The Romantic Bias Toward The Past, Again

By Graham Peterson

It turns out that the ancient Egyptians probably hauled all of those gigantic stones around by wetting the sand, which cuts friction.  We’ve got evidence two ways.  Someone ran some careful experiments at scale, with little blocks and sand.  And we have a picture of the Egyptians pouring water on sand in front of a giant statue.  How could it have remained a mystery?  Interpretation.

Colosse-djéhoutihétep

 

Reports Bonn, the principle investigator, “Egyptologists had been interpreting the water as part of a purification ritual, and had never sought a scientific explanation.”

What he means more precisely is “[material] explanation,” and the material blind spot is a much bigger problem in anthropological, sociological, historical, and archeological research than a few drawings in Egypt.  Due to the proliferation of a lot of bad theory, say Rousseau’s theory of noble savages, or the colonial pretense of early missionaries, we still favor infantalizing theories of the natives, and of people in history.

For decades the above drawing went on, apparently without question, being interpreted as a purely symbolic display.  But why wouldn’t we think that, like us, the Egyptians wrote user manuals for their inventions?  Why wouldn’t they want to represent their accomplishments accurately?

To be fair, it is a depiction of a statue that is clearly religious.  But when an electrician wires a church, he doesn’t bless his fish tape.

War in indigenous societies was interpreted similarly, symbolically — like a child’s game — for the longest time.  Theorists of war were proud of the magnificent organization of war, the superiority of imperialism, and so on.  They wouldn’t have defamed civilized war by comparing it to 40 or so naked men running at each other with spears.  And yet on closer review, it turns out the comparison is the best one out there.

Regardless multiculturalism, regardless the piling up of ethnography and archeological and historical evidence, we still haven’t made much progress ideologically.  Some portion of people want to believe, out of ethnocentricity, that our ancestors were little kids.  Some portion want to believe it out of pity or cultural sensitivity.

But what about starting with the idea that the natives and our ancestors were probably a lot like you and me, with most of the same motivations, needs, cognitive processes, and social institutions?

Lawrence Keely and Steven Pinker have caused a lot of consternation with the cultural sensitivity crowd by pointing out how violent and materially motivated indigenous people are and were.*  The Egyptology discovery above won’t blow as much ideological hair back, but the anti-materialism bias is worth considering more deeply.  The myth of our magical and infantile past, full of symbols and rituals, has to go.

People have for the majority of history broken their backs producing food, killing and stealing from each other, sometimes trading and inventing, and raising children.  We should expect their artifacts and symbolic systems to reflect the fact, not to serve as an existential reflection pool for the vanity and pity of modern intellectuals.

*I suppose the cultural sensitivity crowd wants to believe that rapacious imperialism is modern, something that rich white men invented as a warm up for bad TV and minimum wage jobs.

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