LOST IN SPACE: WHAT ANCIENT PEOPLES WERE SEEING IN THE SKY THAT WE CANNOT
As we become ever more aware and convinced that ancient peoples both achieved and found ways to record sophisticated celestial observations over periods of time, which may extend much farther into the past than many would once have thought, it becomes increasingly clear that some explanations for their possible reasons for this--even their near obsession in some cases--come up short of revealing what their true motivation might have been. Each year that passes reveals new sites with complex alignments towards the heavens, re-interpretations of existing sites, and innovative ways of reading myths and legends, all of which point to ever-deepening questions about why our ancient forbears pointed their eyes to the heavens with such intensity and then devoted so much of their earthly energies to recording in one fashion or another just what it was they saw up there. However, in the process of discovering and recording all this new information one thing, I believe, has often been neglected far too often in trying to come up with sufficient analysis or explanations for such behavior by stone age peoples. That question is: Why did they feel the Need to devote so much of their short lives to such an expansive and mysterious topic as astronomy and the geometry and mathematics that ensued, subjects that often baffle us even in our more enlightened Age? In order to even attempt to answer this question, I believe we must first break down one or two of the false assumptions that divide us from these ancient peoples, even beyond that of simple technological or informational differences most of us assume we possess.
Generally speaking, when archeologists and others attempt to look at ancient astronomical knowledge it is often put into the context of basic lore that Neolithic or other early and pre-agricultural peoples would have needed to control the cycle of crops, to appeal to the sky spirits of Sun and Moon for light, rainfall, etc. While this obviously may well be true, it does not always explain the more complex measurements, myths, and other facts about the full-range of ancient astronomical knowledge that is continually coming to light. When it comes right down to it, farmers, even prehistoric ones, need little more than a basic lunar calendar and fixed points in the annual cycle at the solstices and equinoxes to maintain a dependable planting and harvesting schedule. Myths of death and rebirth based on this simple cycle are fairly straightforward in all such societies--both ancient and modern--and sophisticated recording systems that extend across multi-generational timeframes would seem to be generally unnecessary for early farmers. Why then, did these ancient peoples on the very edge of agricultural development time and again at such places as Stonehenge, Tiahuanaco, Mirador, Chaco Canyon, Cahokia, and others build such massive celestial observational complexes, each of which would have required several generations to conceive, construct, and maintain? I mention these places in particular because in each case these diverse peoples possessed no formalized writing system or other recording aspects of the larger proto-civilizations with which they were contemporary in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, or elsewhere. Furthermore, it is now fairly apparent that at least some elements of early astronomy extend far back into the Paleolithic period when virtually no even pre-agricultural patterns were yet conceived. It will not surprise many of us at some point when new interpretations of cave paintings and other artifact remains from these early periods begin to reveal that these Ice Age peoples were recording more about what they were seeing in the skies than we have yet imagined.
In general, when explanations for such behavior are sought and provided too many researchers take the easy way out by saying that these ancient people were obviously obsessed with the "sky spirits" of sun, moon, and stars as they struggled with the beginnings of defining supernatural answers and contexts for that which they could not yet know by reason and "science". To that explanation any reasonable and thinking person might give a thoughtful reply of "well, duhh!" Or, they might say that there was certainly a great deal of "Science", by anyone's standards, in the construction of a place like Stonehenge or Pueblo Bonito--from the simple movement and raising of massive architectural stones to the concept of where to build and what it was that was being observed and calculated over such a long timeframe at that particular spot on the surface. As we learn about such massive complexes that virtually every doorway or aperture, every altar, ditch, or wall was aligned along specific lines of sight, new questions continually emerge. Now, we are also becoming aware that many of these complexes were interconnected in some way, often over great distances involving precise mathematical calculations of latitude and longitude. Perhaps, the greatest failing in such easy explanations, I feel, is the idea that it must be considered that the sky these peoples were observing at various times in the past was both a far different one than the one we are comfortably used to seeing, and that it was also--for them at least--a much more dangerous and foreboding one. This last idea is one that I believe has too often been neglected and is one that simply must be considered when trying to assess the motivation for ancient peoples' endless obsession with observing and recording heavenly events.
WHAT DID THEY SEE IN THEIR SKY THAT IS MISSING FROM OURS?
In the last one hundred fifty years or so, roughly the age of the development of most of the modern and comparative social sciences such as archeology, we as humans have been "blessed" by living in a time of few dramatic changes in any fashion to the planet upon which we live. True, there have been the normal disasters, the occasional massive eruption that alters our atmosphere briefly (Krakatoa, Tambora, etc., which are still no small thing in that their ash can color the sky and alter weather patterns globally for years at a time.), or a visit by Halley's Comet, etc. Massive solar storms, sunspots, asteroids, etc. that are actually visible from earth are extremely rare, and that is probably most fortunate for us. Even the now well-known Tunguska Event of the early part of the twentieth century was a localized and little known occurrence, due to its very isolated location and other circumstances of its appearance. Even then, scientists failed for some time to properly explain this "event". However, this was surely not always the case in the past. Imagine, if you will, that the Tunguska comet explosion had occurred not over remote Siberia, but over eastern North America and had been several times more powerful than Tunguska had been. We would all still be talking about it, and there would be libraries filled with volumes about individual recollections of the event and other various "impacts". It would be in our films, stories, and every other aspect of our collective memory that we have devised to record such spectacular and "once in a lifetime" occurrences. Just think of how the roughly contemporaneous with Tunguska and relatively minor Titanic disaster worked its way into so many aspects of our collective memories and cultural mythology of the last one hundred years--continuing into the present.
Scientists now tell us that just such an event as described above really did occur over eastern North America in the past. However, it was sometime around 12,400 years ago. We now suspect that this explosion in the atmosphere there might have played a life-altering role in the lives of humans and animals living at that time. (NOTE: See the earlier article in this blog series "Who or What Killed the Last Mammoth" for more info. here.) For those humans who managed to survive such a catastrophe, a new appreciation and obsession with what was happening in the skies could easily have grown and required new and specific knowledge of celestial movements, which were always readily observable by early humans. In addition to creating new stories, myths, etc. how might such a reaction have manifested itself over time? More detailed observations of the movements of heavenly bodies, including stars as grouped into constellations (and then given meaningful names of familiar animals, etc., even if they didn't really look much like each other) would have become important in predicting and anticipating any new or sudden change in what was happening in the vastness and suddenly more familiar overhead space. As humans began to expand their range while at the same time becoming more sedentary in key locations, the importance of connecting and making more permanent specific observations would have grown. The Darkness was Man's greatest fear, perhaps, from our earliest beginnings, and knowing and understanding the lights that inhabited that dark space (I choose the verb "inhabit" here deliberately, for the dark sky became the dwelling place of the dead as well as the gods who created men from almost the beginning of our collective memories) would have been essential for early societies attempting to maintain some degree of stability here on earth. Acquiring and passing on such knowledge may even have given an early impetus for these nascent societal groupings in the first place! That pre-agricultural peoples even back into the Ice Age could acquire the ability to make such decisions and then refine them into sophisticated patterns of observation and then recording them in myth, etc. should not surprise us, given the fact that their brains were apparently wired exactly like our own.
More recently, we know that in the year 1054 AD a huge supernova was visible from earth for several years. The Chinese astronomers recorded it and wrote about it. In other areas, particularly the Americas, we are not certain just how many peoples were impacted by this one event. We do know that at Chaco Canyon rock art signs obviously record this event. Can it be a coincidence that at Cahokia in Illinois this is precisely within the timeframe of the largest major construction phase there? In Central and South America there can be little doubt that Mayan and Andean cultures must have made sophisticated observations at this time also. The Chinese records give us some indication of the magnitude of this event--something far beyond our own limited experiences, no doubt. The initial brightness of this supernova would have rivaled the Moon's in a clear sky (Something we today have far too little experience with. Those who travel to high altitudes or open spaces are always struck by the clear sky and Milky Way there, which many can see and appreciate truly for the first time in their lives! Incidentally, we also know that our Moon has been gradually moving away from Earth at a fixed rate. 10,000 years ago it would have been almost two miles closer--and brighter--than it is now. Wow!) This supernova would have appeared just above and almost as a part of what was to many ancient peoples the single most important constellation in their night sky. Some of you may have already guessed it, perhaps--Orion. Additionally, we know that the ever-dependable Halley's Comet also made a scheduled appearance shortly after the initial appearance of the 1054 supernova, which would have remained visible in diminished capacity for several years perhaps. We can only imagine today the lasting effect of what such an event would have had on ancient peoples already obsessed in other ways with what went on in their very personal skies. This would have been a major "overturning" of the usual regularity and predictability of their world and likely the cause for major alterations in their ritual and myth-making routines. Truly, for them any disturbance up there must have signaled potential catastrophes in their lives on earth, or far more importantly in all likelihood for their prospective lives in the next life among those heavenly objects--even beyond those of normal predictability brought on by the end of "Ages" as registered by the rising of new astrological ages or other long-termed pattern changes in the movements of planets.
These are just two examples of how we often fail to appreciate the major differences between what we see today and what our ancestors must have seen. Just how many other such events might have occurred at different times in the past, especially in those before recognizable ways of recording them were employed, we can only guess at but still assume as real. Currently, many are caught up in the wild speculation of the Mayan Calendar and its predication of earth-shattering changes to occur with this next--or should I say last--winter solstice arrival. As such, there has been new focus on ancient astronomy and what it might tell us about the capabilities of our ancestors. Others have attempted new studies of myth as a method of gaining insight into the actual recording abilities of pre-literate and other ancient peoples and what it was they might have seen in their skies and how they might have used that information in their own societies. (SEE the previous entry in this blog series for direct correlation with this larger topic.) While this interest seems to be at an all time high right at this very moment in history, others have been attempting to deal with this type of information for many years--often with varying degrees of success.
THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE--OR WAS IT REALLY HERE ALL THE TIME?
Scholars of all types have always attempted to relate the growing body of knowledge about ancient astronomical capabilites with some larger picture of what was being attempted and some logical rationale for why so much of our significant culture history must have been caught up in building monuments of one type or another to this awareness of the sky. One of the more controversial, if still quite fascinating of such attempts, I believe, grew out of one of the most colorful figures of the 1950's, a social scientist on the periphery of history and archeology by the name of Immanuel Velikovsky. During this period Velikovsky stirred the just simmering pot of of early astronomical thinking into a full boil by proposing his theories that dramatic celestial events, such as comet collisions, comet tail shapes, planetary orbit changes on a huge scale, and other specatacular events played seminal roles in the development and history of ancient societies. Focusing on the Near East in the second millenium BC, Velikovsky built vast models of actual migrations, rises and falls, and other well-known biblical and historical events based upon his theories of celestial upheaveal. His 1950 work, Worlds in Collision, was but one in a series of several books that gradually extended his ideas into the vaster and more mysterious world of myth-building. Velikovsky's ideas caught and fired the imagination of many at that time, much in the same way that those of Von Daniken and others would in the decades to follow, as they credited that which the ancients left us which we could not otherwise easily explain as attributable to lost races of space aliens, who came to earth and themselves provided both the impetus for civilazation building and for those early peoples' obsession with celestial events.
All of this wild speculation, however, encouraged reasonable scientists and others to come up with better explanations themselves as they were forced to confront with science and logic these other theories and circular arguments--arguments which on the surface at least, easily seemed to make sense and fit the otherwise unexplained from our distant past, along with many spectacular stone and other remains left for us to marvel at. And while the actual technical aspects of Velikovsky's theories, for example, were soon shown to be beyond any reasonable possibility of having occurred, what they did do was force others to look into areas of research that had not been probed to any depth up to that time. In the realm of myths as reflectors of actual, observable celestial events some began to suspect that while Velikovsky had certainly arrived at the wrong conclusions, he had probably asked many of the right questions about how myths related to history. For example, it is not likely mere coincidence that just as the Velikovsky question was being settled among scientists, others were bringing forth more reasonable (although not always widely accepted either) interpretations of myth and history. Less than a decade later Santillana and Dechend published their very influential work Hamlet's Mill, in which they proposed the so-called "technical language of myth", which could be used for applying astronomical movements and observable phenomena to the development of entire classes of myth on a global or regional scale. (SEE the previous entry in this blog series for more discussion and examples of this idea.)
More recently, new marriages of archeology with cultural anthropology, linguistics, and history have begun to reveal direct correlations with the technical capabilities of ancient people and their ability to observe and record celestial events of importance to them. However, it may be that the time has come, and that we have enough information from all sources now, to guide us to probe deeper into the motivations for why such behavior became such an obviously critical part of our own past as we passed from Ice Age hunters and gatherers to full-fledged civilizations with all the trappings--both good and ill--that we have acquired since. We should never take it for granted that what shapes our own world view is also what shaped those in the prehistoric past and that what we don't know or haven't seen yet would not have made an enormous difference in their lives at critical junctures in our collective pasts. Assuming that our world does not end on the schedule the Mayans laid down for themselves, perhaps we should at least try to determine what it was that made them feel the necessity for seeing into their futures, and their past, so far beyond what their own living memories would ever be able to comprehend. Perhaps, it is we who are truly "Lost in Space" and the ones whose civilization hangs on the slender thread of history--a history that our own less-developed mythological past increasingly forces us now to look to those of other lost peoples for clues as to what the future of that past holds for us.
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