Tag Archives: stone age

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.

Material Culture

I read an interesting piece recently about the way in which we name historical eras after metals (Sorry, I have no idea where it was!). This naming shapes how we think about the past and gives the casual reader a feeling that the metals are the most important bits. Metal tends to mean weapons and hunting gear, and archaeologists in the past were often more interested in those ‘manly’ things than in evidence of gathering or other domestic activities. There’s been recognition of this, and progress, but it’s there in a lot of earlier work.

What if metal isn’t key to pre-history? It’s interesting to consider what early technologies might have resulted in significant cultural shifts. I’ve written before about the necessity of the baby sling in human development, but what else would be key?

Ceramics – for cooking, and for storage. 

The spoon – making it easier to eat cooked plant matter from your ceramic pot. Also making it possible to feed invalids and young children.

String. My son pointed out that without string, you can’t have bows or spears and are limited to opportunism, scavenging, or having to get up close and personal with anything you want to kill and eat. 

The sewing needle – enabling the making of clothes, bags, baby slings, making it easier to make shelters out of hides. Makes shoes possible.

Weaving – baskets and textiles. Increased warmth, storage, improved gathering options, means to pen livestock and make fish traps, and cradles. 

Art – the pre-history of art is really interesting. Apparently the first stage was collecting things that seemed interesting. Then we got into modifying what was around. Then we took up making art from scratch. It’s reasonable to assume there must have been a lot of less durable art, and that it wasn’t all cave paintings.

There’s probably lots of others. Not all of them could easily be dug up, but signs of less durable materials can be found. Part of the prominence of metals is how well it survives in the ground, but that’s certainly not the only factor, and less emphasis on what is assumed to be male would be helpful. It’s the focus on stone in the Stone Age that has us imagining people draped in skins and living in caves. Ceramics are Stone Age. So are string, and baskets.

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.