Tricky Apes

Chimp at typewriterI mentioned the song “The Walls Came Down” to a friend of mine. It got me thinking about Jericho and so I did a little research and I found that the wall of Jericho is extremely old: 9,000 BC. That’s really interesting, because the events in Joshua are supposedly less than 2,000 BC. What’s more, I read that the wall was primarily for flood control. I also read about the great archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon who had done the most important digs there. This kind of stuff fascinates me, so I went looking for any documentaries on the archaeology of Jericho.

It didn’t go well. Almost everywhere I looked, I found videos where people were trying to prove that the events depicted in Joshua are true. There are two problems with this. First, I’m interested in the earlier settlements. Second, honest (non-apologetic) digs have shown that Jericho was not populated at the time of Joshua; at best, there was a small number of squatters, but certainly no city.

This is a big problem with religious dogma: it limits what you can think. These people can’t just enjoy the wonderful stories that archaeology can tell us. They must shoehorn the data in pre-existing narratives. I’ll admit, it is pretty cool when history and literature do intersect as in, for example, the Iliad. But it isn’t necessary: either for the story or the place.

My searches for documentaries led me to Netflix where I found a History Channel production of Ape to Man. But I was immediately annoyed because the description alerted me, “This film is: controversial.” After watching it, I can tell you the only controversial thing about Ape to Man is that it doesn’t accept the biblical dogma that the earth is only 6,000 years old. But then, I’ve found that the History Channel often panders to biblical fundamentalist. It is but one of very many problems with the network.

The documentary itself wasn’t bad. It can be forgiven getting some things wrong. As they even note in the video, the field moves so fast that things are always changing. Now, for example, it isn’t generally believed that humans drove the Neanderthals to extinction. But one thing that always seems to be present in these documentaries is a very pro-human take on the competition of the two species. Humans had more complex social groups or humans had better communication skills or humans had something else. That’s the reason that the Neanderthals went extinct. Never mentioned is that humans very nearly went extinct. To me it is just dumb luck.

Most of what is wrong with us as a species comes from our unjustified belief that we are some quantum level above the rest of the universe. That’s why many people deny natural selection. But even among those who do accept it, there is a tendency to think that we are special because we build houses, drive cars, and watch television. We really aren’t. I was thinking about this earlier. The first settlement of Jericho was right around the time of the Neolithic Revolution: when humans started to farm. We did that for 2,000 years before we invented pottery—8,000 years ago. At that time, the people making pottery were like the people designing rockets for NASA today. If we survive another 8,000 years (which I highly doubt), it is unimaginable what we will be doing. And we will look back on who we are now as apes with a few tricks. Of course, that’s what we are now and what we will be then.

Afterword

They blew the horn, and the walls came down!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Tricky Apes

  1. I remember a Western Civ teacher, way back in high school, who made a point of reminding us that ancient civilizations were no stupider than we are because we have aspirin and they didn’t. Aspirin is great, it’s nice we have it. But it doesn’t mean ancient Etruscans were mumbling morons.

    That way of looking at things stuck we me so strongly that it killed my religious faith. It was a picture of some burial site, with a description of how the body was laid in a particular direction, with particular trinkets to help it into the afterlife, etc. My initial reaction to the photo was dismissal; "what a poor dope, thinking all these preparations would ensure immortality!" And then, BOOM. That was the moment I realized my Catholicism was no better than that guy’s whatever-it-was. Archaeology 1, faith 0, and faith’s never caught up yet. (I wish I remembered the teacher’s name, but hey, it was 25 years ago.)

    Comedian Laura Keightlinger once had a funny bit about her family putting trinkets into a coffin and observing, "hey, we’re not white trash — we’re pharaohs."

  2. @JMF – That is at the basis of all the "ancient astronaut" nonsense: they couldn’t have done amazing things because they were stupid. The best you can say for us is that we are clever apes. And the worst you can say for us is that we are clever apes. Never underestimate a good ape!

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