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The Myth of the Caveman

By: Ricardo Pontes Nunes

    A few years ago I met a very simple guy in a pub who told me resolutely, even a little indignant, that he didn't believe that man had gone to the moon. had guessed and that were nothing new: the almost folkloric protest against those who wanted to desecrate the sacred character of the divine stars. I understood that you didn't need to understand much about space engineering for launching satellites to conclude that the Apollo XI landing was not only possible but very likely, but a few days later, curiously, I watched a recent documentary in which that same landing was challenged. astronautical feat. The allegation this time, more extensive and detailed, was historical-political. After gathering a series of indications of technical flaws and strategic discrepancies, he concluded that during the Cold War space race, American counterintelligence had faked the moon landing to deter their Soviet adversaries by simulating superior technological might. We can see that for very different reasons and paths, such as impossibility and contingency, at an essential point in the matter my poor barmate could reconcile himself with documentary detectives or conspiracy theory explorers. It may seem like sophistry, but this does not cease to imply that a fact in itself, or its inexistence, in many circumstances may be less relevant than the presuppositions that support its possibility or its effectiveness.

   In a similar but positive way, this influence of our present expectations also acts on the different ways in which we can interpret what happened or did not happen at the other and no less enigmatic end of time: that of the remote past. Our imagination has long been disputed by such different versions of human “prehistory”, avant la lettre , that the only thing in common between them is perhaps nothing more than their yearning. The oldest and most romanticized of them appears formulated in Hesiod and Seneca: the famous Golden Age; not as an elaborate fictitious project as in Plato's Republic or Thomas More's Utopia , which also prefigure it, but as a tributary legend of a kind of shared collective memory. Through an itinerary ravaged by regrets, Rousseau too would reach that age when we were docile and sympathetic savages, but only as a counterpoint to a world where culture and civilization had inoculated us with the germ of degeneration. Following a parallel retrospect, about a century before Thomas Hobbes had found this clearing in time, but through the lens of his projection he could only see the horror of barbarism that legitimized for him the then nascent State as the only means capable of placating our innate savagery. . On this conjectural “state of nature” the confabulations of so many others unfolded, from Turgot to Lewis Morgan, from Montesquieu and John Locke to Auguste Comte. That is, for different reasons, these variegated versions implicitly denied the then validated doctrine of paradise lost, and what they put in its place owed the form and content of their perspectives to these same reasons.  

    Stripped of aesthetic or intuitive enthusiasm, the image of the prehistoric world that prevails today is now unanimous, necessary and universal. Transcribed in supposed and objective scientific traits, it outlines the theory that is almost omnipresent in contemporary discourse that in a remote past, in short, we were paleontropid cave dwellers. Some aspects give it this omnipresence. One of them, obviously, lies in our own reducible character to a common genealogical unit: this supposed ancestral situation is resorted to not only when it is the central and deliberate focus in a specialized debate about the biological or biopsychological origin of our species, but peremptory of his readiness even in a trivial conversation so quickly the subject slips into some retroactive speculation. By way of introduction or explanation of any problem or subject in any area of human knowledge - sleep, hygiene, economics, religion, cooking or domestic issues of family relationships - there is an opportunity to refer to the time when , with some variables, “we were hunter-gatherers harassed by ferocious predators”. Another attribute of his constancy was the apodictic nature of his "deduction." Since at the beginning of the 20th century In the 19th century, based on the cooling time of a red-hot metal sphere in the laboratory and its proportion to the Earth's core, the Earth's geological age was pushed back many thousands of centuries beyond the six thousand years that the Talmudists deduced from the chronology. of the Sacred Scriptures, there was no other more reasonable explanation for the course of man since the Pleistocene than that of an evolutionary hypothesis that was already ready awaiting the opportunity of convenience. Among other archaeological and paleontological findings, such as the “discovery” of the Paleolithic, stratigraphic techniques had shown that the traces of marine life at the top of the Alps were much older than the Flood, and that the petrified fossils were no longer from creatures that failed to survive. board the Ark of Noah or other Deucalions. It was the cue for the theory of evolution of organic species, whose devices and scope had no reason to leave out the animal-man. And with it we cross the last frontier towards a new cosmological paradigm.


   Once the hypothesis was sanctioned, random speculation about its historical premises followed. With two dimensions of such distinct categories in hand, that of geological eras and that of our biological development, the result was the anachronistic and fanciful configuration of primitive man disassociated from his physical and mental environment. Thus, a model of the natural state similar to that of Hobbes would prevail, with the assumption of the “short, sordid and lonely” life of the cavernous man. And it is difficult to say whether it is based now on the unconscious idealization of scientific and technological progress in its promise of happiness or if, precisely, on the dissimulated despair that betrays that hope in reason. There was a forgotten precedent. In the first half of the century II a. C, in his De Rerum Natura , the same image of the apelike hominid had been propagated by the Roman poet Lucretius, which he had inherited from his Epicurean masters of the Hellenistic Age, a period whose most striking feature, as well as the 16th century XIX of the Christian Era, not by mere coincidence, was its state of complete spiritual disintegration. But in practice it does not matter much how things actually happened, or even if they happened, but the symptoms of the later age that vindicate them. Freud and his disciples based the origin of a good part of their neurotic psychological “complexes” in unresolved plots arising from this hypothetical animalistic phase; the fact that it existed or not interfered in any way with the influence and success of its analytical precepts or the clinical efficacy of its prognoses.

   This is how this cosmological conception of our past arrived and remained. The time dimension of an unfeasible life in a hostile world where the proponents of cultural and biological evolutionary progress have established their retrodition. It seems, therefore, that humanity will never realize that the present time of its generation will also be just a remote past, delayed and assumed for its alleged future; because, notice, from many angles, hostile and impractical, this world here continues to be until today, and it doesn't seem that the distance that separates us animals from being angels, or any other higher species, has diminished since the last glaciation. I believe that the chances and fears of being victims of robbery on any street corner today have no reason to be less groundless or less distressing than that of being ambushed by troglodytes armed with clubs on the way out of a wood in the Paleolithic savannah; that the challenge of having to move to another city with the family in search of a job is less overwhelming than having to move with the clan after a drought ravages the community; or that praying for a vaccine today is more rational than believing in a magical healing ritual while being a member of the troupe. On the other hand, however, I do not entertain the illusion that fun in a shopping mall park is more joyful than playing with almond kernels in a treetop, for example. For the same reasons, I never even believed that we were ever nomads. By the way, for those who don't know, there has never been any record of any people who have been. Neither from antiquity, nor among the natives of the Americas, Africa or Oceania. Except ourselves, all of us, according to the myth, as cavemen who so often repeat that we once were, while even wolves and hyenas establish their lair. Yes, there have always been more or less constant migrations, more or less vital for those who migrate, whether as refugees or expelled by bad weather or natural catastrophes, never because it is their nature to be nomads. If they were, they migrated precisely to leave this provisional stage. The closest that we have news to date are actually pastoral peoples from different parts of the world, such as the Namtso or the Sámi, but not that they are nomads, but their craft or mode of production, which require them to be able to accompany the herd in different seasons of the year, obviously because the water and pasture regime change with them. As well as Gypsies and Tuaregs, who do not constitute a society, but specific niches associated with behavioral and religious practices or the itinerant trade in caravans. In other words, nomadism was never a characteristic, but only a necessity; this small mistake, incredible as it may seem, generates a series of bigger ones.

   Speculations about family constitution are perhaps the most insane part of this prehistoric perspective. Since every institution requires the support of the social bosom that encompasses it, it is contradictory to speak of a matrilineal society, because it is just about the only possible arrangement in a world in which men did not take care of their children, for whatever reasons, if technically- economic or because they still ignored that males also owed their share in fertilization. The family nucleus constitutes the primordial element for calling a certain group “society”, that is, for the possibility of social organization to exist. Many other aspects of a Neanderthalesque life could be listed here so that we can submit its arbitrariness to the critical sense, either through logical reasoning, or through the experience that we can have when visiting a native village or delving into the extensive ethnography already produced since the 19th century. XVI - at least the one that is not ideologically committed - and we can see that a society, so to speak, pre-state, does not mean that it is dissolved in a fortuitous state of nature. But as this comparison was declared suspect, let's go to a more specific picture. Imagine this supposed primitive man groping around the world without knowing him, or at least without any mastery over him. With just the management of some rudimentary clothing, shelter or tools, not knowing exactly where it is, or when its next meal will be ready to be devoured at any moment, living like a quadruped without the instinctive resources that it is endowed with for its survival and procreation. Now, if it is assumed that there has been an evolution of thousands of years, how can one imagine a subject that knows nothing about the resources of its surrounding environment. At the very least, its phylogenetic development would have to be pari passu with its natural ability to explore and integrate with its environment. The misinterpretation of the term “survival” contributed to the formation of this myth of a life in permanent struggle against suffering and death. Surviving also just means to endure, to settle down. In a purely animalistic state, we could even have intuited the spark, but never conceived the means for the development of agriculture, language or art. There are obviously glaring anachronisms and contradictions in all of this, without going into the ontological question of the impossibility of any organism having its own means of adaptation and evolution, given that, in our case, we would not even know how many sticks a simple canoe is made of. ; or that an evolutionary chaos, a blind natural selection, by definition, could never produce the order necessary for the organization of the human intellect.

    About the same time as this modern myth emerged, the 1840s, Auguste Comte declared that the minds of primitive men, in attributing the cause of things to ethereal entities, aspired to the absolute; almost two centuries later, however, it is clear that the sociological laws of positivism aim at even more absolute knowledge. Until this term is reached, and perhaps never will be, scientific axioms do not matter ultimate truths, but their utility in the pragmatic or at least theoretical administration of phenomena. The theory of gravity, for example, does not explain the fall of bodies better than that of the Pythagoreans, it only expresses it in an equation; and heliocentrism, just the erratic motion of the planets' parallax, which matters much less for everyday life than the “apparent motion of the sun” of Ptolemaic theory. Much more fragile and transitory theoretical schemes end up taking on the status of axiom because they come together, so to speak, in a package with a dazzling scientific coating. Now, the theses that we humans evolved from australopithecines, in fact, are based on comparative principles that, in essence, act in the same sense as a dogma. The dogma is at the foundation of a doctrine because it needs to remove the so-called false or contrary hypotheses in order to be able to sustain itself, without which it will tend sooner or later to come into contradiction and collapse, since the expected results will not be consummated in the practical life. Thus, a dogma is still the theological version for a given myth, a more sophisticated name. And, like this one, it does not seem to have any evidentiary force, perhaps because it takes thousands of years for the realization that it is nothing more than that to shatter the certainty of the credulous. So it was with the eschatological myths, so it has happened with the myth of the contemporary caveman. As long as the necessary time does not elapse, they constitute our vision of the world, our cosmogony. We go on substituting one word for another, and so we go on proudly satisfied that we are on our way to solving the question of our understanding of ourselves.

    Whoever wants to believe, let him believe.

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