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Nature Before Literacy

Arguably, the nineteenth-century discovery of the Paleolithic, the period of human development stretching from about two million to about ten thousand years ago, is exceeded in significance only by the discovery of biological evolution. Ensconced within cultural cocoons of literacy and technology, we believe that paleo-people were stupid savages since they were not literate and possessed only rudimentary technology. There are two rejoinders to such notions. First, the paleo-strata unequivocally confirm that the historical epoch of literacy is a mere moment in a human past stretching across several hundred thousand years. And second, the assumption that we monopolize intelligence and genius is untenable. Our paleo-ancestors were capable of imaginings that rival those of the greatest minds of history.

Nevertheless, any reconstruction of Paleolithic ideas of nature remains conjectural. Interpretation depends on reading "texts" that, rather than being alphabetic, are material artifacts—stone points and knives, cave paintings and megalithic constructions, and tens of thousands of other artifacts. Additional evidence comes from paleo-notions of nature that resonate in surviving aboriginal cultures. Collectively these materials support three conjectures. First, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers realized that there was an order to the world that they inhabited. While the pattern varied seasonally, there was regularity in the movement of animals, in the growth of plants, in the presence or absence of water. Second, paleo-people believed the inherent order of nature was cyclical, since the world moved in repeating cycles. Third, paleo-people believed their role was to harmonize with rather than change the circumstances of existence.

These conjectures can be challenged across multiple fronts. For example, there is evidence of climatic upheavals that through natural selection eliminated all but the most behaviorally adaptable hominid bands. How, then, could paleo-people believe in a cyclical nature? And yet evidence from the Neolithic strata suggests that the myth of the eternal return and the belief in the Magna Mater (the Great Mother) were foreshadowed during the Paleolithic.

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