Debate Magazine

First Mythic Tribe

By Cris

At some point in prehistory, perhaps 50,000 years ago, a group of humans woke up and asked themselves a question: How did we get here? The mere fact that they asked themselves such a question was momentous, for it signifies they had become behaviorally modern. These humans, whom we will call the “Talking Heads Tribe” for purposes of our thought experiment, had gone symbolically viral and become linguistically fluent. Unlike modern Talking Heads, whose 1984 wish was to Stop Making Sense, our prehistoric Talking Heads needed to make sense. On the mythical day of their awakening, having become fully conscious in the word cloud, they may have experienced a Jamesian “blooming, buzzing, confusion.” With the world impressing itself upon them in strangely new or symbolic ways, we might imagine them performing an ancestral version of this song:

While such imaginings may strike some as the worst sort of conjecture, this kind of thought business is not completely idle. It is not, in other words, just another fruitless search for origins and speculative story about beginnings. These are questions that my students and I ask when contemplating the thought and speech worlds of our behaviorally modern ancestors. These worlds, whenever they began and wherever they appeared, surely had to make sense.

To make sense, construct experience, and negotiate the world, our ancestors surely told stories that were structurally and functionally similar to what we today call theories. While more recent versions of these stories are usually classed (or denigrated) as “myth,” we would do well to remember that the remarkably rapid peopling of the world was powered by animist worldviews. These worldviews may have been “mythical,” but they obviously worked. Indeed, they worked so well that we should just call them pragmatic theories.

When thinking about the first mythic tribes, a good place to start is with Stanley Krippner’s article (pdf)  on shamanic epistemology and ways of knowing. Though Krippner prefers to class these worldviews as “technologies,” he is also clearly describing what amount to theories:

Epistemology is concerned with the nature, characteristics and processes of knowledge, and in this essay I am suggesting that shamanic epistemology drew upon perceptual, cognitive, affective and somatic ways of knowing that assisted early humans to find their way through an often unpredictable, sometimes hostile, series of environmental challenges. Not only did early humans have to become aware of potentially dangerous environmental objects and activities, they needed to have explanatory stories (enacted as mythic rituals) at their disposal to navigate through the contingencies of daily encounters and challenges. The acute perceptual abilities of shamans, in combination with their intuition and imagination, met their societies’ needs.

In psychological terms, shamans are socially designated practitioners who claim to self-regulate their psychological functions to obtain information unavailable to other members of their social group. Shamans were probably humanity’s original specialists, combining the roles of healers, storytellers, weather forecasters, performing artists, ritualists, and magicians. Mythological worldviews arise from epistemologies which, in turn, are fueled by the motives, needs, and traditions of a group in a specific time and place. (98)

For the shaman, everything provided knowledge about everything else, and the whole of being was “fundamentally an immense signal system” (Kalweit, 1992, p. 77). Shamanic states of consciousness were the first steps toward deciphering (or deconstructing) the signal system, and this was made possible once humanity’s symbolic capacity matured. (107)

Myth describes a systematic exploration of the human body by privileged members of archaic cultures. Explanations were needed for birth, death, illness, procreation, and other bodily phenomena, as well as for cyclones, forest fires, floods, sunsets, eclipses, and the changes of seasons. [Behaviorally modern humans] were able to use symbolism in image-making and storytelling, both of which were adaptive because they helped to make sense of one’s body, one’s peers, and one’s environment. (108)

Western science is characterized by a search for satisfactory explanations of “reality.” This search is achieved by statements of general principles; these can be tested experimentally or through repeated observations. Shamanic epistemology also attempts to explain “reality,” employs repeated observations, and makes statements about general principles. (112)

I would propose that the image-schemas of those men and women who a community held to be shamanic practitioners were especially adept when prediction was demanded. Game needed to be located, weather patterns needed to be forecast, enemy movements needed to be anticipated, and flight paths needed to be discovered. These tasks required feedforward processing, and the shamanic fine-tuning of image-schemas through heightened perception and/or changed states of consciousness may have assisted this assignment. (114)

For those who have been reading Robin Horton, all this should sound familiar: on several levels, myth works much like science. Both are projects fundamentally concerned with explanation, prediction, and control.


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