We Are The Superior Civilization

You know, sometimes I am a wee bit daft.  (Taking two hours this morning to rip out carpet in the powder room and coat the floor in two layers of kilz is part of how I’m daft.  Yes, I’ll be putting floor in again, but not carpet.  Carpet in the bathroom is icky and when Terry Pratchett said Gaspode smelled like a privy rug, he wasn’t doing him any favors.)

Anyway, how I got daft is that when I floated that there might have been “civilizations” between the emergence of anatomically modern humans, and ya’ll objected because no signs of dentistry, no extensive mining operations and even the crab bucket, I thought “Well, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  It wasn’t till yesterday morning that I stopped and went “waitaminut, Czar Nicholas’ skeleton showed signs of prolonged and horrific abscesses. We only found out how extensive the Roman mining operation in the village was when it rained for a month and roads collapsed under cars.  And even with the crab bucket and no Judeo-Christian ethic, ancient Asia had a lot of very advanced, flourishing civilizations.”

Which is when the dime dropped and I realized you guys immediately translated civilization to “as good as we have or better.”  Which, of course, made me giggle.  Because I’d have liked you to tell a Roman, with their world-bestriding empire that they weren’t civilized.  Or, before that a classical Greek.

Understand I am not imagining others before us had the internal combustion engine, or steam, or trains, or…  Sure, they might have, but that’s a heck of a coincidence, since those things usually come about by an individual stroke of genius, and even when they do they often aren’t used the way we did (Romans and their mechanical toys.)

To imagine other civilizations of which we’ve forgotten every trace followed exactly the same route we did to the same place we’re at requires believing that inventing steam and the internal combustion engine and harnessing electricity is as natural to humans as dams to beavers.

Now, maybe that’s true.  It would certainly make for a very good science fiction story.  (Short story, I think.  Too much of a punchline thing for a novel.)  BUT the odds defy rationality.

I was imagining, you know “builds houses of wood or stone.  Domesticated SOME animals.  Has villages and cities. Might have trade over long routes. MIGHT have had wheeled vehicles.”  (The last, as we know, one can have quite sophisticated civilizations without.)

Look, it’s not your fault.  Since the seventies, we’ve been bombarded by crazy bs about superior aliens or superior lost civilizations.  (And before that, there was a trickle of it, too, going back I think to the eighteenth century, just couched in different terms.)  You’ll get stuff about how the pyramids were built of stones that floated at the sound of a certain note.  (A C note, or the equivalent, I bet.  “Listen, Mac, you take this stone to the top of the pyramid, I give you a C Note.  A  hundred Amontheps in your pocket, bucko. Buys a lot of fish and falafel.”)

Part of this, and part of the reason it intensified since the seventies were the “unilateral disarmament people.”  You know, those jokers who wanted us to get rid of our own nukes and stand disarmed in front of the USSR, who would then realize we were peaceful, and not attack, and everyone would live in peace and harmony with rainbows and farting unicorns.  Yes, it was a stupid and crazy idea since the continued survival of the USSR depended on plunder and conquest.  But I’ll remind you our last president still believes that bag of moonshine.  All of it, including the unicorn farts.

As I was saying, because this was a tough sell, and because a lot of science fiction writers were very scared of the nukes (even Heinlein, though at least he never advocated unilateral disarmament.  Instead, he put his hopes on the UN.  Head>desk.  We’re all human.) and susceptible to USSR propaganda, there were a ton of stories of superior civilizations JUST LIKE OURS that had killed themselves in nuclear holocaust.  They weren’t all billed as fiction. Sodom and Gomorrah and pillars of salt were often brought up as “proof” of a previous nuclear holocaust.

For these stories to be effective, both fiction and the ones that didn’t admit to being fiction, you HAD to have lots of similarities to us.  Previous civilizations had to have developed exactly to the same way and the point we have, or no one would buy the urgency.

Hence, when anyone says “there was a civilization before us” your head (our head) jumps to airplanes, trains, steel mills, refrigerators, dentistry.

I’m telling you the chances of that are negligible, though I won’t scruple using a more advanced than us past civilization to give my characters a nasty shock when they get to space.  I won’t because that’s just cool.

However of things like Ancient Greece or Rome?  I almost think the chances against it are worse.  And of course civilizations that live and die by coastal sailing would be mostly engulfed in the great melt of the last ice age.

And no, Europe hasn’t been extensively studied.  As I said before, Europe is mostly built on Europe.  And you can’t dig in a field without finding SOMETHING.  If you think everyone runs to the academics or the authorities when something is found, you don’t understand people’s interest in building a house, or sowing a field, as opposed to you know, giving up ownership of their land in all but fact.  Frankly I’m amazed so many people do report discoveries.

But the thought of “superior civilizations” got me to thinking of what say the Romans or the Greeks, or those other ancient civilizations if they ever existed, would make of us in the West.  We cross the globe by flying through the air.  Not just heads of state or priests, no, common people.  He*ll, our pets fly.  Most places have clean, fresh water that someone doesn’t have to carry a mile or so (which has been most of the work of humanity I think, forever.) Forget aqueducts.  We have water that comes from our faucets whenever we want it.  Cold AND hot.  We have temperature control inside our houses, allowing us ignore the weather and keep warm in winter and cold in summer.  We can magically cure diseases that killed millions of people by injecting this magical elixir into the sick person’s veins.  Our old live a long time in relative comfort.  We  get our teeth fixed and replaced, so most people can chew to the end of their lives.  Most of us can read, and most of us have access to untold wisdom of the sort their hermetic orders would kill for.

We are the superior civilization.  We are the enlightened ones, the shining and resplendent inhabitants of the wonderful future.

And we worry about what gender we feel like being that day, who is allowed to pee where, whether someone used the wrong word to refer to someone else who might be offended, whether our use of fossil fuels offends Gaia, whether slapping a kid on the behind is a criminal offense, whether we are doing all we could do with our lives.

In other words, we’re neurotic, unsatisfied, and a bit crazy like most of people who were born and raised rich throughout most of human history.

Which is why if we really were doomed to repeating a cycle, and if the civilizations before us were the same but more advanced, the message of the pyramids would be “Don’t use so much toilet paper.  Just wash one square and reuse it.”

Perhaps we should be grateful they are truly profoundly unlikely to ever have existed or tried to send us any message.



361 thoughts on “We Are The Superior Civilization

  1. Czar Nicholas’ skeleton showed signs of prolonged and horrific abscesses.

    Evidence of abscesses is not abscesses of evidence?

    A functional definition of civilization is the sort of thing most folk arguing on the internet are desperate to avoid. Like Justice Potter Stewart, they simply know it when the see it.

    1. It is probably a good idea to not engage in a debate over what constitutes a “superior” civilization, lest we invite kerfuffles over such debris as the ancient Egyptians having cataract surgery. (But did they have universal free health care?)

      And we all know Atlantis had mastered solar energy through crystalline technology, ’cause we saw that movie when we were kids, right?

      Not that movie, but pretty incredible! Disneylantean Steam Punk?

      1. And we all know Atlantis had mastered solar energy through crystalline technology…

        Pshaw. You know the Atlanteans had supersonic planes and nukes. It was outlined in the first book of Triplanetary.

        On the other hand, he never did say how the planes were powered, did he?

      2. As far as solar power through crystalline tech, why not, that’s mostly how we do it using silicon crystals (usually very large although there is some effort to use small ones).

        1. But we haven’t caught up with their death ray technology, as revealed in this documentary …

          Clearly, the Chief of Control was an immortal.

          1. Anyone else notice that the sub in this clip remarkably resembles the Nautilus in ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’?

            I guess you can’t let a good prop go to waste . . .

        2. Though if you try to explain that it’s the *impurities* in the crystal that makes it work…

    2. Apparently the folk who lived in Pompeii had amazing teeth. Plant based diet *and* tons of fluorine from the volcano they were living on.

      1. evidence of abscesses is evidence of a lack of dental hygiene and hygienists

    3. What evidence of our civilization would be around in 100,000 years? Concrete is pretty durable, but limestone deposits with iron oxide inclusions might be a puzzle after an extended dark age.

      1. When they started digging for coal, iron, etc, they’d probably start to wonder.

  2. I recall reading somewhere (but can’t locate where just now) that “turned into a pillar of salt” was a sort of argot in the region during that period for “had a stroke.” That doesn’t really have much to do with today’s column, I just thought it was interesting.

    1. It’s fascinating to study the Old Testament with a professor who understands ancient Hebrew and lets you in on all the subtext and puns. For instance, “Ehud the Left-Handed” was assumed to be a male prostitute (“left-handed”) and when the king was “washing his feet” (not feet, and probably not washing), he was able to get close enough to stab him because the king assumed he was being paid to pleasure him. (And then the sword got stuck because the king was so fat… fascinating little details in the Bible.)

      I don’t remember a whole lot else, but even the annotated versions can leave a lot out.

      1. Sometimes the best way to study the Old Testament is with a jewish scholar close to hand. 🙂
        An online friend of mine that is a conservative Jew gets a few good discussions going about words, meanings, and play on words in the old testament. He’s opined that the Christian faith wouldn’t do much wrong in studying the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Talmud alongside each other. Lots of exposition in the Talmud apparently that works best with the Old Testament. And gives a strong foundation on understanding the time of the Gospels.

        1. The Torah is the Written Law and the Mishnah–which the Talmud developed out of–was the Oral Law. It was written down during later.

          I went to a girl’s yeshiva so we didn’t hear about that racy stuff.

          If you’re really Orthodox you might believe that the world is less than 6,000 years old. Some of us believe that the Torah is Divine Writ and that Genesis etc are history. We’ve been studying the Torah and the Mishnah and the Aggadah for centuries. I’m not a scholar although I pretended to be one in school I did acquire a BA in Judaic Studies.In some other era it might’ve been considered a degree in Religion.

          Greek, Latin and Aramaic are quite useful for studying the N.T..

        2. One of the more interesting commentaries was written by a Jewish convert with Rabbinical training back in the 19th century- Alfred Edersheim’s “Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah”.

      2. The “left handed” meaning male prostitute I haven’t heard before; “feet” meaning something else I think I heard mentioned during a discussion of the book of Ruth (or vice-versa).

        The way Judges 3 reads it seems to be explaining the left-handed part relates to the fact that Ehud strapped the dagger to his *right* thigh, (where the guards wouldn’t be looking for it) so he was able to speak privately to the Moabite king and his guards would assume he was unarmed. The covering his feet bit was a nice touch, I thought. (He’s been awhile; maybe we should check on him. You first. Oops.)

        1. “feet” was how we still explained to foreign guests what the bidet was for. “it’s for washing your feet, when you don’t want to take a bath more than once a day” And then we HOPED they’d get it.

          1. *giggle* Our rental apartment in Athens had a bathroom with a bidet in it. One of our cats used to use it to curl up in, on hot days — all that cool, cool porcelain, you know. My daughter used to tiptoe in and hit the flusher, just for the fun of seeing the cat erupt out of it. In her defense, she was only three and a half years old at the time.

            1. First time I saw bidet, I said, “Cool! They put a water fountain in the bathroom. But why did they put it down so low?”

              Mom asked, “Um, you didn’t drink out of that, did you?”

              1. Have you seen what I call the $500 Korean Computerized toilet? Heated water, air dry, choice of male/female aim? Only barbarians still require TP.

              2. Don’t remember the name of the movie, but two French knights of 15th or so century time travel to New York. They find a toilet, and Jean Reno says, “fountain?” His page scoops a handful of water out of it and says, “Yes, clean.”

        2. One was when David sneaked up on Saul in a cave. Saul was “Covering his feet” and David cut off a bit of his cloak to prove he could have killed him if he’d been so inclined.

          As for Ruth, that does put a different complexion on what she was doing to Boaz during his nap on the threshing floor.

          1. ewwwwwww! I’ll never be able to read the book of Ruth i9n the same way again.

          2. The speculation I heard was, it was like David. She didn’t do anything–just proved she *could* have embarrassed him (or worse) in front of all his servants. He woke up with cold feet, realized why, spoke toa possible blackmailer, and she told him what she *really* wanted .

            Lile the guy in the movies who puts away his gun and says “Now that I hwve your attention, let’s talk.”

              1. You could even speculate that when David pulled that stunt on Saul, he was remembering an old family story.

                “Well, it worked once…”

    2. I’ve heard it means, “turn into mist,” but that’s based on the idea that the people who left shadows on the walls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporized. More likely they staggered off looking for medical care.

  3. It is interesting to read Plato’s description of Atlantis and to read “later” descriptions of Atlantis.

    Plato’s Atlantis could be seen as a typical Bronze-Age civilization and wasn’t a “Greater Than Today’s Civilization”.

    Oh, what some people forget about Plato’s Atlantis was that it was equal to the Athens of “that time”.

    IE Plato didn’t make it an “All Powerful Civilization Without Equals”.

    1. Right. Compared to the Lemurians, the Atlanteans were backwards. To say nothing of the mighty Empire of Mu.

      (I lost my hat. The satellites made me say it.)

        1. My cats want me to say that, as cats are the rulers of the world, the correct pronunciation is, “Mew.”

      1. Oh, I still have the hat. It’s just that they’ve stolen the tinfoil lining.

  4. I think the Greeks, Romans, and a few others would be profoundly concerned by our lack of status markers. Where are our clients? Where are our slaves? The temples to our victorious gods?

    One thing that hit me with one of those “duh” moments was reading a book about Classical engineering. For a very long time we didn’t know about a bunch of Roman and Greek and other civil engineering achievements because we didn’t know what to look for. And we over-estimated the difficulty of other things. Who’s to say there might not have been for-their-environment-and-time advanced civilizations that we just don’t know how to find yet?

    But we still have antibiotics, running water, sewage treatment, and dark-milk chocolate FTW.

    1. In our contemporary arrogance we are prone to forget just ow advanced alternate tech has gotten (except as in the current popularity of Steam Punk.) Before electricity was thoroughly domesticated there were soe pretty amazing achievements manage via mechanical and/or hydraulics, things we would have difficulty replicating today. But electrical engineering provided an alternate and ultimately a more convenient route to similar ends, so all the bright kids took those courses and the other disciplines faded away.

      1. Even within electronics. Nowadays the answer to even simple things is to toss a small microcontroller or such at the problem. The computing power is cheap, and less subject to various issues of analog designs. I do wonder how much is being lost (or at least obscured).

        1. When I took electronics in the 1980s, vacuum tubes occupied an appendix in the textbook. The bulk was dedicated to semiconductors.

          And I’m also thinking of the Mathematical Methods in Physics textbook. The version I used in the 80s had three coordinate systems: rectangular, cylindrical, and spherical. An earlier version of the book had many more. I don’t have the book readily available, but the Wikipedia article on coordinate systems lists quite a number at the bottom of the article.

            1. I have often wondered how a coordinate system in non-Euclidean geometries would work; having said that, I’ve probably learned enough topology, complex analysis, and differential geometry to be able to figure it out, if I just put some thought into it.

              Having said that, there are object where it’s impossible to put a coordinate system on it. They are called “non-orientable surfaces”; Mobius strips and Klein bottles are two such objects.

          1. When I took electronics in … carry the three … early ’70s, the course spent a lot of time covering vacuum tubes and various analog approaches, with a little bit of coverage of semiconductors. Which showed promise of being useful in the near future. Probably.

            1. In ROCKET SHIP GALILEO, our heroes spend a little time speculating on what the Moon will do to electronics. What kind of vacuum tubes could you build if you had all the vacuum you needed?

              Grids and plates ten feet tall and twenty feet across. Imagine.

              1. For really high voltages, such as for interplanetary lasers, that might be useful.

                “Dear President Kim, we are about to light your cigar. Please consider the effect if our aim were changed ever so slightly.”

        2. I’ve been trying to figure out how ternary logic gates would work for some time now. A year or so ago, I showed a circuit to a friend who I had just learned had a degree in electrical engineering; he had no idea why it was burning up transistors. He might not have been strictly “let’s use micro-controllers” as it was “let’s use logic gates!”, and understanding logic gates

          Later, I had stumbled onto the answer on my own: I was trying to make a circuit that needed three power levels using only two. I’m still not sure why the original circuits were burning transistors — and now I’m wondering why my logic gates don’t do anything at all (but at least the transistors are safe!).

          I also talked to a physics professor, but he only knew how to use “op amps” to power lasers….

          Which reminds me: I’d also like to learn how to use op-amps to make analog computers some day, ones that emulate differential systems using electronic components. In order to make such a thing, though, I’ll have to have some sort of differential system in mind….

        3. Over on Hackaday.com, you often see in the comments things like, “That processor is overkill; all you need is …” Sometimes, they’re arguing for a smaller processor, sometimes a 555, and occasionally just a transistor.

          Speaking as someone who writes software for embedded systems, what I think is being lost are the underlying fundamentals. I don’t think it’ll actually get to the point of people using a processor’s built-in timer module and nobody knowing how to calculate RC time constants, but that appears to be the trend.

    2. Aye, if you don’t truly know what you are dealing with/looking at it’s easy to mix up the Very Easy with the (Nearly?) Impossible. A bitter lesson of time programming. “Hey, we ought to have it do $THIS” where $THIS sounds simple, but is nothing of the sort. And also, “Would it even be somehow possible if it could do $THAT?” where $THAT is change of a handful of lines. Which I suppose causes some to wonder why we could do the “impossible” things in less than an afternoon, but the “easy” things didn’t happen.

      1. This reminds me of the Harry Turtledove story “The Road not Taken”, where Earth was invaded by aliens using gravity-controlled ships, and matchlock firearms.
        I’m learning a new-to-me CAD program, and compared to what I’m familiar with, the formerly-easy stuff is hard-to-impossible, while stuff I never thought of is well implemented and easy to use. (Not well documented, alas. Everything might be in the book they sell, but I’ve come close to walling the program already.)

          1. This reminds me of a joke that was floating around Usenet a quarter-century or so ago:

            Alien: People of Mars, surrender! Your puny weapons are no match for our superior technology!
            Earthling: This isn’t Mars, this is Earth.
            Alien: Earth? Nuclear Weapon equipped Earth?
            Earthling: That’s right.
            Alien: Greetings Earthlings! We come in peace!

        1. David Brin had a setting where, while the difference wasn’t anywhere near as pronounced, the aliens noted that the otherwise low-tech humans were almost on par with the rest of the galaxy when war-related tech was involved.

          That tied into some other oddities that the aliens discovered about creatures from Earth (bones that aren’t hollow, adrenaline rush, etc…) to make humans an absolute terror on the battlefield.

            1. Whoops! It was actually Alan Dean Foster who wrote it.

              The books in the series are ‘A Call to Arms’, ‘The False Mirror’, and ‘The Spoils of War’.

              1. Not only that we were tougher than other aliens, we actually enjoyed war and as the aliens found out later in the first book, we were immune to the Bad Guy Aliens’ Mind Control. 😉

                By the way, that series will be available around the 30th in e-format (as a single book). 😀

                1. I wasn’t going to mention that last bit, because it was a (minor) spoiler.


                  Having a setting where the humans are more mentally predisposed toward war than everyone else isn’t all that unusual. Having one where they’re also more biologically fit for it than everyone else *is*. The aliens spend a good chunk of the first book trying (and failing) to figure out just *why* Earth’s biology has evolved in what they see as a very unusual fashion. The only theory that they can ever come up with is that it has something to do with the Earth’s giant tide-locked satellite.

                  1. An interesting idea along these lines would be a setting where humans are by far the worst species when it comes to rationality, and general cognitive function. With everything that implies: the alien social systems just *work better* for them, they don’t make the kind of stupid errors we do, etc.

                    Which would be great and all if it weren’t a Lovecraftian universe where the only way to fight the monsters is to be crazy yourself. (Seriously look at how many eldritch horrors we have in our fiction…….)

                    And that would of course raise questions about where humans came from. Are we a weapon that drove the weapon-makers insane?

                  1. The late Gordon R. Dickson had a number of stories on the “Humans are Awesome” theme collected in the book The Human Edge. One of them, “3 Part Puzzle” I had literally been trying to identify for years.

                2. I would imagine that if one felt the attempt at mind control, there would be Serious Repercussions. As in, “Oh?That’s how you want to play this, is it? Now, I stop holding back and being nice and polite, since you’ve asked for it – and how!”

                  1. IIRC both the Alien and the Human “felt” the failure. I seem to remember that the Alien was even “hurt” by the failure. Oh, the human was a prisoner so all he could do was laugh and man did he laugh. 👿
                    👿 👿 👿

                  2. If an amplitur (the mind controlling aliens in question) attempts to “push” a human mind, there is an immediate and unconcious defensive response from the human’s mind that makes the amplitur go catatonic. When it eventually regains consciousness, it is permanently insane.

                    The galactic community at large is, once again, completely at a loss to explain how and why humanity evolved such a defensive mechanism.

        2. You can find that story online. I looked it up after I read your description.

          It was a lot of fun, although the premise doesn’t quite make it all the way to the fridge. Like, why would other scientific disciplines stop evolving if you’d had a big advance in transportation? I could see the alien’s gravity tech stunting the growth of other forms of aeronautics, but material science? Medicine? Chemistry? I think the premise would have been solider if the aliens had just gone off half cocked and jumped off their world and started conquering before their other sciences had advanced rather than this stuff about their gravity negation and jump drive using up all the “creative energy”

          That being said for what it was it was enjoyable, and I like that kind of story. There’s a thread of science fiction drabbling in the less screechy corners of Tumblr chewing over the idea of alien invaders conquering humanity and then getting the equivalent of their asses handed to them by Earth wildlife when they try to occupy, with the aliens turning to their human captives in horror and asking “How do you people live on this deathworld?” 🙂

          1. One story had the aliens defeated by human weather. 👿

            IE What are those humans worried about? It’s just moving air. Just as the tornado hits. 😈 😈 😈 😈

            1. These creatures breathe _oxygen_! They add _fluorides_ to their own water! And that’s when they’re feeling calm and peaceful. And have you seen what they eat and drink? Stuff that they have severe physiological reactions to – and they do it for fun. But that’s academic. Never, ever, ever, back them into a corner with what you believe is insufficient material for them to work with. The reports, from the few survivors of such attempts, are horrifying. If you think cleaning products are harmless… you’ve not tangled with a ticked off earthwoman. Removing the obvious weapons only means they come up with the far scarier stuff. They might be panicking, sure. Those paths through their forests for transmission lines? We now theorize those merely take advantage of a mild cross-country panic. And what they do with RADIO? *shudder* It’s not just distance communication. Also see these children’s toys [Slinky, Silly-Putty] these are byproducts of weapons research – and they hand them to their _children_!

              Now, are you SURE you want to try invading that “harmless little backward” planet? We’re not denying the permit, but it’s your funeral. As per the regs, we’ve warned you about this.

              1. From The Deathworlders:

                “No,” she said, “I think we can safely say that when a human is taking a threat seriously, then that threat is worth taking seriously. From what I know of them their lives are so… saturated with constant low-grade dangers that they tend to just ignore them, or view them as an inconvenience.”

                “Example?” Suri’s ally demanded. Mother… Sesal. No, Sesala.

                “They have to scrub enamel-eating bacteria out of their mouths every morning or else their teeth literally rot,” Yulna offered with, Myun thought, considerable relish. “And apparently a lot of them just don’t bother, or forget. And sometimes that doesn’t even matter. But sometimes it does and they can actually die from it. They have medical professionals who are concerned only with their teeth. ‘Dentists’ I think.”

          2. The version I read, that’s exactly what happened. Antigrav told you *nothing* about any of the other basic forces, so you ended up with antigrav plus whatever you already had. And most of the intelligent, ambitious types who might have become inventors, researchers, etc., became conquistadors instead. So the sciences stagnated.

            1. Antigrav might have interesting interactions with such fields as hydraulics. So, different solutions to certain problems.

              1. But the people who might have thought them up went out to the stars and became kings instead.

            2. Hmmm. I dunno if I buy that premise, based on the differences I’ve seen between the “sit for hours in the lab fascinated by minute changes in the meters” types vs. the “shoulder a rifle and storm the beaches for king & country” types. As much as I dig Heinlein’s “Specialization is for insects.” quote, an inquisitive mind with a particular obsession isn’t going to chuck it just because all the cool kids are cashing in on something else.
              Long story short, “intelligent ambitious” types come in a lot of flavors, and they aren’t necessarily fungible. So again I’m not convinced by the “used up all the creative energy” thing.

              1. To tell you the truth, I’m not either. I’m just repeating what the author said.

                That said, I can see development slowing down. A lot. The meter-watchers would be on their own as far as funding went–I could get a better return on my money by going out and conquering another planet. And nobody’s paying for weapons research anymore–the most advanced culture out there just tried to conquer us with *matchlocks,* for pete’s sake! Basically, we’d be back to Ben Franklin and his buddies in their basements.

                And the other cultures were worse off. They might not even have gotten to the scientific method yet.

                He wrote a sequel about somebody who ran into another starship with radar and stuff. A culture that had taken even longer than we did to stumble onto antigrav. Our big nightmare–we’d at least thought about the possibility.

          3. Not all that long ago, John Ringo joked on his Facebook feed about the savaged remains of an alien patrol that stumbles back to base after having run into a hippo.

    3. Where are the temples to our gods? Why, they’re clustered around major highway crossings. You give the priest money amd he allows you to draw power.

      What, you don’t believe gas stations are temples?

      There are larger and showier temples to competing gods: acres of solar panels, miles of windmills. But those gods don’t have much power.

      1. I recall a particularly potent god from my youth, one who controlled access to the finest roads and throughways: T’oll Booth. Regular offerings were commanded.

        1. These days I receive regular solicitations to join the churches of the twin deities Vi’agra and Ci’alis, promising deep gratification of my earthly desires.

          Stupid Gaiman.

          1. Oh heck, even H. Beam Piper talked about “the great god Status, whose symbols were many, and who rode in the chariot Cadillac, which was almost a god in itself.”

            1. In the same book, the hero knows that he is in a parallel universe due to the absence of major cuts in the landscape for railroads. Quarries or the absence of are another clue. I suspect the idea of previous advances civilizations because such civilizations leave signs on the landscape where they obtained the materials for their engineering works, or due the those works themselves and those signs would not disappear for millennia.

      2. Why, they’re clustered around major highway crossings. … What, you don’t believe gas stations are temples?

        Ah. I thought you were talking about Waffle House.

      3. There are larger and showier temples to competing gods: acres of solar panels, miles of windmills. But those gods don’t have much power.

        That’s because, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, most people don’t really believe in them.

    4. There’s a guy building a replica Stonehenge, by himself, using sticks and rocks, just to prove it can be done. By ONE person and primitive tech. (The monoliths are cast concrete, though.)

    5. We have status markers they’re just waaaay different than the ones that the Romans used.

        1. BUT our warriors don’t wear jewelry suitable for little girls. In one of the roman mines I found a silver necklace with tiny stars. I eventually lost it. (Yes, it was tarnished to heck, but it cleaned.)
          Years later looking at the Pompey exhibit I realized it probably had belonged to a grown male.

          1. It still gets me sometimes to see university presidents or chancellors (or town mayors) in full regalia with the chains of office (thick, heavy necklaces of large rings with a disc at the center front).

            And our warriors do wear jewelry: “necklace, ID,” i.e., dogtags. 🙂

              1. *considers posting much-loved picture of the Duchess wearing her father’s dog-tags, combat boots, a diaper and a scowl*

    6. Why we have monuments with cannon in them in so many towns! Which serve the double purpose of commemorating our wars and scaring off rampaging elephants.

          1. watch out for the jagulars. they say HELLLLOOOOOOOOOOOO and drop out of the tree and eat you.

  5. Well, some civilizations have risen and fallen though they not have been as vast as others – local/regional effects being devastating at the end. The idea of anything nuclear… well, look at the isotope ratios. Either someone was very good at hiding/shielding/disposal or.. nothing happened.

    As for the path of civilization? It was decades between the discovery of nitrous oxide (and a note of its pain-dulling ability!) and its routine use for anesthesia. The electrical relay was decades before even relay-logic based computing. There’s a lot of stuff that makes sense in hindsight… but the association doesn’t happen right off. Makes one wonder how much is ‘sitting there’ right now, waiting for us to go “Hang on,..”

    1. Heck, one of the funny things about mathematics is all the abstract, absolutely weird stuff that has absolutely no use whatsoever…until, decades later, some physicist or engineer comes along and uses it to great effect…

  6. That’s the problem with being an SF author.

    You take an almost sure thing (early low tech civs on coastlines, all evidence now 300 ft under water) and speculate and exaggerate and see what kind of a fun story you can get out of it.

    And some people can’t see that you have clear dividing lines in your mind between reasonable speculation, wild speculation, and the beginnings of world building for totally fictional fiction.

    1. And aiming your comments at sci-fi readers. We all grasped at the “maybe in the 200 millenia between humans first appearing and the first known civilizations, there were people who developed the ability to go to the stars” and more or less ignored the “there was a civilization that involved some primitive agriculture and some wooden buildings that didn’t stand the test of time” that was closer to what Sarah was getting at.

      1. There may have been domesticated varieties of extinct plants.

        Plus, look how early Chinese dynasties have been gradually moved from myth to archeological fact.

        There’s a lot we don’t know about what we don’t know. Leaving much room for ‘this is plausible from the evidence’, and even more for ‘yeah, this is ridiculous, but it is fun’.

  7. Which is when the dime dropped and I realized you guys immediately translated civilization to “as good as we have or better.” Which, of course, made me giggle. Because I’d have liked you to tell a Roman, with their world-bestriding empire that they weren’t civilized. Or, before that a classical Greek.

    *considers what she knows of those two cultures*

    I think I’d be a little busy running for a shotgun to be insulting them…

    1. Shotgun? That’s way too close; I’d be looking for a Mosin-Nagant, or even better a Barrett.

        1. Guessing you’re thinking one of these two beasts:

          I think I’d still trade rate of fire for the extra stand off distance. Maybe a Ma Deuce with a Carlos Hathcock-esque scope attached, rate of fire plus stand off distance.

          1. How about calling in an artillery strike if you are connected? The further you are from an enemy the better. The longest reaching firearm that I’ve seen is a rifle. On the other hand Ft Hood is only 3 hours drive from me.

            1. You use your radio – something military leaders throughout most of history would have sacrificed their own limbs for – and you call for the General Electric GAU-8. The gun so awesome, they put wings on it.

              “GE Brings Good Things to Life!”

              Not too bad on the Death front, either…

              1. Since I lost the number for the C.O. out at Davis-Monthan, I’m pretty much stuck with the Mosin-Nagant.

              2. What one piece of current tech would help the Allies the most? Today’s surgical techniques and current medications. A cell phone? Current encrypted military comms?

                1. 1) Computer data processing to manage the colossal amount of record-keeping the vast war effort required.


                  2) Local, encrypted, networked walkie-talkies for the ground troops and aircraft. (With built-in GPS, if that doesn’t count as another piece of tech.)

                    1. Air support (including warthogs) and modern artillery would be absolutely devestating against a pre-twentieth century army. Modern artillery and machine-guns forced the break-up of mass formations just as modern fire arms meant that skirmishers made sense as the dominant unit type on the battlefield.

                    2. heck, warthogs would be incredibly effective air-ti-air against WW2 planes…

                    3. I read a short story years ago in which a pilot with a missile-armed jet ended up in action during WWI for a short time. He tried to help out, but his heat-seeking missiles couldn’t see the biplanes’ engine heat. He ended up making fast, close passes and disrupting them with his turbulence.

                    4. “Hawk among the Sparrows” by Dean McLaughin. The wood and cloth planes didn’t have the right radar signature for the radar guided missiles and they didn’t produce enough heat for the heat seekers so high speed passes using weaponized sonic booms.

                    5. Hawk Among the Sparrows
                      by Dean McLaughlin

                      Plus, it took several days for the French to get him enough fuel for each flight. 😀

                    6. I am certain I am not unique among this lot for holding fond recollections of Brian Daley’s “The Doomfarers of Coramonde“.

                      I wondered whether a warthog in WWII would suffer from a lack of depleted uranium, but decided it likely they could find other ammo.

                    7. (Wheels)
                      And then crashed because his turbines ate bits of broken Fokkers.

                      “Hawk Among the Sparrows.” I think it was called. I always figured it was his salute to an editorial Campbell wrote about how little 1900 scientists would learn if you gave them an example of 1950’s tech.

                2. Several historians have claimed that WWII was the first war where anyone lost fewer troops to disease than in combat. DDT prevented the spread of disease, and penicillin for whatever wasn’t killed by DDT.

                  Still… I’d lean toward communications. Scouts and spies could report in real time, troops out of line of sight could be maneuvered in combat, and then, off the battlefield, the ability to manage logistics more efficiently.

                  Second choice: the deuce-and-a-half truck, or equivalent. Rapid mobility for troops, and logistics again. Even Winston Churchill, who was pretty much a tech geek, failed to grasp just how fast motorized troops could maneuver. The Reich general staff refused to believe early reports after D-Day.

                  I’d like to point out two pieces of old tech, both credited to Napoleon: staff command and preserved rations. Such things had been tried and abandoned or used in limited ways before, but after Napoleon implemented them, so did everyone else. And they’re still done more or less the same way today.

  8. I can’t remember where, but somewhere I ran into the ultimate description of our civilization:

    “I carry around in my pocket a device capable of accessing virtually all of human knowledge. I use this device to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with random strangers.”

    I wonder sometimes what Plato and Socrates and the like would make of that. Would they be shocked at our squandering of all we had? Or would they just nod and say, “Yeah, we get it. In our time, we tried to offer the Athenians philosophy about beauty and government and the state of the world, but they just wanted to look at Bob’s carvings of LOL Donkey pictures”?

    1. Ponder the truly vast of amount of computing power… set to secondarily solve Big Problems (SETI, protein folding, etc.) where a primary use is… games.

      1. Makes me think of the bit in the Star Trek: TOS episode Amok Time in which Spock, shocked, says “they used the computer banks as if they were an amusement arcade!”

        (from memory, so probably not quite correct)

        1. I guess they never got around to telling the tale of how Spock became ginormously rich by inventing the holodeck. The really clever part of it was his putting a holodeck inside a holodeck, trapping humans to keep them from destroying the universe. A greater menace than the Klingons and Romulans put together. (Of course, those two degenerate races were eliminated by the Vulcans as an exercise in galactic hygiene around Stardate [REDACTED].

            1. Logic depends on the “assumptions/axioms” the logic chain starts from.

              A species/culture might be completely logical but the axioms they use to build their logic might be axioms that we’d consider evil.

              1. ^This. I keep trying to explain to people that logic tells you nothing of the truth of the conclusions. Only that you went from premise to conclusion in a formally proper manner.

                1. Ah, my complaint about ISO9000/ISO9001. “It means we document every step.” “But does nothing to make sure it’s a right step. Just a RECORDED wrong step.”

                  1. Getting the wrong result consistently is important.

                    Although to reduce the snark a bit, once you get *consistent* results you can fix the processes to get better results over time.

                    As long as you don’t fetishize the documentation.

                    1. The documentation is to ensure you got the wrong answer for the right reasons? I can accept that.

                      It matters whether your answer was wrong because the theory is wrong or because somebody slipped a decimal point three places.

                2. I still remember “Achilles and the Tortoise”, a short story written by Lewis Carroll to illustrate that not even the rules of logic are absolutely set in stone — they are merely assumed to be true.

                  (The case can be made that they have been proven experimentally, though…)

                  Which is a little ironic when one considers that Lewis Carroll also wrote “Euclid and His Modern Rivals” because he didn’t like non-Euclidean geometries…

            2. Why do you think he locked the humans away? He couldn’t “cure” their illogic so he encysted it. Neither Klingons nor Romulans could be trusted to play happily in their heads, but humans …

              I understand their enclosure is a popular tourist attraction, especially for young Vulcans needing object lessons in the perils of emotion.

    2. Plato’s story about the execution of Socrates is essentially one long screed about how the Athenians just didn’t get Socrates or what he was trying to do for them. Reading between the lines, there’s a case that Socrates had his fixations, and didn’t know or care about the subtle signals the Athenians were giving him to ‘shut up and leave us in peace’.

      1. Pretty much, I think. And ol’ Socrates was a mad fan of Sparta (rivals of Athens in a big way) and was a prize PITA … I.F. Stone, who is otherwise an unredeemed old Commie, wrote a very good book about the death of Socrates towards the end of his own life, concluding that the Athenians had good cause.

        1. Seems like that’s a big sub-group of smart folks…. “Wow, how could anybody be so nasty as to not admire this guy? He’s a GENIUS!”
          *gets to know him*
          “Oh. Because he’s a dick, and doesn’t actually walk on water….”

        2. According to Plato. Who had some weird pet theories and used Socrates as a sock puppet to pimp for them in his later “Dialogues.”

          Xenophon gave a very different picture of Socrates in his writings. Including a speculation that part of why he didn’t fight that hard for his life at the trial was that he knew d***ed well how old he was, and would rather go out a hero than wait for senility to set in.

    3. I wonder sometimes what Plato and Socrates and the like would make of that.

      I just assume they’d be too busy looking at cat pictures and arguing with random strangers.

      1. Making current academics’ heads explode? Maybe mentioning a work of theirs’ that was lost?

    4. Considering that most ancient graffiti turns out to be the local equivalent of “For a good time call…”?

      I doubt they’d be surprised at all.

      1. My favorite evidence for Jesus that can’t be argued to be propaganda– the rude graffiti that says something like “Joe’s god is a donkey” with an ass-headed guy on a cross.

        Can you imagine the guy’s reaction to “Oh, yeah, in about two thousand years, the globe-spanning religion that guy follows will be under attack on claims it’s not as old as it is, and your little jerk move here? It’s going to be one of the prime examples that folks were really practicing it.

        1. Ooh, I didn’t know anything about this one. Got a link you could throw my way so I can learn more?

  9. ” You know, those jokers who wanted us to get rid of our own nukes and stand disarmed in front of the USSR, who would then realize we were peaceful, and not attack, and everyone would live in peace and harmony with rainbows and farting unicorns.”

    The cynic in me wonders how many of those jokers really believed that. I don’t think it was zero, but I think there were a lot who knew full well the USSR would start conquering everything in sight and welcomed the opportunity to become part of the Glorious Communist Future ™.

    1. This.
      Although a goodly chunk of them *did* believe they were saving the human race from nuclear holocaust by voluntarily submitting to chains.
      The ironic thing is that the true believers and the useful idiots would have been early victims of the purges, while the craven would have largely survived.

      Don’t get wrong, I’d have enjoyed seeing Zinn on the gibbet.
      But I wouldn’t want to see me and mine in slavery for that wee bit of satisfaction.

      1. Nah, it took a while to get to the true believers. First you had to purge the kulaks.

    2. More than you might think. They were/are useful idiots who truly believed everything would be lovely if NATO just got rid of all those nasty arms. It’s really a much older sentiment:

      When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
      They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
      But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe.
      And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: ‘Stick to the Devil you know.'”

      – Rudyard Kipling, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 1919.

      I don’t know how it was in other parts of the world, but in the US the idea that a prior civilization could be wiped out by war predates atomic weapons. There’s Stephen Benet’s By the Waters of Babylon, 1937, and this little cartoon from 1939:

      I do know that there were some quite enamored with the possibility of ancient tech who had low opinions of the “peaceniks”

      1. Thank you my Kipling reservoir was getting low. We haven’t Kippled in while!

    1. Proper usage might dictate it always include the footnote: “for certain values of superior”

  10. It largely matters how one chooses to define “civilization,” don’t it?

    thefreedictionary[DOT]com offers:
    civ•i•li•za•tion (ˌsɪv ə ləˈzeɪ ʃən)

    1. an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, and government has been reached.
    2. those people or nations that have reached such a state.
    3. any type of culture, society, etc., of a specific place, time, or group: Greek civilization.
    4. the act or process of civilizing or being civilized.
    5. cultural and intellectual refinement.
    6. cities or populated areas in general, as opposed to unpopulated or wilderness areas.
    7. modern comforts and conveniences, as made possible by science and technology.

    vocabulary[DOT]com suggests:
    Civilization is the opposite of barbarism and chaos. Civilization is an advanced stage of human society, where people live with a reasonable degree of organization and comfort and can think about things like art and education.

    Civilization covers a wide range of human achievement — from the ancient Egyptians, to Mayan and Chinese civilizations, Western civilization, and everything in between. You can use the word more generally — when you’re lost in the woods, you’ll be looking for signs of civilization — lights in the distance and smoke rising from chimneys. Civilization comes from Latin civis, “citizen.” If you’ve got citizens, then you’ve got government and you’re moving right along on the path of human advancement.

    merriam-webster claims:

    1. a : a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained

    b : the culture characteristic of a particular time or place the impact of European civilization on the lands they colonized

    2. : the process of becoming civilized civilization is a slow process with many failures and setbacks

    3. a : refinement of thought, manners, or taste exhibiting a high level of civilization

    b : a situation of urban comfort Our African safari was quite interesting, but it was great to get back to civilization.

    ALL of which seem to suffer a certain cicularity of definition, employing such relative terms as “high level” and “advanced” without really defining anything.

    1. The Mongols of the Golden Horde probably thought of themselves as a civilization, but the Chinese considered them barbarians. The nomadic culture of the Mongols ensured few artifacts would survive any significant period.

      1. They were a civilization. A barbaric one, to be sure, but a civilization. By today’s standards, all the civilizations of that time were barbaric. Including the Chinese.

        1. My wife is currently reading a biography of Genghis Khan, and while the biographer is a little too in love with Genghis and thus inclined to gloss over some of the nasty bits, it’s nevertheless true that he made some incredible advances and improved the Mongols’ culture greatly. Like how he took them from essentially having an aristocracy (which family you came from really mattered, far more than anything else) to having a meritocracy for leader selection. And how, when he’d set out to conquer a non-Mongol clan, he’d say, “All right, you lot. Any of you want to defect and join us, we’ll accept you into our tribe. No second-class citizenship either, you’ll be a Mongol just like the rest of us, with all the same rights and responsibilities.” And then he’d back it up — everyone who joined them voluntarily (even though it was under threat of death) would be treated equal to anyone who was born a Mongol. With one exception. If the defector said, “And to prove my loyalty to my new Mongol lords, I killed my officer / clan chief / leader before I left my old tribe,” that guy was immediately put to death. Defection under threat of death was one thing, and even honorable people could make that choice — but anyone who was willing to kill their own leaders on the way out, would do the same to the Mongols some day, and Genghis was having none of that in his tribe.

          Yeah, the Mongols didn’t build cities, but they were a civilization nonetheless. There were rules, and they were tough but fair: the penalty for breaking a lot of them was death, but if you kept the rules, you were treated decently (for the time). And that’s the vital part: that people be able to: 1) know what the rules were, and 2) know that obeying the rules will be rewarded with safety, for whatever values of safety their culture can offer.

          Oh, and the Mongol’s system of passing along military orders was also genius. Most of them were illiterate, and since they were all cavalry, they had to be spread out much farther than most infantry-based armies. So the sergeant lifting his voice and yelling wouldn’t reach a thousand troops, it would reach maybe twenty at most. So orders had to be passed verbally from man to man, and we all know what happens in the game of Telephone. Except that the Mongols had a system: they put their orders in the form of poetry and songs. They had certain “standard” poetic forms, where appropriate words could be substituted to carry many different meanings, and there were some “standard” tunes that those poetic forms were set to as well. So a new order would still sound mostly familiar, like hearing a new verse of a song you already know — much easier to memorize and get right that way. And they also had their laws and customs set to song, and those were the songs they sang as they rode along, day after day. So almost every man knew the laws and could cite them as needed, and they had plenty of practice at memorizing and accurately repeating their poetic forms. Result: military orders that could be spread verbally, by word of mouth, and yet still be coherent and ungarbled after fifth repetitions. Sheer genius.

          1. A lot of what the Mongols did to build a world empire wasn’t all that dissimilar to what the Roman Republic did to become a world empire.
            Such as allowing states the choice of peacefully join as equals under clear Roman Law… or resisting and getting slaughter, rape, destruction, and slavery.

  11. You’ll get stuff about how the pyramids were built of stones that floated at the sound of a certain note. (A C note, or the equivalent, I bet. “Listen, Mac, you take this stone to the top of the pyramid, I give you a C Note. A hundred Amontheps in your pocket, bucko. Buys a lot of fish and falafel.”)

    Heh. Chuckle.

    /— Trees and forest conflated? –/

    1. The equivalent in some cases, of course, might be, “Listen, slave, you take this stone to the top of the pyramid, I don’t give you forty lashes of the whip. A nice unscarred back when you go to sleep tonight, doesn’t that sound nice?”

      I know that modern archeology is saying that Herodotus got it wrong, and the guys who built the pyramids were not slaves. Fair enough; I’m willing to accept that theory as probably correct: since I’m no expert, I’m willing to take the experts’ word for it when most of them agree. But there were plenty of constructions that were built by slaves (or by both paid workers and slaves), such as (from what I hear) the Great Wall of China, so just substitute the appropriate word in place of “pyramid” up there. 🙂

  12. I will agree that we have all sorts of tools and toys that makes life far easier, but, does advanced science and technology, in and of itself, make us more civilized?

    1. By some arguments it is making us more barbaric. We are redefining character to mean alignment with the most venal and ephemeral ideals.

      1. That…is a very good point.
        Ah, for the day when ‘character’ actually meant something.

        1. It still does, it just is not talked about openly. Of course to progressives it is spelled C H U M P.

  13. Before they became impressed by our pets taking plane trips, they’d have to overcome the shock of having the concept of “pet” explained to them.

    I was putting the threshold for civilization at the point of moving beyond a nomadic lifestyle and tribal government.
    So the statement about dentistry caused me confusion.

    1. But how long did that take? We could speculate that a more complicated CNS has more capacity for strange dysfunctions, and that there was a long learning curve for customs to mitigate such. However, there is probably a limit to such speculation, as too many problems make the complexity a lethal trait, and such customs could’ve developed alongside the complexity.


    2. I doubt that pets would be that odd to any human civilization. Kids have been catching and keeping all sorts of baby animals since who knows when, and the dog has been our companion since who knows when. Likewise, having a few cats around does help keep the rodent population.

      1. Pets are the ultimate luxury. Most require an expensive high protein diet that the vast majority of people in history couldn’t even have afforded for themselves.

        It was a status marker to have dogs, falcons, and horses, but they weren’t pets. They had a purpose, and if they were unable to fullfil that purpose, they were summarily killed.
        Lapdogs were a symbol of decadence. Some emperors, kings, and merchant princes owned them, but no mere knight did, and yeomen were right out.

        1. Here in PNG, which is only a few decades out of the stone age, people have pets. Even though protein is still not a regular part of people’s diets, dogs and cats are still kept as pets- and kids still catch and keep all sorts of critters as pets. Dogs can eat scraps, and cats can fend for themselves- the idea that you have to have special food is the modern one.
          It’s not the keeping of pets that’s modern- it’s the attitude we have towards care.
          Going back to our Roman or Medieval examples, if we told them about a modern family keeping a pet dog, that wouldn’t surprise them at all. However, the amount of money we spend to keep an old pet alive would.

          1. Just dropped a little more then a C-note to keep my dog alive.

            Why isn’t healthcare for pets paid for by the government? Or pet insurance subsidized? Yes, there is pet insurance. We don’t have it.

        2. There is a pet mentioned in the Bible. Seriously. David has gotten Bathsheba pregnant and has had her husband, Uriah the Hittite killed to cover it up. Now Bathsheba is one of David’s wives, and he thinks all is swept under the rug. Then Nathan tells David the following:

          “There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

          “And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.”

          David was enraged by the story and swore to kill the man and restore the ewe fourfold for what he had done and his lack of pity. Whereupon Nathan said “You are the man.”

          This was around 1,000 BC. The ewe clearly sounds like a pet. On the farm it wasn’t unusual to have livestock become pets. It wasn’t the same as a lap poodle, but still a pet.

        3. Shepherds and sheepdogs? OK, working dogs, not ‘pets’ as in kept strictly for their ornamental or emotional alleviation value. Still . . .

          1. The line between “working critter” and “pet” is bound to get blurred over time, especially with dogs. Even people with lots of working dogs tend to have favorites that will be seen more as pets.

          2. You might be surprised at the strength of the bond between working dog and working dog owner. Some folks look at these dogs as appliances, true, but… Others? Holy schnikes, do not, I repeat, do not be the fool caught abusing someone’s working animal. You will likely end up tipped into a shallow hole after a considerable amount of suffering, and whatever pathologist winds up trying to do the ID on your remains is going to have a bunch of stuff to pick from when it comes to deciding precisely how you died.

            There are a couple of rumored “disappearances” I know of that are coupled with things foolish people did to dogs belonging to Basque shepherds. You really don’t want to go delving into details, either, unless you’ve got a strong stomach. There are traditional things in Basque culture that remind you of Comanche practices, and let’s just leave it at that.

            1. The earliest “but that doesn’t make sense” rule I was given was this:
              do not touch another person’s horse’s hair.

              It has nothing to do with getting kicked– it’s because it’s a near-universal nuke button for people who spend most days with their horse*. Not “don’t bother the horse,” but do not groom the horse’s mane.

              Yeah. The “pet” vs “working animal” has more to do with what the animal does, than how the person considers him.

              *This doesn’t happen so much with people who ride on the weekends or similar irregular contact.

          3. The line between “pet” and “helper/working animal” is the pet requires a rich enough household to add a non-producing mouth to feed.

  14. I think people read “civilization” and hear “technology”, because often times the one leads to the other. (usually civilization leads to technology, but maybe a case could be made for technology helping to impose civilization on other cultures?)
    Every now and then, looking around social media, I do wonder just how “high” our civilization is, but then I remind myself of bitter fights between great figures of old, the way Greek and Roman playwrights lampooned people and things, etc…

    1. Many “older” civilizations — such as the Mongols, where it was said a virgin with a purse full of silver could walk from one end of the empire to the other, unmolested — would look at news reports coming out of Chicago and deny we are civilized.

        1. If that is the definition, I’m more than happy to be a Barbarian Librarian!

        2. I maintain that civilization does, as claimed, start at the city limits – especially for the big cities. It’s just that some are confused as to which side is which.

      1. Yeah, I’ve given up home of re-visiting the Museum of Science and Industry. Was too busy in previous trips to see family, and now the news is disquieting…

      2. See the long post about the Mongols that I just wrote, further up the page. I won’t repeat it here since it was two pages, but you might be interested in it. Basically, what I’ve learned tends to confirm what you just said about the Mongols.

        1. I recently “re-read” (thanks, Audible!) Harold Lamb’s biography of Temujin, first read while I was still counting my years in single digits. I’ve read other books (e.g., Iggulden’s historical novels) on him over the years and they are mostly in agreement. Even the terrors “inflicted” by them are an exception — stories spread in advance of their arrival to encourage cities to surrender quickly, minimizing bloodshed. Such atrocities as were perpetrated were largely the result of those city’s rulers insulting the Khan (e.g., insulting* his diplomatic emissaries.)

          *If you call pouring molten silver down an ambassador’s throat an insult.

          1. Maybe the insult was that they used silver rather than gold?

            Actually pouring it down the fellow’s throat would just be injury.

            1. Often in problems of foreign policy, I ask myself ‘What would the Romans do?’ The major exception is treatment of diplomats, because the Mongols had the right cultural mores there, and the Romans did not.

              Diplomacy might not be what its advocates claim, but it does have some value. The most useful form of diplomacy is one where diplomats need not fear harsh treatment at the hands of those who receive them. This ultimately rests of a foundation of force; policies of reprisal against those who mistreat diplomats.

                1. Depends.

                  For the Mongols, it was more along the lines of “Spare us the time and effort needed to conquer you, and we’ll treat you decently.” The Mongols already had the rock, as they demonstrated time and again.

                  1. They had the rock and were suggesting you avoid putting yourself in a hard place?

  15. In addition to your point about any coastal civilizations that may have existed before the current interglacial, there’s also the issue of building materials and climate: if you build out of rock, or build out of brick in someplace really dry, traces of your structures can survive for thousands of years; build out of wood or even brick someplace where its damp and jungly, and you could build a metropolis and leave little trace after a few centuries.

    The cool part is that airplanes and especially satellites have revealed stuff invisible from the ground for some time now. I particularly liked how, a year or two ago, evidence was found that vast tracts of the northern Amazon jungle had been clear-cut and farmed up until just before Europeans arrived – but has been jungle ever since. Two things: a civilization nobody had ever suspected; and, more humorously, the Amazon forest kind of does grow back if you leave it alone. That last part was rather studiously avoided, since it contradicts the ‘we’re destroying the planet’ story, just as how nobody in the popular press talks about how, today, net deforestation of the Amazon is effectively zero – because, once you have fertilizers, bug spray and herbicides, you don’t need to keep chopping down fresh forest to farm. Evil, evil chemicals are – I hope you’re sitting down – saving the Amazon forests, which the evidence suggests will rapidly grow back wherever people stop cutting it down.

    1. And maybe even more quickly if we can pump a little more CO2 into the atmosphere . . .

    2. “…a civilization nobody suspected…”.

      Bull. The early reports from the Spanish conquistadores reported voluminous details–Francisco de Orellana was the first down the Amazon river, and he reported a vast and sophisticated civilization along his route. Thing was, when people went back to look, later on, all they found was jungle. So, Orellana went down in history as a fabulist. Now, we know he wasn’t.

      Probably what did the locals in were the zoonotic diseases brought with Spanish pigs and the like, just like in the Southeastern US. There was trail of death that followed Hernan de Soto that probably enabled much of our colonization efforts in the Southern US–He basically cleared the area inadvertently, again with pigs he had trailing along behind his expedition.

      It’s an irony, but what probably enabled the Europeans to “conquer the Americas” basically boiled down to really lousy personal hygiene, and abysmal public sanitation. The Romans and Vikings would have been too clean to succeed in taking over the Americas, but the Europeans of Columbus’s time? LOL… Filthy bastards, one and all.

      1. So the Europeans were the barbarians at the gate waging inadvertent biological warfare.

      2. Original, first-person reports of the Vikings describe clothes rotting on bodies. Seriously. This revisionism is WEIRD. Maybe they had saunas when at home, but not in the longboats.

      3. While it’s amusing to consider it that way, how would the disease spread so effectively if public sanitation and personal hygiene were so impressive among the locals?

        1. A model:
          two households.

          One had good sanitation practices– doesn’t mix meat-cutting surfaces with not-going-to-cook, cooks food to 180* (or whatever), if they eat veggies fertilized with human fecal matter they’re boiled– and one has bad– doing the opposite.

          Which one gets sick when they randomly end up with contaminated meat?

          1. *nod*
            Familiar with that, although without any evidence I’m still not going for the estimated death rates frequently claimed.

            I am pretty sure there were pockets of basic civilization– which my totally off the wall definition is pretty much house keeping, IE “you don’t have to move all the time because it’s just nasty”– but between the end of the MWP and what they kindly call “population pressures” (AKA, the guys who hunt for a living KNOW HOW TO USE DEADLY WEAPONS really well, and you’re a good resource) the population was unlikely to be as huge as the fads say.

          2. IIRC it wasn’t “just” that they had “killed off all of the large animals”.

            It was that they didn’t “herd” large animals.

            The major plagues basically came from herd animals, spread to the herders and thus spread to the general population of Europe, Asia and Africa.

            In the Americans, none of the surviving herd animals had been domesticated thus no herders to “catch” diseases of the herd animals and passing them onto the American Indians.

            Old-Worlders had been exposed to so many of these plagues that we had partial immunity and passed the plagues we “carried” to the American Indians.

            Of course, the lack of major plagues prior to Old-Worlders arriving meant that the American Indians “couldn’t return the favor”. 👿

            Note, I about threw Leo Frankowski’s last Conrad Stargard novel, Conrad’s Quest for Rubber, acrossed the room. He had his characters visit the New World and they were hit by major plagues that never happened in our history. 😦

            1. Not exactly…

              There is evidence that syphilis was introduced into Europe by men returning from the New World. But that particular illness is spread in a more intimate fashion than the types you’re describing.

  16. I always find the discussion fascinating on how old human civilization really is. Everyone talks about the “Fertile Crescent”, Nile River and the Yellow River as birth places. Are they though. I am definitely one of the believers of many pre sumerian civilizations that are now lost.

    As to tech, think of the Chinese empires. They had all the tools and pieces there to be just like western modern civilization, instead they withdrew in on themselves and squashed as much original thought as possible.

    Lots of history out there waiting to be found. And it’s going to take even longer to get from discovery to accepted knowledge.

    1. Paladin – even up to the Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese Dowager Empress (Dragon Lady – from Pearl S. Buck’s book – turns out most of that really happened) (I just got back from China and discussed the lady a lot with our tourguide at the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City).

      Anyway, the Dowager Empress had the opportunity to embrace technology and science and move China forward – maybe even going some distance to enable it to defend itself. But she focused on her power base (ie keeping personal power) instead of focusing on the country and what would help them. She supported the Boxers because the more traditional people were her power base – so the idea that certain chants would stop bullets (magical thinking) were supported because of what it came from.

      I find it a tragic turning point in history – if some other than her had existed… maybe this is a plot bunny…. sigh….


      1. China is China. Even today the level of superstitious belief is greater than rational thought. It’s not that the Dowager Empress could have changed history if she had wanted to, it’s that China refused for millennia to look beyond what they had. So much history there of where they could have made the brass ring, but just tossed the materials away as not worth the effort. It’s a fascinating place, and I just shudder at what’s going to happen there eventually.

        1. They didn’t change the dumbass way they made cart wheels for millennia.

          When English farmers were figuring out the cheapest, easiest way to move their crop to the mill was a rail-road, by which I mean the -really- old wooden kind where a horse pulls the cart over wooden rails laid on timber sleepers, the Chinese were still making carts with cast, segmented bronze rims to protect the wood. When Flying Tigers were duking it out with Zeros in the skies overhead, they were still building the same goddamn cart wheels.

          Some shop someplace is probably STILL building the damn things.

      2. This makes the Japanese decision to go all out and embrace western tech under the Meji Emperor all that more rare and amazing.
        Wisely, they also actively sought the knowledge of how to do it themselves instead of relying on gifts from the West.

        1. Yup. The Japanese are the thumb in the eye to China and other nations that had similar opportunities.

          Kind of makes me wonder what might have happened if Oda Nobunaga hadn’t been betrayed and killed. While the guy was incredibly ruthless (to the point where TV Tropes has a full page talking about how he’s frequently portrayed in fiction as a literal demon), he was open to “culturally appropriating” from Europe when he thought a particular European practice or technology might be useful (it should also be noted that unlike the men who succeeded him, he was tolerant of Christianity).

          However, he was betrayed and killed just as he was on the verge of uniting the country. Would he have continued to embrace Western ideas and technology after ending the fighting? Makes for an interesting what-if.

        2. Little known fact: The Japanese actually invented and implemented drill in their armies, developing it independently and to a degree that would have left European armies in the shade. Maurice of Orange (Nassau) would have probably looked at what the Japanese were doing at the same time he was, and gone “Damn… They got here first, and are doing it better…”.

          Literally, the Japanese had better technique for handling their small arms than the Europeans did, and that was after copying the Portuguese matchlocks only a few years earlier. It would be an interesting thing to know what would have happened, had the Japanese not turned inward, and chosen to go out a-conquering the way the Europeans did during the 1600s. It would have given them a run for their money, in East Asia.

          That’s a seriously fertile ground for alternate history; imagine Japanese mercenary armies fighting the British for China, and not having abandoned the gun for a return to the sword. Everything in that region would have been different…

          1. Hideyoshi tried to go conquering after he took over following Nobunaga’s death. But his invasion of Korea failed miserably. Tokugawa, who managed to sit out the Korean invasion, was more interested in securing the lines of succession for his descendants (which made sense after watching Hideyoshi displace Nobunaga’s kids, and Tokugawa himself displace Hideyoshi’s kids). With that in mind, turning inward made sense. The civil war was too recent, and might have easily flared up again.

            And yes, I know that I’m using given names for two of those individuals, and the family name for the third.


    2. the “Fertile Crescent”

      Larry Gonick, in his Cartoon History of the Universe (vol II or III) makes an offhand mention of a slave revolt that happened in the Fertile Crescent, where they grew sugar cane—but had to hack through several feet of salinated soil first, due to the thousands of years of cultivation (and whatever they were using for fertilizer, etc.) It was one of those “oh yeah,” moments, that someplace that was fertile gets six thousand years of soil compaction and whatnot dumped on it, maybe it isn’t so fertile after that.

      1. Well, the upriver dams have gone a long way to making the fertile crescent brackish…

    3. I’ve heard that parts of Africa that are now desert, primarily Northern Africa, were agricultural possibly even forested. Cedars of Lebanon anyone? Yes I know that Lebanon is not in Africa.

      1. If I remember history correctly, a whole lot of the cedars of Lebanon became masts for British ships of the line. Tall straight trees suitable for masts are hard to come by.

        1. Have been for a long time. One of the reasons Erik the Red went to the New World was to look for suitable timber for masts.

          It wasn’t that there was no such wood in the Old World, but most of the good stuff was on land vigorously defended by someone else…

        2. That was also one of the stated reasons for colonizing Australia- the hope they could source timber for mast and linen for sails.

    4. An argument Berry Cunliffe makes in his book about the steppes of Eurasia was that since China was so comparatively isolated, for a long time they had the luxury of not having to develop new stuff. That put in place the foundation for a conservative (in the sense of preserve everything the way it is right now, or back in the good old days) mindset that grew stronger in some groups over time. Alas for many ordinary Chinese that one of those groups was the bureaucratic ruling class.

      1. It was also a system that worked fairly well. It collected taxes, it kept the peasants under control, and you got a fairly good infrastructure.
        When the inevitable conquers came in, it was easier to just adopt the already existing system instead of trying to set you your own.

          1. Very much so, as long as 1) there was room in the south to expand as the population grew and 2) the environment didn’t deal a series of horrible cards like happened in the 1590-1640 time span. Hellooooo dynastic turn-over.

            1. The video game publisher Koei-Tecmo has a long-running series of games called Dynasty Warriors. It’s based off of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and is the only exposure that many Westerners have both to the story and the era.

              I’ve seen it noted that Americans tend to like Cao Cao as depicted in the games because he’s someone who views ability, without regard for class or social standing, as the most important trait in his followers. That’s something that Americans tend to like and respect.

              The Chinese, on the other hand, recognize that Cao Cao’s philosophy is dangerous, and goes against the traditions and teachings of the ancient Chinese culture.

              Says a lot, really.

    5. The fertile crescent and the Nile civilizations built with stone in dry areas. There might have been equivalent civilizations in Germanic or Celtic Europe who built with wood. Forgotten due to ruins that actually decayed beyond recognition.

  17. “…a lot of science fiction writers were very scared of the nukes (even Heinlein, though at least he never advocated unilateral disarmament. Instead, he put his hopes on the UN. Head>desk. We’re all human.)”

    Pardon me for saying so, but you are being grossly unfair to Heinlein in this and succumbing to the very anachronistic sensibility you quite rightly decry elsewhere.

    “The UN” that Heinlein might have been pinning his hopes on was not anything like the UN of today: it consisted largely of the Western powers from WW2 and their adjuncts.

    People forget that Ukraine and Byelorussia (as it was then called) had seats at the UN, not because anyone was delusional enough to consider them independent of the USSR, but because Great Stalin insisted upon it as a balance against the US and its two closest allies, Britain and France.

    I expect many people also forget that–until the 1970s–“China” (and its Security Council seat) meant “The Republic of China”, or in other words the KMT government-in-exile on Taiwan. The billion mainland Chinese groaning under the PRC yoke were not even represented!

    So…yes. I expect that Heinlein thought that “the UN”–as a Western-weighted global equivalent of the 19th-century Concert of Europe–represented our best shot at this. I assume you have read all of his work, so the Space Patrol of /Space Cadet/ may fairly be taken as a close-order approximation of how he thought this might have worked.

    (I should point out, by the way, that the idea of turning over all of the world’s nukes to the UN and granting them a monopoly in perpetuity was the declaratory US policy for many years, the so-called “Baruch Plan.” However, here again, Great Stalin was too paranoid to take the deal.)

    Nor was Heinlein oblivious to the obvious weaknesses and pathologies of such a structure, as pointed out in “The Long Watch” and “Solution Unsatisfactory.” But I suspect he found the outcome he postulated in “On The Slopes Of Vesuvius” even worse.

    1. “The UN” that Heinlein might have been pinning his hopes on was not anything like the UN of today: it consisted largely of the Western powers from WW2 and their adjuncts.

      Who were, at least theoretically, humans– and the European ones had twice spun up into world wars, showing that working in big groups is good for fighting, not so much for peace-ing.

    2. Actually, Stalin demanded the extra seats because the British Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India) were to have their own seats.

    3. If you speak of Heinlein and nukes, you have to mention Farnham’s Freehold. A book about flipping the established order on its head, indeed. Some very troubling concepts in there for the modern sensibility.

    4. And even then.

      The way STARSHIP TROOPERS was a discussion of the universality of a soldier’s development, SPACE CADET was a meditation on what it would take to raise up a force you might *trust* with a nuclear monopoly. And you get the impression that the pax of the book had more to do with the Patrol than with his UN analogue.

      How do you train a Lensman?

  18. If y’all want to talk about fallen civilizations of the past and what message they would leave us today, you really outta talk to some Mormons, who actually believe in such a thing.
    But seriously, and boiled down to three words, the message is: Beware of pride.

    1. Yeah, we do. And that’s a good distillation of the message.
      Of course, seeking humility is a lot more complicated.

      1. To explain, the Book of Mormon repeats over and over what Hugh Nibley used to call “The Nephite Cycle”. Things are going good, so the Nephites get proud and stop obeying The Lord. So The
        Lord stops supporting them. And when their enemies (who always outnumber them) inevitably attack, the Nephites get thrashed. This humbles the Nephites, which causes them to start following The Lord again. So he starts to bless them again. And as a result, things start going well for the Nephites again. And because of this, the Nephites start to become proud again…

        1. Arguably, that’s the same cycle observed in the book of Judges. Except it’s a declining spiral.

          1. The long-term trends in growing secularism of Nephite society, the abandonment of religiously-based ideals of conduct, and the accompanying growth of criminal conspiracies sound remarkably 20th century to me. The descent from high civilization to blood-soaked barbarity also looks more frighteningly plausible every few years.

            1. Don’t forget the tribalism that suddenly breaks out at one point. After the top political leader is assassinated one too many times, a formerly unified nation (or possibly more a federation of city-states sharing the same nationality) suddenly collapses into a society that’s focused along tribal lines.

              There are a lot of people who are quite happy to push the US in a similar direction.

  19. We are the superior civilization. We are the enlightened ones, the shining and resplendent inhabitants of the wonderful future.

    Oh, lordy, the tales I could tell. This harks back to one special snowflake back in the early 90’s when the Internet was still young and largely untapped and online communities were mostly centered around individual “online services”, I ran into this special snowflake who insisted that, yes, he had declined from earlier civilizations. When I pointed out that not all Caesars wealth could have bought him a single Tylenol should he have a headache, she responded oh, so smuggly that the Romans had opium. And, further (apparently hoping to head off what she thought would be my next argument) our mechanized industry was not an improvement either. Back in Roman times she’d have to get used to slaves doing her work rather than machines but… At which point she said “But I’m not interested in convincing you” and bowed out.

    Oh, where to start? Having multiple choices for pain relief of greater effectiveness, with fewer side effects and propensity for addiction than the twin choices of opium and ethanol (or willow bark if that happens to grow where you are) is not an improvement? The fact that we use machines rather than slaves is not itself an improvement? (And who’s to say she’d be the slave user rather than the slave?)

    Seriously, how can people be so utterly blind?


    1. quite easily! people went to the USSR during Stalin’s purges and said that there was no such thing.

      1. Heck, people go to the Castro’s Cuba and report it as a paradise. A paradise that people try to leave on crude rafts made from inner tubes.

        1. To be fair, those reporting it as a paradise are professional journalists. It takes a highly trained eye to make those kinds of mistakes; the naive observor is far more likely to conclude that the emperor is buck nekkid the subjects citizens are passing out in the streets from misery, not delight.

    2. “Seriously, how can people be so utterly blind?”

      They are young, they’ve been maliciously misinformed by evil people, and they’ve never been sick. One good toothache would have had that snowflake singing the praises of modern life.

      1. Bingo. They’ve lived lives of ease, and just cannot grok the hardship that is life for most of humanity in all ages.

      2. Amen.

        I’ve had multiple c-sections, and being GUTTED hurt less than the infected tooth! (Took the same amount of motrin to help, too, although that’s a little off because of the surgery medication taking time to wear off, but….)

        1. Infections! People could literally die from a popped blister that got infected. Sepsis is a killer.

          1. And because of antibiotic resistant bacteria, it’s becoming a killer again. Sulpha drugs anyone?

            1. I’ve taken a sulfa. Was warned about the need to drink water and lots of it OR ELSE (friend in Australia had a relative who died of sulfa side effects from not getting enough water – it was the very early days of sulfa) But the weird side effect was the micro-headache. That is, for a just a moment, I’d get this intense pain best described as “Who drove that spike into my head?!” but for a second or less and then it was gone. And when the sulfa was over, so were the headaches. Thankfully they didn’t happen more than once a day or so, even though very short.

              1. I’ve never taken Sulfa drugs and I get those headache spikes from time to time (just enjoyed one as I was typing that.) You mean it isn’t normal?

                I’ve just generally figured that somewhere there was a terrier with a RES voodoo doll chew toy … it explains soooooo very much.

            2. A friend’s daughter died last year of an infection after giving birth to her second child. It felt like the 19th century snuck up and smashed me in the face.

            3. Serious question:

              We were taught cleaning and disinfecting wounds to the point where when I ripped a finger open lengthwise in my teens, we pour straight rubbing alcohol in the wound before heading to get it stitched up. Tincture of Iodine, Mercuro Chrome, and Methiolate were applied to all cuts and scratches. Have even seen – and had – kerosene applied to cuts, though I don’t think it’s actually a disinfectant. Deep puncture wounds meant an immediate trip to the doctor.

              Granted this was on a far with all sorts of nasties, but both my parents and grandparents were from the age before sulfa drugs. Are some of the infections we’re seeing now simply because people aren’t as aggressive with immediate would treatment?

              1. “Are some of the infections we’re seeing now simply because people aren’t as aggressive with immediate would treatment?”
                Or as complete with their antibacterial regimens.

                And, interestingly, despite the advances in medicine, the old reliables are still reliable: alcohol, vinegar, honey, etc. (Yes, honey is a disinfectant in a wound. It also helps to staunch the bleeding.)

              2. I’d rate that as “probable”– look at all things like that contaminated frozen pie thing maybe…six years ago? where baking it according to the instructions would make it safe to eat.

              3. Part of it might also be that parents are too overprotective with their kids, which means that immune systems don’t get exposed to as much very early on, and as a result aren’t ready to deal with the same array of ailments that might have been overcome easily fifty years earlier.

    3. Just ponder the revolution in travel over the past 150 or so years.
      For most folks throughout history, if you wanted to travel a long distance, you had to walk. If you were lucky, you could afford some sort of animal drawn conveyance with wheels.
      But even then, the roads were miserable. Sure, there might be a Roman road in good repair, but for the most part, roads tended to be bumpy, rutted, full of holes, and dusty during the summer, and muddy during the wet seasons.
      And then there’s sea travel. Most of the old wooden ships tended to be smelly, damp, dank, and infested with vermin. And until the invention of refrigeration, food for long voyages was pretty awful- weevil infested hardtack, salt horse, and stagnant water. There’s a good reason rum was a staple part of the Royal Navy’s rations.
      And lets not forget that long distance travel took a long, long, long time.

  20. Most places have clean, fresh water that someone doesn’t have to carry a mile or so (which has been most of the work of humanity I think, forever.) Forget aqueducts. We have water that comes from our faucets whenever we want it. Cold AND hot.

    Publius the Hydroengineer would take one look as say: “You people are morons. Everyone knows a continuous flow water system is far easier to maintain over the long term than a demand flow closed system. And even though you’re “Legionnaires Disease” (heh) demonstrated for you that stagnant water in a potable supply feed is only asking for putrefaction, you didn’t learn from it. Far easier to keep a continuous flow of water clean than your cap-it-off-and-hope-it-doesn’t-leak, in-or-out system. I do note that you at least run your sewer systems as unpressurized gravity feed systems, so you are not totally barbarians. But still.”

    1. But then I’d show him my ultraviolet water purifier and associated filtering system, and his dentures would fall on the ground. ~:D

    2. Of course, Publius would have been truly shocked to see how much lead was in the Roman water systems. Though more modern findings suggest that the levels may not have been as harmful as previously thought and/or Publius was aware of the issue already and preferred terra cotta pipes as a result:

      1. Back in VA i used to joke that my apartment building was so old the pipes were terrra cotta.

        1. They may have been. Less then 10 years ago working part time for a big box, had a customer call up to know what we had to repair a lead supply to her house- her husband had just broken it doing some digging or something. I told her to call her public works department and a plumber. She wouldn’t listen so I told her to go ask her husband- are you sure it’s the supply line? Are you sure it’s lead and not galvanized? She came back and said it was the supply line and it was lead. I told her to call a plumber and call her water department. It needed to be replaced, not fixed. Which, BTW, after I checked her town’s website, found they had completely replaced all lead supply lines 2 decades earlier. Wonder how many more they missed.

          Just a few years ago in NYC someone digging for a new building found a 24″ wooden water supply line. In use. Quite literally, no one really knows what’s underground in NYC.

          1. I recollect reading in an account of the immediate aftermath of the 1940 blitz on London, that a certain water-main uncovered by bomb damage – was one made of jointed wooden segments. Which had been providing fresh water continuously since installation – but was so old that none of the water utility providers had never seen the like of it, ever before.

          2. > Wonder how many more they missed.

            There are half a dozen water pipes under pressure running through my yard, and I’ve hit several old sewer pipes while digging.

            Not one of those pipes was on the Water Department’s maps…

      2. I thought the lead poisoning which did Rome in was due to the lead seals on amphoras of imported wine rather than lead in the water pipes, as the acid in the wine would dissolve lead better than water.

            1. Used in cooking vessels and wine storage for certain drinks to add a sweet flavor. (Why kids and critters nibble lead paint chips and window-putty. It tastes sweet.)

        1. Depends if the water was “hard” (alkaline, pH >7) or “soft” (acidic, pH<7), right, or is it that hard water already has all the dissolved minerals in it that it will hold?

    3. stagnant water in a potable supply feed is only asking for putrefaction,

      Well, that’s what we have the copper pipes for.

      I have to admit, PEX is supposed to be pretty convenient and uninteresting to thieves, but I do wonder whether it will have unintended health effects down stream.

      1. Public Works Departments are supposed to check random faucets weekly at the end of their supply runs for residual chlorine. And for various other things at different intervals. If you want to know how good a job some of them do, ask the people of Flint, MI.

        If you’re your own water supply company like me, your pressure tank probably fills and empties so many times during a typical day it can’t be considered stagnant.

    4. And for places that don’t really have a good way to run continuous flow because of the lack of water to begin with? (I know, full-system purification and re-use, which ought to come sooner than later, but don’t tell the state water boards.)

  21. “…ya’ll objected because no signs of dentistry, ”


    I will now relate a tale. In Minnesota there is a town called Pipestone. So named because there is nearby the quarry where red soapstone was dug up by the Indians for a really long time. There are only three or four places where the pipestone comes from, but is shows up all over North America, used by all sorts of tribes that had no connection to the places it was quarried.

    There was also a “civilization” of American Indians, the Serpent Mound people. They built big earthworks long before the Eeeevile White Man came and… well, they were gone already, so the white men didn’t do much of anything to them.

    This is another way we know that “civilization” did not prosper in the Pre-Human times. You don’t find stuff like pipestone and the really choice obsidian for blades getting traded long distances until Modern Man shows up. ~150,000 years ago.

    So, it seems civilization leaves tracks, even when it is low-level and subtle, like getting that really -nice- red stone for your wife’s earrings from Ogg, who got it from that weird fisherman guy Ugg, and who knows where the hell Ugg got it from.

    1. Once again, however, the tracks you are looking at are material things. Given enough time, many of those may have vanished. And if you want to posit the elder civilizations were powered by some sort of “magic”, then the artifacts may have gone away when the magic went away. (See Niven’s classic tale for one way it could have gone away.)

      1. It does, but perhaps in ways we don’t realize and for the reason that tech levels seem to require certain populations sustained for a certain amount of time. The accounts of the Hernando de Soto expedition are not quite five hundred years old, and describe city-state type of culture, but even knowing this it’s danged hard to find these towns. If archeologists knew exactly where to look, they could probably find remains of where they set the palisades and pottery fragments and where someone on guard duty knapped some blades to kill some time, but first they’d have to know exactly where. That’s not always possible where the ground has been heavily tilled and/or returned to timber. And since they were not into building mounds – and likely didn’t have the population to pull it off – it’s not always obvious. This means that trade goods are going to be hard to locate unless you find a site and someone happened to have dropped it and no one picked it up again until an archeologist laid eyes on it. If an area was sparsely populated to begin with, the odds of finding evidence of even humans are slim.

        We’re right back to tech dependent on population. The mound builders seem to roughly coincide with the Medieval Warm Period, and collapsed with the Little Ice Age, with maize the ingredient that allowed increased population. That’s less than a thousand years. Even if we push it back to around 400 AD to coincide with some structures, that’s less than a thousand year run before the Europeans arrived in force and found cultures essentially struggling to recover from collapse and declining population. How many thousand year cycles happened over and over again worldwide before there was sufficient population to make lasting structures?

        1. The best way around this issue was utterly killed by the bone-headed move of making it illegal to hunt arrowheads.

          My grandfather got stuff into the Smithsonian because that’s what they’d do on weekends– go out and “hunt arrowheads.” A couple of times they found stuff that was very much not normal and contacted the museum, who contacted their contact, who got the information to the guys who the Smithsonian paid to come out.

          They passed that Indian Artifacts rule?

          Well, folks still hunted arrowheads… and for a while, they still reported finds to the local museum, although with good excuses.

          After the third or fifth time that the places they found, and reported, were looted unlike anything had ever been looted before… they stopped doing that.

          And they for dang sure didn’t TELL anybody where they found this blade, vs that blade.

          1. And they for dang sure didn’t TELL anybody where they found this blade, vs that blade.

            My grandfather claimed to know where there was a valley full of petrified mushrooms; every now and then he’d pull one out of a pocket. The looting thing was why he didn’t tell anyone where he found them.

          2. The Fed also made it illegal to hunt Civil War artifacts. At least they haven’t made it illegal for people to own them, like eagle feathers or ivory…

        2. Kevin, the Mississippians (Cahokia) also managed to deforest themselves into a corner, and wore-out their farm ground. The climatic shifts in the 1300s-1400s were the icing on the cake as far as their collapse went.

      2. Nailed it! What would be left of New York City after 1000 feet of glacial ice slid over it for a few centuries? Scratches in the bedrock!

          1. But as I noted the other day, the major ice ages changed the shorelines. If there were a fisheries-based culture that had avanced and flourished during the ice ages, but remained in the chipped-flint and wwood stuff level of tech, how much of their grand palisaded city states located at what’s now just inshore of the 60 fathom line would remain? Maybe some traded flints from the great city state Atla in Doggerland? Or the grand center of commerce 20 miles south of what’s now New Orleans called Quetzl?

          2. Sure they did. All those nice U-shaped valleys didn’t get made out of mud. There are grooves in the bedrock in Central Park.

      3. Caves. That’s where the Neanderthal stuff mostly comes from. Because glaciation.

        Mostly I’m pulling your leg, Sarah. But there is some evidence to support the notion that pre-humans just didn’t do stuff like trading in goods and services. The -absence- of exotic outside-area stone and pottery is weak evidence of there being no trade, because similar Human sites do have outside-area artifacts like pipestone decorations, fancy obsidian etc that comes from far away. Humans trade. Pre-humans like the Neanderthal may not have.

        If there’s no trading, it makes a “civilization” difficult to imagine.

        1. Some pre-historians/anthropo-archaeology types have posited that one of the Odd things about the proto-Indo-European speakers was how far they moved – and their fascination with going westwards. Not all of them, but a goodly number, who ended up swamping “old Europe” and whoever else happened to be around in what is now Germany, France, England and so on.

        2. I’m not talking pre-humans. a) we’ve been genetically the same for 200 k years.
          b) Yeah, all that sh*t on the Neanderthals is seriously outdated. “They didn’t innovate. They didn’t have symbolic thinking.” Except they’re finding a lot of sites they THOUGHT were homo sap sap were actually Neanderthal.

          1. Judging from the DNA results that we’re seeing from Europeans, we can make a t-shirt case that intermarrying and appropriating other cultures and their people’s genetics is our Neanderthal culture being expressed.

        3. Trade in those exotic outside-area materials requires them to have been discovered first. How many people walked by that 2 carat diamond found the other day in Murphysboro, Arkansas before that woman bent down and picked up what everyone else thought was just a piece of broken beer bottle?

  22. Not sure whether I came across as one of the “high technology is civilization” commenters. I most certainly am not, but I can laser focus on the wrong things.

    For an idea “crazy” enough for SF – and that I don’t recall seeing in actual fiction – I read something many years ago that claimed the mass die-offs were actually from alien diseases introduced by failed colonies. And that the “evolutionary explosions” were none such – they were the results of alien species able to deal better, and with more environments, than the natives. (Sorry, I have no idea just where I hit that. Probably in one of my Mother’s books by the crate acquisitions that ended up being turned into bookstore credit.)

    Feel free to appropriate – I think the writer also needs to have a willing suspension of disbelief, and I just can’t quite handle that one.

    1. Meant to add there, If I did include this in a world, it wouldn’t be aliens – it would be a civilization that went bio-technologic instead of our mechanical orientation.

  23. While it may well be that there have been previous, unknown, lesser technological civilizations from 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, I suspect that there really haven’t been any. I base this opinion on a number of reports about genetic changes in the human genome coinciding with the rises of large groups of humans beyond the extended family/clan level (hamlet/small village.) This ranges between 10 to 20 thousand years ago. Earlier than that, humans were small hunter-gatherer bands. But even today you can see that we still aren’t well adapted to living in large concentrated groups (towns and cities.) The more you cram us together, the higher the stress levels, the greater the violence and aggression, and levels of illness. You see it mostly with the lower socio-economic classes. The rich are able to mitigate many of the negative consequences of the crowding.

    1. What level of tech, though? I honestly consider the ability to knap stones as technology. 10,000 years hence, archeologists might consider us pre-technological (and argue whether the Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Crown Royal culture was dominent).

      1. Will anybody still be living on Earth in 10K years? I don’t mean that you couldn’t live here, just that a lot of people may have left Earth to colonize the stars. If we have to an alien invasion I’d prefer if we did far away from the Earth.
        10,000 years is a verrry long time. Who knows what things will be like then. Don’t forget Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth. Takes place when Sol is a Red Dwarf..

        1. The intellectual heirs of the Luddite Left will be still waiting for humanity to perfect itself before daring to leave the gravity well. The rest of us will be building wormholes to Andromeda.

      2. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Crown Royal“?

        They’ll never work it out because Moon Pies are biodegradable. Twinkies, OTOH, will be just as delicious as they are today.

        [N.B., before anyone quibbles: I am not asserting that Twinkies are presently delicious.]

    2. Where do you think Boskop Man came from?

      ” The naturalist Loren Eiseley made exactly this point in a lyrical and chilling passage from his popular book, The Immense Journey, describing a Boskop fossil:

      ‘There’s just one thing we haven’t quite dared to mention. It’s this, and you won’t believe it. It’s all happened already. Back there in the past, ten thousand years ago. The man of the future, with the big brain, the small teeth. He lived in Africa. His brain was bigger than your brain. His face was straight and small, almost a child’s face.'”


  24. Of course there is little evidence of ancient mechanical devices. The dominant civilization of the previous Great Cycle, Cobra-La, did not use mechanical devices as we understand them. They instead breed and genetically modified plants to do the tasks we do less efficiently mechanisms. I saw all about it in the great documentary GI Joe:The Movie (1987).

  25. “And no, Europe hasn’t been extensively studied. As I said before, Europe is mostly built on Europe. And you can’t dig in a field without finding SOMETHING.”

    As I watch the season one of the series Time Team https://infogalactic.com/info/Time_Team on Acorn tv about a team of archaeologists in the United Kingdom, this struck me as well, they barley remove the inch or two of soil and they find remains of Roman building dating back centuries.

    If you think everyone runs to the academics or the authorities when something is found, you don’t understand people’s interest in building a house, or sowing a field, as opposed to you know, giving up ownership of their land in all but fact. Frankly I’m amazed so many people do report discoveries.”

    Yes what would stop a government agency taking a acre or two or your farmland and United Kingdom after the so called fall of Rome, was Detroit.

    1. Unless you find something that sends you running for Dr. Quatermass. (See either TV or Movie version of “Quatermass and the Pit.”)

  26. A couple of things, related to the topic but not each other.

    If the walking-beam 2-cylinder pump, ca. 250BC (http://ancientinventions.blogspot.com/2014/12/history-of-firefighting-equipment.html), the crank and connecting rod, ca. 3rd Century AD (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierapolis_sawmill) and the boiler, ca. 1st Century BC (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeolipile) had been put together, they could have had a steam engine in the 3rd Century. The components were all there; they were just never put together in a combination that produced a steam engine.

    When those of European descent got to southern California, they thought the natives so primitive they didn’t have agriculture. As it happened, though, said natives DID have agriculture; just not a sort ever practiced in Europe. They completely altered the forest ecology of that end of California to grow a variety of oak that produced acorns that were large and unusually low in tannic acid. But people in Europe didn’t grow acorns for food…

  27. I recollect someone expounding on the story of Cain and Abel as being an allegorical tale about the conflict between hunters and farmers, back when they were trying to figure out which kind of civilization is better…

    1. Hmmmm. I bet the percentage of modern farmers that hunt is higher than the number of modern hunters that farm.

    2. I heard as a conflict between pastoralists, being communitarian, and agriculturalists, being private property oriented.

      1. And that’s a good example of making up sh*t and projecting it on the past. The idea that pastoralists were communitarian was a bit of made up Marxist crazy that started being repeated as truth in the 19th century. There is ZERO archeological evidence for this.

        1. Agreed! What rancher in his right mind would want to share his herd’s grazing land with other herders? As usual, the Marxists are not using a real model of human behavior.

        2. I picked this from someone who may have leaned a little into the liberation theology…

          1. Yep. But honestly, it’s what they taught in school when I was in school. It’s everywhere. It took me to my thirties to figure out there was NO EVIDENCE of this.

      2. Depends on the pastoralists, when and where… [ducks incoming rocks] Pastoralists tend to be territorial by time. The uplands are important in summer, the lowland pastures in the autumn, water is always important… Some groups grazed a regular circuit, so that even though they were not physically present in a location at all times, they claimed its use at certain times in the year. Some have fixed home communities, others are purely nomadic, but they tend toward extensive land use rather than intensive land use.

  28. “Understand I am not imagining others before us had the internal combustion engine, or steam, or trains, or… ”
    Read Hero’s work (a few hundred BC, I think?). A lot of very cool things (like always full wine cups!) that would still astound the common people today. It makes all those secret swinging doors and stuff in stories very believable.

    Since nothermike mentioned Cain and Abel….
    One of the things that progressive thought made a part of the common intellectual framework is the idea that we moved from chaos and lack to order and abundance (caveman to civilization). There’s plenty (between scripture and things like the pyramids) to suggest that flow might not be as strong as progressivism might like. Read in one light, Genesis implies the direction might be from order and abundance to chaos and lack, cycling back over time.

    Something to ponder.

    1. Cycles make sense. Someone else mentioned low population. Bull. We don’t know that. Whatever we are we are built on the frame of a scavenging species. Their characteristic is bell-cycle reproduction. When things get “too good” we stop reproducing. (Which we’re seeing in the west, or if you believe stuff leaking out, all over the world.) Because if you’re a scavenger, that’s survival. (You don’t eat the environment bare.)
      UNFORTUNATELY that means we’d go through cycles.

      1. And then you have the possibility of extinction-level events, too. Like that flood that gets mentioned a few places!

      2. Huh; Commander Salamander has a piece up today quoting James McPherson: “‘Emmanuel Macron founded a new party, and his election as France’s president is said to herald the “revival of Europe.” Interestingly, Macron has no children.…This is too remarkable to ignore. While Macron is young—39 years old—the rest of Europe is being governed by childless Baby Boomers.” See http://cdrsalamander.blogspot.com/2017/05/europes-empty-crib.html

  29. And running water came about in rural America post-World War II, with rural electrification. You got electricity and went to the hardware store and bought an electric pump so you didn’t have to tote water to the mules. And you kept it working (and its heirs and successors) until your part of the county got “county water,” which doesn’t taste as good (especially now since it’s—yech—river water) but doesn’t get rust on your clothes when you wash them nor go out when you lose power after storms. You might lose water after a really bad hurricane due to the lines being broken across creeks and in people’s yards by uprooted trees. We lost water after Floyd, but not Matthew.

    You can still put down your own well, but you have to get permission from the county and pay a fee for testing and pay someone to put the well down.

    1. And running water came about in rural America post-World War II, with rural electrification.

      Sort of– windmills, etc.

      But yeah, the “you turn on the faucet, it makes water” type running water, TOTALLY!

  30. Can’t find it again offhand, but there is evidence of primitive dentistry in paleo-humans — including scraping out a cavity (whether it was “filled” is unknown, but clay would have worked, albeit needing regular replacement); also many have shallow grooves around the teeth from regular use of toothpicks.

    Tartar on Neanderthal teeth includes residue from a variety of natural medications, including pain relievers (willow bark aspirin).

    Turns out the way Neanderthals knapped stone tools is complex; it requires pre-shaping the stone before knocking loose the desired chunk, which is done other-way-round from what you might think if you don’t know the method. And they distilled birchbark pitch to use as glue — not a simple nor low-temperature process.

    Yeah, I think we’re missing a few layers of civilizations — who knows what was built in wood and has completely disappeared, or has a modern city center built on top of it and is buried beyond recall. People do tend to live in the same places over and over, after all.

    1. There was, in some places, amazing medical care. My son had a class on “things that they’ve done since forever” and some of them were horrifying when you realize no germ theory.

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