In 1894 the eminent A. H. Sayce acquiesced, “We are but just beginning to learn how ignorant we have been of the civilized past, and how false our ideas have been regarding it” (Simpson 1). A century later, and with ten-thousand-score additional history books, we find ourselves in about the same position. The ancient past, from several points of view, remains inscrutable.
What makes the observation of Sayce so interesting is its timing. He wrote this statement just a few decades after Darwin published The Descent of Man. Darwin’s ingenious biological theory of evolution was greedily applied to the consciousness and intelligence of the human species. As a result, all of human history was engulfed in the idea of cultural evolution. Suddenly, vast stretches of time were economized not only within the idea of linear time, but also within linear consciousness.
And the results have been disastrous. Nothing has done more damage to our own historical consciousness then the misapplication of Darwinian theory to history. Many history books might get many of the facts right, but the organization of those facts are ultimately modern projections onto the material. The resultant picture is a highly skewed and often grotesquely ignorant picture of humanity—past and present.
A few decades ago, the ever controversial Martin Bernal pointed out that the materials with which we have to work with when organizing our ideas of history are so sparse that debates over ancient history “should not be judged on the basis of proof, but merely on competitive plausibility” (Berlinerblau 72). For what is to be called “proof” amongst so little surviving material? Of course Bernal’s own construction of the past has been blasted by numerous scholars, leaving one critic to lament, “Yet the same critique of [Bernal’s competitive plausibility] can be directed at these scholars, a state of affairs which demonstrates how utterly problematic research in ancient history can be” (Berlinerblau 73). This same scholar notes that history is made up of vast amounts of mostly irrecoverable data, “our awesome lack of knowledge about the ancient world imprisons us within a discourse of plausibilities, not probabilities” (Berlinerblau 73). Sturt Manning sums up the situation simply, “It seems a depressing reality unless one simply chooses to ignore it” (qtd. in Berlinerblau 73).
But why ignore vast stretches of nothingness when one can use it to underwrite any idea that serves the present? It was the Nazi application of evolutionary theory on society that created the path to the “final solution.” Millions were burned in the ovens, because, as history explained to them, this was best for the future. What irony. Then again, it was the Aztec application of astrological theory (historical evolution in a different sense) that underwrote the historical consciousness that codified the endless bath of bloody corpses.
Every social movement has an historical construction that supports it. The point is, those historical constructions are very often predicated upon an ignorance that is both vast and surprising. As it must be, for ancient history is just beyond our best attempts to reconstruct it. All those thousands of pottery shards, figurines, bone piles, and archeological debris can tell us a great deal about methods and modalities, but they cannot tell us about the real thoughts and imaginations of their creators.
Constructing history upon these pieces is like understanding a dramatic play only by reading its prop list: “Act 1, Scene 1; a table center stage with a plate of eggs and a dagger nearby.” How do we interpret this? Well, Marx would tell us that the small quantity of egg has produced the dagger; and what we are seeing is the beginning of a revolution. Frazier might see the dagger as a sacrificial implement for a fertility ritual, and that the eggs are really the analogical object of exotic secret rites. Freud would tell us that, … well, … isn’t it obvious.
All the more complicated if not comedic does the interpretation become when reading the next set of data: “Act 1, Scene 2; several pillars marked with geometric forms surrounding a mound. A donkey pulls a casket. Left stage is a barrel of fish.” Hmmm. Marx: “The peasant has been killed by the oppressive state and his body is being dragged to the burial mound by his lowly beast of burden.” Frazier: “Here is the sacred temple of the fish god who reinvigorates the season of spring through the sacrifice of his dead body being pulled by an ass.” Freud: “The casket is the vagina succumbing to the virulent donkey who drags it upon the upright phalluses of the state. Fish are exuberant procreators, and the barrel of fish is the promise of sex, indeed, the absolute necessity of sex, standing by the burial mound which is also the swollen womb of the mother.”
You get the point. History is a sociological construct. And the farther one goes back, the more modern sociology is applied. I am not saying that all history is sheer fabrication. Only parts of it. And sometimes the parts overcome the whole.
When it comes to the ancient past there are generally three overarching views which interpret the prop lists of history. First, there are the Howlers. These are people who believe that everyone in the past was a “howling barbarian,” borrowing a phrase from the prestigious Richard Atkins, who declared that the builders of Stonehenge were intellectual primitives. Despite a great deal of deconstruction on this view in the past few decades, the truth is that this worldview is so steeped into our modern historical consciousness that we no longer notice it in our own thinking. Ancient man was primitive. Modern man is not. We can prove it: pottery-shards versus iphones!
Few people seem to understand that such a comparison is a false one, and that, in the broad sense, scientific and symbolic thought does not evolve. Rather, it is rooted in the very nature of consciousness, and is attached to the culture and language of society; it is only the latter that evolves. The mathematician Giulio Magli comments that the idea of evolution of a primitive mind to a modern one is a “ridiculous and fundamentally sloppy hypothesis” (4). The historian of science Giorgio de Santillana concurs, “The point is this: that what we observe as ‘primitive’ conditions are, with very few exceptions [. . .] only what is left of the rise and fall of past higher cultures; what appeared to be a universal steady state of superstitions from which thought grows is only the common denominator to which decaying civilizations run in the end” (10).
The second common view of history is the Romantic view. Like the primitive ideology of the Howlers, the Romantics believe that “simple” culture is better culture, and that ancient men and women were more in tune with the landscape, with mother earth, and with their own souls. This is a “Romantic Savage” view of ancient woman, and it has reached such daring heights that it now asserts that ancient matriarchies were peaceful, and in the words of one scholar, as a result, there was no warfare for over three thousand years!
The problem with such thinking is manifold. There is no such thing as “simple” culture. Ancient history was full of violence, and ancient cultures often practiced human sacrifice, ritualized prostitution, and rampant slavery. There were no carbon emissions from factories or automobiles in the ancient past. That’s true. But ancient civilizations deforested entire landscapes, burning stumps as they went. And whatever time the shaman had to meditate upon the earth (which itself is funny, for the shaman’s primary stewardship was to be a guide into the next world, away from all things of the earth) was trumped by the mass of humanity stuck in one perpetual and monotonous state—described in the words of the historian Tacitus, “Toil, toil, toil!” The Romantic view is also “a ridiculous and fundamentally sloppy hypothesis.”
The third historical viewpoint can be called history as written by the Conspirators. With these people, the aliens built the pyramids, and the megalithic rings, and all ancient technology. Why? Because, like the Howlers, the Conspirators believe that ancient man could have done no such thing by themselves. This ideology is nothing more than a neo-mystical Darwinian view of the self and its relationship with cosmos. Not even the “mother-ship” can save us from ourselves.
All three viewpoints: the Howlers, the Romantics, and the Conspirators, are wrong. And being this kind of wrong has modern implications. Each one of these views produces a set of metaphysics by which we live. And that metaphysics creates an image of the self. We are, according to these views, either the apex of civilization, or the victims of civilization, or the cosmic riff-raff who got its best ideas by stealing them from other-worldly civilizations. The dignity of our identity, which has always been individual, infinite potential, is curtailed by the poverty of our historical conceptions, which remains collective and finite projections.
Read more in my upcoming book: Mythos and Cosmos, Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age.