Through Respect Comes Understanding

There is thus the danger of assuming a misguided attitude toward the past if we blindly swallow the notion that change means improvement, if we confuse the fact that civilizations change over time with a false, albeit reassuring sense of evolution. Ugo de Santillana and Ertha von Dechend (1983), in their Hamlet's Mill (see also Chapter 15) summarize the problem as follows:

Our period may some day be called the Darwinian period, just as we talk of the Newtonian period of two centuries ago. The simple idea of evolution, which is no longer thought necessary to examine, spreads like a tent over all those ages that lead from primitivism into civilization. Gradually, we are told, step by step, men produced the arts and crafts, this and that, until they emerged into the light of history. Those soporific words "gradually" and "step by step,'' repeated incessantly, are aimed at covering an ignorance which is both vast and surprising. One should like to inquire: which steps. But then one is lulled, overwhelmed, and stupefied by the gradualness of it all, which is at best a platitude, only good for pacifying the mind, since no one is willing to imagine that civilization appeared in a thunderclap.

We cannot understand the past without respecting it and respecting the intelligence of the people who lived then, without forcing them into our own way of thinking. For that often reveals our schemas to be totally inadequate to the task of understanding the dynamics of another civilization's thought. In addition, our schemas are often incorrect, such as those referring to ancient peoples as "noble savages'' living in some idyllic "golden age.'' As recently as the 1950s the Mayas were still considered a peaceable population of farmers who idly "marked the passage of time.''

It is curious how these schemas are so deeply ingrained that we can look straight at reality and fail to see it. For example, many people, myself included, have visited the mummy of the Similaun Man at the Bolzano Archaeological Museum. The man died with the knife in his hand, which the naked eye can easily see by simply looking at his contracted right hand. Yet until recently it was not noticed, for who would imagine that a wandering shepherd or hunter-gatherer or shaman communing with nature would have died while stabbing someone?

When we conduct a scientific experiment, measuring instruments "see" for us. If they have been designed properly, the results are objective. It is another situation entirely when we are dealing with an archaeological artifact, a work of art or architecture, something made according to codes that are unknown to us, canons and meanings that we are excluded a priori from understanding. Since our eyes are our measuring instruments, if we look at things without realizing what we are seeing, we are at risk of understanding nothing, to the extent that we can look at a monumental statue, in the middle of a desert, that has been eroded by rainwater without recognizing this elementary feature (it is called the Sphinx; see Chapter 16).

Freeing ourselves from schemas, therefore, is a necessary condition if we want to understand people who were more or less of the same intelligence as us but who had different ways of thinking—neither better nor worse, neither more nor less evolved. We have to be careful, for the insidious tendency to take the past for granted is widespread and deeply rooted—and this applies to the past in general, not just prehistory. Many of us were taught in school that in the Middle Ages the earth was believed to be flat, a conviction that a famous animated film has seen fit to pass on to the children of later generations. The problem is, it's not even remotely true. It is a legend, confabulated around the middle of the 19th century and commonly believed ever since.

I do not know what a poor medieval farmer thought about the form of the earth, except that it probably did not interest him much. I do know, however, that Greek scientists, Eratosthenes specifically, had calculated the circumference of the earth fairly accurately, and that medieval scholars knew this.

The reason why Columbus was urged to forgo his voyage was not for fear that his ships would sail off the edge of the earth into the void, but because the trip was too long, and in fact it would have been if the Americas had not been there to interrupt it.

Further evidence that scholars of the Middle Ages did not think the earth was flat can be found in Dante's Divine Comedy. When Dante leaves the

Figure 13.1
Figures 13.1-2: Dante and Vergil come out from the Hell and see the stars of the southern hemisphere, in two famous drawings by Gustave Dore.

Inferno he and Virgil emerge on the other side of the globe, demonstrating knowledge of southern astronomy. He sees "all the stars of the other pole" and watches the circumpolar stars of the Northern Hemisphere set behind the horizon. Further, Dante's masterpiece is riddled with double meanings and the dual nature of things, both terrestrial and celestial. Even if not many commentators had the courage to say so, it is highly probable that Dante had information of a quantitative nature about the skies of the Southern Hemisphere, obtained from travelers who had gone far enough south to observe them. The following lines come from Purgatory, Canto 1, tercet 22, as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

To the right hand I turned, and fixed my mind Upon the other pole, and saw four stars Ne'er seen before save by the primal people.

Rejoicing in their flamelets seemed the heaven. O thou septentrional and widowed site, Because thou art deprived of seeing these!

The four stars are undoubtedly, in Dante's mind, seen as an image of the four Theological Virtues. But neither is there any question that the Southern Cross with his four (or five) bright stars is a fundamental constellation for the navigation of the Southern Hemisphere, and indeed the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, in a letter penned on July 18, 1500, and addressed to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, noted that the stars cited by Dante had to have been the Southern Cross. The same constellation reappears in Purgatory, Canto 8, tercet 88:

And my Conductor: "Son, what dost thou gaze at Up there?'' And I to him: "At those three torches With which this hither pole is all on fire.''

And he to me: "The four resplendent stars Thou sawest this morning are down yonder low, And these have mounted up to where those were.''

The "three torches'' could be the stars of the Austral Triangle, another important navigational constellation in the Southern Hemisphere (around the year 1300, the Southern Cross, followed by the Austral Triangle, was visible on the southern horizon at a northern latitude of about 24 degrees).

So, avoiding schemas and preconceptions means completely and definitively accepting that there is no evolution of intelligence. The Romans were as intelligent as we are, as were the Egyptians. The same applies to the neolithic peoples, to the builders of the megalithic temples, to the artists of Lascaux.

These people did not leave us manuals or explanations. All they left us are their works. And it is time that we recognize the possibility that there exist objects about which we understand nothing—objects that are as puzzling to us as those equidistant disks were for the characters of Roadside Picnic. It is time to admit that we do not know what they are for or how they work.

However, in our case these objects were not left by extraterrestrials, or by some unknown antediluvian civilizations as some would unfortunately have us believe (thereby betraying themselves immediately as being among those who do not respect and therefore cannot understand our predecessors). They were left by people like us, which means we can understand, because while they were no less intelligent than we, neither were they more so.

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