Recreating The Long Dead Past



The picture of me was taken on the eve of my sixtieth birthday on Mount Alishan in Taiwan, where I had just witnessed the sun rising over Jade Mountain. Spectacular, but nothing to do with the following argument.

It’s sometimes a problem recreating in words a culture or people that the writer is unfamiliar with. For example, I’m a middle-aged man with a paunch and I sometimes find myself dealing with a deep and passionate love between two young women, and there’s no way I’ve ever had experience of such an intimacy myself, not any personal knowledge as to how they might feel when they share their love. But I can build on what I do know (I’m a father with five kids and so I must have discovered something about the carnal world at some time in my life) and draw it into what is to me the big unknown. The end product may not be right but it must be recognisable.

So it is possible to put yourself into a sub-section of society even though you are not eligible for all sorts of reason to belong to that society yourself. It is possible to use your imagination allied to people you’ve met and things you’ve heard them say and draw reasonably accurate images of that sub-section of society. Or at least I hope it is.

But what about the dead past? There have been human societies for a very long time indeed. There were societies before the dawn of writing. Before the first cuneiform etchings were ground into slabs of stone, before even the first tentative cave drawing was inscribed on ancient rocky walls. Down many long generations back then there must have been societies that have left no record of their passing.


I have used the Sumerians and their early society in one of my books (The Eagle and the King) but there was a longer period of human society before then than has existed since. We know tantalizing little bits about it: fragments of skeletons (never the whole thing) have been unearthed, crude stone implements litter areas where they lived, but the whole of what we know is barely anything. It might give clues as to what they looked like (bone-structure, height, that sort of thing) but it gives precious little in the way of clues as to their societies. We know virtually nothing about the way they interacted with each other. We are almost totally ignorant as to how the family groups interacted with other family groups. We have found tiny remnants of what may have been weapons or may, just as easily, have been hunting tools. And as for speech, that very human skill – we know none of their words; have no knowledge as to the syntax of their language nor whether they used it merely to express such essential things as warnings and instructions, or whether they had grunted equivalents of “love” and “hope” and “sorrow”.

So how does the writer recreate those distant long-lost times and hope to make them believable? How far can he let his imagination build on what is known? And exactly how much is known? Did early hominids wear any kind of clothes? Or ornaments – did they fashion ornaments out of, say, leather? They obviously bred – but did they engage in sexual activity in private or, maybe, open for all to see? Did the male turn to his female and tell her that he loved her? And if he did, did he mean the same as you or I might mean by “love”?

There was most likely one kind of cooperation or another, in the hunt, gathering food from plains and forests, but what about between families? There would almost certainly have been families, even in the earliest days of the growth of hominids towards their eventual domination of the planet there would have had to be families. Babies needed suckling, preferably in a stable environment and children needed a lengthy period for development. It can be argued that for as long as history has described human societies there have been permanent relationships between men and women there probably was the family before the birth of history, before our hard-won information delves. But what kind of family? Was it extended? Did a man in the height of his powers attract more than one woman, or wife? Did he live with all of them? And what of those women? What was their position within the society?

And, of course, I mentioned that the times we’re talking about existed for considerably longer than have the societies since the birth of recorded history. So there were probably many societies treading the same patch of earth, growing, gaining sophistication, slowly reaching towards the future. There have probably been different interpretations of need and toil according to environmental factors, and those interpretations will have affected the societies of the times.

It becomes a nightmare trying to decide what such a society might be like. In “Love’s Deadly Dawning” I try. But the conclusion I finally came to was that I had to simplify my thoughts. I had to relate much of Cro Magnon man’s life to what is known or the whole thing would have become a confusion of half-digestible gobbledegook. I gave him a rough language with a weird syntax. I gave him lust rather than love and made him an advocate of both alcohol and opiates. I decided he would spend the balmy months of summer naked, but would wear clothing in the winter. (It crossed my mind that a great deal of effort would be involved in the production of light summer garments and that no sensible society would go to the trouble if the only benefit was one of modesty).

There must have been a time when early hominids trod the boundary between what we from our vantage point might call the animal and the human. Their lives may well have reflected both aspects of this dichotomy. Violence may well have been more extreme, and if we are to judge from what much more recent history might teach us, punishment more likely to be terminal. So my invention of “seedspill death”, a horrible combination of ritualised rape and human sacrifice, may have happened in some dark corner round a celebratory fire, but probably didn’t.

I followed my instincts and decided that women were probably more chattels than people, toys for bursts of sexual excess followed by years as a living incubator and drudgery. I probably got it quite wrong, but even today in the twenty-first century there are some societies in which men look upon their womenfolk in much that way.

So these are the considerations that were uppermost in my mind when I created my early pre-historic society in which Owongo cheated his way to the top, and then let the whole lot down as instincts and desires trapped in an alien gemstone infused him with something he couldn’t hope to understand – love and its kindred comrade, care.

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