Forest Gardens

So, a member of the Out of Babel research team sent me this cool link. (The research team being blog readers/friends who send me links.)

Apparently, the native peoples of British Columbia made gardens in the temperate rain forests up there. These were patches of forest where they planted edibles such as “hazelnuts, crabapples, cranberries, and hawthorn.” These patches persist to this day. They did not look like agriculture to the Europeans. We are just now realizing what they were, a mere 200 years behind the times as usual.

This article brings to mind the Wild Yam Question, which was raised by an old ethnology professor of mine. Part of the Wild Yam thesis is that people groups who look to city-dwellers’ eyes like hunter-gatherers, may actually be engaging in horticulture, where they plant a staple food (such as sago palm) in clusters in the forest and then rotate where they harvest it, which looks like pure foraging but isn’t. According to the linked article, the forest gardens in BC are the first instance of this kind of horticulture that has been discovered in a temperate climate.

And not to go on a patented Out of Babel rant, but I’ll just note that this kind of discovery undermines the old model of anthropology where people start out as hunter-gatherers and progress to gardens, then large-scale agriculture, and so on, becoming more urban as they go. This suggests that there are a variety of ways to do agriculture and that people can mix elements of different lifestyles to suit their needs. This, in turn, suggests that we can’t just look at whether a given people group has agriculture, and assume that we can infer from this when they lived or what stage of development they were in. There may well have been people groups who went from being farmers or herdsmen to being hunters when forced to do so, either because they were migrating or in response to some disaster. In fact, this is exactly what happens to Enmer’s tribe in my trilogy.

Terrifying Quote of the Week

[The megachurch’s] ads extolling the virtues of flexibility in changing times, adaptability in the face of difficulties, and going-with-the-flowness in the event that your church was ever caught in a flash flood of scandal, were ads that were hip, ironic, self-effacing, detached, and exuded a coolness unto death.

Evangellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, p. 202

Quote: Don’t Worry, This is Totally Natural

“Childbirth is natural, and not an event that has to be conducted in a hospital. I am here to help women understand how natural this is. But I will have to go in just a moment. How may I help you?”

Rourke had delivered at least three babies in the back seats of cars and taxi cabs, and thought he was qualified to assert that there was nothing whatever that was natural about it. It was the craziest thing in the world. Women were the kind of people that people came out of, for crying out loud, and he thought it was the kind of thing best monitored by world-class doctors and sophisticated electronic gear, maintained closely by teams of nurses with graduate degrees in astrophysics. But that was just his opinion.

Evengellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, pp. 86 – 87

Ancient People Knew About Mathematics

Babylonians used the Pythagorean theorem 1,000 years before it was ‘invented’ in ancient Greece”

If you know me, you’ll know that I think this finding is cool, but not surprising. I believe that advanced mathematics were widely known in the ancient world. How else could the Giza pyramids have been built as a model of the stars of Orion’s belt (using pi in their proportions) … the temple complex at Teotihuacan been built as a model of the solar system (with the pyramids there also using pi in their proportions) … Stonehenge been built as an astronomical observatory that also functioned as a calculator … or the circular chambers at Gobekli Tepe been laid out forming a perfect equilateral triangle?

This doesn’t mean that every people group since the dispersion of mankind has had a knowledge of advanced mathematics. Obviously not. But either it was known to a central civilization and then lost in many cases, or else human beings are so clever that they are capable of discovering mathematical principles independently, whenever they have the need and the interest. Or both.

People are probably going to tell you that crediting the Pythagorean theorem to Pythagoras (through whom we first heard about it), rather than to the Babylonians, is racism. It’s not. In one sense, the fact that we credited Pythagoras was harmless. It was ignorance, not a cover-up. That was the farther our knowledge went; now, it goes a little farther.

But if we are super duper surprised that this theorem was in use 1,000 years before we thought it was, then we might be dealing here with an equally wrongheaded attitude. Instead of looking down on some peoples based on their skin tone, this is looking down on them based on the fact that they lived and died just too long before we were born. It’s the assumption that modern people are better at abstract thought, science, and technology than ancient people. Though self-flattering, this belief isn’t just an irrational prejudice. It’s a consequence of the evolutionary presupposition that people started out as animals, and that we had to slowly develop things like language, music, art, religion, mathematics and all kinds of higher thought. Thus, by definition, modern people should be smarter and our technology and mathematics more advanced than those of ancient people. The silent testimony of megalithic monuments all around the world belies this.

Quote: A Liar Telling the Truth

Chad smiled a sad, pastoral smile. Rourke looked at him, sympathetically impressed. Man, this guy was good. But Rourke had been on the force for many years, and he was just as good. Rourke tightened the muscles in his jaw. That man across the desk is telling the truth for now, just this moment. But he is a liar telling the truth, and it almost suits him.

So Rourke just sat and watched admiringly. Chad chose his words with care, but with a carefree care. Everything was parsed, but it looked as though it was spontaneously lying about. Shabby chic.

Evangellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, p. 49

The Desolation of Smaug, the Movie: A Review. Sort Of.

I just finished watching this with my kids, and I … I just …

Why is all this stuff happening?

I mean … I just …

We are just so far off script here. I don’t even know at this point whether Bard is going to kill Smaug or what … or whether we are going to see an elf-dwarf marriage …. or why Gandalf is such a moron … and there are so many brand-new plot holes that I just …

Wow.

Evangellyfish: A Book Review

It’s been a busy week, so instead of the usual exciting rants about prehistory, I’m forced to cross-post this review from Goodreads.

The Amazon Blurb

Chad Lester’s kingdom is found in the Midwest. His voice crawls over the airwaves, his books are read by millions (before he reads them), and thousands ride the escalators into the sanctuary every Sunday. And Saturday. And Wednesday, too. He is the head pastor of Camel Creek – a CEO of Soul. And souls come cheap, so he has no overhead.

When Lester is (falsely) accused of molesting a young male counselee, his universe begins to crumble. He is a sexual predator, yes. But strictly straight (and deeply offended that anyone would suggest otherwise). Detectives, reporters, assistant pastors, and old lovers and pay-offs all come out to play.

John Mitchell is also a pastor, but he has no kingdom to speak of – only smalltime choir feuds. He is thrilled at the great man’s fall, but his joy quickly fades when the imploding Lester calls him – and a lover or two – for help. How low can grace go? Whores, thieves, and junkies, sure. But pastors?

My Review

This book is sort of like one of those treats from Mexico that are, technically, candy, but they also contain chile powder and a ton of citric acid.

In other words, it’s funny, shrewd, and a quick read, but also super misanthropic.

The narrative voice is Douglas Wilson’s own, which is to say, full of sardonic psychological observations, bon mots, and silly but deep metaphors. The plot is P.G. Wodehouse-esque.

My biggest problem with it, and the reason I gave it only four stars instead of five, is that almost all the characters talk kind of alike, both in the dialogue and in their internal monologues. And the way they talk is also very similar to the narrative voice. This isn’t realistic, and it sometimes makes the characters harder to keep track of in a comedy of errors that has a very large ensemble cast. Also, they sound too educated. What teenaged daughter says to her father that Costco was “a perfect madhouse”?

As for the expose part of it, I have been in the evangelical world my entire life but I have never been in a mega-church — at all, really, but certainly not a mega-church like this one, where the pastor originally wanted to run for governor, has never been to seminary, doesn’t read the Bible, seduces all the women he “counsels” and then pays them off, has bestselling books written by ghost writers and sermons written by same. If this kind of thing is truly widespread, that explains why Wilson is always chiding evangelicals. And why, perhaps, I shouldn’t take his chiding personally, as it is apparently not directed at me. 

Poverty Point: Star of My Show

Near Bayou Macon, Louisiana, is an archaeological site called Poverty Point. I am drawing for information about Poverty Point primarily on the book Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, 1986, by the The Reader’s Digest Association Inc., but here is the official Poverty Point web site. It is now a World Heritage Site. Here is a recent article about an archaeological project done at Poverty Point.

First, the Obligatory Eye-Rolling at Mainstream Archaeology

Like many North American sites, Poverty Point was hard to spot because it consists of earthworks that had been overgrown with forest. (And not only North American sites. Radar technology is revealing that the Mayan civilization was much more extensive than first thought — because the jungle took over so quickly — and is also revealing old settlements in what was hitherto thought to be never-before-settled Amazon rainforest.)

Earthworks are basically impossible to date, but for other reasons, Poverty Point is thought to be about 3,000 years old (i.e. about 1,000 B.C.). However, it helps to remember that when dealing with paleontology and even archaeology, dates are often basically just made up — i.e. reached through dead reckoning based on a shaky framework of background assumptions. But let’s accept 1,000 B.C. for now.

Mysteries, which again, was published in 1986, also makes several more or less dubious claims about the builders of Poverty Point. Here’s a sampling:

“[S]cholars think it is doubtful that societies on the chiefdom level existed in North America 3,000 years ago.” (page 111)

“[This civilization] had no writing, no true agriculture, and no architecture except for its earthworks. Its weapons were simple: the spear, the atlatl, the dart, the knife, and possibly the bola. Even the bow and arrow was unknown to these people.” (page 112)

“Considering the massiveness of Poverty Point’s ridges and mounds, one naturally assumes that they were built over many generations or even centuries.” (page 112)

Mysteries of the Ancient Americas

The first of these quotes is 100% pure assumption, based on the noble savage mythology so beloved of modern academics.

The second is also pure assumption. A better way to put it would be that we have found no evidence of writing, agriculture, etc., so far. The findings reported at the first link above seem to confirm that agriculture was not a big thing at Poverty Point, based on the remains of the peoples’ diet, but this could have been simply because the fishing and foraging was so abundant. It does not necessarily mean they were “only hunter-gatherers” who had not “advanced” to the level of agriculture. C.f. similar claims being made about Gobekli Tepe. As for the bow and arrow, I take it that remnants of all these other weapons have been found, but not bows. Even that, I take with a grain of salt, as it seems that almost every week, something is discovered that we had thought this or that ancient group didn’t have. (Here’s the latest example, which even refers to ancient humans as not particularly ‘smart,’ with ‘smart’ in scare quotes.) But even if the Poverty Point people did not use bows and arrows, this does not necessarily mean the weapon was “unknown” to them. Perhaps they had specialized in other weapons instead. Not everybody in the Middle Ages was an English longbowman, but boy oh boy did they know about them!

Finally, the third claim made in the Mysteries quote box (which they at least had the grace to call an assumption), appears to have been possibly disproven by the second link above. “New radiocarbon dating, microscopic analysis of soil, and magnetic measurements of soils at Ridge West 3 found no evidence of weathering between layers of soil, suggesting that the earthwork had been built rapidly.”

Now, the Site Itself

from Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 111

It’s easier to just show you guys this diagram than to try to describe it, but buckle up, here comes the description. The Poverty Point site consists of earthen ridges set concentrically inside each other, in what looks like a C-shape from the air. “The two central aisles point toward the setting sun at solstice” (ibid). Directly to the west of all this is a large man-made mound (Mound A), while a ways farther north there is a smaller mound (Mound B), which seems to be a burial mound. Bayou Macon, directly to the east, cuts through the eastern side of this whole complex. Was this whole thing originally C-shaped, or was it a circle? Probably a C shape, because there are similar, smaller sites around this region which tend to be “constructed in a semicircle or semioval pattern with the open side facing the water and with one or more mounds located nearby.” (ibid)

The book uses the word “ceremonial” a lot, and honestly I can’t fault them. This complex was constructed by human beings, and now, millennia (?) later, more human beings come and look at it and say, “This looks like it was clearly designed for ceremonial purposes.” That’s a valid argument. The architecture is having a certain effect on us, and we can assume that it had that same effect on our long-lost fellows, and was designed to.

Poverty-Point-related sites have yielded thousands of little decorated clay balls, called Poverty Point objects, that we think were used for cooking. There are also little clay sculptures of female torsos (with or without heads), reminiscent of the Venuses found around ancient Europe. There are also “myriads of stone tools,” including drills, awls, and needles, made both from local stone and from flint imported from as far away as Indiana. They made “plummets,” perhaps as bola weights or perhaps as weights for fishnets, “most often of hematite in graceful teardrop or oval shapes [and] often decorated with beautifully executed stylized designs representing serpents, owls, and human figures.” (ibid, p. 115)

But it is in lapidary work that the Poverty Point people excelled. Pendants, buttons, beads, and small tablets are worked in an array of such colored or translucent stones as red jasper, amethyst, feldspar, red and green talc, galena, quartz, and limonite. Most of these stones were obtained by far-flung trade. Among the pendants are a number of bird effigies — red jasper owls and parakeets, and bird heads worked in polished jasper and brown and black stones. There are also representations of a human face, a turtle, claws, and rattles, and stubby but carefully made tubular pipes.

Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 115

O.K., I’ve changed my mind. Perhaps this C-shaped complex was not ceremonial, it was a lapidary factory.

Regardless, the Poverty Point “hunter-gatherers” have once again made my point for me: that wherever human beings go, they start up civilization and display mathematics, art, and craftsmanship.

The Snake City

I guess there have been a lot of “snake cities” throughout history. In my third novel, The Great Snake (upcoming, hopefully in 2022), Snake City is founded by a small group who break off from our main group of characters. Their city is like a smaller, less populous version of Poverty Point.

As you can see, our city is much smaller. It overlooks the Mississippi River itself, rather than a bayou. The temple is built not on a man-made mound, but on a natural hill. The people actually live on top of the ridges. They aren’t lapidary craftspeople (at least, not as of the end of the novel). And, finally, this city is about 7,000 years earlier in time than Poverty Point. Other than that, though, it’s exactly the same.

In the cover image, Klee is standing on the lower hill that houses the women’s complex. Behind her, the temple looms over her from atop the hill. It has a Mayan-style roof comb that is facing away from the viewer. In this view, the snake is either hovering in the air just east of the temple, or possibly it is out over the river.