Deep History

Göbekli Tepe

Recently, I’ve begun to have this nagging suspicion that the history of human civilization goes back a lot farther than previously attested to. Not millions of years, obviously, but back about 10,000-12,000 years to just after the end of the last ice age. And I mean this in all seriousness, on the basis of archaeology and empirical historical research and not in the sense of “ancient aliens” or some wacky theory. I myself used to be skeptical of any idea that civilization was any older than the 5,000 or so years that most agree it to be. And while there is no doubt that many of the hallmarks of later civilizations only arose around 3000 BCE in the ancient Near East–things like writing, the wheel, large cities, and trade between different regions–it seems clear that many aspects of civilization go way back.

The myths of most civilizations from historical times (the bronze age onward) speak of a fairly long prehistory with some hallmarks of civilization (farming, towns) but not as extensively developed as later on. This is often spoken of as a golden age, simpler, with less people, but of gradually increasing toil, which reflects partially the state of the human race for the first few thousand years after the agricultural revolution. These sorts of myths are found in Greek, Hindu, Jewish, and Chinese lore for example. Now myths like these may not represent the historical truth but are likely derived from real phenomenon. This middle ground of understanding myth and its role in history is precisely what lead to the discovery of Troy in the 19th century: who knows what events actually inspired the Iliad but at the least it was partially based on real places and historical phenomenon.

In terms of the period between 10,000-3,000 BCE, there was clearly advanced activity at many levels in many different regions. The wide spread of megalithic structures all over the world (like Stonehenge) attests to this. And the recently excavated historical site of Gobekli Tepe has a temple dating from 10,000 BCE. So what is going on?

The hallmarks of civilization have been narrowly defined and ought to be expanded to include civilizations that did not make use of metallurgy or writing but still farmed and built structures and may have been somewhat isolated from each other due to the presence of hunter-gatherers around them. In historical times, certain such civilizations seem to have existed in the form of Great Zimbabwe and the Inca. The Inca is particular seem to represent the type of civilization that predominated for the first few thousand years of civilization before writing developed. These mostly oral civilizations had oral histories (oral transmission can actually be astoundingly accurate if certain techniques are used; for example the Vedas of India were passed down orally for thousands of years before being committed to writing, with almost no deviations among various groups); however if care is not taken, oral histories can morph into the variety of legends we have of the past today. The Inca were isolated from other civilizations and it is unclear if they knew about the Aztec and surrounded by less advanced groups. Most importantly, the Inca and Aztec were still able to build monumental structures mostly using stone and without the wheel and the Inca, despite not having writing, were able to run a state with maintain records using other systems.

I mention these historical civilization as examples of what life probably looked like in many parts of the Old World before 3,000 BCE. There is no particular reason to believe that this is other than the norm and that the rise of empires, writing and large states was the result of a series of accidents and was not something preordained. At the same time, a gradual evolution over thousands of years could also make sense and Egypt and Sumeria did not arise out of nowhere.

There is a lot about history that we don’t know about or gets swept under when we study it. A part of it has to do with selection bias, we only study the major events of the last few hundred years for where there are detailed records, and only in regions considered relevant to the present world. I agree that the main contours of history are not in question but there is much under the radar.

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