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The Human Cosmos - Ch. 2: Land

#178: Oct. - Dec. 2021 (Non-Fiction)
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Chris OConnor
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The Human Cosmos - Ch. 2: Land

Please use this thread to discuss the above referenced chapter of
The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars Hardcover by Jo Marchant.
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Ch. 1 focuses on the paintings in Lascaux Cave (dated between 28,000 and 10,000 BCE). In Ch. 2 Marchant describes some of the work by Irish archaelologist Michael O'Kelly, particularly the excavation and restoration of an "exceptionally grand" passage tomb in at Newgrange in Ireland, built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC (making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Then she segues to the work of German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt in 1994—a site in southeast Turkey called Nevalı Çori that is dated about 9000 - 8,000 B.C.E.

Marchant says many of these stone monuments were constructed in western Europe during the Neolithic period and were aligned to events in the sky.
The hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic had existed as an integral part of the natural world, sharing their environment on equal terms with other species. During the Neolithic revolution, people cut those ties and became farmers, controlling and exploiting the land. This shift in lifestyle and mind-set changed humanity forever, setting a trajectory of technological progress that has ultimately made us capable of reshaping not just landscapes, but the entire planet.

The revolution was about more than forging a new relationship with wheat or fields or sheep. It also transformed our wider cosmos: how people viewed the spirit world, and the sky. In fact, there’s a case to be made that these new cosmological ideas didn’t simply reflect the shift to farming. They caused it.
This reminds me of Jared Diamond's speculations, I believe in The Third Chimpanzee, about when early humans began to develop tools and artwork and literature (and to dominate the planet). Diamond thinks that a minor set of mutations in our larynxes, gave us the ability to form a more complex array of sounds, and thus spoken language, which permitted much of the rest. Though it might have started with having bigger heads and, therefore, brains.

Interesting stuff. Not sure if anyone's reading along at this point. So far this seems like an overview of anthropology, giving us some insight into early humans and their relationship to both the natural world and the mythologies they invented to try and make sense of the natural world. Marchant says that humans took it for granted that celestial events were tied to events on earth. And so by studying the night sky we might be better able to control terrestrial events. How very human of us.
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Mr. P
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I am so behind on reading. I had 3 other books going. Will contribute soon.

I read the third chimpanzee too. Was a good book. Don't remember much but I do remember now that you shared that part.
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Robert Tulip
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The explanation of how the winter solstice sun lights up the chamber in the burial mound at Newgrange is brilliant. The way this was deliberately and artfully constructed must have created a chill for the scientist who rediscovered it in the 1960s. A scientific commentary is at https://www.newgrange.com/stonelight20.htm

And if you want to see it for yourself, you can join the 30,500 people who enter the lottery to attend! https://www.newgrange.com/solstice-lottery.htm

It is clear from this material that stone age people had a strong practical need to know the timing of the seasons. Before agriculture, people followed songlines along their nomadic circuits of their land. They had to arrive at each place at the same date each year to take advantage of seasonal bounty. Knowing the seasons became a central task of tribal elders, who gradually developed elaborate mythology around this topic.

The Newgrange example, like Stonehenge, reflects a highly developed ritual cultural veneration of the exact timing of the solstice. This makes perfect sense in a nomadic subsistence economy. They needed to know how many days they would need to wait through winter before they could expect to move in spring, as a basic factor in social planning.
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Marchant suggests that the ritual practice of viewing the solstice dawn and dusk became so important in Neolithic Britain that the ability to participate in the ceremony had to be expanded to include a mass audience. The most famous site is Stonehenge, with sandstone slabs known as sarsens weighing more than twenty tonnes transported somehow more than 30 kilometres, and smaller special rocks brought from much further away to build this ritual cosmic worship site.

Beginning just as a circular earthen ditch and bank in 3000 BC, dug using antler picks, gave the henge part of the name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henge Then a ring of thirty sarsens was set up, probably with a continuous circle of lintel stones on top, surrounding arch stones. The original entry avenue pointed directly toward the midsummer sunrise, and away from midwinter sunset. There may also be stones aligned with moon rise and set.

It seems people from the whole region congregated at Stonehenge for these seasonal festival celebrations. It would have provided a unifying way for everyone to know exactly when the turn of the seasons occurred, by physically seeing the position of the solstice dawn and dusk.

One of my favourite books is The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly. Her hypothesis is that Stonehenge was built at a time when population pressure was forcing previously nomadic communities into settled agriculture, and it served to retain some of the cultural memory of the previous hunter gatherer lifestyle.
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Robert Tulip wrote: One of my favourite books is The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly. Her hypothesis is that Stonehenge was built at a time when population pressure was forcing previously nomadic communities into settled agriculture, and it served to retain some of the cultural memory of the previous hunter gatherer lifestyle.
Wow, this is really interesting. I can't recall which author I read recently who referred to the neolithic revolution as something of a regretful action, as if we had a choice in the matter—(Maybe it was Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens?). But Lynne Kelly's hypothesis makes a great deal of sense. That as populations of hunter-gatherers grew, they were forced to transition to a farming and settlement lifestyle. Necessity is the mother of invention. This would also explain why domestication of plants and animals happened in separate locations worldwide beginning about 10,000-11,000 years ago.

Likewise, we read in The Wizard and the Prophet how Dr. Norman Borlaug developed new strains of wheat during the 1940s to increase yields to feed growing populations. Otherwise there might have been mass starvation. This might be called the Second Neolithic Revolution.

Thanks for the link to Newgrange. I was wondering about how much our ancestors would have hoped for a clear day on the Winter Solstice—when a beam of sunlight is supposed to light up the inner chamber. This is England after all! Sure enough, if you do enter the lottery to visit Newgrange on this day, be prepared:
There is no guarantee that there will be sunlight in the chamber on any of the mornings, the event is totally weather dependent!
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Was there a groundhog at the Winter Solstice ceremony?
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