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The Standard of Ur (c. 2,600 BCE). British Museum, London.

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

–Claude McKay,  “America”

(i) Who is the oldest person you can think of? Dead or alive. It’s not necessary to have known the person, but you do have to know some facts about their life. Also, their name. So he’s out.

I imagine that the major religious traditions provide the most obvious choices. Whether apocryphal, quasi-apocryphal, or somewhat historical, figures from the Hebrew and Christian Bible loom large in the collective imagination of deep history. Hellenic sources provide even older and fantastic documentation as do the truly ancient mythic and historical personages figures from the Near East.

I’m going to go with the Buddha himself since his case is illustrative of my point. He lived sometime around the 5th century BCE, so 2,500 years ago. He was a noble, the son of monarchs, who resided somewhere in what is now Northern India or Nepal. He lived an isolated life of luxury inside the palace, shielded from the strife and suffering of the outside world. At age 29 he saw a visibly old man for the first time and it naturally blew his mind. His charioteer let him know that aging and decline eventually happened to everyone, which prompted the prince to travel outside the palace gates (to the town marketplace? to the surrounding villages?) where he encountered further disturbing truths about the human condition.

Female cone from a giant sequoia, the largest and one of the longest-lived species on Earth.

I like Siddhartha Gautama’s origin story, because like so many of the biographical sketches from antiquity, the world-building details are conventional and intuitive for the modern reader. Like a fairy tale or Disney film. You have a king and queen and a palace. There are peasants, craftspeople, and soldiers. There are laws. People use money in markets or in local places of drink and leisure. War and the threat of war are constant preoccupations along with rumination on relationship between humans, God, and the representatives of the divine on Earth.

It’s almost universal. Whether the setting is Medieval, Classical, Biblical, or The East™ these common tropes of ancient life are inextricable from our notions of “the past.” This is what we might call the assumption of civilization. That is, our imagination of antiquity reveals a world not unlike our own. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Timelines depicting (top) the last five million years and (bottom) the last two-hundred thousand years. All recorded history is indicated within a tiny portion of the second line.

Human beings have been around for 200-100 thousand years or so. It is only within the last 12,000 that we have evidence of prolonged sedentism and domestication. The trappings of “civilization” including living in cities, hereditary monarchy, economic classes, complex division of labor, metal working, writing, etc. only have been around for 5,000 years. While the first process happened globally during the transition from the climatically volatile Pleistocene to the relatively mild Holocene, the second phenomenon arose independently only in six places, eventually spreading from these locations.

The six cradles of civilization shown in the western and eastern hemisphere.

To my mind, these are the two most important questions in the field of human prehistory. The first: how did we go from more than 100,000 years of relatively small-scale, mobile societies to a global florescence of large settlements, with institutionalized leadership, craft production, monumental architecture, and agriculture? The second: why did urbanism, social stratification, and what we envision as “the ancient world” emerge only in a few places almost 10,000 years afterward?

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Jade figurines depicting elite individuals. Wari civilization, Peru (c. 500-1,000 CE). Museo de America, Madrid.

(ii) Archaeology, paleontology, and cosmology are historical sciences. The data are the artifacts of long concluded events and processes. These must be reconstructed through an understanding of the taphonomic distortions of time and space.

The early universe was very dense and very hot. The fundamental constituents of atoms (protons and electrons) existed in a highly energetic state that made it impossible for them to bond to form stable atoms. This thick plasma (another name for ionized matter) soup was opaque due to the inability of photons to travel very far before encountering and being deflected by free electrons.

Then, just 378,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe cooled enough for the protons and electrons to bond and form stable atoms. At this point, the universe became transparent, allowing for photons to pass through unimpeded. The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is what remains of the very first light to transverse the cosmos. Its existence was in fact predicted before it was discovered as a consequence of the Big Bang Theory.

The opaque horizon of the CMB is always receding as the liberated photons are always arriving.

The opacity to clarity process described above happened everywhere at the same time in what is believed to be an infinite, isotropic universe. The light which was liberated at this time, therefore, exists literally everywhere. At every location in the universe, light which has traveled for time = age of the universe – 378,000 years is always just now arriving. If we think of a particular location such as our planet, we can also imagine an impenetrable, every-receding, spherical, plasma horizon surrounding us.

(iii) Music works because our minds perceive a given pitch (n) that can be related to other pitches through the operation ([n],[2n],[4n],[8n], etc.; or [[[n]*2]*2]*2, etc.) as sounding the same. Pitches whose ratios have smaller denominators sound better when heard together (more consonant) than pitches with larger ratios (more dissonant). For the examples below, my starting pitch (the tonic) is A4 or 440 Hz. This is a matter of convention, since musical scales can be based on any pitch. Remember, that wave length and frequency are proportional.

The tonic (A4) indicated in blue as a sine wave and below as a key on the piano compared with notes at relatively consonant intervals including the octave (A5) in red.

A4 (blue) on a piano plays a note which resonates principally at 440 Hz (though overtones exist which give the piano its characteristic sound (or timbre)). A5 (red) is the octave of A4. They are the same note meaning they sound the same to our ears aside from the fact that one is higher and one is lower. The ratio of A5:A4 is 2:1. The next most consonant interval is the fifth, which in the example is the key E5 marked in green. The ratio between A4 and E5 is 3:2. Notice that the sine wave depicted in green intersects the octave point where blue and red converge. For comparison I have included some other relatively consonant intervals including the fourth (white – 4:3), the major third (yellow – 5:4), and the minor third (brown – 6:5).

Graph depicting pitch ratio (in comparison to the tonic A4) and frequency in Hz. The size of the circle for each note in the octave illustrates the degree of dissonance with the tonic.

(iv) All living organisms share a common ancestor deep in the past. One of the tasks of biology is the elucidation of evolutionary relationships through the construction of phylogenic trees which relate extant species through their descent from extinct common ancestors. The resulting cladograms typically depict species as branches and putative ancestors as nodes.

Simplified phylogeny showing the evolutionary relationship between birds + dinosaurs, crocodilians, and other reptiles. Three monophyletic groups exist, including the avian and non-avian dinosaurs, the descendants of the common ancestor at the blue node, and all of the groups together  (the descendants of the common ancestor at the red node).

Groups which include a common ancestor and all of its descendants are known as clades or monophyletic groups. These are “natural” biological categories which have evolutionary significance. Interesting cases arise when our colloquial or conventional categories do not map onto the evolutionary reality. One such category is the artificial group, “reptile.” When we think of reptiles, we think of lizard, snakes, crocodiles, and dinosaurs. We typically do not think of birds as reptiles. However, birds (which are a subgroup of dinosaurs, avian dinosaurs) are more closely related to crocodiles and alligators than either group is to the snakes and lizards of the world. Therefore, either birds are reptiles or the word “reptile” has no biological significance as a category.

Personally, I like to think of birds as an interesting group of reptiles which have evolved unique characteristics, including flight, endothermy, and fuzziness (feathers). “Unique” is perhaps inaccurate as other dinosaur groups shared certain of these characteristics as did the more distantly related flying reptiles, pterosaurs, which were also furry, also flew, and likely were also warm-blooded.

FYI: the distinctions between frog and toad as well as turtle and tortoise also carry no biological significance and instead refer colloquially (loosely) to behavior/habitat. And finally, “tree” is not a phylogenic category as it conventionally describes a form which has evolved in different species of plants across many, distantly related clades.


The last living T. Rex (~65mya) lived closer to the present day (0mya) than the last living Stegosaurus (~150mya). Dinosaurs were around a long time.

Cleopatra (69-30 BCE) lived closer to the present day (2018 CE) than the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza (2,500 BCE). Ancient Egypt was around a long time.

A swan. A very large bird.
(vi) And finally. Sometimes they come easy. Sometimes it’s a struggle. It’s been a struggle.

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