I figured out years ago that my own body temp is down in the low 97s. I would feel feverish but couldn’t “prove” it because I was reading 98.6 or 98.5. Later, taking my kids’ temps when they were not sick, I realized their normal temperatures were lower as well. Now, it turns out it’s not just us. It’s pretty much everyone.
Just another example of how a firmly established fact can be slightly wrong … wrong enough to cause us trouble.
Of course it is possible to have a human society without writing, but the impulse to devise a writing system, looked at historically, may have been the rule rather than the exception.
This is counter-intuitive, of course. “Symbolic logic” seems like it ought to be unnatural to humans, especially if we are thinking of humans as basically advanced animals, rather than as embodied spirits. But if we think of mind as primary, everything changes. It’s telling that reading and writing are one of the learning channels that can come naturally to people, in addition to the visual, the audio, and the kinesthetic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Welcome to the third post taken from Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley. Call this the writing edition. This post hits the highlights of Rudgley’s chapters 4 and 5, pages 58 through 85.
Nah, Ancient People Didn’t Write, They were Barbarians!
The idea of writing as an exception in human history has become dogma:
The proposition that Ice Age reindeer hunters invented writing fifteen thousand years ago or more is utterly inadmissible and unthinkable. All the data that archaeologists have amassed during the last one hundred years reinforce the assumption that Sumerians and Egyptians invented true writing during the second half of the fourth millennium. The Palaeolithic-Mesolithic-Neolithic progression to civilisation is almost as fundamental an article of contemporary scientific faith as heliocentrism. Writing is the diagnostic trait … of civilisation. Writing, says I.J. Gelb, ‘distinguishes civilised man from barbarian.’ If the Ice-Age inhabitants of France and Spain invented writing thousands of years before civilisation arose in the Near East, then our most cherished beliefs about the nature of society and the course of human development would be demolished.
Allan Forbes and Thomas Crowder, quoted in Rudgley, p. 75
Of course, the demolishing of our most cherished beliefs about the course of human development is exactly what, Rudgley is arguing, is going to have to happen.
In the last few chapters I have selected only a small number of the complex sign systems that have been preserved from prehistoric times. My concentration on the Near East and more particularly on Europe should not be taken to imply that such systems did not exist elsewhere in the prehistoric world. Far from it; investigations of numerous collections of signs are being undertaken in places as far afield as the Arabian peninsula, China and Australia. Millions of prehistoric signs across the continents have already been recorded, and more and more are being discovered all the time. … It no longer seems sufficient to retain a simplistic evolutionary sequence of events leading up to the Sumerian [writing] breakthrough some 5,000 years ago.
Rudgley, p. 81
Let’s look at these complex sign systems that Rudgley has mentioned.
The Vinca Signs
I was an adult before I ever heard the phrase “Old Europe.” I was doing research for a planned book, and I was surprised to learn that in southeast Europe (between the Balkans and the Black Sea), as early as 4,000 or 5,000 BC, there were not only cities but a writing system (undeciphered) known as the Vinca signs. It turns out that these cities and this writing system were probably part of a culture that obtained over much of Europe before the coming of the Indo-Europeans, which is called Old Europe. This is the culture that Marija Gimbutas believes was “the civilization of the goddess.”
Just as a reminder, these dates for the Vinca culture are before the very first human cities and writing are supposed to have arisen, in Sumeria in Mesopotamia, about 3,000 BC.
Perhaps I didn’t hear about the Vinca signs in school because they were only discovered in Transylvania 1961. (I was born in 1976, but we all know how long it takes new archaeological findings to get interpreted, integrated into the overall system, and eventually make it into school textbooks.) After being discovered, the signs were assumed to be derived from Mesopotamian cultures such as Sumer and Crete, because it was accepted dogma that writing was first invented in Mesopotamia. Later, the tablets on which the Vinca signs were discovered were carbon-dated and found to be older than the Mesopotamian writing systems. This led to a big disagreement between those who wanted to believe the carbon dates, and those who wanted to believe the more recent dates for Old European archaeological sites, which were then conventional.
Then, in 1969, more, similar signs were discovered on a plaque in Bulgaria and dated to be 6,000 – 7,000 years old. By this time, archaeologists were beginning to accept the carbon dating of these Old European sites. But since they still did not want to admit that writing might have been invented before Sumer, most of them decided “[the signs] could not be real writing and their apparent resemblance was simply coincidental.” (Rudgley p. 63)
An archaeologist named Winn analyzed the Vinca signs and while he is not willing to go further than calling them “pre-writing,” he concludes that they are “conventionalised and standardised, and that they represent a corpus of signs known and used over a wide area for several centuries.” (Rudgley 66)
Meanwhile, Marija Gimbutas and also Harald Haarmann of the University of Helsinki both feel the Vinca signs are true writing and that they developed out of religious or magical signs, not out of economic tallies like the Sumerian alphabet.
Haarmann notes that there a number of striking parallels between the various strands of the pre-Indo-European cultural fabric – especially those related to religious symbolism and mythology. Among these common features is the use of the bull and the snake as important religious symbols. In the case of the snake it is a form of the goddess intimately intertwined with the bird goddess motif in both Old European and later Cretan iconography. The bee and the butterfly are also recurrent divine attributes, and the butterfly is represented by … the double ax. Haarmann sees the goddess mythology of Old Europe echoed in these motifs that also feature prominently in the ancient civilisation of Crete. He then traces the links between the Old European script – as found in the Vinca culture – and later systems of writing, particularly those of Crete.
Rudgley, pp. 68 – 69
Ice Age Signs
There are quite a number of symbols that appear on artifacts or are associated with paintings from the Neolithic and even the Palaeolithic period. These include crosses, spirals, dots, “lozenges” (ovals), and the zigzag, which is very common and seems to have been used to represent water. (By the way, note the zigzags among the Kachina Bridge petroglyphs.) “The discovery in the early 1970s of a bone fragment from the Mousterian site of Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria suggests that the use of the signs may date back to the time of the Neanderthals. This fragment of bone was engraved with the zigzag motif …” and apparently on purpose, not accidentally in the course of doing some other repetitive task. (Rudgley 73)
“The single V and the chevron (an inverted V) are among the most common of the recurrent motifs in the Stone Age.” (Rudgley p. 74) Gimbutas, of course, interprets the V as a symbol for the female genitals and/or Bird Goddess, but it could be just … you know … a symbol.
Archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan has interpreted the many signs found at various Palaeolithic cave art sites not as a form of hunting magic (contra previous interpretations), but as a symbolic system. “Leroi-Gourhan admitted to us shortly before his death, ‘At Lascaux I really believed they had come very close to an alphabet.’” (Rudgley p. 77)
But Can You Prove It’s Writing?
Every time some symbols are discovered that are so ancient they strain belief, anyone who doesn’t want to accept them as writing can easily go in to a number of calisthenic moves to cast doubt on this. If the item the signs are found on is in poor condition, they can question whether the marks were even intentional. Perhaps they were accidental scratches, the product of some other activity. If the marks are undeniably made by people, they can be dismissed as doodles. The Vinca signs, when first found, were speculated to have been copied randomly from Mediterranean signs by people who believed these things had mysterious power, but did not understand their meaning. Rudgley also notes that the Old European signs have been interpreted as purely magic symbols, as if a magical intent were to make them non-writing.
In short, any time we are presented with a complex system, there are always a million ways to get out of attributing it to a mind. This is doubly true if we aren’t able to interpret its meaning, but you will even see people do this with messages that they ought to be able to understand. Of course, it can also work the other way, where people see meaning in complex patterns where it wasn’t intended. Often what it comes down to is whether we want there to be a meaning there. Do we, or do we not, want to be in contact with another mind? If for whatever reason we don’t, we can always find a logical way to avoid that contact.
So in the case of apparent writing systems that we haven’t cracked and probably never will, our attitude towards them is going to depend heavily on what we believe about ancient people’s minds. Were they basically like ours, or were they different, animal? We will see more writing systems if we are expecting that they came from people. If we are not expecting to encounter people, then nothing is going to convince us that these are writing systems.
Was Adam a Writer?
My mind was blown, while taking an Old Testament Backgrounds course years ago, when I read an essay that asserted that Adam was able to write and in fact had left a written record for his descendants.
This idea seems completely loony on the face of it … until you realize that the only reason it seems loony is that we are assuming that writing is a recent, unnatural development, the product of tens of millennia of human cultural evolution, and not a characteristic human activity that is, so to speak, wired in.
The essay interpreted the early chapters of Genesis in this way. There will be a short historical record, followed by the phrase “the book of [name],” indicating that the passage immediately preceding was by that author.
Genesis 1:1 – 4:26
Creation (in poetry), fall, Cain and Abel, some of Cain’s descendants, Seth
Gen. 5:1 “the book of Adam”
Gen. 5:1b – 6:8
Recap of creation of Adam, Seth’s descendants up to Noah and his sons, Nephilim, God’s resolve to wipe out mankind, God’s favor on Noah
Gen. 6:9a “the book of Noah”
Gen. 6:9b – 11:9
Building of the ark, the Flood, emerging from the ark, the Table of Nations, the Tower of Babel
Gen. 11:10 “the book of Shem”
Gen. 11: 10b – 11:26
Genealogy from Shem to Terah and his son Abram
Gen. 11:27 “the book of Terah”
Gen. 11:27b – 25:18
Terah moves his family to Haran, Terah dies, a whole bunch of stuff happens to Abram, death of Sarah, Isaac finds a wife, Abraham dies, genealogy of the Ishmaelites
Gen. 25:19 “the book of Abraham’s son Isaac”
Gen. 25:19b – 37:1
Jacob’s entire life, death of Isaac, genealogy of Esau
Gen. 37:2 “the book of Jacob”
In Genesis, the author’s name comes after the notes he left.
I realize this might be a lot to accept. It’s just food for thought. It does explain why it says “the book of _________” (or, in my NIV, “this is the account of __________”), after the bulk of that person’s story.
Get it? Get it?
(By the way … for those wondering about the title of this post … prostitution is referred to as “the world’s oldest profession.” Erma Bombeck, mother and humorist, has published a book hilariously titled Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession. The title of this post references those two, because the post is about the fact that writing is very, very old. I don’t mean to imply that a writer’s life has any necessary connection to the other two professions, although of course this does invite all kinds of clever remarks.)
What stands out to me in this article is the way the article will begin to approach blaming Jade’s mother for what happened, and then back away.
This little girl didn’t get the flu shot this year!
… But the family is not an anti-vaccination family.
But the flu shot can prevent complications like this from happening!
… But it’s only 40 – 60% effective at preventing the flu.
But you should always get flu shots for your kids!
… But this mother did get her kids flu shots, last March, and mistakenly believed they “were good for a whole year.”
But the flu changes every year!
… And this year was a very bad year for flu for kids, and the complication that happened to this little girl is vanishingly rare.
I understand that they are trying to make this article into a sort of public service announcement reminding parents to get flu shots and other vaccinations for their kids. And that kind of announcement is good. What’s not good is the implication that if you do everything right, you can prevent freak bad things from happening to your child. This is a very rare complication. It didn’t happen because this mom failed to get her kid a flu shot. It happened because we live in a fallen world. In this fallen world, freak bad things happen. People get sick. This is the definition of an imperfect world. This incident is more analogous to a plane falling on your head, than to failing adequately to provide for your child.
Every mom does this to herself, too, by the way. Jade’s mom says of the early days when her daughter had a mild fever,
“She was running around, having fun, eating normally, asking for snacks,” her mother remembers. “It was just — it’s a little bug, she’ll get over it.”
Phillips thinks back to those four days, December 19 through December 23, and wracks her brain for something that might have told her what was about to happen.”There wasn’t any sign that would’ve told me that something was seriously wrong with her,” she said.
I once had a similar experience. My then 2-year-old got a fever. All he wanted to do was rest on me. I thought about taking him to the pediatrician, but I knew exactly what they would say. “If the fever hasn’t gone away in three days, call us again.”
On day 3, we had difficulty waking him. It was a Sunday (of course), so instead of the pediatrician, we took him to an urgent care clinic. The clinic said to take him to the ER.
He turned out to have a fairly advanced case of bacterial pneumonia.
He hadn’t even been coughing.
We ended up with a 2-day stay in the hospital and he was fine. But what if he hadn’t been? I’m sure I (and lots of other people) would have been asking, “How could I not have caught this?” But there was no way I could have. It just seemed like a normal fever.
This post is the second in a series of posts based on chapters from this book:
As Rudgley writes in the Introduction:
In this book I will show … how great is the debt of historical societies to their prehistoric counterparts in all spheres of cultural life; and how civilised in many respects were those human cultures that have been reviled as savage.
Ibid, p. 1
What do you mean, “Stone Age”?
“Stone Age,” of course, sounds very ancient, and that is by design. But when Rudgley talks about the Stone Age, often the dates involved are “only” about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago (approximately the time we think that people were crossing the Land Bridge). This falls before the beginning of recorded history — we think — unless we are willing to accept local origin myths worldwide as inevitably garbled historical records. After the small amount of study I have done about the historicity of myths, of Genesis, and of the many amazing prehistoric engineering feats, I no longer think of Stone Age people as “cave men,” but rather as fully modern humans, certainly our intellectual equals and probably our superiors. For my disclaimer about the dating of archaeological sites and prehistoric events, see my last post about Rudgley, here.
The “Venuses” of Eurasia
Chapter 14 of Rudgley (pp 184 – 200) discusses the large number of small female figurines which have been found all over Europe and as far east as Siberia. These are called “Venuses,” though of course they would not have been called that by the original artists. They were being produced (if we take the dating at face value) over a period of many thousands of years.
The oldest one, according to Rudgley, dates to the Aurignacian age, about 31,000 years ago: “the Venus of Galgenburg [Austria].” It is 7 mm tall, made of a soft green stone, and is artistically sophisticated. The figure is posed as if dancing. She is bearing her weight on her left leg. The right leg is carved free of the left and braces on the base of the figure. The right arm is carved free of the body, with the hand bracing on the knee. Clearly the sculptor knew what he or she was doing when it came to posing the figure, carving free limbs that would not break off, and piercing through the material without breaking it. Since this is (by hypothesis) the oldest such figure that we have, it’s clear that we don’t have a case of an artistic tradition that started out crude and later became more advanced. (pp 192 – 194)
Probably the best-known of these figures is the Venus of Willendorf (also found in Austria).
When I was first exposed (pun not intended) to this little figurine, it was introduced to me simply as “the mother goddess.” Although shocking to modern eyes, it is certainly a work of art. As you can see, it has no face, but it has a considerable amount of detail in odd places such as the knees, private parts, and hairdo. The hair looks a bit like corn rows to me, but could also be braids wrapped around the head or even styled curls a la the Babylonian kings. “Alexander Marshack believes the coiffure of the Willendorf figurine may be one of the symbols of a mature and fertile woman” (198).
Not all of the Stone Age Venuses are fat or naked.
Bednarik is very skeptical about the usefulness of lumping all female figurines of the period together, noting that they are extremely diverse in numerous ways. Some are naked; others partly or fully clothed. Some are in pregnant condition; others are not. Some are fat to the point of obesity, whilst others are very slender. Beyond the fact that they all depict females and most come from the same period of the Upper Palaeolithic, they appear to have little in common.
Ibid, p. 197
The Meaning of the Venuses
Figures like the Willendorf Venus are very intriguing to some people, for obvious reasons. The explanation most ready to hand is that they are artifacts of some kind of fertility religion. This explanation is the more intuitive because of what we know about the importance that fertility often plays in pagan religions worldwide.
Marija Gimbutas has taken these figures and other evidence to posit a wide-ranging “civilization of the goddess” in Old Europe. (She published a book with that title in 1991.) She deduces (or speculates) quite a lot about this religion from Venus artifacts and from other sources. Her thesis is that the gentle, goddess-worshipping Old Europeans were overrun by warlike worshippers of a sky god coming from the Eurasian steppes (i.e. the Indo-Europeans). Gimbutas’ work had quite a strong influence on one of my high school literature teachers, who emphasized to us that worshipers of a male sky god “always” come to rape, pillage and plunder, steal, kill, and destroy. (At this point, the neo-pagans in the class would give the Christians the side eye.) We will deal with Gimbutas in another post, probably later this year.
In Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books, the venuses are definitely symbols of a goddess of fertility and sexuality. Her male lead Jondalar comes from a matriarchal society in western Europe where the figurines are referred to as doni. Jondalar, when distressed, will even exclaim, “Oh, Doni!” The female lead Ayla, meanwhile, was raised by Neanderthals, who in Auel’s books severely oppress their women (because, of course, they fear their procreative power).
Moving even farther along the continuum of being obsessed with sex, Rudgley’s chapter includes a hilarious discussion of how some archaeologists have gotten over-excited and begun to interpret nearly all Palaeolithic art as porn.
It has been suggested that another important aspect of Aurignacian art was their liberal and frequent use of sexual imagery, particularly … female genitalia. This theory was first developed by l’Abbe Breuil … The idea soon caught on among French prehistorians and became something of a dogma, and various shapes engraved in stone … that looked vaguely like a vulva were automatically perceived as such by scholars eager to discover further proof of the prehistoric obsession with sexual matters. … Perhaps the most absurd example of all is a description of a simple straight line as a representation of the vaginal opening.
Ibid, pp. 194 – 195
It just cracks me up that these were French prehistorians. Of course they were. Of course.
Rudgley sums up in a way that I think is quite reasonable and balanced:
[T]he fact that the figurines are found across a huge geographical area and a period of thousands and thousands of years means that it would be ridiculous to think that they all symbolised the same thing to their extremely diverse makers. It is quite apparent that the female body was used to express numerous concerns in Palaeolithic times. 
We can now see how any crude explanation of the Willendorf figurine as simply a fertility figure or an object of sexual desire is entirely inadequate. The representation of the female body during the Upper Palaeolithic period … was a symbol of cosmological significance that was able to express all aspects of Palaeolithic human concerns. 
If the female body was one of the most widespread and elaborate images of the Old Stone Age, and a symbol for the various forces of nature and the various aspects of culture, would it really be so far from the mark to believe that the figurines actually embody aspects of the Palaeolithic worship of a goddess? 
Rudgley, Lost Civilizations, chapter 14
… So, Why Are They Affirming Again?
Well, obviously, on the most superficial level, the Willendorf Venus is an implied affirmation to any modern woman who is pregnant, aging, or concerned about her weight. Somebody worked very hard to portray this lady.
On a slightly deeper level, our modern culture is one that really hates the idea of motherhood. We don’t like the idea that potential motherhood is a defining characteristic of being a woman, or that it might be a worthy or even glorious goal. Unfortunately for our tidy little minds, though, motherhood (besides being a kind of superpower) is in fact a built-in goal in the design of women. Which means that knocking it as a role and calling is pretty hard on women, even those who don’t realize it, because we, as a culture, are constantly asking them, in a thousand ways large and small, if for the sake of decency they could please not exist.
In this kind of environment, it’s a tonic to know that it was not always thus. There could exist – there apparently did exist – a culture that greatly valued, perhaps even worshiped, mothers. You don’t have to be an acolyte of the goddess to appreciate the boost this gives women.
Worshiping a good thing, rather than its creator, is idolatry and idols always turn on their followers. Thus, a religion of motherhood certainly would have come with its own distortions and injustices (such as devaluing infertile women, as we see in the Old Testament). But still … it’s nice to know that at one time a mature, even obese woman was considered a thing so good that she could possibly be worshiped.
I am dealing with this topic not because I feel a particular affinity for it. I don’t enjoy looking at the Venus of Willendorf, and despite the paragraph above I would not want to look like her. I tackled these figurines because my area of interest is prehistory, and durned if they don’t show up in it. Finding out how affirming they are to women was just an unexpected bonus. And if they do feel really weird even as they are affirming, I think the weirdness comes because they are from such a different culture.
Recently, novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan got himself into some trouble. He was reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher, and he commented that he dislikes movies that show a woman who is able to go toe to toe with men in a medieval sword brawl, without the help of magic. It’s unrealistic, he says. Might as well have made that character a man.
Well. Many people did not like this. Some challenged Klavan to a sword fight (he’s almost 70 years old). He even got at least one actual death threat.
Let’s see if I can also get myself cancelled. Here is a list of some of my movie pet peeves. And because there are exceptions to everything, I will also list exceptions.
Two women in an extended, knock-down, drag-out fight. This just feels icky and porn-y. Exceptions: the brief catfight scene in Sense and Sensibility, and Mrs. Weasley taking out Bellatrix LeStrange. Note that neither of these exceptions is actually a brawl.
A woman in an extended brawl with a man. I don’t care which one of them is the villain. This can only go one of two ways: either the woman unrealistically wins, or we get to watch a man beat up a woman (yay!). Exception: Antonio Banderas and Katherine Zeta-Jones’s sword duel in the stables in Zorro. Again, not really a brawl.
When the chase scene or fight scene completely smashes a room or building full of breakable, priceless artifacts. I realize it would be unrealistic to have a chase scene in such a setting and have nothing get broken, but it often seems as if directors delight in destruction. They’re smashing our culture with their philosophy, and in scenes like this they’re symbolically smashing our culture, represented by art or cakes or whatever, just because they can. Exception: Jackie Chan makes amazing use of props in his chase and fight scenes.
When someone is trying to maintain some kind of deception for the duration of the entire movie. I’m not talking about spy movies where you don’t know who’s who and that’s the point. I mean usually comedies where the high jinks flow from the MC trying to hide something from his wife, or from his daughter, or from her parents, or from an entire town. This just stresses me out. Exception: Breaking Bad, where the point of the series is to show a good man’s moral disintegration.
Now, a pet peeve of everyone around me: the fact that I can’t watch a movie without having to analyze the damn thing!
What are your movie pet peeves? Do you hate any of the same things I hate? Share in the comments below.