Thursday, July 24, 2014

70th Birthday: Ashes and Diamonds

Today I turn 70. It is a milestone -- a point of no return. Clearly I have fewer miles ahead than I have behind. Which, of course, sets me to thinking about what I have done with my life.

The Polish movie Ashes and Diamonds makes the point that we never know whether our contributions will turn to ashes or be recovered by others as shining diamonds. 

For most of my life I have tried to add to the human dialogue. I believe I have a number of things to say with a unique perspective. I would like to think that I have made some important points in this blog of 42 in-depth postings and also in my other publications and eBooks.

But I will never know if my work is seen as a diamond or is lost in the dust and ashes of time. Nevertheless, if there is a chance that this could add to the human pool of knowledge, the human discussion, it is well worth the trouble. 

I do know this: If I do not put my ideas out, my thoughts will never have a chance of being heard. It's sort of a lottery of ideas. As a lottery player says, "I probably won't win, but I have absolutely no chance if I don't buy a ticket."

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So often you are as a blazing torch,
With flames of burning rags 
Falling about you -- 
Consuming all that you cherish.

You do not know if these flames
Will bring freedom or death.

Yet as your ashes fall into the abyss,
Could there be buried under the dirt 
The glory of a starlit diamond? 
-- A morning star --
The dawning of an everlasting triumph?
Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)
NOTE: I did not like the translations of this poem in English, so with apologies to Cyprian Norwid -- since I write poetry myself and have translated poems in French and Spanish -- I freely improvised taking the best lines/words from four different English translations, then added my own ideas and made my own English version. Here are the links to the various English translations that I found plus the original poem in Polish.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5 -- the original Polish]
Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883), Daguerreotype

In a positive irony, Cyprian Norwid and his work suffered the same fate as he described in his now famous poem. Ignored during his lifetime, almost forgotten for seventy years after his death, his work and this poem were rediscovered in the 20th century. This particular poem resurfaced to be the inspiration for a Polish novel and then a Polish movie made in 1958 -- when Poland was under Soviet domination. The movie, Ashes and Diamonds, spoke to the soul of the Polish nation and is now considered, by some, to be one of the best films ever made.


My interpretation: 
In the end the only freedom is to act and in this action to find meaning -- and by acting I include writing and ideas. No one will ever know the ripple effect of their actions far into the future. But acting with the best of intentions is the most today, in the present, that we can offer and expect.

I am a great believer in the power of art as a positive force. As we know many artists have spoken to future generations without being acknowledged during their own time. For example, JS Bach's compositions were not well admired during his lifetime and after his death his music was considered old fashioned -- so much of it was lost. Yet today he is considered one of the greatest composers of all time. I think an artist does not always create for the present, often he/she creates for a future audience the artist will never know.
The gravestone of the beloved actor Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean, who played the lead in Ashes and Diamonds and who died tragically in 1967 at the age of 39. (


Allegory of the First Partition of Poland in 1772.

Perhaps better than any nation in Europe, the Poles understand uncertainty and oppression. Starting in 1772 they were partitioned by the more powerful adjacent countries of Germany and Russia (and also Austria). In WW II Poland was conquered by Nazi Germany and then Stalinist Russia who held Poland under its control until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989. Except for a brief period after WW I when Poland was free, the Poles have been fighting for their independence for almost 200 years. Nevertheless they have kept their identity and their sense of who they are intact -- which includes one of the first societies to tolerate different religious beliefs and also different ethnic groups. Now today they are free and independent -- after numerous uprisings against their oppressors that in the past had only led to defeat. However, throughout this history their faith in art and creation seemed to sustain them with artists like Chopin -- along with an 800 year-old literary tradition. The movie Ashes and Diamonds was filmed while under Soviet domination. Will the Poles continue to remain free or be oppressed again? Ashes or diamonds?
"Wajda [ED: director of Ashes and Diamonds] has frequently remarked upon the special role of the artist in Polish culture: the political conscience of a nation during long periods when politics could not be openly and honestly discussed. He has also noted that Polish artists have fulfilled themselves not only in their art but in their participation in history. [ED: such as Paderewski, a famous pianist, who also became prime minister]."
Civilian killed by the Nazi Luftwaffe during the invasion of Poland in 1939.  (

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Light Pollution Is Blotting Out The Stars

As I have written, our moderncentric point of view  makes it hard to understand some simple basic facts about the history of human development. 

For example, until several hundred years ago virtually all towns and cities, large and small, were dark at night -- quite dark. Nevertheless, even with the introduction of street lighting in Paris and London about 300 years ago, the candle lamps were dim and only on main roads. And although cities became better lit by the 19th century, these lights did not wash out the sky until recently -- about 50 years ago.

While doing research for my blogs, I realized that our ever present electric lighting has blinded us to the fact that for most of human history, we humans had a clear view of the stars at night -- no matter where we lived. Interest in the stars and constellations goes back tens of thousands of years -- possibly hundreds of thousands of years. This means that until the rise of the modern well lit world, the stars were familiar and important to the average person -- whether a cave dweller in Paleolithic times, a Roman in the Roman Empire or a Victorian in London. 

Even using conservative estimates, our modern lighted environment has been part of the human lifestyle for about 1/10 of 1% of the life of our species -- i.e., only 300 years of the last 200,000 years since we (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved.

As I have written I believe Paleolithic people would have been able to read the stars like a sacred book, a book they had seen since birth. However, modern scholars often dismiss this idea -- in part because they are unfamiliar with the night sky, blinded as they are by the bright lights of today.

This is important because it is my belief that the original clock and calendar were  based on the stars, the moon, the planets and the constellations. Yet many assume that once the great cities of Rome and Greece had risen, the streets were somewhat well lit and consequently people paid much less attention to the night sky. But this is totally false.

No less an authority than the British Museum had this to say about ancient Greek culture, for example, in their "Summary of the Greeks' relation to the stars:"
"The stars were used as gigantic clocks to measure the changes in the seasons."
My Point Is This 
For most of history people had a clear view of the stars and the moon which were a point of reference -- a nightly clock and a monthly, seasonal and yearly calendar. Also because the cities were not lighted, people's eyes were often well adjusted to seeing in the dark -- and so the night sky was an ever present background. NOTE: This fact is critical because eyes that have adjusted to darkness can see many more stars. 
Yet, our picture of ancient times, is often quite different. 


Our moderncentric view has been shaped in part by paintings and Hollywood movies. We think historic cities were not dark because the movies have shown us well lit nighttime scenes. Yet the night images we saw in such movies as Ben Hur and Gladiator and the paintings beginning with the 16th century were not realistic.

In the fictional historic worlds created by Hollywood, light seemed to be everywhere. So in this screenshot from the trailer for the 1951 film Quo Vadis (left) Deborah Kerr was seen in light that illuminated the background and delicately highlighted her face -- all from Roman lamps! In reality the light was probably more like the picture on the right, where the background was dark and her face was lit in a much starker manner. ( NOTE: The picture on the right is my own reworking of the original trailer screenshot and my best guess about the actual lighting in ancient Rome.

Depictions of historic time periods often show bright lamps and candles that illuminate wide areas. Yet this is not accurate. While this may seem like a minor point, it is not. As a photographer, I know how light operates. Light diminishes according the to square of distance, which means that light falloff is quite rapid.

Quote from Wikipedia: "The intensity (or illuminance or irradiance) of light or other linear waves radiating from a point source (energy per unit of area perpendicular to the source) is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source; so an object (of the same size) twice as far away, receives only one-quarter the energy (in the same time period)." ( 

This is a completely unrealistic painting in terms of lighting. In this painting one candle is brightly shining on the man in the bed and the two women several more feet away. The intensity of the light does not change with the distance from the candle. It is images like these that have given us a false picture of how light operates. (

This is a much more realistic picture of how light works. The torch on the left illuminates the person it is closest to and then the light falls off rapidly as the distance increases. (

If we want a realistic understanding of people in the past, we need to know that they spent much of their time in near darkness -- a darkness they were accustomed to and that they understood. 

So just how dark were the cities? Let's take ancient Rome as one example.
This is in fact one of the characteristics which most markedly distinguishes Imperial Rome from contemporary cities: when there was no moon, its streets were plunged in impenetrable darkness. No oil lamps lighted them, no candles were affixed to the walls; no lanterns were hung over the lintel of the doors, save on festive occasions...Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life In Ancient Rome: The People And The City At The Height The Empire 

Roman bronze oil lamp. Oil was poured into the filler hole in the middle and the wick came out of the nozzle. (
But in addition, the illumination that did exist was from a variety of oils (olive, fish, sesame, whale and nut oils, for example) used in lamps, then later from candles and even later from kerosene. All of these created light in the red end of the spectrum. Candle light, for example, is 1,850 K putting it in the far red end. 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog faint red light does little harm to night vision -- meaning that people would have been able to see the stars clearly on a nightly basis, with little or no adjustment needed. As a result the night sky was not just background or unimportant, but something people paid attention to. Like today's celebrity stars, I suspect Romans discussed the movement and changes in the heavenly stars and planets just about every day and educated citizens commented on anything unusual -- not unlike our news stories now. 

And how about the cities of Europe after ancient times?

Around 1590 probably in London, Shakespeare wrote the following, showing that he had a clear view of the night sky -- one that his theater audience would be familiar with:
The poet's eye, in a frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. 
William Shakespeare, 
A Midsummer Night's Dream, circa 1590

Candles became widely available in Europe around the 13th century.  In the 17th century cities began to install candle street lights.
"In 1667, Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets, using wax candles in glass the end of the century, more than 50 of Europe's major towns and cities were lit at night." Quoted from the URL next.
While street lighting began in Paris in 1667, it was only from November to March and only on main streets. Yet by 1700 it had been extended to nine months of the year. The idea of street lighting with candles spread to other cities, yet many only lit their lamps on moonless nights. And although candles helped, the general lighting was still quite dim.
Information paraphrased from: 
Joan DeJean, How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

A painting of Frederick the Great of Prussia playing the flute. While the best quality approx. 50 candles -- pictured here in the mid-18th century -- was a lavish expense, the total light output was about as much as one 100 watt incandescent bulb of today. (

Although there were street lamps in major cities, they were quite faint. London was so dim in the early Victorian era that boys called link-boys (bottom left) made a living by carrying a candle or torch at night to guide people to their destination. The picture above is of a woman arriving home in her 'sedan chair' -- with a street lamp behind her, a footman with a candle and a link-boy with a torch. Picture of contemporary London life from Dicken's Pickwick Club 1837. (

Another unrealistic painting. The bright light for this well lit coffee house comes from only a couple of candles. (

Gas lighting in Paris in 1889. Gas lighting became common by the end of the 19th century. Yet although brighter than candles, it was relatively dim compared to today's electric lights and also burned in the red end of the spectrum. So the stars and the night sky were still visible in the 19th century and were an integral part of people's lives up until a few years ago. Countrywide electric lighting did not take over until after World War II. (


Today in just about any city of any size, electric lights blot out the sky. Even in the country area-lights have begun to take over. Light pollution is everywhere. As a result the stars of the night sky are lost to us. 
Google translation from the French Wikipedia entry about light pollution: With the emergence and rapid spread of the light bulb and the electric network, public lighting became widespread in the world, producing in the 1940s an early bright halo, reported by astronomers as being a hindrance to their work. The concept of "light pollution " was born (under that name) in the late 1980s.
Today few people know the constellations or keep track of the phases of the moon or are aware of the summer or winter solstice or the spring or fall equinox -- things that were essential to our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years. The stars and moon were the original clock -- one that we have exchanged for an artificial man-made system of timekeeping that is virtually removed from the natural cycles of the Earth.

Here is a quote from a discussion group about why astronomy is not important:
Science & Mathematics > Astronomy & Space
I think that most people are focused on a few things that are critical to their own existence. For some, that means family; for others, a career. In those specific areas, they are generally articulate and knowledgeable...What this means is that astronomy is a backwater in the knowledge pool for most folks. They could understand it if it was a priority, but it's not. 
If we wonder why so many urban people today feel alienated, one reason could be that they are no longer in touch with the cycles of the Earth and the Sun and the natural sense of time told to us by the stars.

Coney Island's Luna Park, an amusement park in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century (1903), when electric light was still a novelty. (

 NYC around 1935 from the top of a construction site. (

 Times Square today in NYC. (

Satellite composite of lights at night on the Earth. (

Map showing light pollution in Europe: red is the most, yellow next. (

 The same region of sky near a town of about 200 people (top) and near a city of about 400,000 people (bottom) in Utah, USA. The light pollution near any urban area now blots out much of the sky. (

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Protective Bubble of Civilization

We live inside a bubble. All of us in the developed world live inside this protective bubble we call civilization. 

No matter what the season or the weather, we leave our safe dry insured heated or cooled homes to travel down all weather roads inside comfortable cars to temperature perfect offices or stores. We eat sanitized food made from plants and animals that humans have learned to domesticate. We make sure we have shots or medicine to ward off disease. Often man-made music is everywhere we go. And while we can chose to step outside the bubble briefly to go for a walk -- usually in a well maintained park or down a city sidewalk -- most of our lives are spent inside the protection of this bubble.

Outside this bubble there is the natural world -- which the bubble of civilization depends on. Unfortunately we who live inside the bubble often forget that our lives and the lives of our children rely on the natural world such as the world's oceans and the world's climate. 

One of the dangers of being inside the bubble is that we can forget civilization depends on the much more powerful environment of the Earth.

And while the obvious parts of the bubble are buildings and transportation, there are other parts as well. We humans have learned to domesticate plants and animals, but those we use for food and other purposes are a very small part of the natural plant and animal world. Mass cultivation of these specialized plants is beginning to affect the world's ecosystems and also cause the extinction of many plants and animals that are not useful to civilization. In another example, we are protected from some diseases by modern antibiotics. But the overuse of antibiotics has resulted in resistant bacteria. And the vast majority of climate scientists agree that our highly developed technology is contributing to global warming.

The civilization bubble has worked so well and helped us live longer, more comfortable, healthier lives that we are no longer connected to the larger environment of the Earth. Yet the bubble of civilization has gotten so big -- leading to over seven billion people on the Earth -- it is starting to affect the world outside the bubble.

Because of the protection of the bubble, we are insulated and increasingly out of touch with the natural world and the effect that civilization has on the natural world.

What does this have to do with time, the subject of this blog? Time is a critical part of civilization and the bubble we live in. Yet because of the 'advance' of civilization we have distanced ourselves from the natural time cycles of the Earth and instead now, for example, depend entirely on an artificial time which is man-made. This means we are not in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. 

While civilization took perhaps ten thousand years to develop, it is only in the last hundred years or so that the industrial-technological revolution has taken civilization to the tipping point -- where it has both provided a comprehensive protective bubble for its citizens and also begun  to affect the larger environment of the Earth.


Our modern artificial time of minutes and hours and clocks and time zones took thousands of years to develop. It developed in a number of stages.

Upper Paleolithic: The awareness of repeating yearly cosmological events 

Humans began to notice specific recurring events in the sky such as the position of the sun at the summer and winter solstices and the seasonal occurrence of certain stars and constellations.

Cave painting from the Lascaux caves. While not yet proven, two different experts concluded that some paintings by old stone age people in the cave at Lascaux have a number of astronomical aspects. The evidence is so strong the cave has been declared a UNESCO heritage site for astronomy(
Neolithic: The creation of sophisticated astronomical structures

Buildings and structures were created that aligned exactly with key moments in the sun's travel such as the winter solstice -- showing a precise understanding of annual time and the seasons.

The Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland, built about 5200 years ago. "Once a year, at the winter solstice [the sun] shines directly along the long passage into the chamber for about 17 minutes and illuminates the chamber floor. This alignment is too precise to be widely considered to be formed by chance. Professor M. J. O'Kelly was the first person in modern times to observe this event on December 21, 1967." Document of the US space agency NASA. (
Ancient Civilizations, Sumer and Babylon: The mathematical creation of hours and minutes

For administrative reasons,  the ancient cities and civilizations of Sumer and Babylon invented a way to treat time as a commodity, just like grain or bronze. Daily time was divided into hours, minutes and seconds and reasonably accurate clocks, such as water clocks, were constructed.

Sumerians divided time mathematically from seconds to minutes to hours to days to months to years to great years (19 years or the Metonic cycle). Today we still use much of what they invented.  (

Water clock calculations on a Sumerian clay tablet. (

Classical Civilization, Rome: The Julian Calendar

Julius Caesar came up with today's calendar which accurately kept track of the days in the year (even though it was tweaked a bit later by Pope Gregory)  -- but ignored the cycles of the moon. This calendar created a way of keeping track of time with a time-keeping chart. It was a way of accounting for time -- rather than referring to or looking directly at the sun or the moon or the stars -- thus distancing people from the astronomical cycles. 

This Julian calendar we use today keeps accurate yearly time, but ignores lunar cycles and downplays seasonal events such as the summer and winter solstices. (
Medieval Civilization: The invention of mechanical clocks

Most early mechanical clocks indicated not only the time of day but the position of the sun, moon, stars and the zodiac. Later clocks got rid of their references to the heavenly bodies and only indicated the time in mechanical hours and minutes -- thus removing time from its relationship to the cosmos.

Built in 1410 the Prague astronomical clock displays a wealth of astronomical information. Lynn White Jr., Medieval researcher, said, "Most of the first clocks were not so much chronometers as exhibitions of the pattern of the cosmos...Clearly the origins of the mechanical clock lie in a complex realm of monumental planetaria...and geared astrolabes.” (
The Culture of Science, 19th century: Time is divided across the world into time zones 

Prior to time zones each town and city set its clocks to high noon when the sun was at its zenith. The creation of time zones severed the connection between noon and the sun at its highest point at a local location. And this in turn distanced people from the relationship between the time of day and the position of the sun.

Standard Railway Time was adopted in the United States in 1883, dividing the country into 5 time zones. Many protested. The Indianapolis Sentinel wrote that people would now "eat sleep work ... and marry by railroad time." (

The Culture of Science, 20th century: The clock is no longer tied to the Earth's natural cycles

In the 20th century the clock itself was removed from its connection to the natural cycle of the Earth's rotation. In 1967 an atomic clock became the standard for a second, creating a very accurate way of telling time -- but removing the clock from nature.

"NIST-F1 Cesium fountain atomic clock, serving as the US time and frequency standard, with an uncertainty of 5.10-16 (as of 2005)." Picture and quote from
The Culture of Science, late 20th century: Artificial electric lights blot out the night sky

In a related development the ever-present light of modern civilization -- known as light pollution --  has washed out the night sky so most people are no longer able to keep in touch with the constellations and the seasonal astronomical cycles. These cycles were crucial to humans until about 50 years ago [much more about this in a later blog].

The same region of sky near a town of about 200 people (top) and near a city of about 400,000 people (bottom) in Utah, USA. The light pollution near any urban area now blots out much of the sky. (

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Climate Change & Our Age of Denial

Years from now our age will not be seen as a high point in technological achievement. Instead it will be seen a major failure. While we had the information and the technology to keep our planet from being harmed, instead humans buried their heads in the sand.

this age will be seen as 
The Age of Denial

A hundred years from now, this hi-tech age we live in will be seen as a watershed moment when we failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. The obsession with consumer goods and instant gratification put civilization at risk. In our expanding consumer societies, people were more interested in comfort than the resulting damage to the environment.  The warnings about climate change and global warming that began about 40 years ago were ignored. And today it is obvious that we are going to pay the price -- and a very steep price at that.

JOKE: Why worry about global warming? 
Just turn the air conditioner temperature lower.

Read Carl Sagan's 1980 original essay, about the dangers of climate change, that he wrote over 30 years ago.

Now with the recently reported (May 12, 2014) irreversible collapse of Antarctic glaciers, a domino effect has been set in motion that will cause sea levels to rise and lead to a number of other related effects.

Read the following current report:
Irreversible collapse of Antarctic glaciers has begun, studies say

But first things first. 

The collapse of the glaciers means that sea levels will rise about 4 feet or 1.2 meters in the future due to this one factor. This is now a virtual certainty. But other forces are also at play. To put it simply, the hotter things get, the hotter they will get. Removing the reflective ability of the ice means that the oceans will absorb the sun's heat and heat up more. The additional heat around the globe will cause other glaciers to melt such as in Greenland. The addition of large amounts of fresh water into the salt water of the oceans may affect ocean currents -- see the graphic below. This in turn will cause extensive climate change across the globe. So a 4 ft./1.2m rise in sea levels is just the beginning as other parts of the domino effect will add to that.

Ocean Currents
"Ocean Circulation Conveyor Belt. The ocean plays a major role in the distribution of the planet's heat through deep sea circulation. This simplified illustration shows this "conveyor belt" circulation which is driven by the difference in heat and salinity. Records of past climate suggest that there is some chance that this circulation could be altered by the changes projected in many climate models."

While the naysayers continue to doubt, the scientific community is in almost total agreement. "Just over 97% of climate researchers say humans are causing global warming."

The irony is that we have the technology and the knowledge to design energy systems such as solar or wind that are sustainable and workable. And what do we have to lose by switching from a fossil based energy source to a sustainable, non-polluting energy source? Not very much in the long run. 

But all is not lost -- perhaps. If we can slow the inevitable warming by cutting back greenhouse gases now, the rise in sea levels can take much longer which will give us time to build and adjust. 

Time (the subject of this blog) is the critical factor. We need to make changes now for benefits that none of us will live to see, benefits that are a hundred years or more in the future. These benefits will be felt by our great-great-grandchildren -- perhaps. We cannot know for sure. 

This is hard for humans, who live a relatively short time, to plan for -- but if the survival of the human race is important, we have no choice.

25 years ago I wrote a series of essay warning about the dangers of global warming. More than 10 years ago I wrote the following essay which has been ranked in the top ten search results in Google for most of those years.
Rick Doble (2003)

Dr. Michio Kaku has written that we live in an especially dangerous time. By time he does not mean the last couple of years or even the next fifty, but rather the hundreds of years it may take for us to progress from a planet of special interests to a  planetary culture.

Right now we are in the infancy of technological development with crude energy sources and chemical processes that have the potential to destroy the environment either as by products of our civilization or with their deliberate destructive use in another world war.

Energy systems could be created that would cause virtually no pollution. Furthermore world wide economic development can proceed without harming the environment. Decentralized systems such as  solar panels can bring electricity and non-polluting development to many corners of the world.

Yet the destructive technology that we continue to use will have consequences for many years to come. In fact, we will feel the effects long after we have stopped using this technology and switched to a more environmentally friendly one.

Global warming will affect just about everyone, even though it is primarily a small number of nations that are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. The same holds true for radiation pollution, as we saw in the Chernobyl disaster. Radiation crossed national borders and ended up all across the world.

Even over-population will affect us all, because a severe strain on the ecosystem in one part of the globe will create stress on other parts.

This crisis is very real. If the global temperature increases and the sea level rises, there will be massive changes in the weather which will cause migrations across the world as well as wide spread flooding. In this kind of environment, new and rapidly spreading diseases could wipe out large numbers of people and the food supply could be threatened. These kinds of disruptions could also lead to wars.

The problem is that any solution is a long term solution. As Hans Blix, the United Nations weapons inspector before the second American-Iraq war, has pointed out, these environmental questions are much more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction. Yet since politicians do not often think beyond their four or eight year terms, they feel no urgency to risk their political future to forge a fifty or hundred year policy that may be required.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Moderncentric Bias Against Prehistoric Cultures: Part 2

The Moderncentric Bias
Against Old Stone Age Societies

In Part 1 I offered the term moderncentrism. By moderncentric I mean the modern sense of superiority that sees prehistoric societies as inferior. 

And what does this have to do with this blog, DeconstructingTime? There are a number of theories that Upper Paleolithic people, about 15,000 years ago, had a sophisticated understanding of astronomy -- which to me means they may have had a sophisticated understanding of time, since the stars, moon and the heavens were their clock. And if they did, I want to understand it -- because their sense of time might shed light on our contemporary understanding of time. 

Unfortunately there is also a more powerful contrary opinion which holds that these people were not capable of such complex thought. 

I believe that much, but not all, of the rejection of these theories comes from a moderncentric point of view. So in this blog I want to discuss the biases against old stone age, Paleolithic, people in particular -- you know, the cavemen everyone makes fun of.

BIAS #1:

Think this attitude is long gone? Think again. Here is a current quote from the online Encyclopedia Britannica of April 2014:
The Neolithic Revolution: Toward the end of the last ice age, some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, a few of the communities that were most favored by geography and climate began to make the transition from the long period of Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, savagery [ED. my emphasis] to a more settled way of life depending on animal husbandry and agriculture.
From the Google dictionary
1. (chiefly in historical or literary contexts) a member of a people regarded as primitive and uncivilized.
synonyms: barbarian, wild man, wild woman, primitive
2. a brutal or vicious person.
synonyms: brute, beast, monster, barbarian, sadist, animal
1. (of an animal or force of nature) fierce, violent, and uncontrolled.
2. cruel and vicious; aggressively hostile.
synonyms: vicious, brutal, cruel, sadistic, ferocious, fierce, violent, bloody, murderous, homicidal, bloodthirsty

Stereotypical view of an old stone age man with the obligatory club in hand.

This drawing of wild men or savages by Durer in the 15th century. (
The characterization of any prehistoric people as barbaric savages has been around since the Romans. For example, when the invading Roman General Suetonius was about to go into battle against tribes of Britons in England, he said to his troops:"Despise the savage uproar, the yells and shouts of undisciplined Barbarians," according to the Roman author Tacitus. 

From the Google dictionary
(in ancient times) a member of a community or tribe not belonging to one of the great civilizations (Greek, Roman, Christian).
an uncultured or brutish person.
synonyms: savage, heathen, brute, beast, wild man/woman

Uncivilized barbarians destroying everything in their path as they attacked the Romans in 451 CE. Notice the helpless bound woman and naked child being trampled by horses at the bottom of this 19th century drawing. (
While the tribes of Briton were not stone age people, they were seen by the classical world as wild beasts who were less than human -- as savage and uncivilized. Therefore they could be conquered and dominated. And this word 'savage' was later used to justify the domination of other 'savage' people by a number of colonial powers throughout history. For example, the Indians of North and South America were seen as savages by the English, Spanish and Portuguese. Read a detailed exploration of these concepts from the contemporary Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History.

I believe the loaded words 'savage' and 'barbaric' are a kind of name calling with little substance. As I will show later in this blog, stone age people had a sophisticated knowledge of their world. They studied and understood in depth a number of things that we modern people are ignorant about.
“Savages we call them because their manners differ from ours.”
Benjamin Franklin
However, a characterization of savagery, that has been around for thousands of years and continues to this day, will be hard to discard. To get rid of this notion, we must become aware of our prejudices.
Here is a current blog on the internet that shows how easily the words caveman, barbarian and savage are accepted in contemporary thought: Curing the Caveman Mentality -- I’m sure that the “finger pointing” blame-game approach for determining responsibility dates back well into prehistoric times. Battles between Harry B. Barbarian and Charlie Q. Savage were likely fought...
About a 100 years ago, Sir James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, was perhaps the first writer to attempt a modern understanding of 'primitive' people. Yet even he could not avoid the bias of his age. He used the word 'savage' 229 times in the book and variations of 'barbaric' 47 times. He wrote, "Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the only recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways."

Oddly this tone, which continues throughout the book, has drawn little attention. But it is typical of the attitude of people living in 'advanced' civilizations -- note that even the word advanced  has the same tinge of superiority.
A savage hardly conceives the distinction commonly drawn by more advanced peoples between the natural and the supernatural...Along with the view of the world as pervaded by spiritual forces, savage man has a different, and probably still older, conception in which we may detect a germ of the modern notion of natural law or the view of nature as a series of events occurring in an invariable order without the intervention of personal agency.
Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough

BIAS #2:

Quite simply this is not true. According to anthropologists, about 200,000 years ago Homo sapiens sapiens evolved and they were anatomically modern humans with the same brain that we have today.
"One of the traps we have to avoid, I think, is that we shouldn't think people back in those times were dumber, not so bright, not so intelligent. So far as we know, they had brains exactly like ours. And if they survived in the conditions in which they lived, they were probably a lot smarter on their feet than most of us are today." 
Prof. Trevor Watkins, Prehistorian
'Nuf said.

BIAS #3:

NOTE: Since the focus of this blog is about time, I will go into some detail about stone age cultures and astronomy -- because the moon, sun and stars were the clock for Paleolithic people.

In an article, Prehistoric Astronomers? Ancient Knowledge Created By Modern Myth, Dr. Emilia Pasztor glibly dismissed theories and possible evidence of complex Upper Paleolithic astronomy, yet acknowledged in a rather condescending tone that "members of prehistoric societies would have acquired a certain level of knowledge and understanding of the celestial landscape." 

Dr. Emilia Pasztor's statement plays to our stereotypes about 'cavemen' as illiterate savages. Yet if you were suddenly transported back to Paleolithic times, I believe that you would be the one who was illiterate and they instead would be the sophisticated ones who could read the night sky effortlessly and in detail.

Rather than a limited knowledge of the celestial landscape, it is more likely that Upper Paleolithic people had a complex understanding of the night sky, one they had been taught and studied since birth -- a knowledge that had been handed down for thousands of years. It is quite possible they were able to read the stars, moon, and planets like a book. And not just any book, but rather a sacred book they had grown up with and memorized cover to cover, with perhaps constellations as chapters and stars as verses. 

Most modern people today are lucky if they can find one or two constellations. 

Plus as we all know, when you learn something from a very early age, it becomes second nature and part of your world. In addition it is also quite likely that from time to time over thousands of years, a particularly brilliant star gazer would have been born who would have added to the existing knowledge, just as Isaac Newton single-handedly added to scientific knowledge in the west.

But am I overreaching in my assumptions or is there evidence? It turns out that there is a wealth of evidence from a living stone age people, the Aborigines who live in Australia today and who have been there for about 40,000 years -- years before the stone age paintings, for example, were made at the Lascaux Cave in France. 

This confusing carpet of stars was familiar to Paleolithic people -- it was possibly like a book that they knew how to read from hour to hour, day to day, month to month and year to year. (
“Of such importance is a knowledge of the stars to the Aborigines in their night journeys and of their positions denoting particular seasons of the year, that astronomy is considered one of the principal branches of education.” (Dawson 1881)
“The Aborigines of the desert are aware of every star in their firmament, down to the fourth magnitude, and most, if not all, of these stars would have myths associated with them.” (Mountford 1976)
Each member of an Aboriginal desert tribe was expected to know about 500 stars plus the constellations and myths associated with them. And more than 300 of those stars were quite dim (4th magnitude). They were even aware of the color of a number of stars. In addition this information was passed down orally for perhaps a thousand generations.

Nevertheless, none of the above proves that Upper Paleolithic people understood complex astronomical phenomena such as the yearly cycle of the zodiac -- it just means that it was possible. 

Graphic of the ecliptic path, the path that the sun, moon and planets follow during the year. While stone age people probably saw and named different constellations in what became later known as the zodiac in the west (this particular word from the Greek meaning "circle of animals"), the paths of the sun, planets, and moon would still have passed through these same groupings of stars no matter what the culture. It is quite likely that the phases of the moon were used as a monthly calendar, but that the rotating zodiac was used to keep track of time in relation to the yearly cycle and the changing seasons -- which was essential as time-keeping based only on the moon goes out of sync with the seasons. (
But astronomy was probably only part of the complex expertise of Paleolithic peoples. 

During the day, these people probably knew their landscape in detail. Based on evidence from contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, stone age people knew about wild plants, for example: what was edible, how to prepare them, where they were located and when they should be harvested. And they knew which ones were poisonous. Modern people would not have a clue. In short Paleolithic people could read the sky, plants and the environment with a sophisticated knowledge.
Indeed, foraging peoples are legendary for their vast stores of local zoological and botanical knowledge. Lee, for example, writes that !Kung “tools and techniques of gathering are relatively simple” but the “knowledge of plant identification, growth, ripeness, and location . . . is extremely complex, and the !Kung women are highly skilled at distinguishing useful from nonuseful or dangerous plants and at finding and bringing home sufficient quantities of the best food species available” (Dobe !Kung 37) 
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama and Lawrence S. Sugiyama, Use Of Oral Tradition To Buffer Foraging Risk

BIAS #4:

Okay, stone age people probably did not have a written language -- but that was for a very simple reason. They did not need it. As we know "necessity is the mother of invention" and in their case there was no necessity. 

Writing was only developed when human settlements became large and complicated. We now know that writing was originally invented for accounting -- for example, for keeping track of grain and supplies in the big cities of the Middle East. 

Yet many people feel that literacy is an essential part of culture.
“All the known world, excepting only savage nations, is governed by books.”
And while they did not have a written language, they had a spoken language -- which, according to the current thinking in linguistics, was not primitive but capable of complex thought and concepts.

What the hunter-gatherers had was an oral tradition which often used memory in a sophisticated manner -- and I suspect they were much better at remembering things than we are today for precisely the reasons that Socrates stated next. No less than the giant intellect of Socrates distrusted the written word and felt that a good memory was far superior. In Plato's Phaedrus Socrates recounts a story about the Egyptian god, Theuth, the inventor of  writing, who explains his great invention to the god/king Thamus. 
“This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing...will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom..."
Plato's Phaedrus 

NOTE: Even the word 'prehistoric' -- which originally was an unbiased word meaning that part of history before written records -- now has a negative connotation. 

 BIAS #5:

While the term 'stone age' carries with it the most negative connotations, the reality is that stone was their material, their medium. These people were masters of stone. They knew a variety of stones, their properties, where to find them, how to mine them, how to shape them, etc. They also knew how to attach wooden handles to stone implements or arrow heads to a shaft. The beautiful paintings on cave walls that have survived as long as 30,000 years were made from powdered stone paint that was applied to stone walls.   

Lithic reduction: Levallois technique of flint-knapping. (

Lithic flake. (

 Lithic core -- the piece that gets shaped by the removal of lithic flakes. (

Finished flint knife - shaped so that a handle could be attached to it. (

Stone sculpture of horse head from the same period as Lascaux. (

 'Primitive' polychrome cave paintings were made with red, yellow, black, brown, and violet paints. The paints were produced from powdered stone mixed with binders using a type of spray painting technique. The stone pigments were then applied to the stone walls of the cave. This particular group of paintings, illustrated here from the cave at Lascaux, has lasted about 17,000 years, 12,000 years longer than the Egyptian pyramids. But, of course, we should not forget that these are unsophisticated works by savages incapable of complex thought. (
During the Stone Age, humans fashioned tools from a variety of rocks, including flint, chert, basalt and sandstone. These materials were initially collected as loose rocks and, as demand grew, openpit and underground mining methods were developed. At some point...early humans discovered that certain minerals can be used to make paint. From natural pigments, such as manganese oxide, hematite and goethite, early artists created life-like images of bison, deer, mammoth and other Paleolithic animals. What compelled these artists to dig minerals out of the ground, grind them to fine powders, mix them with various binders (animal fat, saliva, water, blood) and apply them to cave walls hidden from view is unknown. 
A look at the history of mining, Mining Engineering Online
In the painted caves of western Europe, namely in France and Spain, we witness the earliest unequivocal evidence of the human capacity to interpret and give meaning to our surroundings. Through these early achievements in representation and abstraction, we see a newfound mastery of the environment and a revolutionary accomplishment in the intellectual development of humankind.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Lamp of Lascaux, carbon dated to about 17,000 BP.
Discovered in the floor of the Lascaux cave, this lamp shows the remarkable skill of Upper Paleolithic people. It is constructed of sandstone with a precise geometry. 
The (exterior) oval bowl of the lamp of Lascaux is an almost perfect geometrical figure, of which the carving, according to craftsmen, has been done directly into the mass of sandstone...Some colleagues, like M. Delporte, believe that the eye of the Palaeolithic artist was better than the eye of a modern technician, and that for the sake of beauty of form, he obtained an astonishing precision. 
Beaune, S., White R., Ice Age Lamps, Scientific American, March 1993.


When it comes to astronomy, we moderns do not spend much time looking up at the stars as they are not important to us. When we do, we rarely take the half hour or more required to let our eyes adjust to a full night vision.  We have not spent the hundreds of hours it would take to learn to see the sky as groupings rather than a confusing carpet of lights. We do not know the constellations; we do not know how the constellations and stars relate to the seasons and the time of night. We are not familiar with the movements of the planets, the constellations of the zodiac and we even are often unaware of such basic events as the spring and fall equinox and the winter and summer solstice -- events which were crucial to early humans. As a result I think it is very hard for us to understand, how vital astronomy was to Paleolithic people.

And it is also important for us modern people to remember that until Galileo -- a mere 400 years ago -- the stars were quite mysterious. People did not know what they were -- but few thought of them as distant suns, like our Sun. In fact Giordana Bruno was burned at the stake, in part, for suggesting this only 410 years ago.
“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.”
Mark Twain 
Since Dr. Emilia Pasztor felt he had the right and knowledge to assume that "members of prehistoric societies would have acquired a certain level of knowledge and understanding of the celestial landscape," I will take the liberty to make my own assumptions based on evidence from hunter-gatherers.
Bronislaw Malinowski, the important early anthropologist stated that the "goal of the anthropologist, or ethnographer, is 'to grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world'. " (
Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific
If we try "to grasp the native's point of view," I think it is reasonable to postulate the following about the Upper Paleolithic view of the stars.
  • The landscape of the stars -- the celestial landscape as Dr. Emilia Pasztor called it -- was as familiar to Upper Paleolithic people as the landscape of the ground. Living in the open much of the time meant there was amble time at night, lying on the ground looking up, to observe the sky.  
  • Children would be exposed to the night sky from birth and would probably be given instructions about the stars from an early age.
  • These people were in a sense comfortable with the night sky, it was a place where they spent a lot of time and that they used for a guide. While the terrestrial landscape did change with storms, floods, volcanos, lightning, earthquakes and snow, the night sky remained about the same year after year. It was something they could depend on to be constant.
  •  Based on a wealth of data from hunter-gatherer societies and texts from ancient civilization such as Sumer, Babylon and Greece, it is quite likely that groups of stars were seen as constellations of mythical figures. Constellations had stories associated with them which helped people remember them.
  • Paleolithic people were able to recognize the stars and constellations in all kinds of weather and lunar phases. So, for example, the stars looked quite different on a hazy night under a full moon or at dawn or dusk than they did when the moon was new and the sky was clear. These people also were able to identify constellations at varying angles and recognize parts of constellations when they set and rose.
  • The unpolluted skies of Paleolithic times offered a better view of the sky than today.
  • They were not only masters of stone but also of fire. They knew how to build fires in combination with stone to store or reflect heat over many hours.
  • The color temperature of an ember fire would have been perfect for staying warm while not interfering with the eye's ability to adjust to the dark sky and to continue to see the night sky once eyes had adjusted. Read more about this in this Sky & Telescope article about star gazing.

Fire with embers. (
Based on evidence from contemporary indigenous people and these reasonable assumptions, I believe it is likely that old stone age hunter-gatherers did know the stars quite well and, after tens of thousands of years, began to see patterns and cycles. It is also likely that they felt the need to depict on the walls of caves some of the mythological figures they saw in the stars. However, long held beliefs about 'primitive cultures', in archaeology and other fields, dismiss such theories. 
"Evidence that contradicts the ruling belief system is held to extraordinary standards, while evidence that entrenches it is uncritically accepted."
Carl Sagan
Writing about a similar attitude in the United Kingdom Dr. Lionel Sims said that there is, "a deep assumption within archaeology that such is the complexity of the moon's horizon properties compared to those of the sun, that farming cultures just emerging out of foraging [ED. meaning old stone age] lack the sophistication to design monuments with lunar alignments. This view is contradicted by that of anthropology, which sees hunter-gatherers as fully human, as 'sophisticated' as agriculturalists, and who use lunar cycles to time their ritual life (Knight 1991, Sims 2006)." 
He further added:
"Science should not be limited to the socio-political pressures of institutional acceptance."
A new model instead "both explains the findings of archaeoastronomy and at the same time integrates those findings that remain from archaeology and anthropology."
Lionel Sims, Ph.D. 

A moderncentric attitude, that sees stone age people as inferior, damages our understanding of the past  and our understanding of how we as humans developed. "Deep assumptions" as Dr. Lionel Sims calls them (above) stand in the way of truth. 

In addition, criticisms that play to our prejudices need to be discredited. Dr. Emilia Pasztor, for example, while dismissing possible astronomical evidence, never explained his statement that nevertheless "members of prehistoric societies would have acquired a certain level of knowledge and understanding of the celestial landscape." This statement is vague and unscientific and plays to our assumptions that "a certain knowledge" by stone age people means that their understanding would not be very complex.  But I could just as easily say: A person today with a college degree would have acquired a certain level of knowledge and understanding of written material. And in this case we would assume, because they were college educated, that they would be quite proficient. 

If archaeologists and others in the field want to hold onto their assumptions, they need to put them to the test. These assumptions need to be out in the open and subject to scientific scrutiny. Then let the chips fall where they may. But assumptions, almost by definition, are a bit hidden -- like unwritten rules.

About 100 years ago Sir James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, did set the proper tone for investigating people of the past and stone age cultures in general. 
For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being [ED. meaning us] regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession...
Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, Chapter  23, Our Debt to the Savage