To Build A Fire

Another post in the series taken from this book

Building a fire is really stinkin’ hard. Even with matches. When I was 11, I attended an environmentally-focused school that taught (or attempted to teach) survival and camping skills. For one project, we had to build our own fire, using grass for tinder, and keep that fire going long enough to boil a 2-minute egg in a coffee can. (Remember coffee cans?) We were allowed matches, but even so, it was a challenge.

Fire-Building in Books

I think I could do it now, assuming there isn’t a ton of wind, or wet, or any other thing that makes fire-building really difficult. In Jack London’s classic short horror story To Build A Fire, the man is equipped with matches but not with brains, and he ends up freezing to death. The moral seems to be, Don’t go out in the Yukon when it’s 75 below.

Without matches, it’s a whole different ball game. The two main ways to do it are by striking sparks (the “percussion method”), or with a bow and drill. For both, you need a pile of tinder and good dry kindling handy. In the YA survival classic Hatchet, the 13-year-old hero Brian figures out by accident that he can strike sparks by throwing his hatchet against the wall of the cave in which he’s sheltering. Even then, it takes him a long time to get the sparks to catch in his “spark nest” of tinder. Once he does get a fire going, he realizes that his best bet is to keep it going at all times. That is how many people handle it. I’ve been told that some Native Americans used to carry a live coal in a small leather bag rather than try to start a fire from scratch, which is frankly genius. In my books, I have my characters do the same because I don’t have time for them to be unable to start a fire whenever they pick up and move camp. And also, they’re not stupid. That’s part of the point.

Bow and Drill

A drill, of course, is even harder. The drill may be rotated by the use of a thong, or a thong attached to a bow.

The thong-drill is rotated by a cord passed round it in a simple loop. The two hands of the operator pull on the thong in such a way that the [drill] stick repeatedly changes its direction of rotation … Obviously there is a necessity for the drill to be held upright in firm contact with the hearth [the bottom piece] by pressure from above, and a small socketed holder of wood, bone, or stone, or even the cut end of a coconut shell, is provided for this purpose. This socket-piece may be held down on the top of the drill by an assistant, or if its shape is suitable, as it usually is in the Eskimo appliance, it may be gripped in the mouth of the fire-maker.


H.S. Harrison, quoted in Rudgley, p. 161

The White Man has not introduced a single item of environmental protection in the Arctic which was not already used by the natives, and his substitute products are not yet as effective as native ones… Eskimos are described as very ‘gadget-minded’ and are able to use and repair machinery such as motors and sewing machines with almost no instruction.

Dr. O. Solandt and Erwin H. Ackerknecht, quoted in Custance, p. 159

If the thong is attached to a bow, it becomes possible to hold the drill on top with one hand and rotate it with the other hand by pulling the bow back and forth. If all goes well, the drill will produce on the hearth (bottom wood piece) “a little pile of wood-dust which smoulders and can be blown upon to make it glow, at which point it can ignite the tinder” (Rudgley p. 160).  Obviously not an easy process.

Fire in the Stone Age and Before

Both these methods – percussion, and wood friction – are attested in Stone Age times, as noted by Richard Rudgley. A site in Yorkshire has yielded flint and iron pyrites from Neolithic times. Various kinds of bows and drills, because made of wood, are less likely to be preserved for millennia than stone artifacts. However, the bow-and-drill’s wide distribution around the world indicates that it was a very old invention (or that people, wherever they go, are clever, and that the same thing was invented multiple times). An intact bow and drill was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, though he is comparatively recent on the time scale we are discussing.  The Maglemosian culture, a culture from Mesolithic Scandinavia, has left stone and antler hand-rests from fire drills, as well as a fire-bow made from a rib. Also, many Stone Age objects have been found with drill-holes in them, so clearly Stone Age people were familiar with the drilling process. (Rudgley 161 – 162)

In Europe, objects reported to be lamps have survived from the Upper Paleolithic onwards. Examples get more numerous as we come forward in time. As with the Venuses of a previous post, we don’t see an evolution from “cruder” to “more sophisticated” lamps; rather, both kinds exist together, with the simpler ones being more common (146). By 25,000 years ago, there is evidence of different kinds of pyrotechnology, from hardening spear points in a fire, to oxidizing ocher, to heat treating flint to make it easier to work with, to metallurgy, to pottery.

For Palaeolithic man to have used such pyrotechnology [heat-treating flint] successfully he would have had to master a number of skills. Detailed knowledge of a range of materials, as well as a very accurate sense of timing and temperature control and maintenance, would have been essential. In these three fundamental aspects of Stone Age pyrotechnology one can see key elements that are found in the subsequent industrial activities of firing pottery and smelting metals.

Rudgley p. 149

In other words, as I’ve been saying, ancient people were a heck of a lot more capable than me, and probably than you as well.

There is evidence from Dordogne, France, that Neanderthals had fire about 60,000 years ago. “The Neanderthals seem to have deliberately chosen lichen as their fuel.” Rudgley adds, “At this site there is no evidence that any cooking took place … The indications are that the cave was used only as an occasional haven from the outside world, as signs of long-term use were lacking. Compared to the rock-lined hearths and excavated fire pits that were made by Upper Palaeolithic people, these fireplaces are rather basic” (p. 145). However, it seems a little hard on the Neanderthals to assume that they had no hearths and did not use for fire for cooking, just because there is evidence of neither at what Rudgley admits was probably a campsite.

Going even farther back, sites have been found with traces of human habitation and of fire that are believed to be 400,000 years old (Suffolk, England); 1.42 million years old (Chesowanja, Kenya); 1.8 million years old (Xihoudu, China); and 500,000 years old (Zhoukoudian or Choukoutien, China). For me personally, when the dates invoked are this ancient, the imagination fails and skepticism about the dating methods starts to set in. But regardless of the exact dates, I can accept that these are some of the oldest human sites that have been found, and that they seem to have used fire. Of course, sites from this far back (or even half this far back) are by their nature so fragmentary, and their interpretation requires so much conjecture, that if you don’t believe early “hominoids” had fire, it’s extremely easy to cast doubt on whether these ashes were caused by people.

The Binfordian hypothesis of minimal cultural capacities for Pleistocene hominids [proceeds by] imposing impossibly rigorous standards of evidence on archaeological assemblages and postulating elaborate natural alternatives (lightning-caused cave fires, spontaneous combustion, chemical staining).

Geoffry Pope, quoted in Rudgley, p. 144

But in Zhoukoudian (the supposedly 500,000-year-old, Homo erectus site), “the case is seen to be particularly strong, as burnt bones and stones, ash and charcoal have been found in each and every layer of the site” (Rudgley p. 144).  As someone who believes that people have always been people and never merely “hominids,” I have no problem with the idea that the use of fire goes back to the very beginning of mankind.

Pyrotechnology in Ancient America

It’s an old saw that whenever archaeologists don’t know what a find was used for, they attribute to it some religious function. This proved to be the case with a mound near Indian Creek, Illinois, at the base of which was a “deposit of 6,199 flints … covered with a stratum of clay, 10 inches in thickness, and on this a fire had been maintained for some time” (Rudgley 150 -151). Most of these flints are unfinished. There was speculation, at first, that they had been buried as grave goods or, for some reason, to hide them from enemies. But it is now believed that this is a large-scale example of heat-treating flint.  “It has now become clear that the use of heat treatment in aboriginal North America can be traced back to the Palaeo-Indians … This, in conjunction with the fact that the practice is known from the upper Palaeolithic period in France, and has been reported from Aboriginal Australia, South America and Japan, shows that it is of … considerable antiquity” (151) and that the story of the world is that of an outward spread of already sophisticated peoples.

Sources

Custance, Arthur C. The Doorway Papers I: Noah’s Three Sons. Zondervan, 1975.

(The Doorway Papers can be found online at: https://custance.org/library_menu.php

My blog post that gives a very brief summary of Custance’s thesis: Two Views on the Sons of Noah )

Rudgley, Richard. The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age. Touchstone, 2000.

Neolithic People Were Really Smart

“Scottish Crannogs Dated to Neolithic Period” in Archaeology

“Diver’s 5,500-year-old Discovery Hauls History of Scottish Crannogs Into Question” in Ancient Origins (By the way, see what they did there? The discovery was hauled up out of the water, and it hauls the history into question …?)

What is a crannog and would you like to live on one?

Turns out a crannog is a small artificial island made by piling rocks in a loch (that’s lake to you non-Scots), on which people lived.

These things are really widespread. Check out the map in the Ancient Origins article that shows their locations all around Scotland and the outer Hebrides. And apparently they exist in Ireland too.

According to the two articles above, crannogs once were thought to date to the Iron Age or even to medieval times. Now a few of them have been dated to the Neolithic era. I am a dating skeptic, but given what we suspect about the brilliant engineering capabilities of ancient man, the Neolithic idea sounds as plausible as any.

And if they are indeed Neolithic, the crannogs were probably built by pre-Celtic people. If we follow Arthur C. Custance, it’s likely the builders were Hamite. Imagine the engineering ability that it would take to create a livable artificial island that is still around thousands of years later.

I can’t imagine what would make people think they needed to live on these tiny, inconvenient islands, but it can’t have been good.

Two Views on the Sons of Noah

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

For those who take the early chapters of Genesis seriously as a history of the human race (albeit a not very detailed one), here are two different interpretations of the sons of Noah. 

The sons of Noah are listed in Genesis 9:18 – 19 as “Shem, Ham and Japheth.”   Though they are always listed in that order, this is not necessarily their birth order.  Genesis is focused with laser precision on redemptive history.  Thus, it foregrounds Shem, from whom the nation of Israel would later be descended.  We are given a lot more detail about Shem than about the tribes descended from the other brothers.  It’s possible that Ham was actually the oldest son.

It’s also worth noting that the Table of Nations (Genesis chapter 10) gives a list of the tribes known to be descended from each brother as of that writing.  This means that some tribes are listed who were later lost to history.  Others are mentioned but are not followed all the way to where they eventually settled centuries later.  When we are told where they lived, most of the locations are in and around the Ancient Near East, even for tribes that we know later ended up in Africa (for example Mizraim = Egypt and Cush = Ethiopia).  If we take the account of Babel as true (which my novels do), then the human race first clustered around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and tried to build a centralized civilization.  Only later did they end up migrating to the ends of the earth.  So, for a time, you had the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth living right on top of each other.

Here are the two theories.  I will spend more time on the second one, because it is the more novel and interesting one.

The Traditional Theory: Most of the World is Japhethite

This is the theory that I was taught when I studied Old Testament Backgrounds.  It has been the majority interpretation of the Table of Nations (which is, admittedly, hard to interpret).  On this view, Shem was the father of all the nations that traditionally speak Semitic languages: basically, the Hebrews and the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula.  (Yes, Arabs and Jews are related.)   Ham was the father of all the nations of Africa, including the Egyptians, Ethiopians and all the subSaharan nations.  And Japheth was the father of the Indo-Europeans, East Asians, Pacific Islanders and (via the Land Bridge) the Native Americans. 

This view isn’t perfect, because no broad explanation of human distribution is perfect.  That said, it does make some intuitive sense.   This is the interpretation that I used when writing my novels, because it was the only one that I was aware of at the time.  So the family that my story follows are, in the novel, all descendants of Japheth.  One of them, Hur, has fair skin and hazel eyes, and his mother was blond.  The others all have straight dark hair and more or less East Asian features, in some cases shading towards Native American.  The books are set during a time that was pre-race.  People knew each other by their extended families.

I now kind of regret that I used this theory for my novels, because the one that is coming up is so much cooler.

Arthur C. Custance Says Most of the World is Hamite

Only after I was well committed to my series did I discover the web site of Arthur C. Custance, where you can read a wide selection of essays and booklets by him.  Here is his big theory.  Like many sweeping, alternative theories of history, it takes some getting used to, but seems to make more sense the longer you look at it, if you are willing to look at it.

Arthur C. Custance believes the Table of Nations should be interpreted as follows.  Shem was the father of the Semitic peoples, as above.  Japheth, whose name probably means “fair” in Hebrew, was the father of just the Indo-Europeans.  Ham was the father of everyone else: not just the African nations, but all the indigenous peoples of Asia, Polynesia, and the Americas.  Basically, anyone who doesn’t have a historical tradition of being descended from Shem or else a freakily white complexion like us Indo-Europeans.

The Gifts of the Peoples per Custance

Custance’s theory is not just about physical descent.  He also believes that each of these broad groupings of humanity have a gift to give the human race as a whole: some cultural feature that they are especially good at.  

For Semites, it’s spiritual insight.  Semitic groups have “gods that are gods of righteousness.”  The Hebrews, obviously, received the revelations of God and gave an up until then very oppressive world the gift of ethical monotheism.  The Arabs, also, have managed to found a monotheistic religion that is focused on righteousness and is a force to be reckoned with.  In both cases, their main cultural focus is religion to a much greater degree than in most cultures.

The Japhethites’ gift is intellect.  Their gods tend to be “gods of enlightenment.”  Japhethite peoples, according to Custance, as a culture are basically the absentminded professor type.  They excel at building elaborate intellectual systems of thought that may or may not have any connection to the real world.  So, the Greeks gave us philosophy, but their natural sciences consisted of speculating about ideal plants and animals rather than doing fieldwork.  The elaborate Hindu systems of philosophy were developed by the Aryans, an Indo-European group that invaded India from the North.  The Germanic peoples gave us Freud and Nietzsche.  (Thanks, guys.)

Japhethites, per Custance, are not, as a culture, good at practical matters.  That is the special gift of the Hamites.

Now, here is where it gets cool.  The Hamite gods tend to be “gods of power.”  What the Hamite peoples excel at is innovation in the multitude of practical disciplines that make life in this world possible.  This includes (to name just a few of them in alphabetical order),  administration, agriculture, architecture, arithmetic, arts and crafts, botany, city planning, mechanical engineering, medicine, metal smithing, mining, music, navigation, pottery, stoneworking, textiles, weapons innovations, and basically every other type of technology.

Custance argues that nearly every major urban civilization was founded by Hamites.  This includes Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, ancient China, and the great cities of the Americas.  It also includes the urban civilization of India, which was developed by the dark-skinned Dravidians before India was taken over by the Aryans, at which point, argues Custance, technological innovation in India basically stopped.

Furthermore, on this view the Hamites were the first to colonize the world.  With their extreme practical survival skills, they made it all the way across Asia, the Americas, and Polynesia while the Semites were hanging out in the Middle East and the Indo-Europeans were still building kurgans on the plains of the Ukraine.  This explains why almost anywhere people have gone in recorded history, they find that there are already dark-skinned people living there (for example, Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Negritos of the Philippines, possibly the Etruscans in Italy, and the dark-haired, pre-Celtic inhabitants of Europe).   

Finally, Custance argues that beautiful things happen when the children of the sons of Shem, Ham, and Japheth get together.  Semitic spirituality plus Japhethite intellectualism results in theology.  Japhethite intellectualism plus Hamitic technical know-how gives us modern science.

The Picture is Complex

Now, I realize this is a broad brush.  Obviously, every nation has some kind of tech and some kind of religion (philosophical systems come later and Custance argues that they are the least important of the three).  And it’s not as though the nations of the earth have lived hermetically sealed lives.  There has been plenty of migration, intermarriage, and spread of ideas, even starting in very ancient times.  Custance’s idea is that when we trace the sources of ideas and innovations, we tend to find technological innovation coming from Ham, intellectual systems coming from Japheth, and spiritual insight coming from Shem. 

I need hardly say that none of these gifts is “the best.”  We need them all.

Custance also notes a pattern where Japhethite peoples tend to take over territory from Hamitic peoples and then adapt, benefit from, and often take credit for Hamite innovations and discoveries.  Clearly this has happened in modern times, but there are examples that come from well before the modern age of European colonialism, such as the Aryans taking over India and the Greeks getting elements of their civilization from Egypt and Ethiopia.  That said, because of the nature of the case there have necessarily also been many instances of Hamite peoples migrating into other Hamite peoples’ territory, such as the Austronesians migrating into the Philippines to find the Negritos already there. World history is complicated.

If you are intrigued by these ideas, I encourage you to visit Custance’s web site via one of the many links in this article.

If I had followed Custance’s theory when writing my books, Zillah and her children should have been Hamite, and Hur should not have been able to speak their language.  He could not have stayed with them or eventually married into their family.  So unfortunately, I can’t rewrite my entire series to follow Custance.  Bummer.

But here is a song about when all the children of Noah worship together.