Sunday, September 26, 2010
Found at a cave in southwestern France, the Blanchard Bone is a curious artifact. It appears to be between 25,000 and 32,000 years old. It is only four inches long. It is engraved with about 69 small figures, arranged in a sequence of a flattened figure eight. Archeologists tell us that the carving required twenty-four changes of point or stroke.
What is it? Looking closely at the carving, it seems that the 69 images represent the phases of the moon over two lunar months (image courtesy of Harvard University, Peabody Museum). It isn’t writing: That was still 20,000 to 27,000 years – over four hundred generations and two ice ages – in the future.
What would the night sky mean to our ancestors so long ago? The Sun was directly responsible for heat and light, and defined the rhythm of days. But the Moon moved so slowly, in comparison. What was it? What did our fathers and mothers think they were looking at, when the Moon rose and traveled across the sky, changing its shape from day to day, but always following the same pattern?
Yet the Moon’s travels had implications and meanings: The Sea responded to the Moon in its tides – or did the tides somehow pull the Moon along? How did that happen? What was going on between the Moon and the Sea?
The ancient artist/scientist/priest who carved this artifact carved what she saw – and more. The artifact was useful, for knowing when to plant, when the birds, the herds, or the fish were migrating, when it might be a good time to find a warm cave. The Moon measured fertility and gestation. When people speculated on this, they began to think – about what they saw, and what it meant.
Some wondered if the bone might be magically linked to the Moon and the Sea. Who among them could not be perplexed by the gymnastics, by the dance, of the Moon?
What would that inevitable nighttime procession inspire? How many nights could people look at the slow but predictable change, observe its correlations, and not be challenged to wonder? The first instances of human reasoning could have been inspired by this persistent phenomenon.
In “Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and its Transmission through Myth,” Giorgio Desantillana and Hertha von Dechen propose that the myths, as Aristotle taught, are about the stars. The authors trace the myth of Hamlet back to Amlodhi, who owned a magical mill. Once it ground out peace, but it fell off its axle and on the beach ground out sand, and now it has fallen into the Sea where it grinds out salt. I the author’s essay, they reveal that this myth is a story to capture and preserve the observation of the precession of the equinoxes. This is a 25,950 year long cycle, during which the Earth’s North Pole traces a great circle through the heavens. Now the North Pole points to the Pole Star in Ursa Minor, but in 13,000 years it will point to Vega. Only a medium as persistent as a story could span the ages, capturing and preserving this observation.
When the Blanchard bone was formed, the sky was much as it will appear tonight. Between then and now we have passed through one Great Year. When the North Pole pointed to Vega last, our species was beginning to colonize the Western hemisphere, the ice age was capturing water and lowering the seas, and the Blanchard bone had been lost for ten thousand years.
Let us remember that ancient scientist/artist/priest, let us regard her qualities of observation, synthesis, and imagination with wonder: her discovery in the sky urged us to consciousness, communication, and endless wonders beyond.