Even prehistory repeats itself sometimes...

… suddenly, it starts looking like we might learn a whole lot from the repetitions of prehistory after all

Yes, yes, I know I have a habit of starting articles with the words: ‘History repeats itself’. And I freely admit that it is a terribly cliché thing to do.

But I can cite two weighty articles in my defence (three, if you include ‘because it makes things easier for me’). One: like most other established clichés, this one is perfectly, totally and undeniably TRUE. And by ‘true’ I mean in the ‘veru, verissimu’ sense of the word.

History does repeat itself… so much so, that it sometimes sounds a little like Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man’.

The only difference is that history doesn’t repeat positive, upbeat messages like: ‘I’m an excellent driver’. On the contrary, it usually just keeps reminding us that: ‘You humans are a bunch of jerks’. Which probably explains why we never, ever listen to its warnings… (there’s a historical precedent for that, too, named ‘Cassandra’)… and that in turn explains why history acquired this habit of gently tapping us on our shoulders every once in a while, to point out some mistake or other than we’ve all made dozens of times before… yet never quite learnt how to avoid.

But… ‘prehistory repeating itself’? That’s a new one, even for me. For one thing, prehistory is defined as ‘the age before writing was invented’ – which also makes it an indescribably gargantuan slice of humanity’s entire experience of life on this planet (around 99.9% of the total, if my rough calculations are correct).

And without the aid of a written messaging system, it’s kind of difficult to shout your warnings down across the untold aeons that separate you from the distant future. Sadly, there is a limit to how much you can read into what they actually left behind… what can be gleaned of their collective experience, as human beings, from “remarkable quantities of pottery, animal bone, fire pits, huge communal stone or ceramic cooking/ serving vessels, tethering places for animals, altars and display areas…”

And yet, already we can see that those details do tell us something about that vanished culture. We catch glimpses of festivities and rituals, communal celebration, customs and beliefs, that – taken together – seem to reinforce more resemblances than differences. The picture that arises from the above-quoted recent study – and not just from there, incidentally: there have been several local and international publications over the decades, and they all broadly outline the same point – suggests that these people were not the goatskin-clad, bone-tool wielding cavemen some of us remember from old schoolbook illustrations.

For a culture that partly predated the great dynasties of Ancient Egypt, these people evidently thought quite highly of themselves (and probably even more so about their dead). They wore jewellery, fine clothing, and decoratively adorned their bodies. Their sculpture and aesthetic legacy in general – from the massive, mega-temple complexes, all the way down to intricately ornate thimbles and sewing needles – was far richer and more sophisticated than the clunky, monolithic figure of the ‘Fat Lady of Hal Saflieni’ most of us envisage when we think of ‘Stone Age art’…

Oooh, that reminds me: quick digression. Who on earth was the misogynist who took one look at that statue, and decided that its most prominent feature was its subject’s waistline? She’s missing her head, for crying out loud! I mean… if you suddenly saw the decapitated corpse of your own mother on the floor in front of you, your first reaction would not exactly be to pass some judgmental, personal (and quite frankly rude) remark about the fact that she should have gone on a diet before getting her head cut off… would it, now?

Well, the ‘Fat’… sorry, ‘Headless Lady of Hal Saflieni’ represents all our collective mothers as human beings. She’s the Earth Mother Goddess, no less… and a single mother, too… and, yeah, she may have struggled with weight problems, in an age before diet pills or low-fat, non-dairy butter. But, come on guys. She’s been dead for 5,000 years. Show a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t...

There, been meaning to say that for millennia. But as I was saying: studies such as the recent one on the Brockdorff Circle also forcefully remind us all that Malta’s prehistoric inhabitants were… well, people, after all.

Now: I don’t want to get carried away and add ‘just like you or me’… because culturally, the differences were probably enormous. (Just look at what happened to that poor Christian missionary who tried to convert an uncontacted tribe on a remote Indian Ocean island. Remember his fate, the next time you fantasise about time-travel…)

Physically, however, they really were ‘just like you or me’. There has been no major, or even minor, evolutionary leap in Homo Sapiens since 3,600BC; so our brains are still the same size (though strangely, we never kept up the practice of ‘elongating’ our skulls, by tying knots around a baby’s cranium at birth).

Elsewhere, whatever other differences may exist, can broadly be accounted for only two or three factors: physically, there will obviously have been minor variations in size, musculature, facial features, complexion, and so on… most of which can probably be put down to an even smaller gene pool than ours. But in the main, what separates us is only the knowledge we have acquired throughout the millennia that separate our respective cultures; and the systems/cultural conditioning factors we have put into place since then.

I need hardly add that the second factor is by far the most important. For let’s be brutally honest: when it comes to technical know-how, the average 3,600BC human being was probably a lot better informed than ‘you or me’ about the basic technologies of his/her own day… if nothing else, because there was a good deal less to keep up with.

To put that succinctly: any old temple builder could probably build himself a wheelbarrow, or maybe an ox-drawn cart, out of a bunch of sticks and stones. Well, how many of you can build your own car, or assemble your own PC? (there… don’t feel like such a smartass now, do you?)

But then again, cultures and communities are not measured only by individuals. When it comes to comparisons between our respective economic models… our systems of government… our education methods… everything we now associate with industry, corporate finance, globalisation, the pace of technology, etc… even religion, where perhaps you might think there’d be more of an affinity (given that this culture was clearly also a little potty about its own religious beliefs)….

Sorry, but no. On all those counts, I struggle to comprehend how any meaningful parallel can possibly be made. Theirs was a strictly agrarian community, which had never conceived of such a concept as ‘money’. Its survival depended almost entirely on the success of the annual harvest. Hence the visceral connection to fertility and childbirth… and also the morbid obsession with death.

No, clearly it is impossible for any of that to ‘repeat itself today’. By now, we are too far removed from our primal, biological origins for any direct interaction to take place.

And yet, and yet… suddenly I am not so sure. To float a few wild suggestions here and there: our national obsession with abortion, for instance, has just got fired up again because of the recent emergence of a ‘National Pro-Choice Coalition’. It will no doubt become a political issue, as we get closer to the MEP election. (It always does).

Follow the ongoing social media ‘debate’… and there doesn’t seem to be very much difference at all between the mindset of a Third or Fourth Millennial BC, and most Maltese born in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Even the fact that legislation regulating in-vitro fertilisation is named ‘The Embryo Protection Bill’ – and not, say, ‘The Assisted Reproductive Technology Act’, which is what it really is – tells us that the same visceral connection to fecundity is still alive, and kicking in the womb. Who can really deny that a ‘cult of the unborn child’ exists here... and that it is ‘primal’ enough to even prompt online death-threats to the above-mentioned pro-choice activists?

Naturally, it would be absurd to claim that any of this is a direct legacy of that distant, vanished culture of 5,000 years ago – considering that there was no continuity for well over a thousand years afterwards, and the islands were peopled and re-peopled several times over since. But just as those forgotten temple-builders were ‘just people’, well… so are we. We might have built up all sorts of systems and structures to distance ourselves from our blood-splattered origins as a species; and even the temple-builders did the same. They were ‘civilised’, by their own lights. Certainly, they did not live their daily lives almost indistinguishably from other animals… as humans had done for hundreds of thousands of years before.

Nonetheless, we all come into the earth bawling and crying in a pool of blood and placenta. No amount of jewellery, artwork or social adornment will ever, ever change that. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the God of the Old Testament listed ‘the pain of childbirth’ as one of Eve’s punishments for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Ever since people stopped living like animals, their societies have been ruled by primordial preoccupations with fertility. And it makes sense, too… when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun named ‘extinction’.

So ultimately… yes. Prehistory can, and probably does, repeat itself. Maybe even in some ways we would never expect.

Consider this fuller excerpt from the same study: “Malta and Gozo, small though they are, evidently maintained a relatively stable and
viable economic system that in turn enabled the putatively crowded island community to survive over centuries”.

“Yet something went wrong at the end of the temple period, which may well be linked to the role of temples as a sort of ‘communal club houses for formalised, ritualised feasting.’ […] Such events might well have undermined the sustainability of Neolithic Malta putting ‘stress on both people and their environment, demanding additional food production to meet the expectations of a doubtless competitive society’.”

Replace ‘centuries’ with ‘decades’, and the first part reads uncannily like it could be about Malta since Independence in 1964. Replace ‘temples’ with ‘mega-construction projects’ – which, let’s face it, isn’t too hard – ‘ritual feasting’ with ‘the demands of a modern, vibrant economy’, and ‘food production’ with ‘resources and infrastructure’, and…

… suddenly, it starts looking like we might learn a whole lot from the repetitions of prehistory after all.

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