There are so many remains and records from the past that we don’t fully understand: the Great Pyramid and Sphinx, Easter Island statues, geoglyphs like those in the Chilean desert which can only be fully appreciated from the air, cyclopean structures. There are undeciphered scripts like Minoan Linear A, Incan records, and the writing of the Indus valley civilization. There are legendary mysteries like the Temple of Solomon, Noah’s ark or the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and the contents of the Alexandrian library and museum. New evidence from around the world is constantly being brought to light, and the age of human culture has been pushed tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of years into the past. From physical remains we can deduce something of ancient people’s mathematical, astronomical, engineering, agricultural and other scientific and practical knowledge, as well as their artistic skill and creativity. Where we have extensive written records we can judge something of their psychology, beliefs, and intentions. But inevitably a great deal is lost to us.
The past seems to me very like a Ronstadt test: we project our ideas, fears, and desires onto it and then treat our creation as something objective, which we may turn around and use to justify our own actions, feelings, and ideology in the present and future. We do this all the time. Before its hieroglyphs were deciphered the Maya were popularly viewed as the flower-children of ancient Central America. Once the script could be read, however, this illusion was shattered: the Maya were as cruel, warlike, and aggressive as any other culture one might care to study. Of course, our knowledge of them continues to be very limited because virtually all their books were destroyed by their European conquerors. Such destruction aimed at other cultures or at one’s own past, in such cases as the Chin dynasty in China or Christian or Muslim militants over the centuries, is unfortunately all too common.
There are two other points I’d like to mention. One is the fact that sea level rose some 400 feet after the ice sheets started melting 17,000 years ago, continuing until the floods ended around 8,000 years ago. Estimates are that about 5% of the earth’s surface at that time was submerged, and because people live so largely on coastlines and low-lying lands, the remains of many cultures before 7,000 BC are likely to be under up to several hundred feet of water.
Second, legendary and scriptural evidence for the past can be tricky. On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss reports from the past as pure fiction, as people came to do with the Trojan War reported in Homer’s epics. Schliemann showed, by his archeological investigations, that these epics were based on memories of an ancient culture, though the specifics may well be fiction. On the other hand, religious and cultural stories can become enshrined as incontestable truth. For example, Christian archeologists, assuming the Bible was accurate objective history, compared whatever they found in Palestine to the Bible in order to figure out what it was. No wonder archeological evidence supported the literal word of the Bible! Since the 1970s, however, Israeli archeologists have been working systematically and pains-taking, interpreting their findings in the same way they would those in any other part of the world. These scientific findings do not support the historical accuracy of the Old Testament or its chronology, and often contradict it. For example, evidence now contradicts such central events as the captivity of a large body of Hebrew people in Egypt and their escape into the desert, let alone many people living there in the wilderness for 40 years. Evidence also contradicts the conquest of the Promised Land: most scholars believe now that the Hebrews were simply a native Caananite tribe which remained in Palestine from the beginning. These central events in Jewish scripture are seen today by many scientists as mythic. One could make the same points using other scriptures, epics, and legends.
What is the value of thinking about these ancient artifacts and ideas? What can we learn that has value now? The questions Who are we? where did we come from? and where are we going? are enduring, and the answers we give lie behind much of our interpretation of data and what we see as reasonable. Many books today, even on practical mundane subjects like diet, exercise, and gender roles, justify their arguments and recommendations by grounding them in humanity’s original state as the authors understand it – whether hunter-gatherers, primates, the Garden of Eden, the Vedas, or whatever. This is essentially an argument from authority, whether scientific, religious or philosophical. So the way we picture our past has a great influence on people’s ideas of what is reasonable and the rationalizations they use to present their ideas. Again, do we see human history as progressive, cyclic, linear, declining, or random? These considerations also influence our views of the present and future, and what courses of action we see as having the greatest value and meaning. Our knowledge and view of the ancient past is closely involved in all these matters, and investigating what has come down to us from the past, and the many mysteries that we find there, may help throw light on these subjects. – Talk delivered August 2008