Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Venus of the Fels Cave-- click here for the full story in Speigel.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the earliest humans, and where spiritual endeavor began... And happily these thoughts were rewarded by word earlier last week that the oldest artistic representation of the human form had been found in Germany (just click by the picture). While the Venus of Willendorf, which is ever my favorite piece of art, has been dated to about 24,000 bce, this pretty lady has been dated to a few thousand years prior. (Which really says something about art's original purpose, and a bit about our early orientation about what was meaningful, don't you think?)
Prehistoric art was a favorite of mine to study in art school, and I'll always kick myself for not designing my bachelor's around the subject (I ended up focusing more on American Indian art-- I was in New Mexico, after all). Yet I've remained touched by the people who created this beauty "just a thousand grandmothers ago", as one professor put it.
Another interest I have is in discovering an American Zen tradition that is less a copycat version of Japanese culture, and more an appropriate blend of spiritual need, religious heritage and zazen. For me, this has meant a heartfelt journey into the religions of my ancestors-- if anything, to gain a greater sense of connection to our Earth (many of them were, after all, earth-oriented traditions) and a better understanding of where I'm from.
Where the two meet is about creating an authentic religious practice-- and it has led me to some fascinating places. One such place is Scotland; particularly Before Scotland: The Story of Scotland Before History. This book has been so utterly helpful in gliding me through a history that has always been more than a little difficult for me to grasp simply because it's always been done so icily.. Alistair Moffat begins it with a bit of an essay about why-bother, as "prehistory" often suggests in its air a sense of "not being quite the real thing".
I recall first learning about those long-ago ancestors during my first art history course, those who painted caves somewhere in France and being stunned by their creativity and heart. And yet somehow, I never felt a true part of them, as we didn't dive very deeply into knowing them, for quickly it was off to the "real" cultures of Egypt and Greece and finally to Rome, the realest of all the real cultures.
How sad it makes me, and Alistair too it seems, that the harsh judgments of our invaders from so long ago could remain to haunt so thoroughly that we pass right over the history of our forbears in favor of the ones who could conquer and divide us. Think of how we still refer to the earliest of them, these cave people, rough and uncivilized... And yet, as Alistair points out, even as we still "despise our forbears", "these people were not aliens. They were our first parents."
7 million years ago: the first humanoid appeared. 100,000 years ago, the first homo sapiens; and by 29,000 bce, the first of these were in what we know as Britain. 16,000 bce was the height of the ice age, and by 11,000, the ice had retreated so that Scotland was ice-free. They've found an arrowhead dating to 10,800-- really, this number is so far beyond what I can really grasp, but there it is-- and the earliest hunter-fisher settlement in Britain, Howick Haven, dating 7,800 bce.
These numbers are fine, but what I find most intriguing about this book is Alistair's exploration into who they were. Pioneers, he reminds us; hunters and fishers seeking what can be found in the rich, green lands to the north, likely from the Dordogne valley of "France". He cites Bryan Skeys' research of mitochondrial DNA, the sequences that can be traced through women only. In his sampling of populations in Britain, he found 7 "origin women", clan mothers he calls them, 6 whom 40% of today's Europeans can call "mama". The seventh clan mother was from what we know now as Iraq, and she signals the introduction of a farming cultural revolution...
But for now, I am most interested in digging deeper into the mind of this "prehistoric" mama, mostly intrigued by the utter tenderness of her tribes' treatment of those who had died. One mother was found with head and feet atop deer antlers; around her neck, a fine necklace created by the teeth of 43 different stags. But by her side? Her infant, laid in the nest of a swan's wing, with a small flint knife by its waist.
There was another child found, this one buried with a small local stone, the shape of a tongue, placed in its mouth. "You are of this place, and you are this place," it seems to tell us; you are its language, and your story it will tell for generations to come.
The tenderness of these burials-- I was so taken to read of them. I wanted desperately to be the one who found them there-- could you imagine?
That is where I rest now; this intrigue, this love that has blossomed in me for our "first parents". This is the beginning point I was seeking, before jumping into an herbal study, before digging more deeply into the lore of my Celtic ancestors... There is something so common about these people. We are all from this, no? "We are who we were," writes Alistair, again and again. And I beg the small favor of a local stone in my mouth, even before death, saying "I belong."