BBC: Our Ancestors Were Stupid

Here is the Beeb with a story about an ancient monument in Scotland:

“Excavations of a field at Crathes Castle found a series of 12 pits which appear to mimic the phases of the moon and track lunar months.”

Then they trot out that stale old idea that ancient people needed to build giant monuments to tell themselves what time of year it was:

The pit alignment also aligns on the Midwinter sunrise to provided the hunter-gatherers with an annual “astronomic correction” in order to better follow the passage of time and changing seasons.

And these, mind you, were hunter-gathers, not agriculturalists — not that any farmers need a calendar to tell them when to plant. Every traditional farming culture has its signs: “When the leaves of such-and-such tree are big as a mouse’s ear, plant such-and-such a crop.”

And hunters? They watch the animals and factors affecting animals. “It’s snowing hard. The elk will be moving down off the mountain.”

And gatherers? They watch the plants. “It’s rained for the last week. Let’s go check our mushroom-gathering area — they might be coming up.” I plan to do that tomorrow, in fact.

You don’t need twelve posts in a circle to tell you when it is time.  Even today, would you need a calendar to tell you when it was spring? Changes in vegetation, bird migrations, and other natural signs are quite enough.

Astronomically aligned structures are meaningful, but sometimes we do not know why. But many instances, ancient Tenochtilan, for example, aligned grand buildings  showed that the rulers enjoyed the favor of heaven/the gods. Likewise in imperial China and in the Middle East.

Possibly these twelve posts in a meadow were erected on the orders of some Paleolithic “Big Man” whose ideas about the “formal construction of time” were connected to his sense of self-importance. That makes as much sense as allegedly telling people when it was time to hunt and gather.

6 Comments

  1. Medeine Ragana says:

    Yep. Even here in NE TN, they note that when the dogwoods are in bloom, a cold snap would occur and call it “Dogwood winter”. Then, when the blackberries are in bloom another cold snap shows up known as “Blackberry winter.”

  2. No, it is modern people who needs “corrections” to their calendars. Ancient Egypt had a calendar for ritual observances (based on the idea of 360–later 365 days), and they allowed the calendar to get out of sync with the seasons. Did the farmers care? Not really, their calendar was the Nile.

  3. Aidan Wachter says:

    There is a bit in one of John Seymour’s books where he mentions a farmer he knew who dropped trou and sat his ass in the dirt to see when the soil was ready for seed. Seems the more likely method for determining planting dates at least, and a bit less labor.

  4. Medeine Ragana says:

    Does anyone remember the 1980s series “Connections” by James Burke? He had an episode that discussed the reasons why clocks came into existence. It was because of Christian monks needing to say prayers at certain times of the day. He also discussed calendar reform which, again, happened because of the Christian’s need to have a *religious* calendar in sync with the seasons since the Roman calendar they were using was “out of sync”.

    The other thing I read recently was that Stonehenge, rather than being a calendric device, was actually just a huge graveyard, or at least a memorial. I wouldn’t be surprised if that finding in Scotland is something similar.

  5. Medeine Ragana says:

    Just came across this article on Aeon Magazine about “two cultures”: http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/the-two-cultures-of-intellectuals-and-farmers/

    Very interesting read.