the invaders themselves. Abruptly there onsets one of the frequent ice ages that have so much characterised our planet in recent geological time. In the course of only a few decades the glaciers slide massively and relentlessly down from the north. The climate is suddenly no longer temperate, but arctic and sub-arctic. Even as far down as the centre of the continent, the covering ice is literally miles high – as it was in fact in central Britain and northern Europe just a few thousand years ago. The escape route south for our invaders is ultimately barred. The far southlands, perhaps, are already occupied by other vigorous peoples.
So now in the following millennia only a rump of the once proud conquerors ekes out a subsistence existence in a bleak, inhospitable landscape. Under these conditions 5,000 years pass. Or perhaps 10,000. And then the ice cap once again suddenly, and inexplicably, withdraws back to its permanent home within the true arctic circle.
The descendants of the original invaders now flourish and multiply. In only a few millennia they have swarmed out again over the whole continent. They make rapid cultural, technical and, finally, scientific progress. They have very much 'arrived'.
Yet let us consider what kind of cultural, and biological position prevails among them.
In these peoples' verbal traditions – and they are of course by now a family of nations rather than any single nation – we find, obviously, much reference to 'recent' history. They are rather full of themselves these last few thousand years, these very successful and dynamic years. Yet in among all the obviously fairly recent material - recent, that is, as history counts these things – we find fragments which clearly refer to some time still more distant, to a time or times of very great antiquity indeed. In some cases the people themselves claim that these fragments are very, very old. Sometimes, as well, their age can be deduced from their content – references to dateable geological events, for example, or to animals which have long ceased to exist.
Nevertheless, as far as the main content of these fragments is concerned, this is so garbled, nonsensical, so altogether unlikely, that it is clearly out of the question that it can be taken in any sense literally or seriously. These 'accounts' are obviously just fantasies, fairy stories dreamed up long, long ago in primitive times of enormous ignorance.
Sometimes however, and sometimes again connected with these old fairy-tales, we find also strange, meaningless and quite often secret rituals, or arcane 'religious' statements, which are altogether at odds with the thrust of public religion and culture – even allowing for the fact that there is nowadays quite a deal of variation in the public religions and cultural practices coast-to-coast.
Further again, there are one or two words in the present language family which are quite clearly from some other quite different language family. (The philologists are quite happy about this particular aspect. 'Oh, yes,' they say. 'These are indeed very old words that our language picked up somewhere long ago, no doubt from peoples that went before us – obviously, we don't know what the words mean and, in the circumstances, never will.' The words, however, often crop up in the context of the old legends, or in connection with the secret rituals.) Lastly, but importantly, among the fairly wide range of physical types in the present-day population, there occurs, very occasionally, the birth of an individual with an obviously very different physical ancestry.
None the less, it occurs to virtually no one to imagine that all these strange and in any case unimportant odds and ends might somehow belong together, somehow relate to each other. Still less does it occur to anyone to connect this rag-bag of oddities with the very old skulls and tools which the wind and rain, or actual excavation, occasionally unearth.
During the course of our second 'suppose' we have, as I now suggest, been moving steadily away from our North American Indians and their hypothetical destroyers and towards a wholly real, actual situation. We have not in any fantasy sense been hypothesising at all. We have been describing the actual supplanting and destruction of Neanderthal man in Europe and the Near East, some 30,000 years ago, by an invading and completely different physical and cultural type, Cro-Magnon man.
Yet, one might still ask, even if these – what are they? – Cro-Magnons did violently supplant Neanderthal man in the general manner suggested – well, so what? One type of early man is supplanted by another – surely this is a matter of direct concern only to the specialist in such matters; and to the rest of us, if at all, in some popularised form for reading by the fire in the evenings?
The contentions of the present book, however, could not be more opposite. Involved are two major aspects.
The first is that the totally fortuitous biological mixing of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon genes (for, as already proposed above, it seems that the mix occurred solely in the context of rape and slavery) produced virtually overnight the vigorous and gifted hybrid that is ourselves, modern man. This specifically biological claim will be discussed in more detail later in the book, but is not, however, its chief concern.
The second aspect, the second claim, is that, at the time of his, for him, unfortunate encounter with Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal had evolved a culture of the mind (a) not only of a very high order indeed (for as I often say, whereas we build cities of stone, Neanderthal built cities of dreams) but also (b) of a strangeness that is very hard for us to imagine or, even having imagined, to come to terms with (since we have, after all, experience of only one kind of human mind – our own).
At the purely psychological/cultural level, I suggest that Neanderthal dealt Cro-Magnon a culture-shock of such magnitude that its consequences are still with us today. Though it left little physical trace, there is in fact, as will be shown, not one aspect of our present lives, our attitudes and our institutions which does not today bear that ancient culture's stamp.
The assumptions that follow in the next few briefly descriptive paragraphs will be defended throughout the book. Let us take these on trust for the moment.
We may picture Cro-Magnon as a young, confident individual: a very tall, skilled hunter and fighter, and extremely talented with it – the range of exquisite flint tools Cro-Magnon produced, much superior to the merely adequate tools of Neanderthal, is already strong evidence for that claim – probably already having developed the kind of warrior ethos described, say, in the Arthurian legends. In all further probability he was a sun-worshipper, in any case a creature of the daylight, the open plains (hence his tallness, of course), and the summer: probably again believing himself to be the only type of man in existence.
But now, entering Europe, he encounters a to him physically and wholly repulsive type of man, short, barrel-bodied, ugly – a type culminating in Classic Neanderthal, a truly monstrous adaptation of the general Neanderthal type to extreme ice-age conditions – who lives mainly by night, who worships the moon (who in homage to it drinks human blood, but that's the least of it, even menstrual blood isn't the worst of it), in short, a type of man whose very innate, biological instincts, let alone his culture, are the utter opposite of those of Cro-Magnon. (Why, even when submitting in combat, instead of bowing the head, or kneeling, they present the naked buttocks, as indeed they do to the very altar when at prayer.)
And then, as if coping with the Neanderthal problem were not enough, the climate itself abruptly turned on Cro-Magnon. By 20,000 BC Europe was again in the grip of a full-scale ice-age.
Well, these are some of the further 'supposes' we will be involved with throughout the book. Yet how and where shall we find our supportive evidence? What form will it take? What underpinning can we give it? For, after all, as we said, the skulls themselves are both empty and silent. (Yet we can, for instance, take a plaster cast of the brain those skulls once housed.)
In paleo-archaeology, all that this type of archaeologist finds, as a rule, are a few of the merest slivers of bone. These days too, however, he or she can also analyse soil samples, and from their present chemical composition show that these and these materials (and sometimes quite different materials) must once have been here. But always the smallest traces are examined, from which, nevertheless, skill allows the inference of a great deal else: how many people lived here, for how long they lived here, what they ate, what they wore. The process of inference, hopefully of legitimate inference, is one that we shall employ also.
We have too the geologist, who looks at what to us is a hopelessly jumbled scree. After a while of careful study he is able to announce: these vertical rocks here were once horizontal; these rocks on top here are actually far older than the ones below them; those rocks over there are actually upside down; and these ones here don't belong at all – they've been brought several thousand miles by glaciers and rivers. A very similar task as that which faces the geologist faces us when we look at the jumbled scree of legendary material. But hopefully again we shall be able to sort it into categories and ages that others will consider reasonable.
Lastly, there is the astrophysicist. He considers the faintest tendrils and echoes of radioactivity among the stars at one edge of the galaxy, and says, oh yes, these are the traces of a supernova long, long ago, which occurred at the other edge of the galaxy. And behind even such whispers he hears too the faint, unbelievably distant echoes of the original Big Bang.
A biological supernova occurred when Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal man met. We can, if we will listen, still clearly hear the echoes of that explosion and observe its after-effects – and because we can we (like the astrophysicist) know that the explosion did indeed once occur.
But behind these echoes and tendrils we can also then detect the still fainter traces of Neanderthal civilisation itself, and hear the still fainter echoes of falling cities of dreams.
Stan Gooch, 1995
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