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.