Ancient Legends: Fiction or Bullshit?

It’s hard to put into perspective the time scale of prehistory – everything in between the formation of the earth and the first civilizations in the Fertile Crescent sorta blend together.  Which came first, Pangaea or the dinosaurs?  Hell if I know.  No wonder so many people incorrectly believe that cavemen existed at the same time as dinosaurs.  But the fact is some things are ancient, and some things are ancient.  Dinosaurs died out long before anything resembling a human evolved.  But saber toothed tigers, mastodons, the last ice age – these things happened just yesterday, compared to the timescale of the planet.  Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, whereas the last ice age receded just about 20,000 years ago – that’s recent enough that our ancestors back then were human, anatomically identical to and just as smart as us.  After all, that’s only 600 generations ago.  It’s possible we as a species remember something of that time – not explicitly, but indirectly, embedded in what we now think are legends and fantasies.  Do we as a human culture remember anything from ancient prehistory?  Do some of our ancient legends actually dimly reflect real events that happened to our forebears, who explained them the only way they could?

I should point out these ideas are so interesting that they’re PROBABLY WRONG – they’re on the ragged edge of science, where plausible ideas that are just a little too cute often don’t live up to their initial press releases.


Do We Remember the Neanderthals?

I’m not proud to admit this, but…  I ride tricycles in 7-11 parking lots.  Another thing I’m not proud to admit:  I failed completely to appreciate the timelines of our early ancestors (Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals and all that), despite that topic being the first six weeks of history class every year in grade school.  (Remember how you’d learn about ancient Greece and Rome for endless weeks, leisurely walking through classical history in the fall and winter, then have to cram 200 years of recent history into the last 10 minutes of school in June?)

In truth, not all Neanderthals were green

I blithely assumed humans have been gradually evolving, and “Neanderthal” was the word for one of the many proto-human forms we used to take millions of years ago.  Not so – early modern humans coexisted with Neanderthals, competing and perhaps cooperating with them –until almost the end of the stone age.  What I dimly pictured in my mind were the Cro-Magnons, our direct forebears that lived 20-30,000 years ago, and were the last stop on the evolutionary train before you reach modern humans.  And the Cro-Magnons were almost identical to modern humans themselves – they were basically anatomically identical to us, certainly had language and tools.  What I didn’t realize was that “we” (Cro-Magnons) weren’t the only species in the genus Homo that survived until relatively recent times.

Neanderthals were a parallel species to us, nearly human, with perhaps just as much intellectual capacity, who survived until perhaps 20,000 years ago – which sounds like a while ago, but that’s practically yesterday, compared to the long stretch of human evolution.  The Stone Age started about 2.5 million years ago, after all – 20,000 years ago is just recent enough that some dim memory of that ancient society may still survive in our cultural legends.  Neanderthals managed an awkward coexistence with us (Cro-Magnons) in Europe for about 10,000 years before they went extinct.  Could they have been around long enough for their memory to be recorded in the first oral traditions of our first societies?

Greek and Roman myths abound with stories of gods interbreeding with humans, resulting in offspring with extraordinary powers.  Maybe that’s a dim memory of Homo sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals (recently shown to be reflected in our genome), who likely appeared as “giants” to us.  The offspring of a Cro-Magnon/Neanderthal marriage would have inherited the more robust physical characteristics of Neanderthals, and so would have seemed semi-divine.  Plenty of other cultures have legends of “giants” who walked the earth in ancient times.  The Old Testament mentions a crew called “nephilim”, who at one point are described as giants.  (And that’s all I’m going to say about that, as I don’t want to step in a giant pile of creationism.)  Could we possibly remember our larger cousins the Neanderthals, perhaps simultaneously fearing and admiring them?  Whether we remember them or not, our complex relationship with them is certainly reflected in evidence that we interbred with them and also may be responsible for their demise.  A completely different theory about our Cro-Magnon forebears centers around the suspicious fact that lots of other species went extinct right around the time we learned how to use tools (and presumably weapons) — Mastodons, wooly mammoths, and you guessed it, our friends the Neanderthals.

In the same category of hominids-coexisting-with-ice-age-man is Homo floresiensis, a possible new species of small-statured human found in Indonesia who have been nicknamed “hobbits.”  (Clearly I’m not the only wishful thinker wondering if we remember these other Hominids.)   They may have lived as recently as 12,000 years ago, well within the timelines of the earliest human civilizations, perhaps recent enough to have survived in our cultural memory as the origin of hobbits, fairies, Ross Perots, and other small-stature creatures.  Interestingly the local culture in Indonesia where this new species was found have such a legend, of ‘Ebu Gogo’, a pygmy race of people who may have survived until colonial times.

If humans of say 10-20,000 years ago made occasional contact with other species of hominids, who themselves may have used language, tools, and had their own culture, then it’s possible that stories of that contact survive in our own legends.  By the time we’d become sophisticated enough to appreciate other species scientificially, they’d long since died out.

Cool, eh?  Likely?  Nah, probably not – 10,000 years may be a blink of an eye in terms of evolution, but probably too long for any trace of an idea to survive in our culture today.  Still, it’d be pretty damn cool if it did… 

Flood Myths

Where did I park that damn ark...

Speaking of ice ages, and having established that 20,000 years ago is long in historical terms but not that long in evolutionary terms, could it be that we somehow dimly remember the ending of the most recent ice age?  It has been observed that lots of cultures happen to have entire-world-being-flooded myths as part of their origin mythos.  The coincidence of flood myths appearing in the Bible, Greek mythology, Hinduism, and Native American creation stories is striking.  Could it be that all these myths reflect some real cataclysmic flood event?

One cool idea (FOOTNOTE:  well, cool for us folks who aren’t experiencing a cataclysmic flood) is that flood myths might be accurate recounting of historical events, when some inhabited dry basin somewhere suddenly became flooded.  Say, for example, the Mediterranean?  For being such a gigantic sea, its connection to the Atlantic Ocean is puny – the 10-mile wide Gibraltar strait between Spain and Morocco.  If that strait had ever been connected, perhaps the entire Mediterranean basin was dry, inhabitable, and below sea level.  If the strait subsequently were breached, everyone living in South Italy would be in deep shit.

But has it ever happened?  The astounding answer is YES to both – long ago, the Mediterranean basin was completely dry, inhabitable, and was subsequently (and dramatically) flooded by ocean water bursting through the Strait of Gibraltar.  In what must have been a bowel-emptying sight, the ocean suddenly began pouring through the strait, down a magnificent miles-high waterfall, and filled the entire basin in a matter of months.  Geological evidence suggests this flood DID HAPPEN – totally badass geologic evidence!  Unfortunately for my tidy theory, it happened 3.5 million years ago.  Even I’m willing to concede that no cultural memories have survived that far back.  Still, that must have been quite a party.  And its name, “Zanclean Flood”, is in my Top 10 Coolest Names of Things in Science.

But wait – turns out there may have been another flood in that area in more recent times.  It’s not quite as dramatic as the Zanclean Flood, but it just might have ruined the days of a few stone-age human settlements.  An admittedly controversial theory states that the Black Sea might have endured the same kind of sudden flooding as the Mediterranean, via a sudden opening of the Bosporus (the Narrow Urethra of significant world straits).  It wasn’t completely dry before the flood, but the theory goes that the Black Sea perhaps doubled in acreage due to a catastrophic flood sometime around 5600 BC, recent enough to perhaps affect early human civilizations living along the pre-flood coastline of what was then a freshwater lake.  And when I say “affect”, I mean “flood the shit out of”.  And when I say “flood the shit out of”, I mean “sudden giant wall of watery death.”

Speaking of watery death, archaeologist Bruce Masse has a theory that many of the world’s flood myths from different civilizations arise from a single event, a comet collision in the Indian Ocean about 5000 years ago.  In his theory, this collision could account for most of the world culture’s flood myths.  He started with the idea that perhaps certain ancient myths in various cultures are attempts to describe real events in ways that the primitive witnesses could understand.  Imagine that feeling you’d get in your lower bowels if you were a stone-age villager thousands of years ago, and you witnessed a solar eclipse for the first time in your life.  Or, if you witnessed a comet growing ever larger in the night sky over the course of weeks, eventually visible during the day, then falling to earth and shooting straight into the ocean?  Certain myths, when seen in this light, do sound like how a comet collision might be described (such as in Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh, where a pillar of smoke on the horizon was followed by a week of darkness).  Forty days of rain might be what you’d expect if a giant comet cannonballed into the ocean, launching a significant fraction of that ocean practically out into space in the splash.

Masse and his colleagues in the “Holocene Impact Working Group” have identified a giant crater in the Indian Ocean off Madagascar along with chevron-shaped dunes of the type you might possibly get from massive tsunamis.  (By the way, guys in the HIWG – if you don’t by now have sweet leather jackets with HIWG patches on the arms, that have stylized comet-plunging-to-Earth insignias, then I’m gonna come straighten you out.)  Is this likely to be a theory that stands the test of time?  Ehh… probably not.  Is it cool?  [sound of motorcycles revving, as the HIWG Gang refuse to answer your question, instead peeling out of the dirt lot in front of the bar from Roadhouse to look for more chevrons]

Who Discovered the Americas?

There are some fascinating legends floating around about various Old World cultures discovering the New World before Columbus.  Its by now well established that the Vikings probably did make it to Newfoundland a few hundred years before Columbus.   Booooo-Riiinnnggg!  I, for one, want to hear more about other, more batshit-crazy theories of pre-Columbian contact.

Prince Madoc of Wales, and later of Minneapolis, MN

One fascinating (yet 99.99% likely bullshit) story is the Welsh prince Madoc, who supposedly made it to North America in 1170, bringing along Welsh settlers, successfully building a society in 12th century American Midwest which eventually blended with the native tribes1.  By a few centuries later, rumors abounded of a Welsh-speaking Native American tribe somewhere in North America, presumably the remnants of Madoc’s group.  They were rumored to be behind the construction of the Fort Mountain Stone Wall in Georgia, an ancient fortification that in Cherokee lore was built by a “moon-eyed” people, a tall and fair-skinned race of people who preferred to come out only at night.

As cool as a 12th century Welsh colonization story would be, its universally considered bullshit.  It smells to me to be about 50% European wishful-thinking (i.e. the blatantly racist thought that Native Americans couldn’t possibly have built a civilization in the Americas by themselves), and 50% cynical attempt to get some action in the Americas land-grab (i.e. “Liechtenstein discovered America in 1208 b.c., so Liechtenstein should now own Canada!”).

The Olmecs, a Native American tribe who lived in present-day Mexico about 3,000 years ago, have been suggested to originate from practically every possible culture except Martian.  Even now, scholars are cobbling together compelling theories that *I* founded the Olmecs.  In what possibly is another case of “They’re Indians, so they couldn’t possibly have come up with this advanced culture without outside help” style racism, Olmecs have been connected to Chinese, Nordic, Mormon, and perhaps most interestingly, African origin.  In contrast to other legends which ascribe any good idea anywhere in the world to a European origin, the leading alternative-origin theory in the clubhouse for the Olmecs seems to be of a West African origin.  The evidence is pretty slim, but not as slim as the competing theories.

It’s even possible that there were other medieval European explorers who made it to the New World just before Columbus, or even Columbus himself.  The thought being that maybe there were a few successful voyages a bit before Columbus, but they somehow were kept under the radar enough for Columbus to get all the credit.  The legends focus on the town of Bristol in England, where rumors say expeditions had already discovered ‘Brasil’.  Again, no concrete evidence, but lots of cool-sounding rumors.   What makes this more intriguing for me is the idea that technology a few decades before Columbus wouldn’t have been that much less capable of making the cross-oceanic voyage, plus it would have been easier for the Spanish court to invest in his voyage if they’d knew or suspected earlier trips having made it.

I’d be a pretty irresponsible scientist if I didn’t say that all of this is pure speculation — while there are scientists putting forth some of these ideas, they’re not yet passing out Nobels for it.  Nevertheless they’re fascinating to speculate.  I haven’t even gotten into the myth of Atlantis, or of ancient astronauts, or other fun theories of how ancient human societies may have immortalized events from history in myths and literature.  My one regret is that none of the undoubtedly hot HOT HOT Neanderthal romance literature has survived to this day…

1.  If you were a bookish little dweeb in the 80’s like me, you might have read Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Swiftly Tilting Planet, whose bad guy was a descendant of Madoc.

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