Palaeoscience

Where might we hope to find the earliest signs of human enquiry into the causes of what we understand as natural phenomena, and what was their nature? Many different answers may be found in different parts of the world, and not only in the prehistoric past. But they emerged in the context of conceptual frameworks that bear little resemblance to the way that we classify things we perceive in the natural world according to the Western scientific tradition. Within these other frameworks—as in the development of our own—understanding was not sought as an end in itself but was inextricably bound up with ideology and religion, myth and ritual, politics and power, and what to us seem the more practical, everyday aspects of life—in short, with all aspects of sacred and mundane knowledge and practice. Our own ideas about how people conceived of the world in times and places where no form of writing had developed, and where no historical account is available, can only be formulated in the context of our knowledge and theories about human development and behavior in general, and can only be directly enlightened by what is left to us in the form of material remains. Our own interpretations can only be achieved through the filter of our own cultural background.

The very earliest stages in the development of human thought remain obscure. Only a few have ventured to explore the development of cognition on an evolutionary time scale. Physically, the human mind has changed little since the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens between about 100,000 and 50,000 b.c.e., although some scholars suggest that certain key developments, such as the ability to communicate using language, had already taken place some two million years before. By combining ideas from evolutionary psychology and evidence from palaeolithic archaeology, archaeologist Steven Mithen has suggested that in the earlier stages of human evolution, human intelligence was compartmentalized into four separate specialist domains—technical, social, natural historical, and linguistic—and these only came together at the time of transition to the Upper Palaeolithic period, around 30,000 b.c.e. This is the time when fine cave-art depictions of animals appeared in western Europe and when the first clear evidence emerges of decorative items being buried with the dead, although deliberate burial itself may date back at least to the Neanderthals of the Middle Palaeolithic, up to 100,000 years earlier. Though controversial, Mithen's ideas draw attention to what is perhaps a key notion in the development of human thought: the way people come to terms with, and make sense of, themselves and their environment has much to do with drawing associations between different things that they perceive in the world around them.

One challenge is to try to trace evidence for the development of certain fundamental concepts. This is not a trivial matter. No concept seems more abstract and inviolable than that of number, and yet the anthropologist Thomas Crump has identified three types of symbolic number, which he takes to represent three levels of conceptual evolution, and examined their use in different cultural contexts. This study begins to suggest orders of relationship between levels of numerical notation and other aspects of cognition. Nevertheless, it may be inappropriate to try to trace the evolution of most human concepts in this way; they may simply be different in different worldviews. For example, Westerners have a concept of direction as something precisely defined: two buildings aligned, respectively, due east and two degrees south of east would be said to point in slightly different directions. There is some evidence, on the other hand, that the four directions that are a common feature of indigenous worldviews in North and Central America were conceived rather more as (what we would see as) ranges of directions centered upon (what we would see as) the cardinal points. Wherever possible, we must try to avoid assuming that concepts that seem fundamental to us are in fact universal and inevitable.

Concepts of measurement have a special place in the development of thought. These can be recognized in various ways in the archaeological record. A classic example is a set of carefully manufactured cubical stones from the city of Mohenjodaro in the Indus valley civilization of c. 2000 B.C.E. The masses of the stones are very close to exact multiples of a unit of 0.836 grams. From this it can be deduced, among other things, that the people who made and used these stone weights possessed a concept equivalent to our notion of weight or mass, a concept of modular measure, a hierarchical system of numeration based on units of four or sixteen, and a notion of equivalence. Measuring things is one aspect of trying to make sense of the world. But even this does not in itself tell us anything of how people explained natural phenomena. Such explanations stem from correspondences that people perceive in the world. The mental process of scientific discovery involves bringing together phenomena and concepts that were not previously seen as related.

The Scottish engineer Alexander Thom suggested that a sophisticated "megalithic science" (although he never himself used this term) existed in later prehistoric Britain. Thom reasoned that "megalithic man," as he styled him, had a solid background of technological knowledge. Here I am thinking not only of his knowledge of ceramics, textiles, tanning, carpentry, husbandry, metallurgy, and the like, but of his knowledge of levers, fulcrums, foundations, sheerlegs, slings, and ropes. . . . There was also his ability to use boats: he travelled freely as far as Shetland, crossing the wide stretch of open water north of Orkney, as well as the exceedingly dangerous Pentland Firth and the North Channel between Kintyre and Ireland. This involved a knowledge of the tides and tidal currents that rule those waters. (Thom 1971, pp. 9-10)

With this in mind, Thom measured and analyzed the geometrical ground-plans and potential astronomical alignments at several hundred megalithic monuments (mostly settings of free-standing megaliths such as stone circles and stone rows) in northern and western Britain. One of his main conclusions was that high-precision observations were made of the sun, moon, and stars using features such as notches and hilltops on distant horizons as natural foresights against which minute changes in their rising and setting positions could be measured. There was a "megalithic calendar," which divided the year into eight, or possibly sixteen, equal periods, epoch dates being marked by precise solar alignments at various megalithic sites around the country. He also concluded that sites all over Britain were laid out using a small number of precise geometrical constructions using a standard unit of length (the "megalithic yard") accurate to about one millimeter.

Thom's theories have not stood the test of time. On the archaeological side, detailed reassessments have revealed a variety of subtle biases in the selection of data that have destroyed the statistical conclusions. Astronomical critiques have drawn attention to day-to-day changes in atmospheric refraction and to the effects of extinction near the horizon. These have shown that programs of naked-eye observations of the precision envisaged by Thom could never have been successfully carried out. Similarly, statistical reappraisals have shown that Thom's ideas about precise megalithic mensuration and geometry cannot be supported on the evidence available.

Observations and perceptions of astronomical phenomena do, nonetheless, frequently feature in symbolism associated with places of significance in the landscape or the design of monumental architecture. This is because human activities tend to reflect the perceived cosmos, of which the sky is viewed as an integral part. The alignment of numerous European pre historic temples and tombs upon horizon astronomical events is probably best understood in this way. But such alignments are not the only manner in which ancient obsessions with the skies may show up in the material record. There is widespread evidence, for example, of the deliberate positioning and design of art and architecture to permit the interaction of sunlight and shadow at certain times, a famous example being the "sun dagger" at Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

It is tempting to speak of astronomy as the oldest science, but in doing so we may fail to recognize that attempting to make sense of what was perceived in the sky merely formed an integral part of human understanding of the natural world in an integrated way. The solstitial orientation of the passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, expressed something about the perceived association between ancestors and the sun; it was not set up to measure or track the solar motions. Likewise, in designing their earth lodges the Skidi Pawnee of North America paid attention to details of light and shadow and used viewing stations for astronomical observations. However, we would be wrong to view the earth lodge as an observatory in the Western sense. It was, according to ethnoastronomer Von Del Chamberlain, "primarily a shelter to protect its builders from the intense solar heat, cold winter air, wind, rain, snow, and creatures that might molest them" (Chamberlain 1982, p. 166).

See also:

Cosmology; "Megalithic" Calendar; Megalithic "Observatories"; Science or Symbolism?; Thom, Alexander (1894-1985).

Fajada Butte Sun Dagger; Newgrange; Pawnee Earth Lodge; Prehistoric Tombs and Temples in Europe; Stone Circles.

References and further reading

Chamberlain, Von Del. When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America, 166, 178. Los Altos, CA, and College Park, MD: Ballena Press/Center for Archaeoastronomy, 1982.

Crump, Thomas. The Anthropology of Numbers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Heggie, Douglas. Megalithic Science: Ancient Mathematics and Astronomy in Northwest Europe. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

Mithen, Steven. The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Renfrew, Colin. Towards an Archaeology of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Thom, Alexander. Megalithic Lunar Observatories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

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