Search This Blog

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Burying the emotions

It is a source of wonder how long humanity has been burying its dead. The oldest undisputed burials are in the Qafzeh and Skhul caves in Israel, between 90,000-120,000 years ago.

What happened that we needed to bury our loved ones, where once we had let them be once they had died? (i don't think I'd go back to bodies in the street he hastens to add). Was this a change in environmental circumstances or a change in our nature, or both? What is interesting is that clearly the practice spread across different geographic environments which suggests something beyond environmental pressure. This certainly seems the case when one discovers early grave sites with embellishments like medicinal herbs.

There is one place which i find particularly impressive, that of the 28,000 year old site at Sungir in Russia. There were three bodies, according to the archaeologist Randall White, a 60 year old man, a small boy and a girl. Their bodies were wearing thousands of beads, which would have take several years to have made. This suggests more than just decoration given the time taken to produce such things. Is there already social stratification going on? There may be well religious significance to the beads, the corpses and their graves. Which makes one ask where religion came from and what did it involve?

What, though, has all this to do with a history of emotions? Such massive shifts in consciousness in burial and in the astonishing beadwork of Sungir suggest great emotional depth at work to drive a person or community to such actions. The grief in death, the reverence, fear and awe are hinted at in the Sungir burials.

And was there envy in a society that could produce such complicated ornamentation as the beads? Surely there wasn't enough beads to go round all? What drove a community to display so many beads on some of the corpses but not all?

Our earliest ancestors were maybe not so different and even in death we are not always so equal.

In the heart of the West Highlands

a wonderful panorama looking over Loch Quoich in the west Highlands, north of Fort William. this one is found here at "A Scottish Climber's view" which is a fine wee site.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Underground and proud

A bizarre yet thoroughly entertaining evening. Sitting in a shed last Saturday discussing the history of emotions and other things as part of the Underground Restaurant run by the estimable MsMarmiteLover. the setting was very stylish, the company more so and the food delicious. You will forgive me if i pass on the compliment of guru! i can't answer any question but the bluffing skills seemed to be enough...

But thank you to all those who kindly kept me company down in the smoky shed i enjoyed our blethering very much.

To those that have never been, if you ever get the chance, go, eat, drink and talk and meet people you might not have met otherwise.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Primal Fear?

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear." H.P. Lovecraft

When one tries to look back far into the past at our pre-literate ancestors it becomes extremely difficult to consider their emotional lives with great confidence. the paucity of evidence allied to nature of those tiny clues means one must tread warily.

And yet it surprises me when writers suggest that our eldest emotion is fear. As Stuart Walton states in his book, 'Humanity: An Emotional History':
"If it were possible, as some evolutionary psychologists maintain, to decide which of humanity's emotions is the oldest, then fear would surely enter the strongest claim."

As much as I am a fan of Walton's writing, I am not so sure of this. He goes on to speak of our early ancestors walking across the African savannah in terror of the travails that faced them. Did did they really go in fear all or even most of the time? Was it really so terrifying?

It is interesting to note the behaviour of our evolutionary ancestors when considering such a notion. Do any of the great apes feel emotions, and if so how much does something resembling fear act upon them in ordinary existence? Emotions in animals is still very much a developing science but there is a view that it is valid to talk of such things without making animal emotions anthropomorphised. the renowned primate expert Jane Goodall did much to change our perception of what primates are capable of.

So if one accepts that our evolutionary cousins and ancestors were capable of some form of emotions would something recognisable as fear be one of the dominant modes of their behaviour? Do they live in terror of their predators and environment? Whilst some animals have learned caution and reticence relating to human contact, it would appear not. Nor do they exhibit anything approaching constant terror in general activity.

If nothing else it may not make evolutionary sense to have fear play so dominant a role as Walton suggests. Prolonged exposure to fear or stress induces massive stress upon the human body to deleterious effect. The same goes for animals. Whilst fear is essential for honing reflexes in traumatic situations it does not serve us so well over longer periods of time.

The point is though that there is nothing about fear, though obviously important, that says it is necessarily older or more dominant than other emotions.

I fear (if one may excuse the pun) this notion may be rooted in a hint of projection of modern man's helplessness in the face of nature without the aid of technology. Early Man knew how to live in its environments just as our primate cousins do. Whilst capable of feeling fear when needed they need not have been overwhelmed by it.