Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Moderncentric Bias Against Prehistoric Cultures: Part 2

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.

These are drawings 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 civilizations 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