Going Back in Time

February 13, 2012

I picked up an old book a couple of weeks ago. The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel.  Though I don’t think it’s the best written book I’ve ever read, her story really held my attention.  And made me think on some things.

For those who don’t know, the book and its sequels, The Valley of the Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, The Shelters of Stone, and The Land of Painted Caves, tells of the story of Ayla, a young girl in Ice Age times who loses her family to an earthquake. She is obviously Cro-Magnon (modern) human, and is adopted by a Neanderthal clan.  And as the series progresses, we follow her growth from Clan girl to outcast in search of her own people, and her adventures with her animal companions Whinney, Racer and Wolf, and later her relationship with the young man, Jondalar.

I have now read all but the last one, and it’s left me thinking.

Auel’s research for these novels was meticulous. She certainly doesn’t claim factual authenticity for much of it, but she kept the story within reach of what would be considered realistic, nonetheless. Based on archaeological findings scholars have indeed learned much about the Neanderthal way of life, as well as the Cro-Magnon people who followed them. Auel merely used their research as a backdrop for her own story.

I’m certainly not going to summarize several thousand pages of great stories here, suffice to say they make good reading. No, my purpose is a bit of reflection on those simpler times, more along the lines of how much we’ve gained, and how much we’ve lost.

People then lived in small communities. A couple dozen was a good sized clan or cave, in some cases groups of one hundred or more could be found. They lived together, worked together, ate together, and hunted together. There was a strong sense of community, and in many cases, several groups or clans comprised a larger body of one people with a common language.

Life was short and hard, and while there was play and relaxation, they had to work hard to gather food, hunt, forage for herbs and plants for food and medicinal purposes. They had definite beliefs and firm, though most likely flexible, rules for conduct and belief. They were certainly superstitious but understood their place as a part of the great Mother’s plan for them all. They settled disagreements amicably. Who would think of killing another human? The only deaths that were normal were the animals they hunted for food.

A simpler time, indeed. Would I want to go back to that lifestyle? No, not really. I rather like having a computer, and electricity. But there certainly are benefits to a society like that. The foremost being the very real dependency on each other to survive.

And I think the point of this post is just that: a lament for our newly-felt beliefs that we don’t really need others to survive. The fact is, we really do.

The issue that I see is that we can order our goods through Amazon, our entertainment through Netflix, and we get our food, already prepared for the most part, at grocery stores that charge exorbitant prices for the stuff we are perfectly capable of growing ourselves. In other words, dependence on others is marginalized. We like to envision ourselves as bold, go-it-alone types, perhaps. Most likely, though, the rise of the great cities and urban decay, with the crime, nastiness and trauma that came with that, made people afraid. Afraid of other people, other cultures, other ways and means.

The U.S. government has long tried to integrate society, failing miserably. I like people of all races, and have friends of all races. I do not want, however, to associate with gangsta crackheads. And if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… See where I’m going with that? I’m not going to befriend a wannabe Crip or a Yakuza member. I have enough problems without worrying about someone shooting me ’cause someone else said I dissed his momma.

People prefer to associate with like people. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But the forced integration of society has had the negative effect of destroying society. The days when Ethel could walk into Lucy’s apartment are long gone. We are afraid of the dark, of the shadowy figures that lurk on the sidewalks in hooded sweatshirts, and only feel safe behind the locked doors of our homes.  And prefer to shop via computer, or a well-lit grocery or department store.

In times past, and really, not even the distant past, this wasn’t the case. The Ice Age society of Auel’s imagination had to have existed in relative peace and harmony to have survived. And of course there was likely very little crime or misbehavior. Why? Because they were too busy gathering food to survive. They needed each other; they had little desire to kill those they depended on for survival!

That is not to say there were not disagreements. Of course there were. And the leaders’ job was to work through the disagreements and find a solution. That aside, that dependence made life bearable. There had to have been friendships, and competition, and celebrations, and feasts. There were weddings and funerals, births and deaths, prayers and laments, just as we have now. But in those times, everyone participated, and there was likely no thought of not going to the wedding or funeral, unless one was sick.  And that’s it, everyone participated, in everything. The evidence suggests they even lived together in the same cave, or structure, with only a border of stones outlining a family’s “space” within a cave. Everything, even sex, occurred in view of others, in some of the cultures. In others, there was much more privacy.

But the bottom line is that the cohesive societies that our forebears belonged to were quite homogenized, very blended. Everyone had a role, everyone contributed. We certainly don’t know how they kept everyone in line, but I don’t believe it was anything coerced. Most likely, as Auel suggests, it was taught from a very early age. They were educated by their parents as to the ways of the clan, and it was a very big deal for a young man to go on his first hunt, or for a young woman to experience her First Rites, the milestones that marked the transition to adulthood for these ancient people.  For at that time they ceased to be dependent on others, and could begin making their own contributions.

And that’s the point: everyone working in harmony to benefit the society. We like to believe we don’t need to do that now. But that’s just not true.

We cannot return to the past. We can’t go back to the simple days of those early times, hunting mammoth or bison in the great plains. We can’t even go back to the small family farms. The large industrial farms are unfortunately needed to sustain the incredible number of people living on the planet. We could all do a bit better and learn to grow what we can on our own land if we do own it, even if it’s just a few tomato plants or corn stalks. We could take the time to learn our neighbor’s names and help them when a project comes up. We could plan neighborhood get-togethers and cook-outs more often. No, we don’t want to return to those days when glaciers covered much of the land and people lived to the ripe old age of 30.

But we should make an effort to be a part of the community and the culture of our towns. Someday, our survival may depend on it.



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