The Evolving Window: the Past Through Different Eyes

FOR 97% OF OUR SPECIES’ TIME ON THIS PLANET WE have no stories or documents. We can only conjecture and infer and speculate and imagine as to how our earliest ancestors lived. It is possible, even likely, that stories were being written much further into the past than the oldest stories we have, but if there are such stories, they are not extant and not to be found in the historical record…

Before the stories of ancient Mesopotamia, we have nothing; afterwards, however, a Cambrian-like literary explosion took place, with similar stories—the stories of Gods and Goddesses and God-kings and God-queens—springing up simultaneously from many different civilizations. As it has been noted, like languages, pyramids sprung up from many different pre-historic cultures independently, each without knowledge of the other. The literary equivalent can be seen in the flood myths of many ancient civilizations in the Middle East; it is interesting to note the way stories evolve and change even when they’re about the same event.

There is a book called Oral Lit as Holy Writ by Alan Dundes, a folklorist who holds a professorship at UC Berkeley, which shows how fables evolve into hierarchal belief systems and how those fables are repurposed by religious leaders, often borrowing from other cultures. Consider the flood of Noah as recounted in the Old Testament (or the Pentateuch, Torah, the Books of Moses.)

Ziusudra was from the ancient Sumerian City of Shuruppak, meaning, ‘The Healing Place.’ This may not be a familiar name; but this story predates the account of the global flood to be found in Genesis. Ziusudra is known to have been the last king of Sumer prior to the great flood. The single account of Sumer’s creation myth was excavated in Nippur and is called the Eriduo Genesis. It is written in Sumerian and dates to 1600 BC during the first Babylonian dynasty.

Sumeria’s story is a bit different. Being a polytheistic religion, one God isn’t the only one who’s a bit miffed; in this instance there are a committee of pissed off Gods: An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursanga are responsible for allowing the flood to destroy the human race. Almost a thousand years before the account in Genesis, this story tells of a Gudug priest and what came to pass after he was told of an impending flood. In a later version of the story, an Akkadian version, Ea (or Enki) warns a humble man named Astra-hasis and is then given instructions to build an ark.

This leads to another biological parallel: if there is convergent evolution in flora and fauna, is there a literary equivalent to this phenomena? Could all the unknown intricacies within the human genome lead to epigenetic, subtle, information transfer and inheritance? Is it possible that the dreams or lives of our ancestors are relived within our own dreams, consisting of what we know of the human genome and what we have yet to correlate to function? Could this information play out as the unconscious data without known functions, permeating minds when closed off by the natural echo chamber of sleep? I once thought that the curiosity of the prevalent flood was somehow inherent, a fixed memory, being our intuitive knowledge of our own birth.

There may be an even more absurd notion; it might be true. The issue of its veracity, to me, comes down to how people of that era would be able to know if water was covering the whole world when the Americas had yet to be discovered, and, how even in our modern era, we have to check the internet or the weather channel to get the forecast for other countries and cities. It is possible that the entire world as they knew it was flooded.

Either these stories somehow travel through the darker, undiscovered catacombs of genetic code, or pass like oral lit, evolve into the written word and then pass through the ages as a part of the dreampool, the intellectual equivalent of the genepool from which our beliefs and identities are formed through assimilation or rejection.

The sheer number of independent flood accounts in different places and different eras, though all relegated to the Middle East, are familiar with Ziusudra and the Sumerian account, which is the oldest written record we have of a global flood. This attests to the fact that, whether it is biological or oral tradition, stories are inherited. And these ‘prokaryotes’ are replicas, replicas with just the nouns and pronouns changed.

The Genesis flood in the Biblical Old Testament endures to this day, with many people taking it as literal history. The Greeks have similar myths. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I recounts the flooding of the world. The difference between this story and the familiar Genesis account is that one person, the King of Arcadia, has incurred Zeus’s anger by sacrificing a child. Before Zeus unleashed the flood, Deucalian, with the aid of his father Prometheus (with whom the Gods would also have a bit of a disagreement,) was saved from the flood by building an ark, like Noah and the Mesopotamian Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

The case for Alan Dundes’s assessment that all of these stories and fables became the source for holy lit is further evidenced by how close these cultures were in proximity to one another, in locale if not in time.

Even before oral lit there was a form of communication among humans, a communication that is closer to the language spoken of other primates; the role of the FoxP2 gene has been studied in great detail and is thought by evolutionary biologists to have played a major role in the development of consonant-vowel speech patterns which evolved in concert with our controlled and conscious breathing to form the sounds required for speaking.

This was first presented by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man.  It is a widely cited and popular idea, even in our literary culture, once referenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes publication; serialized in The Strand as A Study in Scarlet. In it Holmes says to his companion Watson:

“Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are subtly influenced by it; there are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”

Watson replied, “That is a rather broad view, Holmes.”  To which, Sherlock Holmes says, “One’s views must be broad if we are to interpret nature.”

Modern discoveries, including the discovery of a protein encoded by the FOXP2 gene, a human specific phenotype located on the 7th chromosome, have shown that this protein is also found in songbirds. Darwin was correct inasmuch as suggesting song was a precursor to speech as much as speech was a precursor to language and language a precursor to story.

Before alphabets, however, before even Gilgamesh and Elfinspell, there are examples of sequential symbols being used to tell stories through hieroglyphs long before the cultures of 6,000 years ago began to preserve stories for posterity; so, in essence, comic books are the oldest form of storytelling, going back at least 30,000 years.

There is a period in our evolutionary history called the Great Leap Forward, before the agricultural revolution. It is thought that it is in this period humans began to make complex and well developed tools along with using figurative language. This historical awakening coincides with the advent of processes that would make primitive communication possible, through tone and pitch at first, a language still spoken in the jungles of the world. It was a necessity: the beginning of a cumulative advancement, as knowledge could be preserved and passed from generation to generation.

The book considered by most to be the first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was discovered in ancient Mesopotamia. Although there are stories thought to be older, such as Elfinspell and The Shipwrecked Sailor from Upper Nubia, Gilgamesh will here be used as the starting point from which all else follows.

The first stories to be written were written in cuneiform characters in and around Mesopotamia. And these cuneiform symbols, which, like itinerant species, branched off into different idiomatic inflections, adapting to new environments. It was the diplomatic alphabet used in Babylon, Hattusha, and Egypt. As with animals, language, once separated from its indigenous habitat, will, given enough time, adapt and evolve.

Italian and Sicilian are examples of this kind of evolution as both are offshoots of the Latin language and originally were no different. Separating cultures allowed for languages to, at first, become colloquial and cultural until finally becoming different enough to be classified as a new species. As language has evolved and our ways of writing have changed, the materials used for writing have changed as well.

Throughout history stories have been written on everything from papyrus, clay tablets, cement walls, blotting paper, stones, hemp paper, modern paper, typewriters, and finally the predominant methods used in the digital age. Television programmes are as related to cuneiform writing once chiseled into stone as we are to chimpanzees, as we are both descendants of the ancient order of australopithecines; having diverged in lineage around 6 million years ago.

We live in an age where information is more available than it has been in the history of our species. This text can be transferred from one corner of the Earth to another with minimal effort. If I want to look for a copy of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, I have only to do a brief search and I can find it—in the original French or in translation. It is an irony I think that in our era, books have become more widely available than they have in human history, and yet are probably less read than at any other time. I have a device in my back pocket which contains more books than the highest estimates of the contents of the famed library of Alexandria. Our access to information on government and religion is unprecedented; at no time in history has a civilization bore the critique of its government and religion in the manner now available.

We are more advanced than we have ever been. But when I say we’re more advanced, what is meant by that? Advancement relative to what? The issue comes down to how we define human progress.

In ascertainable history, we’ve seen the world evolve by looking through different windows, wearing different lenses as academics; be it biology, history, physics, genetics—the fields continue to advance. The difference between now and then is not only do the films evolve as we watch with genre-specific glasses, the windows we look through have now themselves evolved.

Gilgamesh, like The Arabian Nights, have preserved these cultures for all time, like ornate ships in a bottle being passed between countries carried by the natural rhythms of the Earth according to season and mood. We’ve sent our poems and our music and our biological information into space. The music of Mozart may one day be found by a culture with no understanding of who we are and through that music would know all they’d need to know.

The Bhikkus we discussed in the Great Monkey King have passed down the stories told by the Buddha to their children for hundreds of generations and these stories are genetic, the preserved DNA of a culture. The books we read are arranged into pairs of letters like units of DNA which, in a manner similar to the way in which our biological traits are programmed, greatly shape our character and personality.

Art and stories, folklore and music, are the backbone of cumulative, cultural advancement. They are, based on their quality, protected by posterity, affording ideas the ability to be further built upon. To see the future of literature, you must look to the other schools of academia, where numbers and letters join, to glossolalia.

To understand the future of language, the origins, the proto-form of the expressed idea must be explored and we, with our new window, must go back to the parent of all ideas—the eukaryotic idea. This is what made the evolution of life and ideas possible.

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