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Before the Dawn

Stone Age doesn’t always mean ancient, and the ‘Noble Savage’ wasn’t.

Some years ago, I was in a special area on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, 200 years ago, the Hawaiians had carved small dish-like indentations in the lava rock where they put umbilical cords from infants. These were offerings to the gods that ensured good fortune for the new born.

Hawaiian Petroglyph and Umbilical Depressions on the Big Island

Hawaiians back then had no metal, no wheel, no written language, no flocks, no beasts of burden, no lots-of-things needed to advance. They were a true Stone Age culture in every sense. This wasn’t their fault of course, but it was true. Only 200 years ago.

Later that evening, my bride and I were walking toward the current active lava flow pouring into the sea (video). We chanced to meet a pleasant couple from England and struck up a conversation, soon learning that we all loved ancient things but had a very different definition of the word. They were waxing rhapsodic about the ‘Ancient’ Hawaiians and their lost ‘wisdom’. To us, Ancient ends somwhere around the Trojan War (c. 1200 BC), while Athenians, Spartans and Romans lived in Classical times.

I asked our new companions how things that happened only 200 years ago could be ancient. They looked confused for a moment, then turned to the ‘wisdom’ that the modern world had lost from a time when life was simpler and we treated each other better. At that point, the path split for our different planned destinations and we amiably parted company to explore the glowing flows of molten rock.

Part of the 'Volcano Coast' on the Big Island Made by Recent Lava Flows. Steam from the Current Flow Rises Beyond the Point

As you may know, Anthropology and Archaeology have long since shown that Rosseau’s notion of the Noble Savage living in peace and at one with nature is a pure fantasy. Pre-agrarian life was more nasty, more brutal and shorter than any mode of living since. Yet many people who couldn’t survive a day in the wilderness still cling to this profound fallacy.

A few years ago, in his superb book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, Nicholas Wade showed via genetic research what things were really like before history began. If you have any interest in the subject and can read only one book on it, this is that book. It’s fascinating to read, based on hard science and sound logic, and it’s concise (only 320 pages).

I admire and respect stone age peoples for their grit and perseverance, not for their supposed superior wisdom and idyllic peacefulness. Ignorant animism and belief in the Rules of Magic (see posts here, here and here) are not wisdom. And a 30% male death rate is not the result of peace.


 For those with a much deeper interest in the anthropological rather than genetic side of pre-history, I recommend The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer as the ‘if you can only read one’ book. It’s not nearly such smooth going as Before the Dawn, but it is exhaustive and fascinating.

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  1. January 26, 2012 at 8:53 am

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