So, I’ve now watched this “Stonehenge” show on the National Geographic Channel like five million times, because, at the same time it interests me (the “new” bit of information is that Stonehenge is not only a solar calendar but a lunar calendar as well), it makes me insane.
The premise is that man was happy and carefree back in the days when he was a hunter who hunted by the light of the moon, which he worshipped. But due to climactic variations and getting cut off from mainland Europe, he had to start farming and setting his internal calendar to the movements of the sun. And, apparently, farming is hard work, where as hunting is fun, and so man was pissed off and hated his life.
Stonehenge was erected by the priests of the culture to show men that the movements of the sun in the sky, though slower, followed the same basic patterns as the moon in the sky, therefore proving to the men that the moon/god had not left them, but was manifest in the sun as well, therefore they should not be unhappy.
Watching the computer model showing how the moon rises and sets framed by Stonehenge and then how the sun rises and sets the same way was pretty cool. And I bought that maybe it would have been important to the people of the Stonehenge-ian culture to celebrate the times when both the sun and the moon were framed in specific ways by the stones.
But I am still completely unable to get past some of their basic assumptions about people at that time. Does farming suck more than hunting? I mean, hunting with spears and crude bows, not guns, of course. I’d wager far fewer people were killed while planting seeds than were killed when the bear fought back.
And, yes, farming is hard work, but everyone in your family can help. Even small children can pull weeds and harvest vegetables. So, the workload is spread out over more people. Plus, you can plan how much food you’ll have. You can store it. And you have fallow times when there’s not much to be done–in terms of the fields.
Plus, the show assumes that the culture was patriarchal–that the priests were men, that Stonehenge was made in response to male anxiety about his shifting role in society–and we just don’t know that.
It reminds me of what Hill, who talks about trying to understand “race” in Spanish America during the Bourbon era, says. So often, we look back on that time period utterly unaware of how 19th century notions of race–that still haunt us–shape our ideas of how “race” must have always worked. So, we look back and see that people were divided into races (familiar) and that one’s race was determined by the race of one’s parents (familiar) and that people in the Spanish government toyed around with a solution to not having enough “African” slaves by proposing to take all the non-Spanish babies born one year and redistributing them among non-Spanish mothers so that they’d end up with the right numbers of people in each of the non-Spanish populations.
This makes no sense to us, unless you grant that they seemed to understand that you were the race of your “mother”–meaning the woman who was raising you, and not necessarily the woman who gave birth to you–which means that race, to them, must have had a less-fixed definition than it does to us.
So, what bothers me about the Stonehenge show is that there’s this tendency to look around at how things are right now and extrapolate back from that about how things were thousands of years ago. On the one hand, I’m all for giving our ancestors credit for being a lot like us. But, on the other hand, I don’t think that we can ever forget that we are products of a specific time and that, as much as people might be alike, we’re also very different.
And, when it comes to trying to guess about how folks lived four, five, and six thousand years ago, we’d do well to keep in mind that the things we make up to explain things say more about what we need to believe than what the ancestors might have believed.