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.