Friday, November 13, 2009

The Prehistoric Origin of Culture

We often forget that everything in the world has an origin. If a feature of our life has been around for a long time, we easily fall into supposing that it's always been there.

Take hats. However far back in history you go, people were already engaged in the practice of placing contrivances of various sorts on the tops of their heads. We’re apt to take this state of affairs as an indication that there have always been hats. We don’t, of course, consciously believe that this absurb proposition is true. But it's lodged somewhere in our cognitive machinery from which place it has various effects on our behavior. One of these effects a lack of curiosity about the origin of hats. If hats are already present at the start of every historical era, what follows is, of course, that they originated in prehistoric times.

One thing is certain: there was a time when the world was devoid of hats. In fact, there was a time when the world already contained human beings but was still hatless. There had to be a First Hat, and it had to be conceived and constructed by a First Hatter. The hat is some unsung prehistoric genius’ invention.

There’s a whole stratum of basic amenities that seem always to have been with us and without which modern life would be impossible. What, for instance, would we do if there were no bags? We’d have to take our groceries home in our arms, which would drastically curtail the variety of foods we can purchase. Long-distance travel would be prohibitively difficult—for a suitcase is just a fancy kind of bag, and traveling without luggage would require us to carry our shirts, underwear, and socks on and off the plane in a loose pile, and to stuff the pile in the overhead compartment. The inevitable result would be that our clothes would get inextricably mixed up with the clothes of other passengers. Under conditions like these, it's doubtful that commercial aviation could ever have gotten off the ground.

Similar remarks apply to many other prehistoric inventions such as the blanket, the cloak, and the door. Second-generation devices include the sleeve, the window, and the doorknob. Our prehistoric ancestors who conceived of these devices were preceded only by the very first biologically human beings whose lives were essentially the same as those of any large land mammals. Starting from scratch, they had to invent the idea of inventing. Under these conditions, to conceive of a hat or a door is as dazzling an intellectual feat as to conceive of the theory of relativity.

The grandest prehistoric achievement, effected by the cumulative work of countless generations of field researchers, was undoubtedly the project of testing the edibility of every substance on Earth—every herb, every fungus, every crawling, creeping, and swimming thing, wood, sand, clay, mud, feces, urine, pebbles, … . One imagines these intrepid researchers puking their guts out, being attacked by swarms of bees, breaking their teeth, and going off on unscheduled psychedelic journeys, so that we may know what’s safe to eat and delicious, and what spells disaster.

Then there are the social innovations—the meeting, the holiday, the incarceration of deviants, the idea of winning or losing a game, personal names, jokes, respectability, designating some words as profane and being scandalized by their utterance. Like hats and bags, these institutions seem to have always existed. But the lives of our very earliest human ancestors were esentially like the lives of rabbits or bears, and there’s never been a respectable rabbit or a profanity-spouting bear. Like hats and bags, these things had to be invented.

Finally, we have to acknowledge the unclassifiable achievements that have enriched our lives in miscellaneous ways. Kudos to the first person ever to whistle, snap his fingers, do a handstand, wipe his ass, or engage in foreplay. Thanks for showing us the way.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I too would like to applaud my ancestors who discovered foreplay, wiping my ass and particularly those who did some "unscheduled" hallucinatory journeying on my behalf.