Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back In Time

I've been going through a period of looking backward.  No, not at my own artworks, although that's a good thing to do from time to time.  No, this has been a period of looking way back in history.  There's been an odd confluence of three unrelated things that all seemed to hit at once.  They are, in no particular order, a podcast, a book, and a TV show.

The podcast is "Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality, and 21st Century Archaeology", by Dr. Joe Schuldenrein.  He's a professional archaeologist.  His podcast is a series of interviews with other archaeologists about the work that they're involved with.  It runs the gamut: new studies of the Battle of Little Big Horn, what really happened in the Maya collapse, excavating the ruins in Chaco Canyon, a community-involved dig in Baltimore, how state Departments of Transportation handle archaeology, and on and on.  He's been doing this once a week for several years, so there are a ton of things to listen to.  Archaeology has always interested me, and it's great to hear some of the fascinating stories of things that are going on today.  One of the things that many of the guests have brought up, independently of each other, is that people throughout history have been very good at adapting to their particular situations, be it desert, swamp, forest, cities, complex and stratified civilizations, or whatever.  I think that contemporary people tend to be a bit condescending towards people of earlier times - the attitude that "we're so much smarter now and know better".  Well, no, we don't.  We didn't live in those times and cannot possibly internalize everything it meant to be, say, one of the tribes that built the pueblos in the American southwest.  Hell, we have a hard enough time with people of other cultures in the here and now!  But by and large, people within a culture of a particular time and place are often very well adapted to it.  And people throughout history are smart.

Which brings up the book.  I read "Shaman" by Kim Stanley Robinson.  He's generally thought of as a science fiction writer and one of the best at doing serious research to support the details in his books.  While science fiction usually entails some time in the future, "Shaman" is actually set about 33,000 years ago in what is now southern France.  It was during the Ice Age, when the glaciers extended far south and Neanderthals co-existed with early humans.  The book picks up the story of a young boy at puberty and follows him as he is trained to be the tribe's shaman and grows into a young man.  What struck me was how smart a person had to be to survive in an environment like that.  You had to know how to find materials to make your own clothes, make fire, find food and water, find or make shelter, deal with different types of animals either for food or to escape, make weapons, interact with other tribes, manage the petty intrigues of any small society, and on and on.  A modern man like me wouldn't last a day.  Robinson is a really good writer and puts all this great detail into a compelling storyline.  Well worth the read.

Finally, the TV show is "Barnwood Builders".  It's one of the Discovery channel's real-life series, most of which are excruciatingly bad.  This one, though, is pretty good.  It follows a team of West Virginia guys who dismantle old log cabins and barns and repurpose them into new homes.  Fortunately, the "new homes" bit receives very little attention, and the focus is on the old structure.  We often think of log homes from the 1800's as crude structures built by people who didn't know any better.  Not true at all.  The homes were often built from trees that had grown right there on the property, and they put them together in very ingenious ways.  The logs may look rough-hewn, but the notches are often precision-made so that the structures are stable.  Foundations may look like random stones, but they're actually carefully sourced, cut, and placed to provide a solid base to build on and to protect the wood from bugs and critters.  Roofs overhang a certain amount to make sure the rainwater runs off.  Sides are often covered with planks fixed to battens, which keeps the water off the logs and provides a bit of air circulation to help insulate the cabin.  All of this was done with hand tools.

Now I'm a guy with a few modern tools like electric drills and saws, but I have zero woodworking ability.  I made my first big easel back in the early 80's and it looks okay, but it isn't straight, and if you tighten down all the screws, it warps it all out of shape.  These old frontier guys did better with their hand axes.

So what all this is getting to is that our predecessors were pretty smart people.  They had to be, to survive and thrive in their worlds.  Just because we live in a higher-tech world does not mean we are one lick smarter than they were.  We just have higher-tech toys.

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