Sunday, November 19, 2006

The learning process continues...

Entry for February 23, 2006


I attended a very nice lecture this evening by Dr. Brian Fagan, an archaeologist. He has written over 30 books, including several textbooks, and specializes in how climate has affected history. One of his most famous books is called "The Rape of the Nile," concerning, of course, the greed and looting of the early so-called archaeologists in Egypt. (Some things never change, apparently.) His latest book came out last Tuesday, and it's called "Fish on Friday..." and investigates how the church's requirement that everyone in the Catholic empire eat fish on Fridays (and every other Catholic holiday) all through the early and medieval periods of European history caused and drove the development of a huge industry in fishing. It seems that when you add up all those days to various "saints," you end up with almost half of the days of the year. That's a lot of fish, especially considering how primitive their transportation and preserving abilities were.

The recent finding of several different types of boats has enabled archaeologists to trace the development of fishing technology, and the spread of fishing fleets throughout the North Atlantic. What types of fish were prevalent at various stages of European history make a very interesting case of when and where the fishermen were plying their trade. It turns out that the North Atlantic fishing trade became a sort of circuit from Norway, France and Scotland to Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and Maine, and back again. Yes, Maine. Archaeological evidence shows that there were more or less permanent settlements - camps for processing fish, basically - in Maine long before John Cabot supposedly "discovered" the area. In fact, Cabot had visited Norway and Iceland prior to sailing west to the "new world," and evidently got his information about the currents and prevailing winds and land masses from the fisherman who worked the circuit every year.

This circuit was a huge commercial enterprise that evolved over hundreds of years, and when climate change drove the fish out of their old feeding and spawning grounds, the fishermen had to follow them, of course. So in a bizarre sort of way, the church is responsible for the settlement and exploration of the Grand Banks area and North America. And here's a tidbit I didn't know - apparently when the pilgrims came to Massachusetts Bay, for their first few years they sailed north to Maine to buy fish to help provision themselves until they learned the ins and outs of how to fish the Cape Cod area. In other words, the fishing industry settlements were there before the "founding fathers" arrived. So much for that nice pilgrim story we all learned in school.

Says Dr. Fagan, "Historians get too hung up on iconic figures. Real advancements are made by ordinary people who are just doing their jobs." Amen to that, class.

I also had an occasion to listen in on another topic recently:

There are actually hundreds of similar flood stories out there, in every language and culture - a very short research effort turned up all sorts of data, most of which was just too much to put into the paper. It would have been a book - and probably somebody has already written that kind of book, so I didn't see any need to get carried away. The Eridu Genesis of Sumeria has many startling parallels, also, but I ended up cutting out all of that except one sentence. And even then I had to single-space the paper just to get it in the neighborhood of the number of pages the paper was supposed to be. Otherwise it would have been more than twice as long as it was supposed to be. There is no shortage of folklore and mythology out there about the flood. It is literally all over the world.

The reason for this, of course, is that very early in the history of human civilization there was a very catastrophic event which was so traumatic that it was permanently imprinted on the survivors, who took their story with them and told it to their children and grandchildren, and so on, as man spread all over the earth. This event was the sudden collapse of a land bridge barrier between the then smaller and fresh water Black Sea and the salt water Mediterranian. The collapse caused a huge tidal wave near the breach, which spread for miles, and elsewhere farther away the water started rising at an alarming rate that drove the human settlers fleeing before it, many in boats with all their meager possessions in a frustrating search for safe harbor and higher ground. Of course, this flood did not really cover the entire earth - just civilization as they knew it.

Many did survive, and lived to rebuild their cities in new locations, and eventually migrate away from the Black Sea area, carrying their harrowing tales with them. If you want to read all of the archaeological and geological details, then I recommend another book: "Noah's Flood," and the National Geographic show that has been made from it, which you can get on DVD. (I think PBS might have done one, also.) It's a very interesting book, which also explores genetics, animal husbandry and agricultural patterns which demonstrate various bottlenecks of sorts in this data that seem to have occurred all at the same time as the geological event. I'll bet most people aren't aware of just how much weather and water has affected human history.

And now the question is: will there be more upheaval in the future? Only God knows.

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