What’s your stereotype of “indie” (independently published) books? Is it a tame memoir that would interest only the author’s family? A bitter rant where the author finally gets to have their say? An amateurish sci-fi filled with cringe-inducing grammatical errors?
I’ve read all of these types. (And, for the record, my opinion is not the same about all of them. The family memoirs, in particular, will be valuable historical records one day.) But in case you didn’t know it, there is so much more to the world of indie books. Here are two indie authors I’ve discovered, both worth reading and each weirder than the last.
Specter by Katie Jane Gallagher
I discovered Katie right here on WordPress. She likes horror, which I didn’t think was really my speed, but I just had to buy her book to see the results of her self-publishing. The book is, in a word, professional. The cover, the formatting, the editing … it all looks and reads just like any high-quality YA paranormal book you’d pick up in a bookstore (or, in my case, a library). And no, it’s not a paranormal romance where the ghost is the girl’s love interest. (Thank God.) It just features a normal, smart high schooler who starts seeing ghosts. And, refreshingly, her parents are all right, unlike in so many YA books where the parents are either dead, clueless or part of the problem.
And the horror? Well, there are some horrible revelations at the end … but they didn’t turn out to be anything I couldn’t handle. Perhaps I’ve been toughened up by watching Stranger Things.
The Collision series by Rich Colburn
Full disclosure: I knew Rich before he wrote these books. He’s weird. (I honestly don’t think he’ll be offended if he reads that.) When, having not seen him for years, I heard that Rich had indie published a couple of books, I eagerly bought them. They are exactly the kind of books I would have expected from him, which makes them a little hard to describe.
From the Amazon blurb: “What if the spirit world was rampant with technology sophisticated beyond anything mankind has imagined? What if a sociopath got his hands on a powerful piece of this technology? What if you couldn’t die no matter how much damage your body sustained?
“Join a reluctant hero on his quest to discover what the heck he should do with his time now that he has unlimited power and the world as he knew it collides with the unseen world. Will demon-possessed biomechanical monsters kill everyone? Will there be enough coffee to last through to the end of the world? Will that play into our hero’s decision whether or not to bother saving it? These are questions we’ve all wondered about. Explore these and other important philosophical questions as you follow the adventure that was contrived to do just that.
“The Collision series offers a technological explanation for the supernatural. Human psychology, questions of life and death, and the nature of the supernatural play a critical role in the story of a man who becomes aware of the technology used by beings existing in higher modes of reality.”
The Collision books are slightly less professional than Specter. They could have used a second pass with an editor. But they are a joy to read because they are just so darned clever. To take a sampling of the chapter titles from Resolve:
Chapter 34: When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object, It’s Best If They Avoid Eye Contact
Chapter 35: Omnipotence: It’s There When You Least Expect It
Chapter 36: I Love the Java Jive but the Java Jive has Found Me Wanting
Chapter 37: Seriously? Another Plot-Thickening Thread?
Chapter 41: It Came From My Parents’ Basement
Believe it or not, these titles are not just one-liners. All of them make sense when you read the chapter. I really don’t think a traditionally published book could have gotten away with chapter titles like this.
So now you are probably thinking that the Collision series is like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And it sort of is, if that book had been written by a Christian. But it’s not just metaphysics and humor. The book also becomes surprisingly poignant (in the context of all the weirdness), and also very horrifying and tense. Especially the scene in the parents’ basement. Also, be it noted that the monster made out of corpses in Stranger Things was familiar to me because an even more horrifying version had already roamed the pages of Formulacrum.
The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.
They Are Surprising to Other People
I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”) And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.
The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.
A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:
“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.
The Magnificent Maya, p. 22
They Got Romanticized
In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.
Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read. Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,
… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.
The Magnificent Maya. p. 33
Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound). As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.
They Were Shockingly Cruel
First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed. (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)
But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.
Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.
If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.
The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140). Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.
Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95). This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.
Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”
They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart
And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.
The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year. Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.
All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:
As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:
“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”
Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162
Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”
“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)
Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.
The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012. It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.
Bottom Line, the Mayans are People
I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.
So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.
Humans are smart.
Humans are evil.
Humans are wonderful.
Humans are everywhere.
Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.
Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.
“chicken noodle soup” using Ramen noodles and canned chicken
chocolate chip cookies (3 4 batches!)
almond strip cookies (1 batch so far)
pies: pumpkin, chocolate pudding, banana pudding
lemon poppyseed muffins
biscuits (No, not the things the British call biscuits. Those are cookies. I mean those things that are made with flour, shortening, and buttermilk) (Lost count of the number of batches I’ve made. Son keeps requesting them)
Do I detect a theme here? Sounds pretty carb-heavy, no? We even managed to run out of white sugar. But rest easy, because I also made …
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.
This post is the first in a series I have planned about prehistory. Each post will draw on one or more chapters from the book The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, by Richard Rudgley, Touchstone, 2000. From the front flap:
Our long-held myths are exploding. Recent discoveries of astonishing accomplishments from the Neolithic Age – in art, technology, writing, math, science, religion, and medicine, and exploration – demand a fundamental rethinking of human history before the dawn of civilization.
Lost Civilizations, inside flap
So, Rudgley’s thesis is basically that there was, in fact, civilization long before there was civilization. That is, of course, also a theme of this blog. “Ancient people were smarter than we think,” or that art, literature, science and civilization are the natural state of human beings and have been present (ebbing and flowing of course) as long as there has been humanity.
A near-universal theme in the mythologies of the world is that the present state of the world, and more specifically the social world, is in decline — a fall from the Garden of Eden or from a Golden Age. Modern civilization has turned these traditional mythological assumptions on their head and written a new script, one based on the idea of social progress and evolution. In this new mythology the notion of civilization (as it is generally understood) replaces Eden and this novel paradise exists not at the beginning of time but, if not right now, then just around the corner. Civilization is … presented as the final flowering of human achievement born out of a long and interminable struggle against the powers of darkness and ignorance that are represented by the Stone Age.
Lost Civilizations, Introduction, page 1
I have come to believe in the ancientness of civilization because I take ancient documents seriously as historical records: Genesis, primarily, but also the other legends and myths from around the world which Rudgley mentions in his intro. This suspicion that ancient people were much smarter than we give them credit for was further strengthened as I learned about some of their buildingprojects. Now Rudgley is presenting archaeological evidence that they knew far more than we suspect about art, mathematics, the natural sciences, and medicine.
Disclaimer about Dates
By the way, I don’t have a coherent way to sort out which archaeological dates to accept and which ones to doubt. As far as I can tell from my reading, all methods of dating archaeological sites are based on some form of dead reckoning.
Carbon dating depends on certain assumptions about rates of molecular decay, which can’t be proven in the first place and can also be thrown off universally or locally by events such as a comet strike. Carbon dating also seems to be less reliable the farther we go back in time.
Dating by archaeological layers also depends on assumptions about different historical periods and what might be diagnostic of each, except in cases where a site can be reliably linked to a known historical event (which is obviously only the case for relatively recent sites). Other than that, it’s all dead reckoning.
Dating events in human history by the use of genetics depends upon assuming that all genetic differences evolved and assuming certain rates of change. Historical linguistics has the same problem.
Finally, historical records such as the genealogies found in Genesis and in the oral traditions of other peoples worldwide hit only the highlights of a family line and don’t give us any idea how many generations were skipped.
Each of these methods can be pretty convincing in specific cases. It is even more convincing when one or more methods converge, yielding the same date range. But even when that happens, it’s still just one method of dead reckoning appearing to validate another. And most often, different dating methods contradict each other. If a plurality of them converged on one timeline for human history, maybe we could accept that. But they don’t. It’s complete chaos.
I would love to present a clever, coherent, data-grounded rubric for sorting all this stuff out. But I’m not a professional in any of these fields. Even if I were, the pros don’t all agree with one another. It’s starting to look like, in order to have a sorting method that makes sense, I would have to do full-time research for several years. Maybe for a lifetime. So I got nothin’.
My working theory is that humanity, and hence human civilization, is tens of thousands but not hundreds of thousands and certainly not millions of years old. I can’t prove this. No one can.
So, in these posts about Rudgley’s book, I’ll just present the dates as he gives them. I won’t try to integrate them with the picture of ancient human history that I have been piecing together in my books and in other posts on this site, all of which could be invalidated at any time by a new historical or archaeological discovery. Sometimes Rudgley gives dates that are hundreds of thousands or even millions of years old (though not in this chapter). I might be skeptical that they are really that old, but can still accept that these people were living long before mainstream archaeology tells us that there was “civilization.”
On to the Icky Stuff!
So. Stone Age Surgery.
Undoubtedly the widest-known major surgical operation in tribal cultures is trepanation … which, as will become clear, was also known in the Stone Age. This operation involves the removing of one or more parts of the skull without damaging the blood vessels, the three membranes that envelop the brain … or the actual brain.
Lost Civilizations, p 126
That’s right, removing parts of the skull. There are three methods by which this can be done: scraping, “a mixture of boring and sawing,” and “the push-plough method,” which involves creating an oval groove in the skull (basically another method of scraping).
Thomas Wilson Parry, MD (1866 – 1945), became fascinated by trepanation and practiced various methods of it on human skulls (not on live patients), “using implements made of obsidian, flint, slate, glass, shell and shark teeth.” “Parry records that the average time it took him to perform a trepanation by the scraping method on a fresh adult skull was half an hour. He found both flint and obsidian excellent materials to work with surgically, and also expressed the opinion that shells — which were used in Oceania to perform such operations — were highly effective too.” (page 128)
Trepanation appears to be less painful than it sounds. It has been used at various times and places to treat epilepsy, mental illness, head injuries, severe headaches, vertigo and deafness (129). It is “still regularly practised among the Gusii of Kenya, a Bantu people with a population of about one million, and theirs is perhaps the last surviving traditional practice of its kind.” (130) Trepanation was also practiced by the Incas and the pre-Inca peoples; in Neolithic Europe; in 6th-century BC Palestine; and now, trepanned skulls a few thousand years old have also been found in Australia.
Rudgley points out that “as it is usually only the bones of Stone Age people that survive to be discovered … any operation that was performed on the soft parts of the body cannot be detected.” (136) If Neolithic people were willing and able occasionally to practice trepanation, it seems likely that they were able to perform less risky kinds of surgery too. There is some evidence from Neolithic Europe of various kinds of dentistry, including toothpick grooves, birch bark chewing gum, and even a skull with a tooth that has been drilled. (136)
Rudgley’s chapter on trepanation (“Stone Age Surgery”) comes after a chapter called “Under the Knife” (pp 116 – 125), which discusses medical procedures in “tribal” cultures that are known from history and ethnography. This includes everything from circumcision in the Ancient Near East, to amputation among the Australian aborigines, to very detailed anatomical knowledge among the Aleutian islanders. The chapter concludes with two horrifying yet impressive accounts of successful surgeries in a tribal context. There is a c-section performed in Uganda in 1879, and various tumor removals performed in the Ellice [sic] Islands in the 1920s. The message is clear: modern, “civilized” people don’t have a corner on medical knowledge.
Antiseptics and Painkillers
We don’t know whether Stone Age people had germ theory. Nor, if they had it, do we know how they referred to germs. In one of Ursula le Guin’s novels, a wound getting infected is called “the evil of the blade.” That’s hardly less scientific than calling it an “infection,” as long as you know how to prevent or treat it.
Studies of both the trepanned skulls of the Incas and some of those found in Neolithic Europe indicate that healing seems to have been the norm in both cases. It is hard to explain the Stone Age success rate without concluding that some kind of effective antiseptic agent must have been used. Furthermore, the surgeons of the time must have understood the need for it.
Lost Civilizations, p 131
If germ theory was ever explicitly known, it was obviously forgotten at some point in human history, only to be re-discovered much later. But even if people were operating on a different theory, it would be possible for them to know the importance of cleanliness and to know how to treat a patient using any of a large number of natural substances that have antiseptic properties. The words “Stone Age” naturally evoke the image of a cave man, and the idea of a cave man naturally includes an individual who never takes a bath. But it ain’t necessarily so.
It is also possible that people’s immune systems were much stronger many years ago, if we are willing to entertain the idea that the human race has declined over time rather than evolving upwards.
Now, I am sure you want to know about painkillers. Here, gleaned from Rudgley’s Stone Age Surgery chapter, is a short list of substances that have been used as painkillers at different times and places:
cocaine (in coca leaves — South America)
wine mixed with extract of mandrake (first-century Greece)
mandrake beer (ancient Egypt)
possibly just beer
the opium poppy (starting in the Mediterranean around 6000 BC and spreading west from there)
cannabis (native to Central Asia, but quickly spread to Old Europe and China)
betel nut (Southeast Asia)
tobacco (in the Americas)
pituri (a nicotine-bearing plant used by the Australian Aborigines)
Clearly, although we might prefer modern anesthesia, ancient peoples were not completely without recourse when it came to pain. Most of the substances on this list are attested not only in history but also in ancient burials.
And Now, the Lucky Honoree of this Post
This post is dedicated to a certain relative of mine whose birthday today is. Like the surgeons in this post, he is both very smart, and now, as of this birthday … ancient.
n.b. “Perfect,” as I will use it below, doesn’t always mean perfect but rather perfect in its context or else merely “really terrific.” Especially when used of actual, historical people. As we all know, perfection isn’t perfect, right?
The Perfect Genre
“Pick a book that perfectly represents its genre.”
The Rise and Fall of Ben Gizzard is the perfect Western.
“Ben Gizzard would die on the day he saw a white mountain upside down and a black bird talked to him, but not before. An old Indian he cheated out of some furs told him this.
“This was good news to a man as mean and crafty as Ben Gizzard. He settled in treeless, birdless Depression Gulch and cheated, robbed, and killed his way to riches. How his life seemed charmed in that place where there were neither mountains nor birds!
“But one day a young artist arrived in town with a large black bird sitting on his shoulder. Oh, Ben Gizzard!
“Our slithering villain comes to his end when he least expects it, and the world is a better place without him, and a better place for the telling of his story, which is both funny and awesome.”
The Perfect Setting
“Pick a book that takes place in a perfect place.”
Gosh, there are so many books that I love for their setting. There is Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women (an aristocratic household in pre-Mao China), Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (Wales, with magic), and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (modern-day Botswana).
But my top pick would have to be Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. It takes place in a beautiful, sensuously described version of Switzerland (example: the children picking fresh strawberries and eating them with cream for lunch) and, of course, the fact that everything is so mountainous is crucial to the plot.
The Perfect Main Character
“Pick the perfect main character.”
I’m gonna have to go with Bilbo Baggins here. His combination of humility and spunk cannot be beat.
The Perfect Best Friend
“Loyal and supportive, pick a character that you think is the best friend ever.”
Sam Gamgee would be an obvious choice, but there are class issues there, so instead, let me name Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Reason: Tumnus just met Lucy an hour or two ago and she has not done anything special for him … and yet he’s ready to put his own life on the line to protect her from the Witch’s secret police. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”
The Perfect Love Interest
“Pick a character you think would be an amazing romantic partner.”
Charles Ingalls from the Little House series.
On the down side, he will drag you and your children across the American frontier, where you will almost lose your lives in every. single. chapter.
But on the plus side! The man can build a livable house, single-handed, in a few weeks. He can dig a well, provide food, and make friends with the Indians. He’s never met a stranger. He is gentle and kind with Caroline and his daughters, and he is unflaggingly cheerful, even when starving. (Read The Long Winter and watch him effusively praise the dehydrated cod gravy that Caroline breaks out to put some variety in the family’s totally inadequate diet.) And he can fiddle, sing, and dance! What more could you ask for?
This guy is a ball of energy and good cheer. There would be no better person to have by your side in the hairy situations that he will surely get you into.
The Perfect Villain
“Pick a character with the most sinister mind.”
“Amazing Amy” from Gone Girl. I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler, by now, to tell you that she fakes her own death and frames her husband for it, then fantasizes about “him getting butt-raped in jail.” It’s never clear what Nick did to deserve such a fate, other than fail to think she is sufficiently amazing. And that trick she pulls at the end of the book … well …!
The Perfect Family
“Pick a perfect bookish family.”
Since I was a little hard on the Dutch on Friday, let me rehabilitate them a bit. My “perfect bookish family” is a Dutch family, and they actually lived: the ten Boom family of Haarlem, circa 1935.
Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place describes how the family took in Jews during the occupation until they were turned in and went to concentration camps themselves. Even though the book is about the Holocaust, it is heartwarming and includes many laugh-out-loud moments. The heartwarming part is Corrie’s description of the family’s life in their tiny, ramshackle house/watch shop. The laughing out loud comes mostly from the personality of her father, Casper ten Boom, a true character and an amazing man of God whom I look forward to meeting some day. Corrie’s mom was also amazing, and I think it was her warm personality (and Casper’s) that offset the natural sternness of the Dutch of that time, making the ten Booms … the perfect bookish family.
The Perfect Animal or Pet
“Pick a pet or fantastic animal that you need to see on a book.”
The humble chicken.
There are a few books with a chicken protagonist. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., is one. There is also a Russian fairy tale where a rooster saves two poor children:
“I, the cock, have a crimson comb / And the wicked czar has nothing like it! / He took away their fortune / from two poor little orphans / And he dines in style / while they go hungry!”
The Perfect Plot Twist
“Pick a book with the best plot twist.”
Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert.
(Yes … it’s about lobstermen.)
Though it takes place on a tiny island in Maine, this book features a Jane Austen-worthy plot twist near the end.
The Perfect Trope
“Pick a trope that you would add to your own book without thinking.”
Spiritual transformation of a main character.
Not only would I add this without thinking, I actually wouldn’t think of writing a novel where it did not happen. To me, spiritual transformation is a critical part of a novel.
(Not that I don’t enjoy books where this trope doesn’t take place. Mystery series, particularly, do well if the detective MCs are fairly static.)
There are a few novels where the transformation is almost the only thing that happens. I give you The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and all the Church of England novels by Susan Howatch. But much more commonly, the MC’s spiritual transformation happens as a result of a lot of other action in the plot, as in The Hobbit (fantasy), Identity Man by Andrew Klavan (crime thriller), and many, many others.
The Perfect Cover
“Pick the cover that you would easily put on your own book.”
My book is not St. George and the Dragon, but this is the artist I would have wanted to do my covers: Trina Schart Hyman. She’s gone now, but her art lives on. I have been trying my whole life to draw and paint like she did. I’ll bet she would have made the ruined Tower of Babel look amazing.
The Perfect Ending
“Pick a book that has the perfect ending.”
A Christmas Carol.
It’s the ultimate happy ending. We feel Scrooge’s childlike joy when he realizes he is being given another chance at life. Also, Tiny Tim is not dead after all and Scrooge has a chance to save him. “The spirits did it all in one night!” There is a strong sense of death and re-birth, not just of Scrooge but of his entire world.
I realize that everyone knows how the book ends and you might think of it as a cliche at this point, but really, if you read the entire book, hanging in there through Scrooge’s sad childhood, slow hardening, the horrific descriptions of poverty, etc., and then you get to the end and it doesn’t move you, well, I don’t know what to do for you, really.
Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31
Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.
On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East. It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.
Description Is Not Prescription
First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding
that nevertheless seems to be widespread.
Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history. The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors. In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape. In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism. And so on. It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.
God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy
But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff. It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force. Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad. If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.
I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What
kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves
in at the time that God gave them all these laws?
Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence. Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them. They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices. They had no war, no rape, no slavery. They did not even eat meat. They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.
No, no, no. Come on. That picture is the exact opposite of the truth. There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.
The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East
When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the
historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:
In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.
If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or
were a farmer attached to, a city-state. At the center of your city would be the temple
of that city’s god. Typically the king
was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her
representative on earth. So, the god was
ruling you through the king. Every
citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service
and sacrifice. And how was that religion
practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures
in which livestock represent wealth. But
actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.
prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of
fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of
and in some places it was common.
In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy. All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites. The power of the ruling class was considered absolute. Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king. There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law. Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.
For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.
It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World
Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East. The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical. The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture. In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.
But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are
accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and
secular, with lots of social mobility (and no
animal sacrifices whatsoever). For many
people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized
theocracy comes when they open the Bible.
They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had
commanded all of this. But no, He was
not instituting theocracy, animal
sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it. Those things were already universal. He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the
norm. He spoke to them in their terms,
but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His
Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?
You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?” This would, of course, have made no sense to them. They would have been completely unable to understand the message. If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies. You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it. But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.
Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in
a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where
instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not
allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated
animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by
the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again,
limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their
own land … where, for many years, there
was no king.
If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the
Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)
Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.