Gordon White’s exercise in using data analysis to speculatively reconstruct ancient belief systems is a mind-bending journey through our most ancient history. In this book, he tracks our species’ first departure from what we now call Africa, and the beginnings of both the Laurasian mythological “novel”, as well as the Gondwana “grandmother myths” that came with us. It’s an exciting synthesis of historical accounts, research into genetic migration, and the more perplexing recent archaeological finds, such as as Göbekli Tepe. All of which suggest that our historical view of our ancestors has been, and in some cases continues to be, presumptuously condescending.
White’s background comes from data analysis, and of course, his practice as a chaote, or chaos magician. Certainly the latter comes into play and informs his interpretation of certain mythological tales, ritual finds, and religious practices, but if you can look past the magic angle you will find a deeply researched attempt to understand how ancient humans might have looked at the world, and one that raises a number of pointed questions about how we view them today. In particular, White tracks the historical relationship between ancient myth and the asterisms in the sky, and the role that the stars played in our stories, not to mention the construction of our earliest temples. This interest in the study of myth is clearly inspired by his beliefs, but acceptance of magic is not required to review the same research as presented and reach broadly similar interpretations.
Indeed, I credit White for being quite circumspect in his conclusions, and avoiding making the all too common leap to suggest that there was some super civilization, or ridiculous ancient alien encounter. In several places, White takes time out to call out– and sometimes mock –those writers who do make such claims:
The hypothesis that mankind’s civilising gods or spirits were, to use a cheekily disparaging term, ‘little green men,’ relies on taking literally a personally preferred ancient mythology, typically the Sumerian one. However, as we have seen, these are much, much younger variants of older spirits and storylines that, by definition, cannot literally be true, just as the reboot of a film is not the original film. At best, one could argue that there was an original contact event that triggered the emergence of a Laurasian storyline 20,000 to 30,000 years ago but such an argument – like anything else – has the ever present obligation of proof. For example, if ‘they’ taught us writing, why did we wait so long to use it?
— Gordon White, Star.Ships
Instead, White puts forward the more reasonable assessment that our previous understanding of Neolithic societies no longer makes sense, and that our ancestors’ technological ability developed significantly earlier than originally thought. By extension, we should reevaluate our assumptions about other early civilizations such as ancient Egypt and Sumeria, and perhaps revisit our understanding of how the first cities were born.
I finished reading this book a couple weeks ago, and it’s simply refused to leave my thoughts. Even if you don’t agree with all his conclusions– and I certainly don’t –the questions he raises are enough to keep your thoughts turning for weeks on end, and might even give you a new appreciation for the deep roots of human civilization.