Tag Archives: prehistory

Druidry and Prehistory

Having been poking about learning what I can about prehistory, I think this is a really good topic to put on your ‘Druid syllabus’. Not just for what we can learn directly about our ancestors.

There is more of human history in prehistory. Modern humans are perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 years old. These were not the first humans. We only have a few thousand years with written records. This distorts our sense of time, I think. 

Looking at prehistory has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human. What is culture? What is civilization? What is art? What physical evidence do we take as signs of different kinds of activity? Just asking these questions tells us a lot about ourselves, and about humanity.

One find can change the entire story. This is inherently exciting. It teaches us not to be dogmatic, to remain open and flexible and ready to change our minds in face of new information. These are good life skills to have.

Modern culture is materialistic and has a high impact. Seeing how little remains from early humans makes for a powerful contrast. Can we imagine complex societies that aren’t so materially oriented? We’ve tended to assume ancient humans were inferior because of their technology, what if we instead learned to see their strengths and capabilities?  Colonialist thinking likens non-material modern societies to ‘primitive’ ancient humans, but we are wrong about that in so many ways. Studying the past can help us learn about this without having to interfere in the lives of living people.

When we imagine the Stone Age as being a bunch of people barely wrapped in animals skins, mostly saying ‘ugg’ and full of superstition and irrational beliefs about how the world works, we do our ancestors a great disservice. Modern humans of the Stone Age had the same brain capacity we do. The evidence is that our ancestors were all far more complex, sophisticated and capable than we’ve habitually depicted them. We might have a better, healthier perspective on our own state if we did not imagine ourselves to be superior. 

Contemporary humans are not the pinnacle of achievement in a progress narrative. We’re the irrational ones. We are the ones whose behaviour is driven by ignorance and irrational belief.


Women’s technology in prehistory

These aren’t wholly original ideas.

I have seen for myself plenty of examples of pre-historians talking about prehistoric stuff that could be charting the moon. The assumption is that our ancestors needed to keep an eye on the moon for whatever they were doing. But why potentially lunar markings are divided up in ways that don’t seem to relate to the moon, is anyone’s guess, apparently. Except of course that the same monthly cycle has huge implications for female fertility.

The people in pre-history who most needed to be tracking lunar cycles, were fertile women who needed to be in control of their wombs. And who maybe also wanted to be able to educate younger women about how to do that.

When it comes to tools, there’s a tendency to focus on things with cutting edges. Partly this is because stone is what survives most reliably from the Stone Age. But, there are things to infer. Humans don’t hit the ground running the way baby horses and deer do. We aren’t furry in a way that makes it easy for babies to just hang on. Depictions of pre-historic women with babies tend towards the nearly naked, with the baby clutched to the mother any way they can.

Small babies wriggle. If you get you and them wet, they are almost impossible to hang onto. If you are holding a small baby in your arms, it is nigh on impossible to carry much else and the only thing you can do is carry the baby about. I refuse to accept that the majority of pre-historic women spent all of their time trying not to drop wet, wriggling babies. Also, babies get cold really easily, and not having a baby die of cold when it is naked in your arms all the time is going to be hard.

Our ancient ancestors were hunter gatherers. We know from modern hunter gatherers, that it is the gathering that makes up most of the diet and that gathering tends to be women’s work. You can’t gather much if every woman of breeding age is trying to do it while holding a baby in their bare hands. You can’t move around effectively if anyone under the age of two is walking. You certainly can’t run away. You can’t navigate any kind of complex terrain if both your hands are occupied with a baby.

The obvious inference, to my mind, is that one of the oldest pieces of human technology must in fact be the baby sling. Once you’ve got sharp edges, you can do things with skins, so it’s not a far-fetched idea. Women carrying babies in slings have their hands free for gathering and getting about. The baby, or small child in this arrangement is warm, safe, and easy to move about. You can’t have humans as mobile hunter gatherers if you don’t have baby slings. Our getting into colder landscapes and travelling any distance depends as much on the baby sling as it does the stone tools, the wearing of skins and the getting to grips with fire.


Thinking about Civilization

I’m currently reading ‘Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age’ by Richard Rudgely, and it’s got me thinking a lot about how we define civilization and how problematic it is. Like me, the author isn’t a fan of the narrative of human progress, and that’s certainly a story that has coloured how we think about the past.

As a child, I had one of those illustrated history books, in which the tens of thousands of years of human prehistory were summed up by a single image of some people wearing skins and using stone tools. That the Stone Age was barbarous, superstitious, and lacking in all the qualities of proper civilization is something that we used to take for granted as an idea, and many people probably still do.

History, as we understand it begins with writing, so any culture that doesn’t have writing is assumed not to have history and to be rather primitive. This ignores the ancient nature of stories in oral traditions – that Australian Aboriginal stories record ancient events and creatures is thus easily overlooked. To be a civilization, we moderns think there have to be cities. This means our nomadic ancient ancestors were not civilized, and nor are any modern people who live as hunter gatherers or are otherwise nomadic – this is a view that breeds racism, undervaluing, and intolerance. We only think cities are important because we have cities.

We look to the past for things that validate our stories about the present. Where we see things that fit in a narrative of progress to the present, we tend to focus our attention. There are other stories we might want to explore – that hunter gatherer societies had more leisure time than we do. That so-called primitive people have to develop a very rational, observation based understanding of reality to survive, hunt and gather. That we see civilization in terms of material culture, and that people who live lightly leave little evidence of themselves.

To survive as a nomadic people at the end of the Ice Age, must have meant cooperation. It’s not ‘survival of the fittest’ that will have got our ancestors through those incredibly cold and challenging times when they were first coming back into the UK. It will have been care for the young, and for pregnant women. It must have meant sharing skills and resources, knowledge and experience. It must have meant people working together. And when you can only own what you carry, or what another person is happy to carry for you, the place of material goods in your life is going to be very different.

If we can re-imagine the past, and consider different ways in which civilizations can exist, we might do a much better job of organising ourselves for the future.


Broken Skies – a review

Hannah Spencer’s novel Broken Skies is an epic book and unusual in many ways. Although it’s not explicit in the text, the story is set around Gobekli Tepe in Turkey – perhaps the first temple in the world. It’s a really compelling pre-historic site and if you aren’t familiar with it, I recommend looking it up.

The story follows the conflict between the Irin – who built the temple and the Annunaki who want it destroyed. There’s a third people – the clans, who the Irin and Annunaki treat as inferior, but who have a much older relationship with the land. There’s a huge cast of characters with complex relationships between them and a story playing out over a long time frame. This is a complicated read that will require your full attention. Ideal if you want to totally immerse in something, not ideal if your concentration is poor.

This book captures ways of life, modes of thinking, daily activities and perspectives on relationships that seem rooted and realistic. I’m no pre-history expert, but I have a little insight and was totally persuaded of the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge. The people depicted make sense as individuals, but at the same time are so removed from contemporary experience and thinking as to be surprising. I was impressed by this.

The characters in this book inhabit a shamanic reality. There’s no difference between life and spirituality, no separation of belief from any aspect of life. They live their magic, their reality is an intrinsically magical one. However, while it is a shamanic reality, it doesn’t retrofit modern thinking. These are not familiar approaches – there’s tapping into myth in all kinds of effective ways, but it isn’t a re-writing of myth. Modern Pagan fiction can be prone to projecting modern Pagan thinking onto the past – Hannah doesn’t do this at all. I’ve never encountered anything like it in terms of where she takes us.

There is conflict at the heart of the story. Every single character involved in the conflict thinks that their understanding is right, and everyone else is to some degree, wrong. Every character believes they are the one who really understands the spiritual implications of what they are doing. All of them are persuasive and most of the time it is difficult to decide who, if anyone, is right. This is brilliant. The truth is too big for any one character to grasp. If you’re tired of lazy fights between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ you’re going to love this.

It wasn’t an easy read. I found it emotionally intense. Being dropped into an unfamiliar culture I was sometimes a bit lost and I had to work to stay with it – but that in many ways supports the story. This is not an easy culture, the underlying logic is that you should expect to pay to have anything worthwhile.

More about the book here – https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/historical/broken-skies/