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 (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 

 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.
  • 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

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Moderncentric Bias Against Prehistoric Cultures: Part 1

We are all biased. There is no getting around it. This is not a criticism. This is simply a fact. Each of our cultures teaches us to think, act and follow rules in certain ways. We are so immersed in our own culture -- from the time we are born -- we are often unaware of our biases. Yet when we travel or come into contact with people from another culture, the mental filter of our society can make it hard to grasp what might be right in front of our eyes.
Like fish unaware of living in water, people tend to be unaware of being totally enveloped by their culture.
(Kalyanpur & Harry, 1997; 1999)
When we look at those who are different from ourselves, we are often in the position of a deaf man who sees a bunch of people with fiddles and drums, jumping around every which way, and thinks they are crazy. He cannot hear the music, so he doesn’t see that they are dancing
(Myerhoff 1978) (Nanda & Warms 2007)
This idea of cultural bias originated in anthropology -- especially when it came to the study of 'primitive' societies by people from 'advanced developed' nations. But this idea also works equally well when considering and excavating prehistoric cultures -- such as the Neolithic.

Anthropologists have called cultural bias: 
I call a sense of modern superiority: 

By moderncentrism and moderncentric I mean the belief that modern people are more advanced, more intelligent, more developed than the 'barbarian, primitive, superstitious, stone age people of the past.' And, I might add, this attitude is also often directed at contemporary indigenous societies and 'third world' or 'developing' countries.

Yet for the last 200,000 years humans have had the same brain and the same intelligence. No culture is more advanced than another. Each culture adapted to its particular conditions. Although, of course, some societies are more powerful than others or more dominant or have more sophisticated technology -- but that is another question entirely.


In the next several blogs I will cover a watershed moment in human development: the modern development of time-keeping and the contemporary sense of time. I believe this shift occurred about 10,000 years ago as part of the Neolithic Revolution. But before I  do this, I need to remove cultural barriers and biases that make it hard to understand what these people, our ancestors, did in the distant past.


If we assume prehistoric people were intelligent, we can then make connections that we would not make otherwise. Using a term from psychology, we can give ourselves *permission* to look for signs of intelligence. Take the example of the discovery of sophisticated cave paintings in the Cave of Altamira about 100 years ago.

Polychrome rock paintings of bison in the Cave of Altamira, Spain. (
Altamira, "was the first cave in which prehistoric cave paintings were discovered. When the discovery was first made public in 1880, it led to a bitter public controversy between experts which continued into the early 20th century, as many of them did not believe prehistoric man had the intellectual capacity to produce any kind of artistic expression. The acknowledgement of the authenticity of the paintings, which finally came in 1902, changed forever the perception of prehistoric human beings."

Unfortunately for the man who discovered the cave, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, the controversy was more than an argument between experts. Sautuola's finding was ridiculed at the Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon in 1880 by prehistoric art expert Émile Cartailhac whose arguments were so convincing members of the Congress did not feel the need to visit Altamira to see for themselves. But then it got worse.  "Sautuola was even accused of forgery. A fellow countryman maintained that the paintings had been produced by a contemporary artist, on Sautuola's orders.(" Before the controversy was settled, Sautuola died at an early age. Some believe he died young because of these accusations. 

Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola  (
Finally in 1902 after other caves had been discovered with similar art, Sautuola's harshest critic, Cartailhac, did agree that the paintings were authentic and apologized to Sautuola's daughter (who had actually found the cave) and then to the world in a famous article, Mea culpa d'un sceptique. He flatly admitted he was wrong and that he had done damage to the name of a good man and to the discipline of prehistoric art -- and further that he had dismissed the authenticity of the cave paintings without investigating.

Sautuola's daughter (
After Altamira was discovered over 10 more major caves with extensive artwork were found across Europe, caves which had been there for at least 10,000 years, but which no one had looked for. And as of this writing, "Nearly 340 caves have now been discovered in France and Spain that contain art from prehistoric times. (" 

It seemed that once people realized prehistoric cave paintings did exist, they could then go out and find new caves -- caves that had been there all along.

Picasso was so impressed by the skill and impact of the cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux he was reported to have said, "We have learned nothing." Others quoted him as saying, "We have invented nothing." (


In a detailed article about prehistoric art, author Paul Bouissac makes the point that 100 years after the discovery of Altamira, many professionals today still carry a moderncentric bias.
Moreover, prehistoric "art" has variously been characterized as "primitive", "childish", "magic", "hallucinatory", etc., in other words as lacking "sophistication", "maturity", "rationality", and "normality"...The specialized literature still abounds [ED: this was written around the year 2000] in theories whose authors purport to demonstrate that the prehistoric agencies [ED: e.g., cavemen] who produced these signs of pictorial activities lacked full (that is, modern) cognitive competence, or had reached only an early stage of mental development...


There has been a long running controversy about the ability of Neolithic people, in particular, to make structures or devices that were astronomically sophisticated.

This idea that ancient people, long before Greece, Rome or Babylon, were skilled astronomers has been around for over 100 years. Joseph Norman Lockyer, a well respected scientist who discovered the element helium and founded and edited the journal Nature, suggested in his book,
Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered (1906),  that Stonehenge and other British monuments contained astronomical alignments. He was also concerned that many of these structures were going to disappear -- and that their secrets might be lost.
One reason for doing so [ED: Writing his book about British stone monuments] was that in consequence of the supineness of successive Governments, and the neglect and wanton destruction by individuals, the British monuments are rapidly disappearing.
Norman Lockyer, Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered, 1906
Yet Lockyer's ideas were not well received. As with Altamira the opinion during his time was that ancient Britons could not have achieved a high level of astronomical sophistication. So it took about another 60 years before scientists began to seriously consider the possibility of alignments in the large number of prehistoric monuments in Britain and also Ireland.

The following quote from  the US space agency NASA -- *the* authority on precise alignments (think of the Moon and Mars missions) -- is about the Neolithic passage tomb known as Newgrange in Ireland that was 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.
Confirming the alignment of an ancient stone monument is controversial -- as it should be since many apparent alignments can happen by chance. Yet I feel the possibility of significant alignments should always be considered and tested.

But it might be more complicated than finding familiar alignments. Some alignments, which are not important to us moderns, apparently were quite important to the ancients -- such as the 18.6 year lunar standstill cycle [more about this in another blog] -- as this alignment has been found in a number of monuments. 

Why do I care? My reason for wondering about astronomical alignments is simple. The sky, the heavens, the moon, the sun and the stars were the clock for the ancients. This is how they told time. And if we can understand what they measured and calculated, we might gain a better understanding of their sense of time and how that understanding developed.


Why should we care about Neolithic peoples and culture?
Quite simply -- because they are us!

And that is not just a metaphor. They are our ancestors, our great-great-great-etc-grandparents. Without their knowledge and skills they would not have survived which means we would not be alive today -- and we would not have the civilization we have today.

Plus in a very real sense we will be reclaiming our past, our heritage -- where we actually came from. 

The arrival of the new stone age, the Neolithic, was the single most momentous shift in all of our history. It was the moment we stopped being hunter-gatherers roaming from place to place and became farmers tied to the land and to the seasons. Everything we consider part of the modern world...all of that has its roots in the Neolithic.
Neil Oliver, Archaeologist, A History of Ancient Britain, BBC Two
From the point of view of civilization, time -- as we understand it today -- began with the Neolithic change from nomadic hunter-gatherers to people living sedentary lives in houses, growing crops and keeping animals. The human sense of time -- about the past, the present and the future -- would never be the same once the Neolithic Revolution was in place. It set the stage for all other civilizations -- the ones we are more familiar with, the ones who have gotten better press coverage -- such as Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Neolithic was the foundation for these empires and more importantly for today's modern world.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Milestone For The Blog Deconstructing Time

This blog DeconstructingTime ( has reached a milestone. 

It has achieved 10,000 pageviews in about a year and those pageviews came from over 110 countries which is  more than half of the countries on this Earth.


10,724 = pageviews since the start of this blog in December 2012 (as of 1/29/14).

People from 111 countries have viewed this blog.
Over half of the pageviews were from countries outside the USA, my native country. This makes me especially proud to reach a worldwide audience.
Here is the list of those countries:
Åland Islands
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Costa Rica
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Hong Kong
Macedonia [FYROM]
New Zealand
Palestinian Territories
Puerto Rico
Saudi Arabia
South Africa
South Korea
Sri Lanka
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

25 Year-Old Article About Time: Part 2

I wrote the following interview
with a fictional character
about 25 years ago

This is the second half of the interview with Kirk Elbod about time and history -- which we continued on another day at a lunch counter in Durham, North Carolina. The time of the interview is 1989. See the first interview at: 
K.E. = the person I interviewed, Kirk Elbod

  K.E.: You're probably wondering why I brought you here to this lunch counter (he said in a humorous tone of voice, recalling the old joke). It's because of the short order cook.   

  ME:  (Getting a bit impatient) I don't care about the cook. I want to continue our discussion about history.

  K.E.: Precisely my dear Doble (he said again with a smirk). History is about time and our concept of time. 

  Watch the short order cook! The way he perfectly balances all the elements of an order so they come out all at the same time. First the burger on the grill which takes the longest to cook. Then he slices some lettuce, tomato and puts it on the side. When the burger is almost done he toasts the buns under the grill, and when the burger is completely done he toasts the cheese for just a second. Then, in one swift motion, he puts them all together on the plate, along with the mayonnaise and mustard and at last (we watched two burgers get passed to a waitress who put them in front of us) it arrives in front of me, with everything timed right. The perfect burger and the best short order cook I've ever seen. 

  (With this I only could wait because he was devouring his burger. Together we sat in silence as we ate our food.)

  ME: (finally when we had finished) I believe the Harvard professor may be right. That we can lead perfectly good, useful lives, have children, be involved in our community and not know much about history, except perhaps a few essential facts.

  K.E.: Superficially he is right. But the US is a democracy, and as such the people vote based on the information they have. What if their understanding is just plain wrong, and they make decisions based on a misunderstanding of history.

  ME: I don't think it could be that serious.

  K.E.: Judge for yourself. According to a poll most Americans think today that the Russians fought on the side of the Nazi's in World War II. In fact the reverse is true - not only did the Russians fight against the Nazis, they suffered more deaths than any other single nation or ethnic group.

  ME: And your point?

  K.E.: That today, right now, we might be spending less money on armaments, and defense if the majority of citizens believed the truth instead of misinformation. We might have saved billions of dollars if the public knew the facts. And this is just one example.

  Now, as you know I'm not suggesting that everyone know all the history there is. My notion of the "vanishing point of history" means that we mainly need to understand recent history in detail, by which I mean about ten years before World War II to the present.

  But clearly a majority of people do not.

  ME: Well, there will always be experts who can interpret present events in terms of history for us. Why not leave it to them?

  K.E.: Another specialist! (He almost shouted.) Specialization is an entirely another subject. But leaving history to the experts means that we will feel even more alienated than we already do in modern society. If we have to go to an expert to understand our own past...(he made an exasperated expression, reaching his hands into the air)

  One of the main complaints I hear about the modern world is that people feel a lack of connection. A feeling of not engaging; alienation. But much of this is the fault of the individuals, not the big corporations and big government who usually get blamed. If you want to feel a part of your own time, and culture you need to do the work yourself; understand history yourself, for example.

  But also specialists, hired by certain people, can put their own interpretation, their own "spin" on history, which is what the Nazis did. In fact they can reinterpret history and redefine history to suit whoever hires them. In the book, 1984, George Orwell warned us against things like this. Is this what we want in a democracy?

  Let me give you a for instance.

  Suppose that the United States had fought for 2 years on Russian soil, aiding armies whose purpose was to destroy Soviet Russia? If this were true, wouldn't it explain some of the current Soviet attitude toward the U.S., some of their military obsessions and paranoia.

  ME: Yes, but of course it isn't true.

  K.E.: Wrong, it is true. And very few people in the U.S. are aware that this ever happened. United States forces were in Russia, Archangel and Siberia from 1918 to 1920 aiding the White Army whose purpose was to destroy the recently established Soviet government.

The United States Army in Archangel Russia in 1918. (
  Now a very interesting thing happens when you try to find this incident in a reference book, as Dr. Donald suggested we do. You don't find it, at least in half the books I read. It is not even mentioned. One sixth of the books that do mention it got their facts wrong. And only one third of the books that do talk about it had their history correct.

  So this is what happens, even in a democracy, when you try to look up an incident that everyone would rather forget.

  Let me attack the question from another perspective. Every time I see a news story on TV about a home being destroyed by fire, or tornado, or some such total disaster, the people invariably say "Even my photographs are gone." That's what they miss the most. Why? Because they can replace everything else, if they are insured, but not the photographs. Part of them is gone. The photos which are their personal history have been lost, and they feel as though a piece of themselves was destroyed. Which it has been.

  Now those photos are history, not stuffy academic history but a personal, important, essential history which is badly missed when it is eliminated.

  Dr. Donald's way of thinking cuts off our connection to the past. But history is our point of reference. It is where we come from. The past is where most of our concepts, our culture, and our language originated. Why else would we use a word like "horsepower" to describe a highly technical, modern engine? (He laughed.)

  ME: To go back to why you brought me here: You said that history had to do with our sense of time. 

  K.E.: Yes, and the short order cook here.

  Look at the cook again. Suppose he left the rolls in too long and they burned, or he didn't cook the hamburger long enough so it was a bit raw. Then he wouldn't be a good cook.

  He is juggling, balancing each portion of the task so that even though the parts take different amount of time, they all are ready at the same time. A juggler, if you will. A time juggler in fact. And a very good one.

  ME: And what does this cook have to do with history? 

  K.E.: We think history is unimportant, because we believe history is in the past and does not affect us. Dr. Donald's main criticism, in fact, was that the study of history was no longer relevant to today's world. But perhaps the past does effect us, more than we realize, in the present.

  So the question really is one about time. Now, I do not pretend to begin to understand all the subtleties about time, but I do know that there is more to time than meets the eye. So let me indulge in some speculation here.

  ME: Why, that very humble of you Kirk. 

  K.E.: What is time? This is the key question. What is the past, the present , and the future? Once something is done, can it be undone? Is their any point in crying over spilled milk? We are always "another day older and deeper in debt" and the river that you put you foot into is never the same. Is time the relentless forward movement of the ticking clock?

  It turns out that our sense of time, according to psychological studies, is triggered by events. When an event ends, or one begins, or something significant happens within an event, then we feel the passage of time. In a sense the clock is a series of artificial, mechanical events which makes us acutely conscious of time, perhaps too conscious, or even self conscious - but I'll save that for another discussion.

  However, life is lived by the ticking of events and more by the dynamics of events. It's as though each of us is a time juggler. We juggle a number of separate events in the air as we go though our lives. Not unlike the short order cook, only the events are larger.

  ME:  You've lost me completely. I don't understand.

  K.E.: My point is that time is subtle. And events which give us a sense of time also have dynamics all their own. There is time within an event to make changes, in a sense to go back into time, until that event is over. This idea is expressed, for example, in the phrase "in time." Such as: I caught the jug of milk "in time", to prevent it from spilling; because I knew that if the jug fell and broke it would be too late; the event would be finished; and then there would be no use crying over spilled milk; instead I would be looking for the mop.


  ME:  Very cute Kirk (I said rather snidely)

  K.E.: (ignoring me) The assumption is that the past is the past, over and done with - which is why people think they don't need to understand history. But my point is that time is in reality a myriad of overlapping events. And that within an event you may be able to - in a sense - reach back into time, by being able to affect changes. Or things from the past can affect the present.

  Events are like time areas or time spaces. However, these spaces in themselves, are very subtle. They are like 'windows of opportunity'. The windows can close - sometimes suddenly and sometimes gradually. When they do, we can no longer affect changes: 'the opportunity has been lost' or the 'time is gone'. 

  We do this everyday, but don't really think about it. Before I leave the house to go on a trip I have the opportunity to remember a notebook I've forgotten, pick it up, put it in the car. I can do this any time before I leave.

  But once I've driven away then it become harder and harder to do this. Five minutes down the road I still could, although it would be annoying. Two hours down the road and I'll just have to do the best with what I've got, make do without the forgotten notebook. The time to easily pick up the notebook and put it in my car is gone. And besides I've got to get to my appointments now and going back would make me late.

  In an accident when things happen unexpectedly, quickly, and violently we may only have split seconds to try things, or do things before the accident has run it course and whatever we do will be of no use. "What's done is done."

Accidents are examples of 'hardened time'  ( 
  These areas of time can be quite large such as the life of a nation, an era, person's life time, or quite short as in an accident. There may be many separate areas that overlap and interweave. Some may close imperceptibly slowly and others maddeningly quickly. Each area seems to have its own dynamics.

  As an occasional photographer, I know about this. Photographers in fact, seem to develop a sixth sense about time because frequently taking a photograph requires being at the right place at the right time, whatever that may be. For example, when I take nature pictures outdoors there may be hours when I can take a number of pictures over and over until I get exactly what I want. But all the time the sun is moving, the clouds may be building. Suddenly I look up and there's a bank of clouds covering the sun and I realize that I can no longer take pictures that day. It may be a day, or a months before I can get back, according to my schedule or the weather. In the meantime the foliage may have changed or someone may have bought the land and bulldozed it, which has happened more than once. When I return the place may or may not be the same as the time before.

  A death bed confession is an example of a person using a last opportunity to set things straight, to do something before they die, before the window closes on them and they can no longer act. What they confess may have happened when they were very young, and they may have carried it all their lives. But before they die the window is still open for them to act. In effect, they want to reach back into time and set the record straight. In a sense a person 's life, from birth to death is one event.

  ME: (I could sense he was through.) So what you're saying is that past, present, and future are not so clear as they appear to be and that some of history is still part of the present if we can only understand it in the proper light.

  K.E.: Yes, and also that we need to try to understand the dynamics of time, because as humans, in a sense, all we really have is time.