In 2009 a Qantas jet cruising above Australia survives a cometary impact on the polar Ice Cap that causes immediate and immense global flooding.
Miraculously it manages to stay intact whilst on the planet below the human race is all but wiped out.
The pilot, using all his reserves of fuel, manages to pilot the plane to some small island in the region of Borneo – once the tip of a great mountain range.
Leaving the aircraft, the passengers find all but a few of the local native population dead.
Among the passengers, bound for an international science conference in Perth, are a nuclear physicist, an organic chemist, an astrophysicist and a biologist. Other passengers include a boat builder, an architect, a lawyer and a couple of doctors and nurses. There is also a priest and a poet. The cream, one might say, of civilised society.
To begin with, without the surviving local islanders the passengers would be dead within a few weeks. They have no idea what they can eat of the local flora and fauna. They cannot hunt. The locals, whilst marvelling at the people from the sky, teach them what is poisonous, what tastes good.
A month passes. The plane is stranded in the swampy coast in which it landed. There is no fuel to fly it. It grows rusty. Eventually it is pulled out to sea by the tides and sinks. The passengers, used to living in comfortable homes, have learned how to build simple yet effective native shelters – round houses built around a central hearth.
Their method of food production is simple hunter gathering. They are gradually beginning the first lessons in flint tool production – badly.
A foray to find other survivors has proved fruitless, and the passengers decide to rethink their future.
They have amongst them the vast complexity of modern culture within their brains, but frustratingly it lies dormant, void of a means of expression. Their knowledge is useless here.
They hold a meeting. Let us say, they argue, that we are to be stuck here for good, that our signal fires go unheeded. We have to set up a community here. Ideas abound of recreating the life they left behind. They are always tired and hungry – they must learn to farm.
But farming proves nigh on impossible. Firstly they have to clear space in the rain forest – by fire and crude stone hand axe, then they have to collect seeds in a number and wait for the harvest. The attempt is futile. The crop yield is minimal, pathetic. The after effect of the impact has caused almost continual rain and cold. Not only this but the waste of human resources on the project is immense – all members of the community are needed in the gathering of food. The food sources also move – and the settlers find themselves semi-nomadic hunters.
But they preserve the idea of farming – in the form of a story, so future generations might benefit, when the population becomes large enough to make it viable, and a move might be made to more compatible soil and conditions.
They eat fruit, berries, wild pig, and drink mountain water. For the first few weeks they have terrible stomach upsets, but soon adapt to the diet. It is not long before they forget that they smell, that their hair needs cutting. The men have grown beards. They rediscover the primal magic of the light and heat giving fire.
They need to pass ideas on as stories, and this is the poet’s job. Grand ideas about building an encyclopedia of knowledge meet with failure – you cannot put down the ideas of 5,000 years of history and civilisation on three notebooks of paper. What’s more paper doesn’t keep too well in these conditions. They bury a time capsule containing science text books and the three journals detailing their plight – but this uses the last of the paper and the last of the pen ink.
Writing is not as important as it once was. They use dried mud tablets inscribed with a stick to record important things. These are fragile and soon break. A kind of pictorial shorthand necessarily develops due to the cumbersome nature of writing full English words and sentences on mud tablets.
This written language in time is passed down through the ‘priesthood’. Each subsequent generation is more illiterate than its predecessor; It is not important to teach your children to read and write when first they need to know how to survive.
People grow ill and die. The doctors and nurses try to help but have no medicines or theatre facilities. The best results come from native drugs based on local plants. But children are born, and the passengers have to face the ordeal of childbirth without analgesics. The population halves before it begins to grow again.
In two generations the great medical knowledge of the western world has been almost completely lost. Brain surgery and heart bypass operations are not worth passing to the next generation – and similarly three quarters of medical knowledge becomes obsolete overnight due to its reliance on prescription drugs. There is no anaesthetic save the narcotics used by tribal people for generations – there is no way of producing drugs such as insulin, thyroxine. People die of infected teeth and gums – there are no antibiotics. They try growing penicillin on rotting food – its use is small and negligible for large infections. There are no opticians, dentists. Skeletons of the new population begin to resemble those of the natives. In another generation they are the same – diseased joints, bad teeth, vitamin deficiencies.
The concerns of modern city life vanish. There is a growing awareness and appreciation of the moment. The veneer of civilisation is slowly disappearing.
They know the theory of electricity, but in this world with no copper, no batteries, no light bulbs it is useless. In a few generations the science is completely gone. It is as if it had never existed. This happens with all modern discoveries and commodities.
The poet composes easily memorable verses and stories that preserve Newton’s laws, a moral code, the Christian myth, and basic facts about the solar system. The astrophysicist spends time making sure that certain numbers are included in the stories – especially relating to such things as precession – for it is his belief that the cometary impact was a cyclical event caused by the passing of the earth through the galactic plane. He believes that he can forewarn future generations so that they might not be blind to the danger, like his own. He instils a respect amongst the settlers for astral observation, so that this celestial timekeeping can take place.
Within four generations there are none left alive who knew the old world through personal experience. The colony resembles that of a native village prior to the impact – similar architecture, tools, foodstuffs, clothing. They only differ in their oral tradition and their secret rites involving the kenning of a hieroglyphic script and the legends and lore of the sky ancestors who came from a lost city of light – the vanished land of Oz in the east…
They also differ in that they show rudimentary development of animal husbandry and farming techniques – probably based on the fencing off of natural areas of crop growth rather than deliberate planting. Apart from this there is nothing to distinguish their group from another native settlement over the other side of the hill. Indeed, to all intents and purposes the native settlement is the more advanced, its tools finer, its houses stronger and its people healthier, though in time they will equal out – and both tribes will form a larger village group.
The people are self-sufficient. They can survive. Indeed, if the sky ancestors were to meet them, they would be shocked and surprised at their adaptability. In just a few dozen years they have become as ‘native’ as those they met on landing. They have interbred with the locals. Their language is pied – their religions become mixed. But there is a great regard and respect of the priests who preserve the oral tradition of the time before the fire and flood. They are an elite – the followers of Qantas, the great bird of the heavens, who over time is becoming one with the Sun.
The ancestors would, though, be horrified at the loss of knowledge. The priests know much of physics and astronomy, the doctors of medicine and human anatomy, they know how to build simple boats and sewerage systems – but none will have heard of Freud, Michelangelo, Windows 98 (not necessarily a bad thing!), Abraham Lincoln, Buddha, the Pyramids, Beethoven. The computer and the violin await reinvention possibly a millennium, possibly ten, down the line.
What knowledge remains, divorced from its practical uses, becomes quasi-mythical, hedged about with legends and heroes. The people know it is important but they have forgotten why.
With each generation, except for the core of sacred knowledge, the old world fades from memory at an alarming rate. Soon tribal history takes on its own importance and everyday living becomes more significant than the time when the sky gods flew about the globe in metal birds and destroyed great villages with a spear of thunder and lightning. But still, a direct memory carried down from the ancestors, there exists a daunting primal fear of the fire and the flood, and the settlers are more than strict in their observance of the heavens – indeed they are obsessed with it.
Memory fades. But the sky gods knew this would happen. And so perhaps they thought of a plan so that they might not be forgotten. Was it in hope that one day mankind might remember the old world or a vain hope of a personal epitaph that prompted these people to build the monument?
In a clearing in the forest they set up a great pattern of tree trunks, deposited in rubble foundations. Using astronomical observations they set it true north. Before the batteries from their watches faded, they set the date of the equinox and marked it with a great post to the east, and they mapped out the constellation of Aquarius on the ground. And a great tree trunk is set due north, carved in the shape of a bear, with a star on its tail.
Our writings and clay inscriptions will not survive, they said. Perhaps the myths will -but this sign, so anachronous with our present level of culture, perhaps one day someone will recognise it – for only the stars remain true to their cycles forever – and will date our presence here. It is no use carving our names on rocks or trees – this, and only this, can survive – a message written in the only universal language – the mathematics of the heavens.
Maybe this was why the monument was built. Perhaps it was seen as a kind of time machine, a desperate attempt by the grandchildren of the sky people to return to the time before the catastrophe, by turning back the sky, and thus time – an attempt to recreate paradise before the fall?
An archaeologist of a culture that we cannot even guess at, one day discovers the settlement. Here, he says, we see the beginnings of the development of farming that will reach fruition in another few millennia. He does not know what implemented the change – but sees that the village is no doubt a continuation of the native village life – there is no reason to doubt this – the houses, artefacts etc. are the same, there is just a new impetus. There is a slight change in skeletal morphology – so maybe the changes came from an invading tribe?
He imagines the primitives going about their hunting and gathering. He sees them illiterate and savage – he has no reason to think otherwise; their mud tablets melted back into the soil, and their Newtonian knowledge was purely oral. But here is the answer to the great puzzle of how language and science, and farming and the city state suddenly arrived fully fledged in the nearby land masses three millennia later. But he cannot see the connection, he cannot see the invisible threads that link the minds of these ‘savages’ to the later civilisations. He is unaware of the hidden potential, the dormant incipient culture that lies hibernating in their very myths awaiting the time when the people will be ready to bring it to fruition – like a crystal in solution awaiting the current that will catalyse it into solid form.
How he would laugh if someone were to say that the builder of that primitive roundhouse once was the architect of a high-rise office block? Or that the primitive canoe was fashioned by a yacht-builder? How about the fact that the tooth found pulled from a skull with a basic stone implement was the work of a heart surgeon?
How even more he would deride a person who claimed that the myth of the central fire god, around whom his sons and daughters danced was a story crafted by a physicist knowledgeable in the heliocentric universe. As for the complex numbers that appeared in their myths – 72, 54, 216, how could they know about precession, he would say, when these primitives didn’t even own telescopes? And as for the world-renowned ‘Pyramids of Qantas’ – archaeologists had dated these great Pyramidal structures to four millennia after these primitive huts. The unorthodox theory of the ‘Aquarius’ layout was hotly debated and mainly rejected by academics. To say that it pointed to a date corresponding to 2009AD (although the archaeologists would be using a different calendar), was utterly hilarious and instantly rejectable.
The next thing they would be saying is that the Sky Gods and their bird Qantas from Oz were relics of a lost, technically advanced race!