Hi there. Previously Uncontacted Amazonian Tribe, May 2008. All photos: REUTERS/Gleison Miranda-FUNAI.
How much of Prehistory survives in the present day? Some anthropologists are devoted to finding niches of it in our Post-Postmodern times, be it through finding isolated indigenous tribes that still retain Prehistoric modes of existence - or by finding some Prehistoric patterns in current styles and popular behaviour. Geneticists are commissioned to trace bits of Prehistoric life still extant via DNA studies; National Geographic recently participated in one such endeavour, The Genographic Project.
Lately, Prehistory has been enjoying something of a renaissance with movies like Apocalypto (2006), the Land Before Time series (1988-2007), 10,000 BC (2008), and the Ice Age series of animated films (2002-2009). There is a list of Prehistoric films here.
Neanderthals are back in vogue as well, enjoying a much more sympathetic treatment by Paleo-Artists and Palaeontologists. In pop culture, they are the subjects of the novel trilogy The Neanderthal Parallax by Robert J. Sawyer. Recently, Neanderthal testing kits have appeared on the market, so you can theoretically test the Neanderthal traces in your genetic profile.
On May 6, 2010, the Neanderthals' genome sequence was published in Science (reports here and here) in a study led by the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The conclusions confirmed that there was interbreeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, and that the present human species is a combination of both species. Professor João Zilhão of Bristol University's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology remarked in May on this finding:
“Despite resistance from some quarters – the kind of resistance that is to be expected in times of major paradigmatic shifts – the physical, anthropological and archaeological evidence accumulated over the last decade overwhelmingly indicates that: Neanderthals were cognitively and culturally as advanced as their African contemporaries; Neanderthals and Modern Humans interbred at the time of contact; Cultural exchanges also occurred at that time, as shown, for instance, by the persistence in the culture of Europe's earliest Modern Humans of types of jewellery characteristic of the preceding Neanderthal cultures. The results of the Neanderthal genome project finally put the genetic evidence in line with that from archaeology and human palaeontology. The 150 year-old debate on whether Neanderthals were part of our species or an evolutionary dead-end, a separate species that went extinct without descent, thus comes to an end. It is now clear that Neanderthals contributed to the genes and the culture of present-day humans and are therefore our ancestors too.”Earlier findings along these lines even led some to propose cloning Neanderthals - with the cost estimated of cloning one at roughly $30 million - and bringing them back from extinction. This prompted the interest of Moral Philosophers who deal with the ethics of emerging technologies. This kind of research sees Palaeontologists crossing paths with Computational Biologists, Philosophers, Psychologists, Geneticists, Archaeologists and Anthropologists. One of Neanderthals' greatest advocates is British psychologist Stan Gooch, who sees Neanderthal-Cro-Magnon interbreeding as the source of Western civilization. He developed a intensely Hegelian Paleo-Evolutionary theory, in which he mapped Freud (Ego and Id) and Jung (Male and Female) onto Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals as the original Western cultural polarities. His Theory of Polarities was developed in his book, Total Man (1972). The book summarized two cultural traditions in Western culture which Gooch felt originated in the Prehistoric period. The Theory of Polarities even saw Marx rear his head:
Wiki summarizes Gooch's core ideas and the hybridization he envisions of Cro-Magnon-sourced and Neanderthal-sourced cultures:
Total Man was followed by Personality and Evolution (1973) and The Neanderthal Question (1977). In these books, Gooch develops what would become known as the "hybrid-origin theory". The theory as represented in Guardians of the Ancient Wisdom (1979) can be outlined as follows:While this all looks remarkably compelling, I have a feeling that many of these theories of Prehistory say more about us and how we see the world than they do about Prehistoric peoples. And I have to ask (again) - will the Frankfurt School never die? When it comes to the kinds of complex, historically-rooted questions that see moral, technological and economic issues overlapping, the Frankfurt School is ever-present in the minds of many researchers; yet its basic premises yield fundamentally anachronistic conclusions. The reality of Prehistory criss-crossing with Post-Postmodern times is far more complicated and inherently distressing.
1. From other human species, Cro-Magnon man evolves in Northern India during a long period of isolation, develops and practices sun worship and hunting magic; the culture is patriarchal.
2. Elsewhere during the same period, different forms of Neanderthal man evolve in Europe and the Middle East, while moon worship and earth magic is developed and practiced; the culture is matriarchal.
3. Around 35,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon abandons India and heads west through the Middle East into Europe, overrunning Neanderthal. By 25,000 years ago, the predominant type in Europe is Cro-Magnon.
4. In the Middle East a hybrid population, a cross between the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal types, emerges. Pure Neanderthal has largely ceased to exist either here or in Europe.
5. By 15,000 years ago, pure Cro-Magnon man has also ceased to exist, driven out of north and west Europe, into southern Europe, by renewed glaciation, absorbed by the hybrid type (that is, modern Homo sapiens).
Gooch continued to develop the theory during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s in Cities of Dreams (1989, 1995), and The Neanderthal Legacy (2008).
Remember that Amazonian tribe that had no knowledge of the outside world until 2008? There could hardly be a more disturbingly literal example of our Post-Postmodern fascination with Prehistory than those May 2008 photos of previously uncontacted Amazonian tribespeople who were buzzed by a helicopter piloted by their governmental advocacy group, which was seeking to prove that they actually existed.
Officials from Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), the Brazilian government's Indian Affairs Department, took the photos. The photos went viral on the internet, because it was the kind of thing people like to talk about at the office over their morning coffee.
So in the space of 24 hours, this previously undisturbed human time capsule - this niche of humanity - jumped from 10,000 BCE to 2008 CE. The entire world knows about this tribe, but the tribe doesn't know about us - except for the helicopter, which buzzed them twice in one day. The Independent: "When the [team] returned later the same day, the impact of the earlier flight was clear. Most of the women and children had fled into the forest, he said, and those that were left had painted their bodies, taken up arms and appeared to be on a 'war footing.'" Presumably they now have incorporated the helicopter into their central mythology. There was later some controversy that the FUNAI group took the photos, thereby initiating contact with a known but uncontacted tribe, in order to score political points against logging interests. That of course raises the question of whether the tribe was in fact their first priority.
This example epitomizes the Post-Postmodern condition, wherein everything that once belonged solely to one particular time and place is mish-mashed together with other things from other times and places, until the insane and chaotic collection of motivations, perspectives and perceptions renders the cultural artifact or event into something - else. That 'something else' is certainly shaping our Zeitgeist at the moment. But we don't know what this new cultural condition is exactly; nor do we know its long-term implications.
But wait. It's not over yet! Checking back in on the tribe, it turns out they are threatened by the building of the 711-mile Trans-Oceanic Highway, also called the Interoceanic Highway, which will connect the Amazon river ports of Brazil with the Pacific ports of Peru. This is the part of South America concerned:
Several photos of the Interoceanic Highway's construction are at the site South American Pictures.
NPR recently reported on the Trans-Oceanic Highway project. Isn't this all a bit Terry Gilliam-esque? Or perhaps the best analogy is Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which begins with the hero's house being scheduled for demolition to make way for a highway bypass; then the hero is interrupted in the middle of lying down in front of the bulldozers that are about to wreck his house with the news that the earth is about to be obliterated. This is because an alien race, the Vogons, are constructing a hyperspace bypass and earth is in the way. As far as the isolated Prehistoric peoples of Brazil are concerned, the Brazilian government may have something in common with the Vogon demolition spaceships, or in its cheerful project-generation, maybe Zaphod Beeblebrox. And their adventures after the highway is built may be just as traumatic and madcap as Arthur Dent's. Maybe they'll be visited again this year by their advocacy group and be advised: Don't Panic.