PRINT January 1975


The Roots of Man

Alexander Marshak, The Roots of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972).

FROM A STRICTLY CHRISTIAN point of view the meaning of history is prefigured by the antediluvian era. Noah’s ark symbolizes the Church that, at the end of temporal time, will save the faithful from the flood of infidelity. With unrivaled grandeur, Michelangelo illustrates this theme in terms of a tradition that permits him to blend Biblical history with Vergilian Sibyllae who prophesized the coming of Christ. Michelangelo’s Christ descending from the heavens in his second coming is a God of Apollonian beauty and wisdom.

It was only in the 19th century that the Old Testament version of creation was replaced by an evolutionary explanation of both the origin of our species and of our civilization. After Boucher de Perthes’s discovery of prehistoric tools, antediluvian man’s history could be traced back to the Paleolithic era. What the Sistine Chapel was for the Renaissance humanist, the Lascaux cave is today for the contemporary humanist.

According to the Abbe Breuil, deservedly called the father of prehistory, the motivation behind the paintings in the caves was the belief in a magic relation between the hunter-artist and the hunted animal. Leroi-Gourhan, on the basis of an elaborate inventory of figures and so-called abstract signs painted in the Paleolithic caves of France, found that certain key animals were apt to be associated, as is the case of the horse and the bison. He also interpreted hitherto undeciphered signs on the cave walls as either masculine or feminine attributes. There followed the conclusion that each sex was represented by its own key animal. Thus, that 22 out of a total of 24 bisons were found in one single gallery and 17 out of 20 horses were discovered in another would indicate a sexual division. Hence cave paintings and incised works have to be treated as ensembles, just as any sanctuary of classical times.

What Leroi-Gourhan left unexplained was the purpose of these Paleolithic sanctuaries. This gap is now filled by Alexander Marshak’s theory of man’s “time-factoring activity.” The author of The Roots of Civilization, who acknowledges that he is neither a prehistorian nor a scientist, developed his revolutionary theory while writing a book for the International Geophysical Year on how man reached a point in science and civilization where he could plan and undertake expeditions to the moon. Marshak was impressed by the fact that all the great modern scientific programs, such as the study of the sun, of the oceans, of cosmic rays, of rocketry, were time-factored, meaning that they were to be measured or estimated in terms of rates, velocities, durations, periodicities.

Speculations along these lines led him to ask himself how prehistoric man time-factored his activity. Marshak’s discovery of the pattern of this activity is a major event in the understanding of the evolution of civilization. The key to the solution of the enigma proved to be an inscribed bone found at Ishango, Congo, an object made by Mesolithic man around 9,000 BC, and described by the geologist-archeologist Jean de Henzelin in Scientific American (June, 1962). Far cruder than any previously found in Africa, it resembled tools of the Paleolithic era. It had markings grouped in notches arranged in three distinct columns. De Heinzelin was convinced that the markings were not for decorative purposes, but served for arithmetical counting. To Marshak, however, it seemed unbelievable that this early man, most likely a cannibal, would invent number games.

Upon discovering that two of the rows subdivided in notches gave the same total, the first 11 + 13 + 17 + 19 = 60, the second 11 + 21 + 19 + 9= 60, Marshak wondered whether each line might not represent a two-month sequence. He adopted as a working hypothesis that what mattered for primitive man, as for the present day bushman, was not a single day of the month but a certain period of days. This explanation would account for the fact that the third row, 11, 21, 19, and 9, represents the digits 10 plus one, 20 minus one and 10 minus one. Marshak’s next step was to study analogous patterns of markings on Paleolithic tools of Europe, and primarily of southern France.

His efforts were amply rewarded for his interpretations of the patterns are most ingenious and convincing and the photos of magnified markings lend to these primitive tools a startling appearance. Some of the patterns cover not only the period of two to three months but a whole lunar year.

Microscopic examinations revealed that several tools were used for markings:

there were groups of marks that were made by a hooked or arched stroke. Some of these were made by a fine, sharp point and others by a thicker point; some of these arched from right to left, others from left to right. Other marks had been punched without turning, while others had been made with a limited half turn, to form a bit of an arc.

Marshak surmises that a slate of bone could be used over a length of time; the difference in style of the markings and direction of the reading, as well as their place on the bone, whether face or edge, served to differentiate the phases of the moon and the months.

The time patterns engraved on tools suggest that cave paintings were related to a seasonal ceremony. Broadening the meaning given by Leroi-Gourhan to the so-called abstract signs Marshak reinterpreted them in terms of fertility rites rather than as strictly sexual symbols. This reading was corroborated by evidence obtained from certain complex images engraved on other bones. Most ingenious of all, perhaps, is Marshak’s explanation of an engraving on a long baton of reindeer antler. It includes a beautifully done realistic drawing of two seals, male and female, to judge by their form and size, and on the other face, two serpentine forms, both apparently male. The discovery of the antler bone at a place more than 200 miles from the sea had perplexed the prehistorians, since they did not believe that inland cave men could ever have observed seals to draw them realistically. Furthermore, in front of the two seals is a fish drawn upside-down in relation to the seals. After Marshak had cleaned the bone, the mouth of the fish could distinctly be seen as open with a low jaw distinguished by a hook that adult male salmons develop in the seasonal return to the rivers and the time of spawning. Marshak learned that salmon appear in “Inland Ice Age” art even further upstream than Montgaudier, where the bone was discovered. Often the seals follow the salmon upstream, and in our time have been known to flow in the Rhine and the Loire 240 miles in pursuit of the salmon. Marshak surmises that “the seal and salmon together were dramatic ‘signs’ of the coming of spring.”

Now that we know that man registered time in the Paleolithic era, we can no longer account for the substitution of agriculture for hunting and fishing solely by means of man’s tool-making ability. As Marshak observes, it must be taken for granted that before sowing seed, man knew how to calculate in time sequence. As Gerald Hawkins had already demonstrated, some of the alignments of Stonehenge were calendric, and man’s emancipation from nature has therefore to be explained in terms of his time-factoring ability. Marshak believes that we should trace the beginning of this activity to the time when man first made fires and measured time in terms of a fire’s life. It seems to me that, by following Freud’s supposition that before keeping a fire going, our ancestors had to learn not to extinguish a natural fire, we can understand the relationship between time-factoring and tool-making postulated by Marshak. Presumably, a fire, like a domestic animal, must at first have been comprehended as a living tool.

In the light of Marshak’s discoveries, the superimposition of a layer of new images over earlier ones in caves would correspond to the needs of a later, and possibly revised version of a fertility ceremony. More broadly speaking, revision of standards of time would tend to be reflected in the structure of sanctuaries, whether Paleolithic, Neolithic, or, of the Bronze Age.

From the Palermo Stone, unearthed at the end of the last century, we learned that the Egyptians listed events that occurred in the successive reigns of their kings from 2750 BC in a chronological order by means of a sequence of squares. In contradistinction to calendar time, which is circular and repetitive, this chronology flows until it reaches the sea of eternity. History, however, to come into its own tensed time, has to be dissociated from eternal time.

This the Greeks did, first by assuming that man is what Parmenides calls “an all in the now,” and then by dissociating (or freeing) the all (or individual) from collective responsibility. The conflict between individual will and preordained fate found its expression in tragedy. Unlike the repetition of the ritualistic sacrifice that evokes the eternal return of the same event, tragedy reconsiders a crime in terms of a conflict of wills; to the repetition of sacrifices it opposes a crime that is of historical importance for it involves a struggle for power. To see history in perspective is to comprehend it in terms of a succession of tragedies, which is what great historians have done from Thucydides to Karl Marx. To the tragedy of conflicts the Greeks opposed the perfection of forms; to the horror of murder they opposed the idealization of mortal man.

The Church was able to use the days and weeks of the calendar not to mark chronological succession but to celebrate the martyrdom of its heroes in the name of eternity. As in the Gothic era new towns were built and money economy revived, ecclesiastical symbolism came to coexist with illustrations reflecting everyday preoccupations. At first, as with Giotto, the depiction of events in biblical history looks singularly anachronistic, a defect that was later masterfully overcome by what one might call the diachronic realism of the 15th-century Flemish masters. With them, the Virgin Mother (and Queen of Heaven) with her infant child (and Christ before all time) forms an “all” in the Flemish now; with them the Romanesque pillars, denoting a pagan past, and the Gothic ones of the Christian era set contemporary reality in the perspective of history.

Unlike the Flemish, the Italian artists of the High Renaissance manifest the presence of eternity by means of an invisible triangle or rectangle within which the natural grouping of the Holy Family represents that time had stopped in the now. Historically, this was to be but a pause, followed first by the extreme tension between the real and the eternal which finds its expression in the peculiar pictorial syntax of the Mannerists; then by the yearning for infinity, expressed through abrupt foreshortenings and dramatic chiaroscuro of the Baroque.

After the modern interpretation of history in terms of evolution, revolutions came to be seen as means of quickening the pace of change. This is the implication of Rimbaud’s battle cry “il faut être absolument moderne.” In art, this objective was pursued by various means. One was by treating the process of image making as an aspect of the final image, as do the Impressionists, Neo-Impression ists, figurative and Abstract Expressionists. The tension between process and pattern (or image) constitutes the diachronic element which, as it were, points to the future, but which may be viewed by a hostile critic as “unfinished,” be it a picture made by a Monet, a van Gogh, a Kandinsky or a de Kooning. Another, the Cubist approach, resorts to a simultaneity of facets in order to challenge the stability of the three-dimensional “now.” Lastly, the Surrealist strives to project the artist’s Oedipal past through his work into the now, often reinterpreted by him as premonitions of future happenings.

Karl Popper has called this kind of projection the Oedipus effect, for the prediction made to Lai us that he is to be killed by his son led him to abandon Oedipus, thereby paving the way for the fulfillment of the prediction. But why should not Oedipus assume the role of the Sphinx? In this perspective, the games worth playing are hieroglyphic. Among the debris of esthetic battles, the Sphinx could pick up a Paleolithic bone, a fragmented glass, a cube with markings. Like fire, the riddle enjoys a life of its own.