This blog post is written in haste. I woke this morning with a raging ear infection which makes me about moron-level for reasoning, so bear with me. As I put the last punctuation mark on this, I am going to grab my purse and run to the doctor. (Well, amble. I’m not really up to running.)
Yesterday pohjalainen made a comment about lost civilization stories and how much she likes them. I like them too.
Of course I don’t exactly believe in them. It’s not that they’re impossible. The 10,000 year old city temple they found with magnificent carvings of animals (some of which are either imaginary or long-extinct) and which had no middens (something that makes us think of, say, our modern malls) is not fully explained and could not have been anticipated. And it seems like every other day a discovery pushes the date at which humans did x further back.
I was reading Dave Freer’s blog this morning and it occurred to me that the thing about highs and lows, and an irregular line of evolution applies not just to history but also to human evolution and to pre-history as well.
We start with the fact that further back than a certain time our information is, of necessity, fragmented and scant. No, we haven’t discovered everything there is to discover about the people alive in those days. As with the “missing links” in evolution, likely we are missing most of the stuff that is still there to discover.
Then take in account changing coast lines and where our most advanced population centers tend to be. Then imagine that oh, ten thousand years from now, after a massive civilizational collapse, our descendants find remnants of a “great civilization” – some long lost village in Arabia stuck circa 700 AD.
This revolutionizes their idea of how advanced we were UPWARD. Then they discover something, say, a turnpike in Podunk Kansas. Who in hell is going to believe it. There will be all sorts of papers explaining how it’s natural.
Because humans like our history tidy. And I suspect it isn’t. Depending on what you consider advanced civilization, there might have been several in the past. And yes, they might have been wiped out without a trace (It occurs to me an ice age would do that very handily.) And meanwhile there are things we’ll discover that are much older/more primitive, because, well, look at the world today.
When genetic markers first came up, people were saying crazy stuff like we only split from the chimps 100k years ago and therefore they know exactly how deep human history is. Even at the time reading it, it occurred to me those speculations had a lot of baked in assumptions and precious little solid to stand on. In fact, every time I pick up a book on the evolution of man I feel like I’m back in my literature courses, where people call each other names over minor disagreements, then go on to make up stuff out of whole cloth.
Again, I suspect evolution is not as simple as we see it. Not that humans aren’t much different from our ancestors, we are. But … well, guys, we are a randy species. And in this case species is blurred as a line. Turns out that you can, every once in a while, not often, for instance, get a fertile horse/zebra hybrid. In the same way the more we know of our genome, the more we find other “species” in our line. Which frankly makes reading our genome like reading a book written by a hundred writers and figuring out whose style it is.
So, have we “advanced” towards our modern form? Or did we sometimes recede towards more primitive forms. “Yes.” “Maybe” and “Who are you studying for modern?”
So it is possible that there have been higher civilizations than ours, and it’s very possible that there have been civilizations around the level of say the 18th century several times before. Perhaps wiped out by the ice age or other natural disasters.
Or perhaps the little things out of place were created by time travelers.
This is the stuff of magic, the stuff stories are built upon.
Unfortunately you can’t read or write good non-fiction speculation about it, because ten pages in, it all falls into mystic New Age or UFO nonsense. You get the “And then the Earth changes when the goddess returns” and the book goes flying across the room. And we won’t go into the greys orbiting the Earth, waiting to take us back. No, we just won’t.
So I don’t believe in it, not because it’s utterly impossible, but because of the company it keepers. (Which is not only everything for which there is no proof, but everything which has been disproven but is too much fun to let go.)
So, given all that, what is it about lost civilizations that holds such great appeal?
To me personally it is the idea that no matter how badly we screw up, someone of our genes – or our genus, at least – will be here thousands of years from now, and will be “civilized” if very different from us. It’s the idea that, once kicked from the garden, we don’t wander in mud and darkness forever.
It also puts a fantastic spin on most myths and fairytales. The Egyptian pyramids? Totally the result of a muddled memory of cold sleep! There were giants? Well, with our food now…
You see what I mean. It allows me to dream the past as well as the future.
And I like the idea of cyclical and near eternal things, which is why I love the seaside and the tides.
So how do you feel about the idea of lost civilizations (as story fodder, not necessarily as having existed)? If you find them appealing, what appeals to you about them?