Category: Archaeology

Autumn Tints



How Did We Get Here?

This is a question all cultures seem to have shared in the past. It covers both the problem of what was the point of origin of a particular group – how and when they arrived at their present location, and the perhaps more philosophical problem of how did the human race emerge or evolve. .It is the more long-term question of human origins we will look at.

In most traditions there is the common factor of a  “creator god,, gods, spirit” responsible for the existence of the world and its inhabitants. There are common factors world-wide in these attempts to explain origins.  For one thing we seem as humans to have fallen short of the creator’s expectations. Surprise surprise! In the Old Testament Eve and Cain stand out in this respect. In the Maya tradition the creator found the physical materials – such as mud – were not suitable for the job and a re-make had to take place. Even then all was not well and for one thing the humans made too much noise, and irritated the gods, leading to their own destruction by flood. This method of mass-destruction appears in the Old Testament as well as in many accounts world-wide, including Noah’s Flood  and  the Greek legend of Deucalion and Pyrrha.  In fact flood stories abound world-wide and are borne out by such experts as  archaeologists. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that post the last Ice Age episodes could have remained intact in human memory as part of traditional folk lore. In the case of Creation myths of course we are in different territory, and such traditions must be classified as attempts to find a logical explanation for our existence. However, flood myths and accounts of the arrival of the “first settlers” can have a strong factual foundation.

An interesting aspect of many myths is that they tended to be be rejected by scientists, historians, and related experts as yarns to keep the children (and their parents) entertained on long winter nights.. In more recent times, particularly since what one might call “the DNA Revolution”origins of races in many areas have been proved to be in line with traditional tales. Unfortunately our remote ancestors were often lacking in knowledge of correct time sequences, the need to be accurate about names of people and places, the need for accurate statistics – all those boring details which get in the way of a good yarn!  So much work has to be done in reconciling accounts. It can be surprising how today’s scientific accounts can be corroborated in ancient tradition. For example in the Irish  “Book of the Invasions” accounts are given of the coming of sheep-rearing, the drainage of marshes for agriculture, and other processes now classified by scholars sine the 19th. century. 

The probable location of the Garden of Eden has been defined as in Mesopotamia (Iraq). In more recent years the Garden of Eden has acquired a rival in East Africa as the point of origin of Homo Sapiens. For the last few years it has been proposed that modern man emerged from East Africa to spread over the world, over a long period and in fits and starts. More recently the “Out of Africa” theory has been called into question. Personally I have found it hard to accept that the very different racial groups on the various continents could have had a common origin – my own preference would have been for separate development/evolution in each area of the world. But then I am a complete amateur in such matters. One curious thing is that a good deal of the proposed movement out of East Africa would appear to have taken place in the last Ice Age. One would have thought that people living in a warm region would have been inclined to”stay put” rather than moving North? Of course factors such as drought would have caused movement – but with such far-reaching consequences? 


To continue with our theme of the human journey, “Our Journey” December 28, 2017, we will look again at Gauguin’s thought-provoking questions “Where have we come from ? – Where are we ? – Where are we going?” These three questions are  in line with the concepts of the past, the present, and the future.If History tells us about the past, it should also help us to understand the present, and also do something positive about the future. (Well – no harm in hoping!)  The current theme will be “movement”. 

Both animals and humans share an infinite capacity for movement. Since movement requires precious energy, there must be a motivation for such activity. It would appear that the greatest motivating force for movement  is the need to eat. If we watch a bird, for example, nearly every movement is directed to spotting the nearest tit- bit, then taking up a position whence it can detect another one etc. etc. Even in our sophisticated human society we leave home to go to work to earn the wherewithal to go to the supermarket. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors followed the game on which they relied, and searched out roots and fruit as they went. The later farmers ,although more attached to a home base, spent the day tending the plants and animals on which they depended. The other two human needs, clothing and shelter, make fewer demands on our energy than our “daily bread”.

The apparently static aspects of the farmer’s life are more illusory than  it would seem. Both plants and animals are dependent on the weather for their existence. Changes in weather patterns over even a brief period can have disastrous consequences. Death from starvation and disease, migration of whole populations in search of new food sources or of employment are obvious results. The human population has , as part of its survival strategy, , learned either to move or otherwise adapt to changed circumstances.

Seemingly in all human cultures there is a “folk memory”of  how they came to be in their current environment. This can take the form of a “mythology”   by word of mouth over an incredible period, eventually appearing in written form. These traditions are often dismissed by modern commentators as fictional, not taking into account the fact that they are based on historical fact, with exaggeration, confusion, and incorrect sequences.

Just a few examples would be theHebrew traditions recorded in the Old Testament, the Popul Vuh (the traditional account of the Quiche Maya in Central America), the Aeneid of Virgil  (the account of the origins of Rome as a resultof the arrival of refugees from the Trojan War), the Book of the Invasions (the traditional account of the origins of the people of Ireland). There are so many of such accounts now available to us.  Some are even more adventurous in carrying the account back to the origins of the human race.  In the case of the Book of the Invasions the question of the change from hunter-gathering to farming is referred to. Sometimes there are recurring themes, such as feuds between two brothers, as in the Popul Vuh, Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, to give but a few (perhaps a philosophical attempt to look at areas such as sin,good and evil, etc).

This at least is an example of the question of “Where have we come from?”


The French Impressionist painter Gauguin produced a work whose title has always impressed me more than the painting itself. – namely “D’ou venons-nous? Ou sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous?” (“Where have we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?) Three very important questions  apply to the human race – ideal questions as they fit into the category of “I’d rather not answer that one!” However our men and women of science have not been deterred from at least having a go. 

In response to the first question of “Where have we come from ?” they tell us about our progress or evolution from a more primitive stat to what we are today. We are, I believe, classified not just as representatives of homo sapiens (wise man) but as homo sapiens sapiens –  “even wiser man”. (Sorry ladies –  don’t blame me for the bias -its the fault of the ancient Romans for not having a word to embrace you too . Perhaps a comment on their culture and civilisation) ? Good at least to know that we have attained the description “wise” in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.  How we got there is a matter of interesting debate. Our mentors assure us that we were both preceded and accompanied by less-fortunate humans called Neanderthals, rather unfortunate beings when compared with the intellectual capacity of homo sapiens.  (By our standards they didn’t look all that attractive either). Bur in very recent times a change in our superior outlook has taken place. It has been found that thes Neanderthals existed on a much higher level of “civilisation” than previously imagined. More recently it has been discovered through dna and related research that the neanderthals often intermarried with homo sapiens . So thereby ends yet another neat theory. To me that is the great appeal of archaeology and related studies – that you never know from day to day what new discovery or interpretation may sweep the ground from under your feet. 

In the nineteenth century the desire to put  everything into neatly-classified boxes was applied to our remote ancestors. It was felt that human achievement and progress shoud measured by the increasing sophistication of material objects, such as tools and weapons. (Was this an indication of Victorian – and modern –  materialism?) So the terms palaeolithic, mesolithic, neolithic evolved  to distinguish between stages of human progress. Likewise the use of metal produced the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages. The weakness of these classifications was that there were often great differences between geographical regions as  moved into a new phase. Middle Eastern areas, notably Turkey, could be in the Bronze Age when Northern Europe was still in the Neolithic. People travelled, ideas travelled, but “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was a powerful argument. 

The tendency is to start the study of mankind as we know it today at the time when the Ice Age was substantially coming  to  an end, 10000-8000 BC. The vast areas of Northern Asia, Europe, and America which had been uninhabitable for so long were becoming capable of bearing trees and plants with accompanying animal population. Humans , for example in Europe , had been concentrated South of the Mediterranean and in pockets further North which had better conditions locally, notably Iberia. The warmer Middle Eastern/West Asian regions were beginning to abandon a hunter-gatherer life-style and to grow crops and herd animals – farming in other words. The first immigrants into Northern Europe followed the hunter-gatherer life-style. Naturally this global warming  had beneficial effects world-wide as the Northward movement of plants and animals led to a movement of people from what were probably over-crowded conditions. From around 5000 BC Middle Eastern/Eurasian farmers seem to these Northern areas via Danube and by sea into the British Isles and Western Europe. This may have been occasioned by a change in rain-patterns leading to a shift onto the banks of the rivers Tigris, Euphrates,Indus, and Nile. Those unable to do so  had the alternative of moving to cooler moister climates.These early farmers joined the earlier hunter-gatherer population.These newcomers brought with them not only plants,”portable”animals, and farming techniques but also a whole new culture which had a great impact on North-Western Europe – but that, as they say, is another story.


The much-restored Stone-Age structure of Grianan in Donegal on the North coast of Ireland is a massive reminder of Iron Age culture. Its origins are however said to go back much  further into the 3000 BC Neolithic era, with concentric ring ditches, now only visible to the trained eye, encircling the later stone structure. Although not much higher than a couple of hundred metres above Lough Swilly, it has outstanding views over the ancient province of Ulster(between showers), and would have made a great observation point for key positions of sun, moon, and stars in the Megalithic era. The two photos give two aspects of the 2000+ years-old stone fort. The first shows Grianan from a little distance, with in the foreground a cross marking the ancient well, still containing water from a natural spring. It would of course have been there long before Christianity. The second shot shows contrasting aspects – children from near-by Derry City  school on a school trip having a break on the ramparts of the ancient stronghold. The thick drystone walls are honeycombed with low passages – perhaps for storage of food during a siege?