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Another quickie I decided to crosspost: “ancientness”

March 22, 2011

Crossposted from Tumblr.

Ancient Human Trash Heaps Gave Rise to Everglades Tree Islands, Research Suggests

(Quick comment on actual article: sounds like shell middens.)

Someone linked to this article on Twitter,  and I found it interesting. Not just for the “humans as not-necessarily-so-destructive parts of the ecosystem” thought provocation, but for the wording.

It thrilled me to see the word “ancient” applied to something human-created in North America. Usually, our Native ancestors and the stuff they were building, doing, and thinking don’t get called that–no matter how far back it was. Those implications of grandeur mostly gets reserved for around the Mediterranean (“center of the world”, after all) and sometimes “civilized” places like China, or Inca stone ruins if they’re feeling charitable.

See also “History isn’t just ‘their-story’”: consensus reality. What qualifies as history and what qualifies as “ancient” are largely social constructs. FFS, the popular history of two whole continents (plus however Central America is defined) is still pretty much summed up thusly: people aimlessly chased large animals across Beringia (no matter how plausible this may be to actual geologists), then they quickly killed all those big scary animals in fits of greed–and sat around being barbarous but noble mystical healing shamans, waiting for Europeans to show up.  (Except when they were still the Lost Tribes of Israel, and nobody knew about megafauna. Then they were slaughtering the “real” Mound Builders, instead. Ahem.) That is not much of an exaggeration, unfortunately. And people are acknowledged to have been continuously living right where I’m from for better than twice as long as in the British Isles, which were huge lumps of ice until about 10,000 years ago. (With any artifacts turning up dating older questioned/dismissed, back home–and there have been more than a few.) Still, they’re the ones with the history and ties to “The Ancient World”. I am frankly getting sick of hearing about that very specialized, exclusive “Ancient World”.

Northern Europe–also full of savage barbarians–doesn’t really count either, until the Romans showed up, as I keep being impressed at living in the UK. In a lot of people’s imaginations, “history” started when Romans started building stuff here out of stone. Or not, as the case may be: Why Roman roads may not be quite as Roman as we think. Heck, I was impressed watching Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons on BBC iPlayer (for multiple reasons, actually), that the standard assumptions until the hoards of exquisite ornaments started turning up was that these people who came as the Romans were giving up this part of their empire were all “primitives” who lived in tiny wooden hovels and didn’t accomplish much until the Normans brought them some civilization. And, yeah, to me there seems a clear link between identifying with successive waves of “advanced” colonizers and then going on to make your own mark on history by colonizing other people in a wétiko manner.

This point about whose cultures are allowed to be “ancient” had occurred to me before, but really struck me when reading some of the Google Books preview of Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (I still haven’t picked up the book). One quote in particular (emphasis added): “The original peoples of North America, whose principles are just as ancient as those of Judeo-Christian culture, saw no threat in homosexuality or gender variance.”

That hit me hard. I knew it was so–people in the Americas have cultures with philosophical traditions that are older than what gets considered “ancient” by Western standards–but we are really strongly discouraged from thinking in those terms. (In that case, I do question the validity of age making ideas somehow better–not to mention the common lumping of “Judeo-Christian” as some kind of uniform tradition/culture–but it’s a very nice counterpoint to the nonstop bludgeoning over the head with the ancientness and presumed universalism of Abrahamic religious themes.)

Just a few points I’ve been pondering.

(ETA: I didn’t purposely leave out mentions of Africa, Australia, and pretty much everything in the Pacific east of Asia. We all know how “ancient” they are presented as. 😦 )

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2011 2:15 pm

    Hey, i found something that might interest you (second item):

    • urocyon permalink
      March 22, 2011 4:37 pm

      Thanks! That does look interesting.

  2. ther1 permalink
    March 22, 2011 3:18 pm

    Oh, Australia, there’s a big one. Part of what initially gave me interest in Australian Aboriginal culture is the supposed exoticism of their art. I like the textures and stylized spatial representations, but still know very little about what they actually mean. To real Aboriginal people, art is a way of passing down laws, claiming ownership of land and mapping important events.

    I think the “ancient mystical culture” garbage is still stuck in my head to some degree. Are European medieval tapestries “primitive” when they represent the same categories of materials as a rock painting of the Rainbow Snake?

    Romanticism of older cultures falsely presents them as noble savages and relics of the past struggling to cope with(and possibly being wiped out by?) our modern Burger King world before they all fossilize. Not that many aren’t struggling, but that’s largely due to racism and this revulsion thinly disguised as pity.

    If my Ethiopian college professor draws a rhomboid on his whiteboard, it is not automatically “African art.” In his birth country he taught in the same suit and tie he wears now-not a grass skirt. No one pities him. He’s coping with western civilization just fine.

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