I wrote last month about the enormous changes that engulfed the Earth at the close of the last great ice age. I discussed the “double whammy” that knocked the planet out of the grip of glacial cold and ushered in the period of interglacial warmth called the Holocene, the name given to the present geological epoch. I stated that I would discuss the era of the Goddess within the context of evolving knowledge of global change. The remainder of this month’s contribution will serve to provide a context for that discussion.
It was the Holocene epoch that saw the rise of humankind from the barbarism of the Stone Age to the pinnacle of modern civilization. Or so the conventional models of history and prehistory would have us believe. There is however an alternate paradigm, one which, unfortunately, has been banished to the utter fringe of respectable scholarship. Rather than viewing the rise of civilization as a smoothly ascending logarithmic arc from somewhere around 10 thousand years ago up to the 21st century, in the alternate model of historical change the line describing the progress of civilization is saw-toothed, with smoothly ascending arcs interrupted by sudden and rapid falls, precisely the same shape of line that describes the progress of life itself on Earth through the eons. It is beginning to dawn on the minds of the more perceptive scholars of antiquity that this alternate model points to the proposition that there is far more to the story of humankind in “prehistory” than has been recognized or admitted.
There are now two indisputable facts that confront us. The first is that the presence of modern humankind on Earth goes back a very long way. Perhaps a quarter of a million years. Skeletal remains of modern humans have been found and dated that are as much as 180 thousand years in age.
It is beginning to dawn on the minds of the more perceptive scholars of antiquity that this alternate model points to the proposition that there is far more to the story of humankind in “prehistory” than has been recognized or admitted.
That’s 36 times as long as recorded history measured from the rise of cuneiform writing in Sumer. If we assume a generation to be 25 years more or less, then we are talking somewhere around 7000 generations of humans walking the Earth before the discovery of agriculture, or the domestication of animals, or the invention of writing, before the rise of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, or the great cities of Sumeria and the Indus Valley. It is obvious that in terms of the human experience on planet Earth, the overwhelming majority of that time has transpired within the era prehistory. Why, for so many long ages of time, was the imprint of the human presence on Earth so scarce, so insignificant as to be almost invisible before 8 or 9 thousand years ago? Assuming that those distant ancestors were endowed with intelligence equal that of our own, as we have no reason to doubt, why did it take so many tens of thousands years to learn how to build cities, or plant crops, or to invent some form of writing? Why did 7000 generations of humans never rise above the level of hunting, subsistence gathering and tribalism—never evolving socially beyond the Stone Age. Does this model make sense? And why only now, after 180 thousand years, has the human population grown exponentially just within the last two centuries?
Why did 7000 generations of humans never rise above the level of hunting, subsistence gathering and tribalism—never evolving socially beyond the Stone Age. Does this model make sense? And why only now, after 180 thousand years, has the human population grown exponentially just within the last two centuries?
These are impossible questions to answer within the gradualistic framework of Earth change and human history that now pervades all aspects of conventional scholarship. And this brings us to the second indisputable fact. Catastrophes are real – massive catastrophes, sudden catastrophes, global catastrophes, on any scale we care to measure, the smooth arc of change is punctuated by discontinuities, by interruptions in the established order of things.
Such an event on a global scale occurred between 11 and 13 thousand years ago. This was the termination of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene and the start of the Holocene. During the last phase of the Pleistocene the Earth was a dramatically different place than it is today. Massive ice sheets covered fully one third of the present planetary land area.
Sea levels were some 400 feet lower than now which significantly changed the outline of all the continental land masses of the world.
Millions of now extinct giant mammals roamed the Earth for tens of thousands of years. There is no reason to assume that the status quo of the late Pleistocene would not have endured for many thousands of more years. But right at 12,900 years ago, give or take a decade or two, something happened that completely altered the trajectory of planetary history. That something was profoundly catastrophic. It was the double whammy called the Younger Dryas which lasted close to 1300 years, terminating about 11,600 years ago. It was named, ironically, after a flower.
During that span of time and for a few centuries beyond, the Earth suffered through a spasm of convulsions and environmental upheavals unprecedented for several million years, with the greatest intensity at the beginning and again at the end of the Younger Dryas episode. When a measure of stability finally began to prevail between 9 and 11 thousand years ago, the ice age was finished. Thousands of years of the planet being locked into the grip of glacial ice were suddenly over. The aftershocks of the great two part catastrophe that bracketed the Younger Dryas and terminated the Paleolithic world, were subsiding. Remnants of the great ice sheets still existed and were melting away, creating many vigorous rivers flowing out and away from the disappearing ice. All of the great North American Rivers such as the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Columbia, the Hudson, the St. Lawrence and the McKenzie are now flowing within the channels that remained after the passage of their gigantic ancestral rivers of glacial meltwater. Sea levels had risen hundreds of feet and were still rising, although the rate of rise had begun to slow.
As coastlines stabilized between 8 and 9000 years ago it became possible to establish coastal communities with economies based around exploiting the newly submerged continental shelves and the rich, reinvigorated shallow marine habitats. Extreme biotic shifts were underway with the biosphere adapting to the altered climatic and environmental conditions. As the ice retreated the boreal forests followed it north into Canada.
All over the planet enormous landscape changes were underway as adjustment to the new order of nature proceeded. Large swaths of tundra disappeared, weather patterns, wind currents and ocean currents were all subject to enormous shifts. Large areas of land such as the British Isles and Indonesia were cut off from the continental mainland by the rising waters and became islands. Other areas, such as the Persian Gulf at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, were likely prime real estate for human habitation during the ice age but are now drowned.
The total number of large land mammals that succumbed to the catastrophic changes, about 120 species, was about equal to the total number that exist in the world today. In other words, the total number of large land dwelling mammal species was then double what it is now. To affect an equivalent species loss today you would have to basically exterminate every mammal on Earth over 100 pounds in body weight.
Vast numbers of large mega mammal that inhabited the Earth for hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years, were gone. They did not survive the back to back climate and environmental upheavals that characterized the birth of the present world age. The total number of large land mammals that succumbed to the catastrophic changes, about 120 species, was about equal to the total number that exist in the world today. In other words, the total number of large land dwelling mammal species was then double what it is now. To affect an equivalent species loss today you would have to basically exterminate every mammal on Earth over 100 pounds in body weight. And it goes without saying that a catastrophe capable of exterminating half the species of mega mammal existing on Earth at the time would hardly leave surviving species unscathed, including humans.
In fact, there is growing evidence of a significant hiatus in the North American cultural record right at the onset of the Younger Dryas 12,900 years ago. Stone artifacts disappear from the archeological record, active stone quarries are suddenly abandoned. The number of human associated radiocarbon dates plummets. (see: Anderson, David G. et al. 2011, Multiple lines of evidence for possible Human population decline/settlement reorganization during the early Younger Dryas: Quaternary International vol. 242, pp. 570-583) Some theories currently in vogue blame the disappearance of the mega mammals on over-zealous Paleo-Indian hunters. Even a cursory consideration of that idea exposes its vulnerability to simple logic and obliviousness to enormous amounts of empirical evidence that leads to a radically different conclusion—rather than perpetrators of mass extinction, our human ancestors were likewise victims of the same environmental catastrophe that brought down their mammalian cohabitants.
All of this I provide as context for a deeper discussion of the consequences for our species during and after this catastrophic episode in our recent planetary past. When the environmental perturbations finally settled down to a condition of relative stability the Earth entered a unique and special time. For about 3000 years, between roughly 6000 and 9000 years ago, many regions around the world transformed into a sort of quasi-paradise, with warm temperatures, abundant rainfall, expansion of forests and lush vegetation. The biosphere and humankind both began to prosper and rebound in this time of replenishment. The offspring of the survivors of the Younger Dryas global transition became worshippers of the Great Goddess, the symbol of the Earth herself, now, in the aftermath of the great destruction, a benign and maternal force of nurturing and preservation.
To this fascinating and important theme I will return next month.