January 4, 2007

“Prehistoric Man”

Category: History :: Permalink

C. S. Lewis talks a great deal of foolishness about evolution and “prehistoric man” in The Problem of Pain, alas.  But along the way, in spite of all that, he does present some wisdom.  People often think of early men as clumsy savages, lacking in intelligence.  After all, look at the crude artefacts they made.  Well, says Lewis, we shouldn’t be taken in by an illusion here:

We must be on our guard here against an illusion which the study of prehistoric man seems naturally to beget.  Prehistoric man, because he is prehistoric, is known to us only by the material things he made — or rather by a chance selection from among the more durable things he made.  It is not the fault of archaeologists that they have no better evidence: but this penury constitutes a continual temptation to infer more than we have any right to infer, to assume that the community which made the superior artefacts was superior in all respects.  Everyone can see that the assumption is false; it would lead to the conclusion that the leisured classes of our own time were in all respects superior to those of the Victorian age.  Clearly the prehistoric men who made the worst pottery might have made the best poetry and we should never know it.

And the assumption becomes even more absurd when we are comparing prehistoric men with modern savages.  The equal crudity of artefacts here tells you nothing about the intelligence or virtue of the makers.  What is learned by trial and error must begin by being crude, whatever the character of the beginner.  The very same pot which would prove its maker a genius if it were the first pot ever made in the world, would prove its maker a dunce if it came after millenniums of pot-making.

The whole modern estimate of primitive man is based upon that idolatry of artefacts which is a great corporate sin of our own civilisation.  We forget that our prehistoric ancestors made all the most useful discoveries, except that of chloroform, which have ever been made.  To them we owe language, the family, clothing, the use of fire, the domestication of animals, the wheel, the ship, poetry and agriculture. — C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pp. 61-62 (paragraph breaks added).

Posted by John Barach @ 4:40 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to ““Prehistoric Man””

  1. Duane Vandenberg Says:

    John- Is there such a thing as prehistiric? after all Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning”? I know this is a rather insignificant point, but it shows the influence that our evolutionary society has had on us that we subconsciously have adopted. Much of the archealogical evidence that we dig up is of societies which did have their own histories, which we don’t listen to, as in the case of Native Americans, whose history was primarily oral, and which their younger generations now are wishing that they had listened to. there also are a lot of histories which we have destroyed, as in the case of a lot of S. American cultures ie. Aztec.
    We do know that in the pre-flood culture there were musical instruments and tools, it is hard for me to believe that there ever was a post-flood culture that did not have their own cultural refinements.

  2. John Barach Says:

    I agree, Duane. The passage I quoted from C. S. Lewis here appears in the middle of a section in which Lewis seems to buy into evolution and in which he really says a lot of silly stuff.

    And I agree, too, about there being really no “prehistoric man.” Certainly the Bible gives us a history going all the way back to the creation of man, so man was never prehistoric. And many cultures have histories which Western archaeologists and anthropologists may simply discount instead of taking seriously.

    I did find Lewis’s points interesting, though:

    (1) We talk about “prehistoric man” based only on the few artifacts he left behind — e.g., cave drawings, broken pieces of pottery). But as Lewis says, we don’t have copies of that civilization’s poetry.

    The guys who lived in caves may have been criminals, cast out from their societies. That may explain some of the crudity of their work.

    The guys who made the best pottery may not have been great poets and thinkers; the great poets and thinkers left no manuscripts behind so we have no idea they existed.

    But if you’re just looking at some shards of pottery, it’s a pretty big leap to conclude that because this society made crude pottery all its people were crude and because you have no manuscripts of their poetry, they mustn’t have had poets.

    Then, too, those cave drawings aren’t as crude as people sometimes think. They’re better than I could draw. Have you tried to draw a deer turning its head as it runs? Those guys who drew the cave paintings did a pretty good job of it. So maybe they were more advanced than people realize.

    (2) Lewis also points out that the crudity of a people’s artwork says little about their intelligence. I bet a lot of really brilliant guys would make pretty shoddy pots if they were suddenly set down in front of a pile of clay. Maybe some of them would never make good pots. Others would learn to.

    And so it’s stupid to try to determine how “advanced” and intelligent a society was based on a few shards of pottery. Was this their best effort? Was it crude pottery because they were stupid or because they were just starting to learn how to do it?

    And I grant your point, too, that the pre-flood civilization did a lot of hard work learning how to tame animals, farm the land, build houses, make musical instruments. They weren’t “primitives”!

  3. duane vandenberg Says:

    John, Now that you mention the quality of some of the cave art, I think part of the reason that scientists refer to it as primitive is that they hate to acknowledge that some of those drawings are clear proof that humans co-existed with some of the animals that they say were extinct before we entered the picture- so they say that the drawing is too crude to recognize what is depicted.

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