Note: If you missed reading the explanation on Page One, please be aware that this is not an active blog at this time.
The Dirt on History
One of my rabid fans has taken me to task for using archeological evidence when my incredibly astute insights are supposed to be about history. There are two important points here. One, archeology is without doubt a study of human history. Two, rabid was not a typo. Something definitely bit this guy.
Archeology is defined in my Concise Oxford Dictionary (Tenth Edition, Oxford University Press, 1999) as, “the US spelling of archaeology”. I love British dictionaries.
Anyway, the definition is “the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of physical remains”. Archeology is history with lots and lots of dirt. Note that archeologists will say they were on a “dig”. Their discoveries are rarely lying around waiting for someone to trip over them. Whole cities have been buried in the sands of time, the dirt of the ages and oceans of water. Recovering our history is not easy. Hence, the archeologist’s favorite pack animal: the graduate student.
Movies portray the high adventure of being an archeologist. He dodges bullets, defeats mantraps and wins the heart of a supermodel-turned-actress whose dress is two sizes too small and torn in revealing places. Real archeologists face day after day of boring, backbreaking work in brutal conditions. They don’t get visits from supermodels. Even if they should, the models are unlikely to tear off their clothes for a filthy, balding professor who spends his time shoveling muck in Ecuador. Most of the women the professor finds are long dead and not much fun at parties. They are however very revealing…of history.
History is not a static science with readily repeatable experiments and mathematical formulas accurate to six-gazillion decimal places. History grows; it changes; it’s subject to interpretation and theories.
Theory is the scientific term for ‘Damn! I can’t believe they published that!’
However, note the following examples:
History grows: The US Congressional Record expands every day. Volume upon volume of the most boring, trite, inane crap concerning issues you care nothing about is readily available to you through your local government printing office. The issue you do care about is two small sentences buried in paragraph five of page 2,467.
History changes: The Black Plague of the Middle Ages was blamed on bad air, the wrath of God, the most convenient stranger and numerous other causes. When the medical community discovered that germs caused infectious disease, that part of history was rewritten to incorporate the recently discovered facts. However, such facts are not universally convincing in the face of personal beliefs. The Flat Earth Society is still seeking new members and conspiracy theorists still claim the Apollo moon landings were filmed in a Hollywood studio. I can’t believe Neil Armstrong didn’t win an Oscar.
“One small step for man…”
“Cut! Print it!”
History is subject to interpretation: George Washington is a great American hero, the Father of Our Country.
Cross the Atlantic and in England you may find a different view. George is a rebellious traitor to his king and country. I always knew that sneaky, little smile of his wasn’t just the wooden teeth.
Strangely, both views are correct. It’s the perspective of the writer that chooses one view over another. History has no absolutes. To find something absolute, you must, for example, study physics (the speed of light), or mathematics (Pi never ends), or ask your mother (Mom knows exactly what’s wrong with me, my curtains, my dog, my house… And like Pi, it never ends.).
Interpretation becomes even murkier when you add in the personal perspective of the writer. Was he recording verifiable facts or attempting to write a good story where literary considerations overshadowed the truth? Was he a traditionalist or a revisionist? Were his views influenced or biased? Was he an unscrupulous, low-life, scummy, yellow-dog propagandist who was paid to lie? Naturally, I mean low-life, scummy and yellow-dog in their most flattering scholarly sense.
History has theories: No one knows with absolute certainty why the Mayan civilization abandoned their cities. Possible explanations include the population increasing beyond the capacity of resources, natural disaster, climatic changes, epidemics and war. My personal theory is that they went to the big sale at Wal-Mart and won’t return until they max all their credit cards.
In the absence of conclusive proof, well-evidenced theories are the only honest option.
So, what can I conclude is the major difference between history and archeology? It’s the temperature. Libraries are air-conditioned, which is the number one reason to prefer history to archeology. I’ll gladly read about an exciting, world-renowned discovery where archeologists crawl through ancient sewage in the steaming hot jungle of some country with both gorillas and guerillas. But personally, I’d rather discover GE, Whirlpool, and Kenmore.
As a tool to help us understand the human condition, history is invaluable. But it is subject to numerous errors simply because we are all human. Utilizing every available tool to search for the truth, if there is such a thing, is just prudent. Archeology, sociology, psychology, ethnology, linguistics, genetics and many other related fields can help a dedicated researcher, such as myself, arrive at a proper conclusion—so that everyone who reads that conclusion can argue with it.
Hunt This, Gather That
I once met a man who claimed that he understood women. Frankly, it was hard to argue with his qualifications; he was an outstanding liar.
Relationships have always been difficult. When man first began walking upright six million years ago in the dense jungles of Africa, the male and female of our species would occasionally meet face-to-face while foraging for food on the jungle floor. Once it was discovered that women have faces…
Well, let’s just say things have never been the same since then. Early man learned the hard lesson that his mate’s facial expressions had meaning. Naturally, our strongest emotions were the easiest to read. On the one hand, her expression might say I’m in the mood for love. On the other, her expression caused early man to discover that not only could he walk, he could run.
As mankind expanded its horizons, we became a nomadic people, surviving as hunter-gatherers in groups of roughly twenty to seventy individuals. The male did the hunting and fishing, and the female did the gathering. As it turns out, gathering contributed up to eighty percent of the caloric intake of these early people, so women were extraordinarily important to the survival of the group. The gatherer woman bore and raised the children, clothed everyone (in colder climates), gathered foodstuffs from nature, prepared all the meals, nursed the sick and wounded, and likely provided cohesion for the group. In essence, she provided the earliest foundations for civilization. In fact, it’s rumored that the fossil skulls that legendary archeologist and paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in the 1950’s were found next to a fossilized doormat saying Please Wipe Your Feet.
And the male… Man the hunter brought home the occasional steak, showed up for supper, and in all probability, he was just as likely as men are today to complain that his first wife was a better cook.
Despite how one-sided this sounds, the female was not unduly burdened. In fact, some historians believe that men and women were more socially equal during this period of our evolution than we are today. That is, power within the society was shared much more equally between the genders.
However, the male had the riskier lifestyle by far. He was responsible for making the weapons for hunting and defending the group. Hunting provided most of early man’s dietary protein, but predators lurked everywhere in the same hunting grounds and living areas. When a saber-toothed cat (often mistakenly referred to as a saber-toothed tiger) showed up in the middle of the night, it was the male’s job to chase away this danger.
Let’s further examine the male’s role within the hunter-gatherer group:
- Archeologists today often find male human remains from our hunter-gatherer past that show signs of serious injury, sometimes multiple healed fractures. Hunting wild beasts that outweigh you by thousands of pounds is not for the faint hearted, and frozen food meant you were hunting on a glacier.
- Defense was equally dangerous. Facing off in the darkness with a ferocious saber-toothed cat, which can weigh up to 400 kg, borders on insane behavior, especially when you’re defending yourself and your mate with nothing but a stone-pointed spear. However, if you could run faster than your wife, divorce was fairly easy.
- Since there are now seven billion human beings on the planet descended from these ancestors, it’s safe to assume that man the hunter usually managed to save his mate from being ripped apart and eaten by a hungry cat, and that she lovingly showed her appreciation. After all, there was nothing on TV.
With the beginnings of agriculture (c. 8000 BCE), human relationships again underwent a major change, but it didn’t happen immediately.
The advantages of agriculture are obvious. If you can grow enough food, you can stay in one place. You can build a home to shelter your family from the weather and predators. Basically, providing for and defending your family becomes less of a burden when you have a stable home within a community.
However, the family farm was still dependent on human labor. It’s likely that most of this labor fell to women, who used digging sticks and hoes to plant the fields. Men were still responsible for hunting, i.e. adding protein to their diet. So, even though early man began to settle in fertile valleys, the food equation remained pretty much the same, with women providing eighty percent of daily sustenance. This was probably done with a combination of farming and gathering, but she didn’t mind the extra work now that she had a place to hang new drapes.
So, what changed? How did women lose their place of equality in the social structure? Frankly, no one knows for certain, but a pretty good guess would be the invention of the plow.
Somewhere around the 6th millennia BC, man began to domesticate animals such as oxen. A pair of oxen pulling the Mesopotamian ard or scratch plow could prepare a field for planting more quickly, making it possible to farm a larger area, which in turn yielded more food. The plow was faster and more productive than women with digging sticks.
The food equation changed. Men drove the oxen and guided the plow, and women no longer provided eighty percent of the food for the family and their community.
While it’s uncertain if the invention of the plow actually caused women to surrender some of their power and equality in their community, some historians present a pretty good case. I think it’s certainly possible that this was the historical beginning of women being involuntarily relegated to the kitchen, and after eight thousand years, the modern woman still appears to have less power and equality than the ancestral gatherer woman.
You Are High Maintenance, Lover
We’ve all been in relationships that didn’t work out. Many of us have also been in relationships that cost us more of our soul and much more of our money than we would have preferred. In fact, one of the major television networks is planning to take advantage of this shared experience by fielding a new reality show this fall called, And That, Your Honor, Is Why I Killed Her.
Let’s examine some of history’s great love stories:
Royalty: King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
Henry broke with Rome and backed the Church of England, which allowed him to divorce his wife and marry Anne. However, she failed to produce a male heir, so Henry convicted Anne of treason and adultery, then beheaded her. Apparently, you can love someone to pieces.
Hollywood: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Richard loved Liz so much that he married her twice and bought her enough jewelry to finance a small country. Yet, he compared their relationship to rubbing two sticks of dynamite together. After divorcing, the pair remained lifelong friends and their publicists have confirmed that neither exploded.
Literature: Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler
Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gone with the Wind, traces the relationship of Scarlett and Brett as southerners are desperately trying to survive after Sherman’s March to the Sea. Scarlett is tempestuous; Rhett is strong and darkly erotic. Their relationship is never fully resolved in the novel; some readers believe the possibility of reconciliation is hinted but uncertain. However, history does record that Scarlett inspired a new fashion line for Carol Burnett.
Myth: Apollo and Daphne
To avenge an insult, Eros, the Greek god of love, shoots Apollo with a golden arrow, ensuring his undying love for Daphne. Eros then shoots Daphne with a leaden arrow, ensuring her hatred of Apollo. Ergo, Apollo chases and Daphne retreats until in a final foot race, Daphne is turned into a laurel tree to escape. This is a classic tale of chastity and lust, and may be the origin of the Save a Tree Foundation.
Legend: Robin Hood and Maid Marian
Robin Hood falls head over heels for the lovely Maid Marian, but she is captured by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, who is determined to wed her and bed her. Risking his life, Robin rescues his love and kills the evil sheriff. Then, the wealthy Maid Marian leaves her lavishly appointed castle behind and marries Robin Hood, who lives in a homeless shelter in Sherwood Forest. …Yeah, right!
As you can see, the difficult relationship is nothing new. Sometimes it seems that tales of the disastrous relationship are the norm. However, there is one tale of romance that tops the charts for a high maintenance love, and the story is over three thousand years old, a late Bronze Age tale of sex and violence.
Sparta, c. 1200 BCE
King Menelaus returned from his trip to find the palace servants avoiding, almost running away from him. “What’s going on?” he demanded of his royal scribe.
“Your Majesty, please don’t kill me.” The scribe prostrated himself before the king.
“What? Oh, get up! What’s the problem?”
“Your houseguest, Majesty, the Prince of Troy, Paris has stolen your gold.”
“A royal thief? Are you sure?”
“Full certain, Your Majesty.” The scribe cringed. “He may also have abducted your wife.”
Menelaus walked to the window, taking a moment to survey his kingdom.
“What should we do, Your Majesty?” the scribe asked timidly.
“I suppose we’ll have to get her back.”
“Tell my counselors I need an immediate cost-benefit analysis.”
Helen of Troy, also known as Helen of Sparta, was Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Mila Kunis and Jennifer Aniston, all rolled into one. Literally, she was a sex goddess for the ages.
The story of Helen is part myth, part history, and part hearsay. Confusion abounds, caused by numerous literary and historical sources, each claiming the true story.
Conflicting archeological evidence causes further confusion. Some sites accurately reflect parts of the story. Other sites that were carefully described produced no evidence at all.
Homer’s Iliad is perhaps the most well-known ancient text to tell Helen’s story, but scholars cannot say for certain that Homer was in fact a real person. If he did exist, it’s not known when he lived (possibly 7th or 8th century BCE). Stylistically, the Iliad can be interpreted as written by one author, or by many. It may also have been revised any number of times, and some competing ancient authors dispute parts of Homer’s epic poem.
So, what can you believe about Helen?
Likely, she was a Bronze Age princess and queen. She was a famous beauty with a face that launched a thousand ships. She was sexy in a way that most women wish they could be, and most men have experienced only in their dreams. Her husband, Menelaus, who was determined to kill Helen for betraying him as soon as she was retrieved, relented at the mere sight of her incredible beauty and raw sex appeal. He could not bring himself to harm her.
One indisputable fact about Helen: She was the most high maintenance lover in recorded history. If you have to mobilize fleets and armies, then fight a nine-year war to recover your lover, new cars, jewels and fur coats pale by comparison.
On second thought, high maintenance doesn’t begin to describe Helen of Troy, but triple the national debt lover just doesn’t seem as catchy.
NOTE: If you would like to see a truly engaging documentary on Helen of Troy, I highly recommend Bettany Hughes’ Ancient Worlds – Helen of Troy. It’s fascinating! Bettany is one of my personal heroes…er…uh…heroines for her amazing ability to bring history to life. I’m a huge fan!
And yes, it’s acceptable, in fact noble, for a man to admire the achievements of an intelligent and talented woman, except in Saudi Arabia where it may still be a felony.
Explore and Pass the Salt
Exploring this small planet of ours, the people I have met fall into one of two categories. Ninety-nine percent are good, decent, hospitable people who are just trying to make a living in order to feed, clothe and educate their children, hopefully offering the next generation a better life. The remaining one percent make me wish that choking someone was legal.
Yes, there are evil, tasteless, nasty or just inconsiderate people in the world. Meeting them can color your perception of a city or country, and all the people who reside there. It shouldn’t, but it often does.
In order to correct this situation, I’m starting a petition to make choking legal and…
Unfortunately, that simplistic solution is not the answer, and frankly, I don’t know what is. However, I do know that no matter how difficult travel is today, our ancestors faced many more difficulties. A wagon train in the Old West, or a camel caravan on the Silk Road would travel ten to twenty-five miles a day, depending on load, weather and terrain. Let’s arbitrarily say a good day covered twenty miles. Arbitrarily comes from the Latin root arbiter, meaning wild-assed guess.
For a modern comparison, I googled FAA.gov to find the average speed of a Boeing 747. On the FAA website, I found a wealth of information, and as soon as I complete a four year degree in aeronautical engineering, some of it will likely be understandable.
Next, I asked a qualified pilot. He whimsically looked up at the sky and said, “About 500 knots.” Whimsically comes from the 17th century English word, whim, meaning wild-assed guess.
I was beginning to sense a pattern.
Applying a little math, while ignoring a whole laundry list of variables: 500 knots converts roughly to 600 MPH. There are 60 minutes in an hour, so a jet airliner flies at roughly ten miles per minute. It covers a full day’s travel by wagon train or caravan in just two minutes! This is definitely a tortoise and hare comparison, but in this case, the hare wins handily and is rewarded with inflight cocktails and honey-roasted peanuts.
The speed demon for our ancestors was the sailing ship, quite commonly, a caravel, which is a broad-beamed vessel of fifty or sixty tons with lateen (triangular) sails (later designs used a square mainsail). The average speed for a caravel, again ignoring a lot of variables, was roughly four knots (about 5 MPH), sailing on average ninety to one-hundred ten miles in twenty-four hours, which coincidentally is approximately half the time it takes to open the cast-iron bag containing your airline peanuts.
We know that sailing a caravel on the open ocean was high risk.
If an explorer discovers new lands and new wealth at the end of his journey, it’s worth high risk.
Let’s compare the risk factors for two explorers, one modern, one 16th century, both travelling to Buenos Aires, Argentina:
Our modern explorer, Juan Doe is a young, ambitious businessman, seeking his fortune in international trade. Juan flies from Cadiz, Spain to Buenos Aires. Naturally, Juan faces the usual travel hazards. It takes an hour to get through airport security. He then faces another long wait to board the plane, and under his breath, he says some really nasty things about his travel agent’s parentage when he finds out that he is seated next to a crying infant.
Takeoff is delayed another hour. Worse, Juan has already seen the inflight movie—twice. He watches it a third time. During the movie, the crying infant throws up on Juan’s new silk Armani shirt. However, Juan is an impeccably trained Spanish gentleman; he doesn’t kill the little bastard.
Juan Doe’s flight takes twelve hours and twenty-two minutes. He arrives in Buenos Aires to find his luggage has been sent to Copenhagen, and somewhere between the arrival gate and the Customs and Immigration desk, someone has pickpocketed his wallet.
Juan is not happy.
Our 16th century explorer is named, Juan Díaz de Solís (1470 – 20 January 1516), a navigator, explorer and Pilot-Major of Spain. Juan Diaz is also ambitious. He is granted a commission to explore the New World, hoping to find a westward passage to the Pacific Ocean.
Juan Diaz sails from Sanlúcar de Barrameda (52 km from Cadiz, Spain) on October 8, 1515. He has three ships and seventy men with provisions for more than two years. During the voyage, Juan must deal with unpredictable weather, keep a sharp lookout for English and Dutch pirates, and bury a crewman who died unexpectedly. However, he thanks God that he wasn’t seated next to a crying infant.
Juan Diaz arrives at what he believes is a passage to the Pacific in mid-February, 1516, a journey of over four months. He names the newly discovered passage, El Mar Dulce (the freshwater sea), but further exploration proves that he has only discovered the mouth of a river, Río de la Plata.
Sailing upriver, Juan Diaz names Martin Garcia Island, near present-day Buenos Aires, after his deceased crewman, then turns his ship into a tributary, the Uruguay River. Juan likes travel souvenirs and decides to kidnap a few friendly natives to take back to Spain. Unfortunately, the locals were the murderous and cannibalistic Charrua tribe. Within sight of the men still aboard ship, Juan and his landing party are suddenly attacked, hacked to death, roasted and eaten.
Juan is not happy.
However, his luggage is still aboard his ship.
Being a modern explorer has advantages, as you can easily see:
Juan Doe did have to file a police report about his missing wallet and cancel all of his credit cards. The airline returned his luggage, so he now has a clean shirt.
16th Century Risk
Juan Díaz de Solís never did arrive in Buenos Aires. Perhaps his ghost can take comfort in the fact that, at the very least, a few sincere words were spoken over his corpse, “Please, pass the salt.”
Starry Starry Night
If you live in a modern city, you will most likely see streetlights and advertisements. Due to light pollution, you may never have seen stars except on television, in a movie theater, or when suffering a severe blow to the head.
I have seen the night sky from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, away from all shore lights. Standing on a dark deck, sailing a calm sea, my view was magnificent, dramatic, almost overwhelming. Normally, I believe humility is for people who need it, but this was a truly humbling experience.
When nature provides us with these uniquely moving emotional experiences, it’s easy to believe that we are alone in our moment. That we alone can perceive such exquisite beauty, but it is a common human experience. Or, it once was.
Think about the times in your life when you have been genuinely overwhelmed by beauty. Subtract any experiences that involve someone naked.
It’s a much smaller number now, isn’t it?
Once we remove what I will politely call raging hormonal bias, the beauty that impresses us most is found in works of art, great literature and nature itself. Our modern culture affords us nearly unlimited access to great art and great literature, but we have removed ourselves from nature. Certainly, that’s not all bad. The many benefits of city living are blatantly obvious. Walking on concrete is far superior to slogging through mud. We have clean water delivered to our faucets 24/7. Throw a switch and we have light and heat; and it’s much easier to find a party serving free liquor.
Once you remove yourself from the city’s light pollution and experience the night sky for yourself, then you will understand why ancient civilizations (most often cited are the Greeks and Romans) named planets, stars and constellations after gods and goddesses. You will understand why the stars inspired myth, art, literature, mathematics, and numerous other human endeavors. You will understand why songs are sung about the beauty of the heavens, and why throughout most of human history, a blanket and the night sky were major components in human conception.
One further comment on the latter, if you haven’t made love under a brilliantly glittering, transcendent night sky, you’ve missed one of the truly great experiences of human existence. Just remember these helpful tips and caveats:
- Don’t forget your blanket.
- Sand is not your friend when it ends up in your underwear.
- Fleas and ticks have no respect for romance.
- That’s not the seven year itch; it’s poison ivy.
- While in flagrante delicto, it’s perfectly normal for women to have a better view.
- Your mother lied. She’s seen the night sky.
So, if a stellar view of our place in the universe is such a widely shared human experience:
- Why has modern man forsaken it?
- Just how long has mankind been looking up to the stars?
To answer the first question, I could refer you back to the paragraph which discussed heat, light and running water. However, the truth is most of us don’t know what we’re missing. If we did, we’d turn off the late night talk show, gather a lover or a few friends, and run away from the city lights on a fairly regular basis. While I’m not a spiritual or religious person, I think it does a soul good to actually see its place in the universe.
The answer to the second question is the same as many historical conundrums: no one knows.
The earliest recorded study of the night sky is the Babylonian Enuma Anu Enlil, which was written in the 7th century BCE. However, evidence suggests that the observations and omens it records date back to as early as the 2nd millennium BCE. Some of the astronomical observations are surprisingly accurate considering the time period and the near total lack of instrumentation. I can’t say as much for the accuracy of the ancient omens and portents. As the Enuma Anu Enlil instructs, I faithfully watched for the proper star alignments, but no plagues of locusts have shown up, the river hasn’t risen, and my cow is still not pregnant.
Once mankind began recording observations of the night sky, nearly every culture on the planet made some contribution. The entire human race has the same fascination with the stars. With the advent of written languages, many cultures documented their astronomical thoughts and observations, usually with great care.
I find particularly impressive the Persian astronomer, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (December 7, 903 – May 25, 986). While there are hints that other cultures, such as the Maya, may have observed nebula and galaxies other than our own Milky Way, al-Sufi was the first to accurately record such a sighting in his Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib al-Thabita (The Book of the Fixed Stars). He described and illustrated the Andromeda Galaxy, which he called “a little cloud”, as well as the Large Magellanic Cloud.
In writing his book, al-Sufi attempted to combine his own observations with the classical Arab works and those of other astronomers, such as the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, to create a scholarly text. He succeeded, and his book was used as a reference for hundreds of years.
All of al-Sufi’s work was done with the naked eye. The telescope was not invented until 1608. Edwin Hubble needed the 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mt. Wilson Observatory to prove that the Milky Way was not the entire universe (observations 1922-1923), and that al-Sufi’s “little cloud” was in fact 2.5 million light years from Earth.
Al-Sufi, my old friend, that’s some damn good eyesight!