This article is part of a short series. You can find Part 1 here.
I’m Not Saying It Was Aliens
Looking into the deep past can get pretty sketchy. Sticking with science (and, conversely, rejecting pseudoscience) and staying as close to verifiable historical fact as possible help us avoid getting into Ancient Aliens territory. And really, that’s difficult at times, because ancient mythology is not only exciting, but has things in common globally that it really shouldn’t.
You see, the populations of ancient humans could all trace their roots back to Africa, but traveling to all of the far flung places we humans got to around the world didn’t happen overnight like it could today. No planes, no trains, no cars, and nothing else that could move humans fast was a thing in those days. Even boats were quite primitive prehistorically, going little faster than a canoe.
This meant that people literally had to hike around the world to get to most continents, and take canoes or primitive rafts to get to the islands. All of this happened without a plan or a map, and ended up taking hundreds of thousands of years of moving a little further with each generation of now-unnamed settlers and explorers.
On top of that, the repeated shift back and forth between glacial conditions and interglacials like we’re in today was very tough on people. We know from genetic studies that at several points in the past there were only a few thousand people, likely killed off by changing conditions. Going almost to extinction certainly would have put a damper on our species’ ability to move from place to place and keep in touch with other pockets of humans thousands of miles away.
And then consider that there wasn’t only one kind of human tens of thousands of years ago. There were the Homo Sapiens that most closely resemble us today, but we know that they coexisted and even made babies with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and possibly several other types of humans. Humans like us ultimately won out, but we all carry a few genes from the competition, too.
With people of all kinds moving across the land into new habitats so slowly and facing such hardship and competition, the pockets of civilization that eventually developed were largely not in contact with each other, and should have known basically nothing about each other’s civilizations or cultures. People across the world were literally lifetimes away from each other.
Despite all of this prehistoric isolation, you can still find a lot of common things in every civilization’s mythologies. For example, it’s common to have a story where people are made out of clay or dirt. Under that, we have the common myth that there were first persons at all. Flood myths, dying gods that come back from the dead, cosmic trees that hold everything up, giants, dragons, and the idea of the end of the world are all great examples, too.
People who believe in one of the myths are quick to lay hold of the myths in other cultures and take it as proof that there must be literal truth behind the myths, but that’s only better than the Ancient Aliens approach because it’s socially acceptable to believe the myths of one’s own society. It’s more reasonable and fact-based to guess that it could mean that there was more contact between ancient cultures than we thought, or that these motifs pervade ancient mythologies because they’re tied to human instinct or psychology in some way.
But, then again, some ancient tales have been found to be at least partially true. There are many villages and cities under today’s waves, flooded by the ocean after the end of the last glacial period. It also seems that tales of fire from the heavens destroying cities actually did occur in Southwest Asia. These truths don’t mean we should take ancient writings at face value, but they do show us that they can sometimes be rooted in truth.
In other words, the idea of “myth versus reality” isn’t that accurate. What we should be doing is looking for the truth among the myths, but in a scientific and fact-based way, so we can avoid wild conclusions that aren’t backed by at least some real evidence.
One Very Common Ancient Myth: Slaying The Dragon, Receiving Water
One common ancient myth, especially among Indo-European cultures, is of a dragon that hoards wealth up in the mountains. Some of the Lord of the Rings films drew upon this common myth, and featured a dragon living in a building full of gold up in the hills. While some myths feature precious metals, most of them center around a much more essential form of wealth for ancient peoples: water.
The tales that made it to more modern cultures across Eurasia (and to a more limited extent, globally) definitely differ in the details, but it usually goes something like this: the hero, often associated with thunder and lightning, goes up in the mountains to slay the dragon. The dragon often is multiple in some ways, with multiple heads or multiple dragons. Once the hero slays the dragon(s), the waters that the dragon(s) had been hoarding are set free, ending lowland droughts and saving humanity from starvation.
In a very loose way, this myth may actually be true.
For nearly all of humanity’s prehistory (and 95% of humanity’s existence), we were hunter-gatherers living in small bands. Intelligence doesn’t vary from region to region, so today’s rough level of human intelligence probably evolved more than 200,000–300,000 years ago. In other words, we’ve been smart enough to farm and build civilizations for a very long time, but only started doing that around 10,000 years ago. And no, that doesn’t just coincide with the end of the last glacial period, as there were several other long warm periods in humanity’s past where this was just as possible.
So, this leaves us with a big question: why didn’t humans farm and settle down earlier? And why did we do it at all?
In Part 3, I’m going to explore what it was like at the end of the last glacial period. It was actually not a bad life compared to everything but a few bright spots in human history.
Featured image: Perseus delivering Andromeda by Émile Bin (1865, Public Domain).