Welcome to our March AoM, Gordon White, whose Star.Ships seeks to sing the stars to Earth.
White writes to question dominant narratives and places the restoration of context at the centre of concern.
Star.Ships is like an ode to magic whilst deploying some of the latest, serious prehistorical research.
The Other Rosetta Stone
Visitors to the British Museum crowd around the Rosetta Stone for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is right in the entryway to the Egyptian Gallery so it is frankly quite hard to avoid, even if you wanted to. But secondly -of all the misshapen rocks on Earth- it is perhaps to this one that we owe the largest debt of gratitude.
It is rare for objects to straddle worlds as the Rosetta Stone does. It straddles the world of Classical Greece and the world of Ancient Egypt. It is a place of overlap between a realm we understood and a realm we did not. But with this key, previously unknown vistas stretching back millennia opened before us. With one foot on familiar ground we could set our other foot in a new world of discovery.
Although discovered late last century, Göbekli Tepe will turn out to be the Rosetta Stone of the twenty first century, for much the same reason.
Archaeologists and anthropologists will tell us that we simply have no context for how the hunter gatherers of the Palaeolithic lived. And in some sense this is true. I have no context for my mother’s childhood in London, growing up while coal was still rationed. But in another very real sense, they have trapped themselves in their own limited definition of our ancestors.
Göbekli Tepe straddles the world of settled agriculture –for which we at least have some context- and the (debatably) pre-agricultural world of the Palaeolithic hunter gather. And instead of an alphabet, what this ‘Rosetta Stone’ unlocks is the inner world of the Palaeolithic –revealing it to be as rich and haunted and profound as our own. With one gentle slap of its central T-pillar, Göbekli Tepe erases the notion that ‘religion’ is nothing but stories farmers told each other at night once the grain was brought in. It looks more and more like ‘asking the big questions’ was the first thing we ever did. The functional explanation of religion –that it emerged as a means of social control in stratifying early urban centres- can no longer be justified. As the discoverer of Göbekli Tepe, Dr Klaus Schmidt once remarked, “the cathedral predates the city”.i
In the last few decades, anthropology and archaeology have had a good hard look at the origins of their previously unexamined axioms -seeing them as the imperialist, materialist mind viruses that they are- and somewhat sheepishly jettisoned them. Nevertheless, a few of those old imperial ghosts remain –typically as descriptive terms that arose in the bad old days of anthropology but somehow survived the purge.
Consider that the academic term ‘hunter gatherer’ still codes for the long-abandoned concept of civilizational progress, because the subtext is one of an interrupted agricultural development. It has also turned out to be an inaccurate description of the food sources of the Palaeolithic (as well as modern hunter gatherers, frankly). Early 20th century European anthropologists considered ‘farming’ to be the sowing of grain but much of the population of the planet did something more akin to gardening. That is, the management and cultivation of local plants that the early anthropologists mistook for ‘pristine nature’.
The method, whether it was found in central Australia –where it was employed at an enormous scale we are only just starting to get our heads around- or in the Amazon or the Congo, it is a provably better way of supplying food. (The best evidence for this is that Australian Aboriginal cultures, for instance, have been in existence for 50,000 years –surviving all manner of changing climates and severe weather events.) Founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, once observed:
“The only safe energy systems are those derived from biological systems. A New Guinea gardener can walk through the gates of his garden taking one unit of energy and hand out 70. A modern farmer who drives a tractor through the gate takes 1,000 units of energy in and gives one back. Who is the most sophisticated agriculturalist?”
So, anthropology is coming to its senses just as Göbekli Tepe re-emerges into the light, demonstrating that the sophistication of Palaeolithic physical systems is more than matched by the sophistication of non-physical ones, i.e. cosmologies.
All of a sudden, we have within our grasp that all-important word, context. Revealed on this little hill in Southeastern Turkey are lifeways that involve an interpenetrating spirit world accessed via dance, drumming and hallucinogens, stable tribal groups stretching hundreds of miles, an afterlife in the sky complete with its own messenger being, a widespread astronomical system of timekeeping and heavenly, tutelary teachers who both descend from and in some sense, are the stars.
What is not regularly mentioned is just how truly miraculous it is that Göbekli Tepe survived down to us at all. A string of extremely low-probability events had to occur for that to even be possible. Which means we do not know if it is the equivalent of St Paul’s Cathedral or your neighbourhood Baptist church. There may well have been hundreds of sites like it right across Eurasia.
Evidence of obsidian trade stretching from Cappadocia down to Iran found at Göbekli Tepe suggests it probably was a site of some wider prominence but the very presence of the trade itself suggests it was situated within a more widely distributed worldview.ii
And it is the worldview we seek.
Whatever it is genes actually do –which is a more open question than many people realise- what we can do with them with a reasonable level of confidence is track ancient population movements. Wherever you land on the ultimate origin of modern humans –engineered or evolved- and wherever you think it happened, the migration out of Africa around 90,000 years ago is very well corroborated –thanks in large part to the work of Oxford geneticists such as Dr Stephen Oppenheimer and the Bradshaw Foundation. (You can watch a fascinating animation of the population of the earth here on their website: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/).
Within the space of a few thousand years of essentially jogging along the coastline of Asia, our ancestors made it to Sundaland and Sahul/Australia. And it is here –around 30,000 years ago- that recent linguistic analysis by Dr Joanna Nichols suggests we achieved our first ‘jump’ in cultural complexity since leaving Africa.iii At the same time, we developed an adaptation to cold weather such as one might find in northern Europe.iv This can only have come from prolonged exposure to open ocean journeying as the climate was temperate. Subsequent adaptations to Malaria originated in what is now Indonesia about 17,000 years ago and these adaptations are also found in South America at a time depth of only a few thousand years later.v A picture builds.
Occupying that same territory with us for tens of millennia were four –possibly up to six- other hominin species.vi In fact, the highest level of non-human genetic admixtures, specifically Denisovan and Neanderthal- are found in the modern populations of this region.vii At least some of these other hominins have shown high levels of symbolic thinking. The Denisovans made jewellery.viii And –currently holding the record for the oldest piece of art on planet Earth- an engraved mollusc shell probably made by homo erectus was found in the area. All of this begs the question of whether we learned any of our particular civilizational skills from our cousins in between bouts of sexual intercourse with them. It would almost be weirder if we didn’t.
Graham Hancock readers will likely know that this is the corner of the world that lost the most land at the end of the Ice Age. It is also –unsurprisingly- home to the majority of the world’s flood myths. It is also –you will no doubt be aware- home to a hollowed mountain carved into a vaguely step pyramidal shape that dates back to 22,000 BC or earlier, known as Gunung Padang.
So let’s run down that list.
- Inhabited by humans for at least 50,000 years.
- Also home to a number of hominins with provable symbolic thinking capacity.
- Linguistic evidence shows our next big cultural leap after leaving Africa to have happened around the 30,000 BC mark.
- The oldest structure on earth that could conceivably be called a Pyramid is found here, within spitting distance of that leap in cultural complexity.
- Finally, the area not only has specific genetic markers linking it to the other side of the Pacific, but also to every region on earth where ‘civilisation’ as we used to call it emerged.
Australian Aboriginal cultures are arguably the oldest continually practised cultures on Earth. Thanks to the work of academics such as Duane Hamacher, we are beginning to see just how sophisticated and vastly ancient their astrotheology really was/is. He has shown that Aboriginal legends have described events such as meteor impacts and the separation of Tasmania from the mainland at the end of the Ice Age that date back more than 10,000 years –convincingly and finally drawing a line under the debate over whether oral cultures can ‘accurately’ describe ancient historical events. They can. (Which suggests we should take another look at all those flood myths, yes?)
Within the star lore of Australia, we find some surprising correlations to much, much later cultures. For instance, 90% of Aboriginal tales associated with Orion are to do with hunting.ix The Pleiades are almost as commonly considered a woman or group of women who is pursued by Orion. Duane Hamacher suggests it is either ‘cultural convergent evolution’ –which has its own burden of evidence if that is so- or else it ‘suggests a much earlier story common to both cultural roots’.
Aboriginal legends are particularly useful in attempting to do what the king’s men failed to do; put a sunken continent back together again. With specific reference to Sundaland, Dr Stephen Oppenheimer postulated in his essential Eden in the East that it would be the Melanesian and Polynesian cultures that would likely give the best evidence of the original continent’s belief system.
Many readers will likely know that concepts, myths and even god names that would be entirely at home in Dynastic Egypt are found across the Pacific –including Ra, Pyramids and Nuit. In Hawaii the constellation we know as Aries is also a war god. Venus –known as Kopu or Malara– is much admired for her beauty.x
All of this before we get to the singularly inexplicable Rapa Nui where geologist Dr Robert Schoch has identified at least two different building phases for the mysterious Moai. Some of them have a sedimentation layer around them of over six metres which suggests they were first erected long before permanent settlement of the island. (Rapa Nui also has shaped lava tunnels, which puts one in mind of Gunung Padang.)
The descendants of a sunken landmass retain a precise astronomical calendar that would look entirely familiar to any Egyptologist or Sumerologist. They have god names and mythemes that look like they walked straight out of the Books of the Dead or the Old Testament, and they have a tradition of aligning structures and sacred objects to particular asterisms in the night sky such as the Pleiades and Ursa Major.
A fuzzy picture begins to form of what we might rightly call an Antediluvian belief system. Are there any other ways to flesh that out?
The First Stories
A few years ago, a Harvard Indologist, Dr E. J. Michael Witzel published a remarkable book called The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. It is the sort of book you can only publish at the end of your career. Not only because it requires a truly expansive knowledge of global mythology but also because it boldly reverses the last few decades of postmodern nonsense that claimed that nothing influenced anything else and everything arose independently.
Viewed over the long term, it was probably a good thing that mythology and anthropology had a postmodern turn –if only to shake out the last vestiges of 19th century high imperial racism that had culture and technology diffuse from races that Europeans preferred (usually light skinned ones) to those it didn’t like quite so much (all other skin tones).
But the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as clearly ideas and stories and technologies move between cultures and we should be able to examine these movements without making claims of racial superiority. Dr Witzel manages to avoid the old imperial error by conducting a worldwide comparison of mythology and then mapping that to genetic and archaeological evidence –something that mythology should have been crying out for these last few decades. The use of hard scientific data is the best defence against ‘stacking’ cultures in order of personal/racial preference on the one hand, and lazily relying on psychological ‘explanations’ for the appearance of similarities in mythology across time and space.
To dramatically oversimplify his process, Dr Witzel essentially performed a genealogy of mythemes such as ‘world tree’ and ‘warring brothers’ and ‘separation of earth and sky’ by examining in which modern cultures they appear and then looking back through our genetic history for the last time the ancestors of these modern cultures were in the ‘same place’. This made the great civilisations of the ancient world –Sumer, the Indus and Egypt- ‘secondary centres of mythological innovation’. Mythology did not originate in these centres but was dramatically transformed by them. The stories themselves were on the move beforehand and after.
Dr Witzel’s schema breaks down into the two following macro-groups –both of which emerge from his subsequent reconstruction of what may have been mankind’s earliest belief system. He has named them Gondwana and Laurasia (and the hypothetical earliest belief system Pan-Gaean) although these titles do not relate to geography or landmasses.
1. Gondwana Mythology
Emerging approximately 65,000 years ago at the latest, this is the mythology our ancestors took with them on their journey out of Africa. It is ‘a forest of stories’ –a collection of discrete tales pertaining to the origins of individual creatures, how mankind first emerged and taboos around tribal morality. It shows little interest in the creation of the universe and tends toward eternalism –i.e. it has no ‘apocalypse’. Modern examples of Gondwana mythology are found in New Guinea, Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Western Pacific. Common Gondwana mythemes are:
- Continuous Creation: No beginning and end of the universe
- Totemic Origin of Mankind: In many Gondwana schemes, mankind originated in a tree, for instance.
- A Distant High God: If some form of creation happened, it was performed by a being we can never understand –one who has long since left the scene.
- A Civilising Trickster: Typically the hunting and civilizational skills mankind possesses are delivered by a Trickster emissary of the distant high god who descends from the sky. These stories often involve mankind showing hubris and needing to be punished (by, say, a flood).
- The (Rainbow) Serpent: Sometimes the high god takes the form of a giant serpent, shaping the earth with its movements. Sometimes the trickster does. Rainbow serpents are most famously found in Aboriginal Australian mythology but also appear Melanesian and Southern African cosmologies.
2. Laurasian Mythology
Emerging approximately 40,000 years ago somewhere in Eurasia (Southeast Asia?) is what Dr Witzel describes as our “first novel”. The ‘forest of stories’ gets a beginning, middle and end –possibly to aid in shamanic memorisation. Laurasian mythologies begin with the creation of the world and end with its destruction. In between there is:
- A World Egg: Most commonly entails the universe emerging from the primordial waters as an egg or mound.
- Father Heaven, Mother Earth and their separation: Typically by a child of the couple.
- Descending generations of deities and epochs, passing through culture heroes and down to human royal bloodlines.
- Killing the Dragon/Serpent.
- A previous Golden Age from which we have declined.
- A Flood.
- The Trickster/Demiurge who brings civilisation.
- The Apocalypse/End of the World at some stage in the future.
You will no doubt recognise these mythemes from Biblical religions, Ancient Egypt, Sumer, the civilisations of the Americas, Central Asian Shamanism, Classical Greece and the traditions of Northern Europe.
The last time the ancestors of all these subsequent cultures were in the one place was 40,000 – 50,000 years agoxi. ‘Somewhere’ in Asia. In Southeast Asia we have that jump up in cultural complexity, proto-pyramids and some fairly sophisticated star lore. Oh yeah, and it sank.
Repositioning the Resistance
Alternate history has a lot of straw man arguments about ‘mainstream’ archaeology or anthropology. While these may have once been true, they simply no longer are –particularly when it comes to anthropology. (With the possible exception of Egyptology, which remains a complete basket case.) Not only are new comparisons between disciplines throwing up theses like those of Dr Witzel but even the underlying materialist assumptions are being recognised and replaced.
In short, we’re currently winning.
As such we would do well to move the debate further along from the ‘real’ location of Atlantis, or the Garden of Eden, or Noah’s Ark –as it appears these are all much younger variants of ancient mythemes. By definition, this means they cannot be literally true. (Although the earliest instance of the tale might be.)
‘Atlantology’ –for want of a better term- is not a game of jungles, machetes and derring-do. All available evidence suggests we need an epistemological update.
The Re-Enchantment of the World
The failure with Ancient Aliens or even ‘full blown Atlantis’ in adequately explaining the past is one of worldview. We may jump down a mainstream scientist’s throat for his or her ‘materialist’ interpretation of mythology but we do the same thing when we reduce this remarkable, polyvalent storytelling to physical organisms arriving from distant planets in technological devices.
It is also simply not a good match for the last 120 years of psi research or a proper contextualisation of the UFO phenomenon alongside worldwide spirit/faery/demon/etc. experiences. Rice University Religious Studies Professor, Dr Jeff Kripal describes it like so:
[T]he universally attested phenomena of magic—whereby a mental event “in here” is astonishingly correlated with a physical event “out there”—becomes nothing more than the misinterpreted effects of an advanced technology. Gods descending from the sky to bestow cultural or practical knowledge become ancient astronauts. Chinese dragons become misperceived spaceships. Mayan funerary art illustrates a rocket ship taking off. And so on. In each case, a religious expression is “reduced” to a distorted technological or material fact.
What even is an ‘advanced civilisation’, anyway? iPads and diabetes? When we not only dispense with the problematic words that come with the materialist worldview –civilisation, progress, hunter gather, agriculture- but when we also shift off the falsified axiom of materialism itself, a startling narrative emerges. A narrative in which we can admire the lifeways and achievements of our ancestors without falling prey to the noble savage myth.
Human culture has a revolving door into another world. And it seems likely our ancestors made more proficient use of it. Whitley Strieber has this to say in The Super Natural:
As only the surface of the modern world is different from the surface of the past, while the interior, human impulses remain the same, so also the new myth is different from its predecessors, but only on the surface. It is different not so much in the way that it is revealing itself, but in the way it is being seen. It is not different in how it functions in the culture.
When stories survive for tens of millennia, something important happens to them. All their extraneous parts ‘burn off’. Having been told and retold they are rendered down so that every component of them pulses with inexhaustible meaning. To my mind, there is something far more enriching in thinking of the Noah’s Ark mytheme –complete with star beings and wars in Heaven- as a means of describing the universe and its myriad inhabitants to ourselves for tens of thousands of years than in thinking it is some old wooden ruins on Mount Ararat.
They are living reminders that our ancestors in high antiquity may not have had the answers many Atlantologists hope they have, but they were certainly asking the same questions. An improved understanding of the worldviews of the Palaeolithic paints a picture of mankind’s ongoing interaction with spirits, extradimensional beings –whatever you wish to call them- stretching back into what we can truly call deepest antiquity, potentially to the very origin of humans as a species.
The prize at the end of the quest is not some vine-covered, ruined, jungle city but the opportunity to live in a fully re-enchanted world. A world fully embedded in a yet larger and more mysterious one that reveals itself to us every time we look up into the night sky.
i Schmidt, Klaus. Göbekli Tepe: A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. Exoriente. Berlin. 2012.
ii Milic, Marina. The Consumption of Obsidian at Neolithic Çatalhöyük: A Long-Term Perspective. (https://www.academia.edu/5389781/The_consumption_of_obsidian_at_Neolithic_%C3%87atalh%C3%B6y%C3%BCk_A_long-term_perspective.)
iii Nichols, Joanna. Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. University of Chicago Press. London. 1992.
iv Oppenheimer, Stephen. Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia. Phoenix. London. 1998.
vii Reich, David et al. Denisova Admixture and the First Modern Human Dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002929711003958)
ix Hamacher, Duane. Aboriginal Astronomical traditions from Ooldea, South Australia, Part 1: Nyeeruna and the “Orion Story”.
x Polynesian Voyaging Society. Hawaiian Star Lines and Names for Stars.
Powell, Alvin. http://www.hokulea.com/education-at-sea/polynesian-navigation/polynesian-non-instrument-wayfinding/hawaiian-star-lines/
xi Witzel, E. J. Michael. The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2012.