Cultural blinders and other things

One of the areas I’ve had a life-long interest in is paleontology and archaeology.   It’s fascinating to read the discoveries about early human ancestors, early human history, and various “lost” civilizations.    But over the years, it’s also been a window into how we let our cultural assumptions blind us to evidence, or misinterpret what we see.   Consider some of the phrases:  “Primitive,” “cave men,”  “hunter-gatherers,” “stone age,” and others.  All carry connotations that we, the “civilized, modern humans” are “better” or somehow “smarter.”  Which is why various paleoanthropologists and others seem to keep getting surprised by their discoveries, while others came up with “extraterrestrial influences and guidance” to “explain” them.

There’s been for quite some time the unconscious assumption that our ancestors were not very bright.   Oh, smarter than the previous ancestor, and all of them were smarter than anything else around.  Just not as smart as us.  In a science fiction book a while back, I read a short statement that struck me:  “Primitive does not mean stupid.”  Think about that for a moment.

Let’s say tomorrow morning I take you and your family, with only the clothes on your backs, and drop you off in the middle of the woods somewhere.  Heck, I’ll even be nice and do it in early summer,  and right by the headwaters of a stream.   If I came back two months later, the odds are pretty good it would be to recover your bodies.   If I did the same with a “primitive” family?  They’d be just fine.  Why?  Because they’d know how to use the materials at hand to keep themselves sheltered, clothed and fed.  They’d even have tools they made.

What I see many times is a lot of “we can’t figure out how they did it.”  We look at things like Stonehenge, the Pyramids, or Machu Picchu, and scratch our heads.  Yes, we could do it with our modern construction equipment, but how did they do it without those?   Since it’s quite obvious that they managed to figure  out how to do it, and we can’t, then what does that say about us?

That’s not to say that someone doesn’t have an idea.  One that doesn’t involve helpful extraterrestials, intervention of the gods, or even massive numbers of slaves.  He doesn’t claim that this is exactly the way it was done, it’s just that he shows that a little ingenuity, observation, and a working knowledge of basic physics allows you to move things around quite easily.  Large, heavy things, in fact.  Meet Wally Wallington:

Simple, isn’t it?  When you hear legends of “walking stones,” as an explanation, they may have originally meant what he’s doing – “walking” the stone to where you’re going to place it – instead of the stone walking itself.   It’s just a reminder that while we think we’re the pinnacle, we’re not necessarily as smart as our ancestors.  That’s because we’re still trying to figure out how they did something.



Filed under Science, Technology

9 responses to “Cultural blinders and other things

  1. Chris Andersen

    Every engineering feat is really just the proper application of energy in the right direction. What most people don’t understand is that energy is cumulative. Every little bit you add is included in what you do next. So, a little bit of energy, applied steadily over a period of several days, can produce huge results.

    We are so used to modern devices that can move huge objects in a short period of time that we’ve lost an appreciation of what can be accomplished with patience and time.

    • True. But what I always found amusing about the various “theories” from people like von Daniken was the rather blinkered assumption that since they couldn’t figure out how to do it, and they were obviously much “smarter” than our ancestors, it meant that aliens must have helped. 🙄

  2. good points… “Civilized” comes from “Civil”. It means that we follow a system of laws. It does not make any statement as to intelligence, compassion, or correctness.

    Many used to call the native Americans (who originally helped the new settlers survive) “Savages”, and then massacred them. Who were acting in a savage manner?

  3. aquagranny911

    Love your diaries, Norbrook! I enjoyed your example of dropping a modern family off in the middle of the woods by a stream & finding them dead in a few months when you went back to check. I would hope to do way better than that, especially if you left this desert child near water.

    Having grown up rural & “primitive” in some ways, I have a few survival skills. I have taught those to my children & continue to teach my grandchildren. You are so right that “primitive does not equal dumb” Where there is a will there is a way. Mathematics & physics were not created in text books. They were created & understood by people who actually wanted to do stuff & figured out a way.

    • I still see it when you look at discussions of when humans arrived in a given part of the world. A lot of the disbelief comes from the idea that … well … they were “primitive” and couldn’t possibly have figured out how to build a boat or something.

  4. Long ago, I had the opportunity to try making simple blades or “something” that would cut out of stone. It’s not as easy as it looks:

    Mostly, my “survival skills” are in the category of “I’ll stay alive long enough for people to find me.” No, I can’t make a blade out of stone. 😆

    • aquagranny911

      You so made me LOL. We have a friend who can knap stone for blades. No, it isn’t easy but is not impossible either, if you have just the right material, some patience & know what you are doing . I’m sure it is easier if you aren’t desperate to survive.

      I’m not that ambitious. I know how to make snares, weave fish traps & I can make a bow & arrows if I have the right materials at hand. If I was in that woods I would be looking for what plants I could eat (taste & error) The water would give me bounty & I would not overlook grub worms or any other things I could eat.

      My primary focus would be on water, food & keeping myself until I could figure the rest out.

      • I can, with some effort, get a very, very primitive hand axe, and if it’s the right sort of stone, the flakes are useful for cutting. That said, there’s a reason I generally carry a couple of jackknives with me in the woods. I don’t plan on ever having to put any of that to use. 😉 It’s why I also carry a lighter – yes, I can do the “flint and steel” or “drill” method, but the cheap butane lighter is a lot faster.

        But trying it does give you a real appreciation for the skill – and thought processes – that the so-called “primitive” people had. It’s not “bang a couple of rocks together.”

  5. Nathan Katungi

    Norbrook, I will treasure this article. You have such incredible eyes and ears, and, of course, a very attentive mind. Your ability to see through things, and your ability to truly listen to discern what’s real and what’s fake, is quite impressive. Most of us, so called civilized, tend to take things for granted.