The Curtain of Silence03 Apr 2021
Just because we don’t know what happened, doesn’t mean what did happen was unimportant.
If the larger picture of ancient forager life is hard to reconstruct, particular events are largely irretrievable. When a Sapiens band first entered a valley inhabited by Neanderthals, the following years might have witnessed a breathtaking historical drama. Unfortunately, nothing would have survived from such an encounter except, at best, a few fossilised bones and a handful of stone tools that remain mute under the most intense scholarly inquisitions. We may extract from them information about human anatomy, human technology, human diet, and perhaps even human social structure. But they reveal nothing about the political alliance forged between neighbouring Sapiens bands, about the spirits of the dead that blessed this alliance, or about the ivory beads secretly given to the local witch doctor in order to secure the blessing of the spirits.
This curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history. These long millennia may well have witnessed wars and revolutions, ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories, incomparable artistic masterpieces. The foragers may have had their all-conquering Napoleons, who ruled empires half the size of Luxembourg; gifted Beethovens who lacked symphony orchestras but brought people to tears with the sound of their bamboo flutes; and charismatic prophets who revealed the words of a local oak tree rather than those of a universal creator god. But these are all mere guesses. The curtain of silence is so thick that we cannot even be sure such things occurred – let alone describe them in detail.
Scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably expect to answer. Without the discovery of as yet unavailable research tools, we will probably never know what the ancient foragers believed or what political dramas they experienced. Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,000 years of human history with the excuse that ‘the people who lived back then did nothing of importance’.
The truth is that they did a lot of important things. In particular, they shaped the world around us to a much larger degree than most people realise. Trekkers visiting the Siberian tundra, the deserts of central Australia and the Amazonian rainforest believe that they have entered pristine landscapes, virtually untouched by human hands. But that’s an illusion. The foragers were there before us and they brought about dramatic changes even in the densest jungles and the most desolate wildernesses.