From our lofty vantage point in the 21st century, everything preceding our own era looks ridiculous: the weird beliefs, the stupid clothes, the primitive technology. But what we fail to realise is that every society since the dawn of time has considered itself the pinnacle of human achievement; Chaucer didn’t saunter around saying: “we’re in the Middle Ages – there is gonna be some great stuff after us!” Medieval people did not know they were medieval. How could they? It’s our term, not theirs.
Even as Jules Verne was popularising fantastical science-fiction, the esteemed Victorian scientist, Lord Kelvin, could confidently state: “There is nothing new to discover in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement” which, as scientific proclamations go, is the slapstick equivalent of saying: “What could possibly go wrong?” before loading yourself into a cannon aimed at a crocodile sanctuary. Lord Kelvin was proved wrong only a few years later by Einstein, and one day we may also be ridiculed by historians for our stubborn refusal to properly deal with climate change, or our persistence with neo-liberal capitalism. Like Spinal Tap in elasticated spandex, we are blind to our own absurdity. But, how did we get to this position of societal smugness, able to shake our heads at the backwardness of our ancestors while simultaneously donning an opened-chested leather jerkin and wrapping a metaphorical bandana around our foreheads? Well, it was because of the backwardness of our ancestors’ own ancestors…
Since the Stone Age, 107 billion people have struggled with the everyday problems of existence, and with the arrival of each new generation came an evaluation process, as the old ways were either maintained or replaced. After time, these improvements were themselves superseded. New concepts came slowly at first, as progress took millennia to materialise, but steadily they were laid down over their predecessor – houses replaced shacks, which had replaced animal-hide tents, which had replaced caves… As with sedimentary geology coalescing over aeons, earlier abandoned concepts were buried by new ones and left to fossilise in the archaeological and historical record.
It’s not intellect or aptitude that separates us from the prehistoric cave-dwellers, instead it’s this gradual layering of fresh ideas, inventions, rituals and discoveries over those of our earlier predecessors – like an endlessly-expanding set of Russian dolls – that makes us feel cleverer than people in the past. Stuck inside the smallest of the dolls, pop culture’s stereotypical Ug and Nug may have been certifiable geniuses but an iPod would never even have crossed their minds because even a genius can only work with what‘s available to them, and it’s hard to create a revolutionary entertainment system with little more than a sharp stone, a blunt rock, and some blood-soaked reindeer entrails.
We, however, are in the roomiest of the Russian dolls and have the option of looking back into our past to seek answers to existential questions about the nature of humanity (and also because we’re nosy). It’s the job of the historian or archaeologist to delve through these buried layers to reach the cultural fossils of the past and deduce how the world used to function. It’s a complicated, philosophically-problematic task because humans often discard stuff once it’s no longer useful, leaving infuriating evidence gaps. Only in the past couple of centuries have we thought to preserve things in museums once they’ve outlived their utility. Even Rome’s glorious Flavian Coliseum was later robbed by locals for its stone, as was England’s ancient Stonehenge, while the Athenian Parthenon very nearly blew up in 1687 when it was used as a wartime ammunition dump.
Though I’m tremendously grateful for these great monuments, they sometimes speak more about the elite patrons who commissioned them than about the hundreds of millions of less privileged people who walked past them each day, looked up and thought: “bloody hell, that’s big!” The remnants of these ordinary people’s lives, both physical remains and intangible cultural ideas, were often the first to vanish because they weren’t very impressive to begin with. This is a pity. After all, you and I both think we’re probably pretty interesting, but with 7 billion other people currently thinking the same thing about themselves, logic dictates that the huge majority of us are tragically ordinary.
Chances are, we’re the people who usually got written out of history, or were lucky just to get a mute cameo appearance as a spade-wielding peasant on some palace tapestry. “But that was a feudal age of rigid social hierarchy”, I hear you cry, “whereas our modern society is different – we believe in individualism and meritocracy and that, if we work hard, we can all be astronauts!” Well, firstly we can’t all be astronauts, as we’ll need someone to clean the toilets back at Mission Control. Also, when it comes to being remembered in history, we might be overdoing it.
Our reflexive self-belief has led us to share every aspect of our lives online with friends and strangers, so that our exploits can be forensically documented by our emails, social network activities, internet browsing histories and work calendars. Ironically, by investing such energy in recording our biography, we are actually in danger of deluging future historians with a tsunami of data which will render us all anonymous again, simply because there’s too much stuff to read. By craving individuality, we’ve all turned ourselves into mere statistics. But, of course, our ancestors had the opposite problem. They often lived and died known only to their peers, clinging on in the living memory of grandchildren for a few generations, and then vanishing completely like a boy-band with wrinkles. If they lived after the invention of writing then perhaps generic elements of their existence may have been recorded, but of their life in particular we can barely know anything.
There are occasional exceptions, for example when archaeologists stumble fortuitously onto individual skeletons and can deploy their miraculous isotopic tests and DNA analyses. Modern science can dumbfound us by revealing that Cheddar Man, a 9,000 year old skeleton found in a Somerset cave, has a living descendent called Adrian who, amazingly, taught history only a few miles away from where the Mesolithic cave-dweller perished. Yet, on closer inspection, Cheddar Man did not leave us his real name, nor his thoughts and fears. For someone we know so much about, he is a strangely anonymous celebrity.
All of this is rather a shame. Every one of those billions of lives was a unique, thinking soul. Just like us, these people – whoever they were – must have cherished and pursued life as best they could, with every one of them shackled within the parameters of their specific time and place, where the limits of knowledge and technology determined the quality and nature of how they would live. The sheer fact humanity is still thriving is testament to the profound tenacity of our earliest ancestors, and all those billions who followed. They had it much tougher than us. For them, there was no iPhone app for hunting and gathering, and the only Angry Birds they knew were the vultures swooping around them as they tried to drag animal corpses back to their caves.
So, in some meagre tribute to the cave-dwelling stereotypes we popularly label Ug and Nug, one of my aims in writing my book was to foreshorten the distance between us and them, by revealing step by step how generation after generation of humans contributed to our modern way of life, simply by striving to give themselves a modern way of life. Though much of these customs seem peculiar, and an obvious source of humour, hopefully my book includes customs that chime with us as entirely sensible and familiar. We may be reading this on an eBook, on a speeding train or airborne plane, but the sophistication of our technology shouldn’t stop us from noticing how similar the routines of our daily lives are from those of our ancestors. At the end of the day, we’re all just people.
Thanks for reading,
GREG’S BOOK IS AVAILABLE IN HARDBACK, KINDLE, AND AUDIOBOOK