Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sucking The Smart Out Of The Room

Back in 1995, with some help from local herders, German Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt made what may well be the most important discovery of the 20th century.  Buried beneath the sands of eastern Turkey for almost 12 millennia, Gobekli Tepe (which means "belly hill" in Turkish) is the oldest human-made structure yet discovered; at a stroke, this single site has doubled the age of the known ability of human beings to build structures.  There is a debate now as to whether the site, which Schmidt continues to insist served as a temple, a conclusion teased out from the abundance of animal carvings, their stylized attitudes, and placement, might have served as human habitation as well, for which there is also abundant evidence (which leads me, as always in cases such as these, to wonder why we should choose; people are smart, canny, and resourceful now, so there's no reason to assume people 12,000 years ago weren't also, using the space both for living and worshiping).

I first heard about this about a year and a half ago, and the most amazing part of the "discovery" for me was the fact that locals, especially sheep and goat herders, knew about the stones poking up through the sandy soil.  They didn't think it was any big deal; it was only when Schmidt, who heard the stories and decided to check them out, started digging a bit that something was "discovered".  Except, of course, how can something that the folks living in the area knew about be "discovered"?  A perennial question, especially when it comes to Westerners finding something that non-westerners knew was there all along.

In any case, it is important to think about some things before we continue.  These ruins are dated between eleven and twelve thousand years ago.  Prior to Gobekli Tepe, the earliest dated remnants of settled human communities was half as old, 6,000 years.  The discoveries at Gobekli Tepe raise all sorts of questions, not the least of them being: where are the remains for the space in between?  The record for the past six thousand years is pretty steady and clear.  The theories about the development of agriculture, about the changes in social and cultural life that made settled human habitation possible, the technological development that gave human beings tools to craft spaces for living, buying and selling, planting and harvesting crops all seemed to have coalesced at a point in time that permitted the growth and development of towns and cities.  All those theories are pretty much gone now.  The problem, however, is figuring out what happened in the intervening time.  It is certainly possible that some catastrophe occurred that destroyed not only all human habitation that existed between the building of Gobekli Tepe and the rise of other human civilizations; not only destroyed them, but any trace of their existence, as well as the accumulated knowledge and skill to create them?  That, it seems to me, is more than a little far-fetched (to say the least).

I read today that ABC is running a two-part program on "The Search for Noah's Flood".


Why not look for the Tower of Babel while you're at it?  Or Atlantis?  Maybe feature one of those Bigfoot hunter shows that have nerds running around the woods at night howling at one another?

At what point do we, as a people decide we're going to talk about things that are real, and stop pursuing nonsense like world-wide floods that never happened?  Having a major network devote time and resources to "Noah's Flood" is no different than a program dedicated to "proving" creationism; in fact, the impetus for the ongoing "search for Noah's Ark" lies within the same set of assumptions that saddle us with creationism: Biblical inerrancy.  We are missing the opportunity to learn something important, even revolutionary, about the history of the development of human social life because hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours are being wasted pretending a folk tale originally told by the Sumerians has anything to do with reality.  In the process, we as a people get hoodwinked in to thinking this is serious stuff rather than fringe pseudo-science, akin to Ancient Astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle.

Sorry, Christiane Amanpour, but you are actually working hard to make America dumber.

Virtual Tin Cup

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