Archive for May, 2010

Being in the Prehistoric Forest

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Our prehistoric ancestors, who lived when forest covered much of Europe, experienced their world very differently to us. The trees would have hidden much of the landscape and people could only move between separate locations by well-worn tracks. Time, for them, related to distance.

The trees would have been hugely significant and individuals probably interacted with their favourite tree at a spiritual level (think of the Na’vi in Avatar). We can perhaps imagine people measuring their life’s progress against a tree, perhaps carving images on its trunk, or even singling it out for use as a totem pole. Modern hunter-gatherer forest dwellers in Siberia do similar.

In deciduous forests, people would have noticed the passing of the seasons from the trees, with the buds, leaves, and fruit forming key means of orientating the time of year. The subtle nuance of such change, experienced by people who lived their entire lives in the forest, is probably beyond our understanding. The sounds they would have noticed as they travelled through the forest told their own story and people probably relied upon their ears as much as their eyes.

People would have been far more aware of the cycle of the moon and the times when its light enabled them to move freely through the night. Rather than organising their sleeping patterns around the sun, as we do, they were probably far more in tune with the dark and light times of the lunar cycle. In coastal regions, the shifting tides would determine people’s activities, with intense periods of fishing and gathering interspersed with rest. The rising and setting of the sun may have been irrelevant.

In each case, Mesolithic people took their cues of time from the natural world and the environment in which they make their living. For many of us, it is a completely different way of being in the world.