Learning from the past

Much of Wisdom of the Ancients makes one appreciate how we get sidetracked by so much trivial nonsense

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This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


‘‘Wash the crap out yer eyes” was a thing I heard a lot as a girl, from both parents, sometimes followed by “you can’t see for looking”. This was partly for reasons of survival and safety: I spent my childhood in country Queensland, home to some of the most dangerous creatures on Earth — salt- water crocodiles, taipans, box jellyfish, redback spiders, blue-ringed octopus, stonefish.

At least once a week there were stories in the local newspaper of a child “taken” or killed or terribly sickened. I had to be taught, on pain of death, that my country posed risks to life and limb. Often, however, the imperative was directed to something wholly benign: a butterfly, a distinctively marked lizard, a flowering tree, even the differences between sugar-cane growing on “the flat” as opposed to that which grew on steep hillsides.

Wisdom of the Ancients: Life Lessons from our Distant Past Neil Oliver Bantam Press, £20

Neil Oliver’s Wisdom of the Ancients: Life Lessons from our Distant Past is an attempt to do something similar, but for the mute stones and bones of the prehistoric past. Only three literate civilisations take star billing in his book — Ancient Egypt, the Vikings, and Peru’s Inca. And I think it significant that the latter’s idiosyncratic writing — an elaborate system of linked knots on lengths of cord or string — has never been deciphered.

Oliver (above) is a distinguished archaeologist, so has natural affection for things with no recorded voice. He is nonetheless aware that enlivening a past that left no literature is the hardest of hard sells and works to overcome an instinctive sense that anything the present says about that sort of past is guesswork.

He manages to make us look closely by returning, time and again, to the insight that we humans are still the creatures we were 100,000 years ago — cognitively and physically. Modern humans have the same cranial capacity, are on average the same height and build, and suffer the same maladies.

Digestive problems like lactose intolerance and coeliac disease are a reminder that many of us now noodling away on smartphones and living in comfortable heated houses are still coming to terms with the agricultural revolution. That took place roughly 12,000 years ago, and its early manifestations — in places like Turkey’s Çatalhöyük — were almost unimaginably weird. Çatalhöyük was a city of perhaps 10,000 people and existed for 2,000 years: the entire history of Christianity.

It had no streets, no social stratification — its dwellings are all roughly the same size — and its inhabitants made their way to each other’s houses by dint of walking across rooftops and dropping down through purpose-made holes in the ceiling.

We discover deep familial affection and care for the disabled by Neanderthals

They also placed their dead under hearths and under beds. Oliver’s account of archaeologists finding bones carefully stored and positioned in what were clearly everyday living areas is boggling and illuminates one of the things he wants us to notice. How did long-ago humans cope with death and adversity? He wants us to wash the crap out of our eyes and see for looking. To that end, we are treated to evidence of love among species and societies we don’t associate with that emotion.

We discover deep familial affection and care for the disabled by Neanderthals (who really have copped a bad press, something Oliver stresses), coupled with an acknowledgement that hunter-gatherer populations were not only small in number but also remarkably healthy thanks to aggressive infanticide. “A mother and father could carry just one toddler apiece as they kept up with the tribe . . . until the younger children were perhaps four or five and able to trot alongside the rest, any other babies would have had their lives snuffed out at birth — likely a hand tight over the mouth, the nose pinched closed.”

Agriculture meant more babies lived to adulthood, but humanity lost height and strength, and the status of women fell away. Even in the modern developed world, many populations are not as tall and robust as their nomadic palaeolithic ancestors. No less a scholar than Jared Diamond argues that the agricultural revolution was a mistake.

Oliver does this, I think, because life then really was nasty, brutish and short. He has little time for those members of his own profession who are constantly on the lookout for some prehistoric Eden, a moment when human beings were “somehow better”. He is on Team Hobbes, not Team Locke.

Oliver, a Scot, spends about half of Wisdom of the Ancients in the British Isles, with a particular focus on Orkney and its standing stones

The story of “Nandy”, the one-armed, one-eyed but long-lived and much-loved Neanderthal is all the more striking for that reason. Mind you, if one speaks of “ancient wisdom” in societies where half of all children either died or were killed before the age of ten it takes real delicacy to navigate a path between the Scylla of romanticising the past and the Charybdis of judging it and finding it wanting.

Oliver, a Scot, spends about half of Wisdom of the Ancients in the British Isles, with a particular focus on Orkney and its standing stones. He does nonetheless range far from home, in so doing providing the best explanation I’ve read for the claim — uniform across all Australian Aboriginal tribal and clan groups — that they “have always been here”. Paleobiology tells us that homo sapiens and his ancestors fanned out of Africa in waves: all of us have our ancestry there.

However, there is no migration story in any extant Aboriginal myth, and Aborigines have been in Australia for something like 60,000 years. They also possess rich and detailed narrative accounts of Australia’s one-time inland sea and meteorite strikes, things since confirmed by scientists. If there were something to remember, you’d suspect Aborigines would have remembered it.

“It seems to me,” Oliver argues, “that journey, out of Africa and onwards, was undertaken before our species woke up to consciousness … what indigenous Australians call the Dreaming is literally that — a time beyond the reach of memory.”

Memory, of course, is a by-product of consciousness, and makes us modern humans. Without it, there’s no sense of time, no awareness we are human, no understanding that time passed before each individual in a given community was born, or there is a future in which you and I will play no part.

Consciousness is what distinguishes homo sapiens from the smartest mammals, like orcas and chimpanzees. The Dreaming, a sort of time-before-time, may well be a glimpse of our minds before humans became conscious and learnt to remember.

The varied subjects of Wisdom of the Ancients mean Oliver’s insight often isn’t the Hallmark Holiday sort, the nice stuff that makes you feel better about the world and yourself. Quite a bit is really bloody grim: the way Ancient Egypt was a 3,000-year-long death cult, for example, or how the Inca civilisation had — like all humans — knowledge that there is a future so then set out to forecast it, to control it, to make things happen. The Inca method was human sacrifice.

The varied subjects of Wisdom of the Ancients mean Oliver’s insight often isn’t the Hallmark Holiday sort

If Wisdom of the Ancients contains a warning, it’s in the chapter on Mezo- and South American civilisations, when Oliver comes to discuss the Chimú, the Inca and the Aztecs. Although unfashionable these days, it’s possible to assign grades of moral turpitude to colonial powers. It seems to have been rather better to be conquered by Romans or British than by Spaniards or Ottomans. Nonetheless, what Spain’s conquistadores encountered in the Americas were horrors even by their own low standards. Oliver concedes that human sacrifice is a civilisational commonplace, but nowhere did it happen on such a scale as among the Aztec and Inca.

“We take the future for granted but long ago its existence had to occur to someone for the first time,” he notes, observing how “by making sacrifices now, that malleable future world might be moulded into a desirable, compliant shape.” I was put in mind of persistent (and failed) attempts by economists and scientists and other experts to forecast post-Brexit Britain or what coronavirus will do next. Oliver’s scarifying “Sacrifice” chapter is a reminder that the only expert forecast which counts is a real-world test. Fail that and experts are just over-educated people whose middle-class friends agree with them. Perhaps, too, the future-forecasting-controlling impulse he identifies is worth resisting. Not only are we bad at it, but it’s also fruit from a poisoned tree.

Much of Wisdom of the Ancients makes one appreciate how we get sidetracked by so much trivial nonsense, which is part of Oliver’s wider point. Clear away the detritus of modernity, he suggests, and take note of what actually matters.

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