We All Have a Part to Play

(This is a speech Accalia Chandler Jay wrote for the UK Secular Solstice)

It’s traditional at Solstice to talk about the distant human past, and all the progress we’ve made. Then we talk about the present, and the hard problems left to face. Then we look to the future, with hope for what we might yet achieve. But we’re also truth-seekers, and we believe in updating our traditions to reflect the current state of scientific knowledge, and the way we talk about the distant past doesn’t always reflect that. So here’s a story an actual archaeologist might tell you, a question an archaeology student gets asked to think about.

I want to take you a little further back than we normally go. Close your eyes, and imagine. It’s around fifty or sixty thousand years ago, and you’re living in Africa. The world is lacking almost everything that we today might take for granted. Don’t just imagine a world without agriculture, houses and electricity. We’re talking about a time before bows and arrows, before cave art, before beads and jewelry, before tools made out of bone. We haven’t found needles that date back to before that time, so we’re probably talking about a time before clothes. We’re talking about a time before axes, before fishhooks, before humans learned to make long thin blades to make more efficient use of their stone.

Evidence from skulls and bones says that humans were anatomically modern about a hundred thousand years ago. That’s when our brains got to be roughly as big as they are today. So you’re not a monkey, unless archaeologists are wrong about something. You’re a human. You look up at the skies and you imagine the stars are distant gods, or perhaps your ancestors watching over you. You hunt through the forest with spears and possibly spear-throwers, the precursors to bows and arrows. At night you light fires and sit around them with your friends in your tribe, cooking your kills, staying warm.

When winter comes, prey is scarce and plants shed their leaves and people die. They die from the cold, they starve, they fall to predators. And there is nothing you can do. You don’t understand what’s happening, you don’t understand why, you just know that sometimes the sun goes away and life becomes scarce and precious.

That’s what life is like, for roughly the first forty to fifty thousand years of humanity. From the time Homo sapiens sapiens first walks the savannah, to around fifty thousand years ago, you wander the earth with fire and spears and friends and that’s it, that’s what you’ve got. Which has puzzled archaeologists for a while – you’d expect the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens, the smartest species ever to be produced by evolution’s cutthroat selection process, to cause some kind of technological revolution.

Honestly, we don’t quite know what happens, but around fifty thousand years ago, something does. Between sixty thousand and forty thousand years ago – a long, long timescale, but a blink by archaeologists’ standards, a millisecond through a geologist’s eyes – suddenly things start appearing in the archaeological record, dated to that time. Bows and arrows. Hand axes. Beads. The earliest cave art. Needles. Evidence of clothes. Fishhooks. Evidence of sailing. We find the remains of people in Australia, which means somehow we managed to cross many miles of ocean to reach that continent.

There are some theories archaeologists have, and this perhaps isn’t the time for a serious debates on the merits of each, but one of the more prominent ones is that perhaps this is when language happened. Imagine it. Imagine you’re living in that world, and suddenly someone invents language, and you can talk to each other, and make plans, and joke together, and tell someone you love them, and discuss your ideas for a great new invention that might help you survive the winter better.

Except of course that isn’t how it works. Nobody sat down and invented language. We know it must have been gradual. A few thousand years is still a long time, even if it’s a blink by archaeologist standards. Perhaps you wander the savannah, and you and your friends make hand gestures towards prey or trees you want to point out to your friends, and sometimes you associate those gestures with a certain sound, and then eventually the sound stands for the tree without need for the gesture, and your daughter grows up in a world where everyone knows what that sound stands for, and her generation differentiates those sounds into different words for each plant, and her son grows up in a world with words, and his generation begins to talk about not just plants but about the sky and the time when snow comes, and a few generations later suddenly you have words for concepts like yesterday, tomorrow, maybe, fear, hope…

We tend to talk about technology, in history classrooms, in terms of great inventors. Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb! The Wright Brothers invented airplanes! Babbage invented the computer! But there’s no answer to the question, who invented the bow and arrow? It looks more like a few young people in a certain tribe figured out a way to make better, sharper spearheads, and their method spread, and a few decades later someone on the other side of Africa figures out how to throw spears further by using long fibres like big elastic levers, and a few decades later someone is hungry and realises they might catch more prey if they attached those fibres to springy, bendable sticks, and thousands of years go by and then tribes begin taking for granted that they can make bows and catch more prey a few more of them survive the winter.

Of course there are great pioneers, too. It’s worth striving to try and be a great pioneer, a hero, someone whose name goes down in history as the person who developed the tool that helped thousands of people live better lives. But one of the most inspiring messages of the study of archaeology is:

Each of us has a part to play in history.

You should not be sitting there, imagining that you wander the savannah, and you’re hungry, and suddenly you, personally, invent the entire system of agriculture, and explain it to your peers, and your peers are wowed, and everyone immediately adopts your obviously better system, and your children don’t die when winter comes and prey is scarce, and the continent celebrates you as a great inventor.

Skip forward to around ten thousand years ago. Imagine being a hunter gatherer, and noticing that in the spots you’re using to dump your waste, sometimes more plants grow. Imagine the tribe occasionally deciding to return to those spots, where there’s often better food. Imagine harvesting seeds from corn, and some corn heads drop all their seeds as soon as they’re touched, whereas others are less fragile and let you pull the seeds off, and you gather as many seeds as you can and replant some in fertile ground, as the generations go by more and more of those seeds are becoming the collectable, less brittle type, because those are the ones the humans replant. Imagine you sometimes use a stick to dig holes to bury the seeds in. Imagine some bright young thing in your tribe figures out that you can use a big stick to make long scores in the ground to plant many seeds at once. Many, many years later, that will become the first plow.

Imagine seeing your friends splinter bones to find sharp shards to cut their meat more easily, and figuring out you can use the sharp shards to poke holes in hides so you can tie them together with fibres, and your children use better and finer shards to make cleaner holes, and your children’s children’s children learn embroidery. Imagine leaning sticks against one another and binding them together at the top to make shelters from the rain, imagine your children making the shelters waterproof by packing them with moss, imagine your children’s children’s children build houses that keep them warm in the winter.

Everything starts off small, clumsy, badly done. When we first domesticated wheat we couldn’t make bread; we just made litres upon litres of litres of beer and gruel. But we build on what others make, we refine, we improve, we create a better world, idea by idea, step by step.

Imagine you don’t notice the progress when it’s happening, but when you’re old and you sit by the fire and the young people in the tribe play around it, you realise they are better fed than you ever remember being as a child.

The acceleration is incredible. Today it isn’t a matter of your children’s children’s children standing on your shoulders to make a slightly more efficient stone tool; it’s a matter of your devices being obsolete ten years after you make them because we’ve already invented ways to pack more processing power into smaller chips. It’s a matter of progress so bewilderingly fast it can overtake and overwhelm you within your own lifetime. It’s a matter of using the internet to send messages to people across the world in less than a second, when our parents’ parents’ parents would likely never speak to anyone outside their own country.

But don’t let that acceleration make you forget: each of us has a part to play. You have something to contribute. You can try to be the pioneer who invents agriculture, but the truth is, they don’t exist. There is only the person who figures out you can make your crops grow better by collecting water and scattering it on them, or the person who tweaks the recipe for wheat gruel to make it a little less godawful, or the person who persuades their tribe leader to plant two crops instead of just one and helps their little band survive when a blight hits one of the crops and not the other.

And don’t let it daunt you, either. Because imagine standing on that savannah, nine thousand years ago, among the wheat fields of one of the world’s earliest farms. It’s dark, and the cold wind bites your arms despite the rough shirt you’re wearing. The plants rustle in the breeze, and the stars shine above you. On the edge of the field, a fire burns, and your friends sit around it singing a song to cheer them up in the middle of winter. Their voices reach you faintly. Breathe in, out. You’re making plans to go out and catch something to eat, if you can find it. Perhaps you’ve got ideas about making a monument that would tell you when the winter solstice is, using giant stones.

And imagine someone comes from the future and tells you, hey, someday your children’s children’s children’s children will stand where you’re standing now, except the floor will be covered in neatly cut stones so that vehicles powered by tiny explosions can run smoothly over it, and the buildings will be taller than the tallest trees in the forest and heated by tiny fires trapped in the walls, and the people will hurry around talking into tiny devices made out of something that isn’t quite stone which allow them to project their voices to people in places you could not reach if you walked for a lifetime.

They would have called that impossible.

But together, without even realizing what they were doing, each of them playing a tiny role, they did the impossible.

And now we sit here today, and some people tell us that it will be impossible for us to build glorious spaceships and conquer the stars, and ensure no child ever goes hungry or gets sick again, and bring peace, and cure the ailments we suffer from, and produce energy without hurting the planet. Bullshit. You have a part to play in that, too.