All That Is Old Is New Again

On July 12, 2010 a man passed away.  You may have never heard of him, but there is much we can learn from him.

That man was Mau Piailiug.  I was in 6th grade when he made a famous voyage and I still recall the teacher talking about it.  It was my first experience with dissent.  The teacher brought in an article from a magazine and read to us from it, talking about Mau's amazing feat.  He sailed his double-hulled Polynesian canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti, using the ancient navigation skills of the Polynesian culture.  No compass, no gps, just his skill and the knowledge passed down to him through the generations of island seafarers.

My teacher talked about what a remarkable thing it was for a primitive culture to have made such voyages in the distant past.  The word "primitive" struck me like a lightning bolt.  Maybe THAT was the day when words became so important to me.

Since that day, I've been frustrated with all the anthropologists, archealogists and other scientists who presume to tell us that ancient people did these wonderful things with their limited skills.  Limited skills?  Really?  I think it's more than arrogance for a modern person to discount the knowledge of their ancestors:  it's hubris.

I know for an absolute fact that I know some things my grandmothers did not.  But they knew a great many things that I do not.  My knowledge is not superior, only different.  If you could somehow pluck your 10th-great-grandfather out of his village and plop him down at your desk for a day, he would be utterly lost.  But the reverse is also true.  Could you survive in his world?  I doubt it.

From the Sphinx to Stonehenge, the statues on Easter Island to the great mound at Cahokia, our ancestors proved again and again that they had the intelligence and intestinal fortitude to make great things happen.  Imagine how you would feel if your great-great grandchildren treated all that you know and do as trite, because it doesn't fit into the world they created for themselves.

Did you know that the active ingredient in aspirin came first from the cambium layer in the bark of a willow tree?  The ancients knew it.  Could you make a bow and arrow that worked, and then bring home dinner using it?  Could you build a pyramid without using any modern equipment?  Could you capture wild yeast from the air, cultivate it and keep it alive year after you a way to leaven your bread for the rest of your life?  Could you hybridize a skinny little grain into a staple food that would productively feed you and your neighbors?  Can you make a bronze hatchet?  Can you make a paint that will last many thousands of years? You don't get to google any of this.  You have to figure it out by trial and error.  You have to take what you learned from your elders, apply your own experience and extrapolate an inventive solution.  You'll need inspiration and serendipity and pure doggedness.  Could you do that?  I don't think I'm smart enough to figure these things out on my own.  Who was the first person to comprehend the zero?  Or to contemplate the meaning of death?  Who figured out music?  Everything in your world has a name.  Could you think up that many names?  The Polynesian royalty memorized their genealogy back to hundreds of generations.  Do you know the names of your great-great-grandparents?

Have you ever thought about the first people to set out for a new place, such as those ancient Pacific Islanders?  They loaded their canoes with the things they would need to make a new home in unfamiliar land.  Think of the courage (and/or desparation) that would take.  What would they find?  Would there be food and habitable lands? 

Would you have the courage to take a few tools, some seedlings and livestock, extra clothing, bedding and some medicine, and head out into the unknown, with only your stuff and your knowledge?  Would you trust your family's life and yours that you could make a go of it?  That took guts, folks, no matter how bad things might have been at home.  The explorers who came later had yet another kind of guts, but equally daring. 

I want to go back and tell my 6th grade teacher that "primitive" was the wrong word.  Primitive (the way she used it) connotes crude, unrefined, unsophisticated.  There is nothing unsophisticated about the knowledge of the ancients.  In some ways, there is very much that is unsophisticated about the current state of knowledge.  We navigate our world in bits and pieces but hardly ever consider the whole of it.  We know how to run a video game controller and shoot down virtual bad guys, but we can't spell.  We have the stores in the mall memorized, but couldn't survive one night if we were lost in the woods.  We know where to find the latest "distressed" jeans, but have no idea how to set a zipper. 

How much of the ancient knowledge is lost to us now?  They knew far more than the artifacts of their cultures could reveal.  You and I know many things that leave no tangible mark behind.  As much as we are capable of doing, so were they.  If we could know all that they know and add it to all that we know, how much would that be? 

Our instant-gratification, don't-bother-me-with-details, everything at your fingertips, pasteurized, homogenized daily life is not an expression of the great potential of human ingenuity.  Yes, we find new ways to make a buck, but are we finding real answers to the problems of the world?  We have the ability.  We do!  We are the children of the people who invented beer and the fax machine.  We domesticated the dog, painted the walls at Lascaux and Eagles Reach, mapped the solar system and contemplated the eternal. 

So don't tell me that our ancestors were primitive as if to say they were ignorant.  All that we can be, they were.  And all that they were, we can be.


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